Wednesday, 30 September 2009


Even if it had been possible to drink a barrel of red wine every night at home, we still could not escape reality or ourselves, yet there is always the element of addiction that can creep up on you like the most sinister stalker. We tried to confine our drinking to the weekend period only and not in ridiculous quantities, which ought to give the body time to recuperate – from Monday to Thursday.

I do worry about people who will not even have the occasional glass of alcohol, and their lives have almost a religious fervour surrounding them. I suppose there is some kind of balance to be found between excess and abstinence, but it is not an easy place to find.

Living in the flat near the river in York, not far from Jess’s original place, the only unwelcome caller we can regularly expect is flood water, particularly, though not exclusively, during the winter months. This last winter has been exceptionally dry, apart from some brief interludes of snowy weather, which would probably bring a smug smile to the face of Al Gore and other climate change activists, but are humans really more powerful than nature itself ? They should try living by the River Ouse when the brown water is almost up to the road deck on Skeldergate Bridge !

Our water companies are pushing for all older properties to have meters (matching new-builds), yet in many parts of the United Kingdom there is an abundance of water; if they are experiencing problems in the densely-populated London area and wider Southeast, then it must of course be the same everywhere. Our utilities have become too dominated by the profit motive, and a distorted picture is sometimes presented using global warming arguments.

When the floods do come in historic York, Wales, Carlisle, Gloucestershire or wherever - if all that water was harnessed, rather than left to cause misery then dissipate, we’d have plenty for all to enjoy, using a better network of reservoirs and long-distance pipes. Jess always tells me to get off my bloody soapbox when I start to get into another argument with myself on the subject of weather, transport or health.

It’s a joy to have a window looking over the river, and not to have a property on the ground floor ! Jess loves to throw open these barriers of thin glass and let the fresh air replace any damp and staleness that has accumulated over the winter months. This is our own moment of renewal after all the months of darkness; to see her face glowing, and more radiant than all the golden daffodils on the city walls.

‘I’m glad we chose this place’ she would say.

‘It’s good, and cheap.’

‘Always counting the pennies.’

‘What else would you expect from a true Yorkshireman ?’


This would be my cue to embrace her, like gathering-up a large bouquet of spring flowers from the wilderness meadows near Wheldrake Ings, as the roaming Derwent finally finds its way to the Ouse, Humber, and the sea.

Tuesday, 29 September 2009


It seemed rather harsh to see the camels with their legs tied together at the overnight camp; I’m not sure if they have to do this to stop them wandering off in the vastness of the real desert, but our guides clearly regarded it as essential for their business, much closer to civilisation.

We had arrived in a clearing not far from the ocean, with two large, traditionally decorated tents, though no toilet facilities were visible, except for many bushes and small trees. We’re so spoilt in our so-called ‘civilised’ countries that we’ve almost forgotten how to crap in the woods, unless told how to do it on TV by a survival expert.

It was already approaching a glorious sunset over the Atlantic; and judging by the wonderful cooking smells our evening meal would not be far off. We exchanged a few polite words with our fellow travellers – a family from Staffordshire, and a couple of Australian nurses working in London. There hadn’t been a great deal of opportunity for conversation during the day as the camel train was strung out in a long line, but now we were obliged to make some superficial remarks.

We’d probably have to share one tent with the Aussie girls, while the other was occupied by the family of four; this made me slightly nervous because Jess was always complaining about my snoring. I could only hope that the long and uncomfortable day in the ‘saddle’ would mean that we all enjoyed a deep sleep of happy and exotic dreams.

‘I’m starving’ said Jess.

‘Me too. It shouldn’t be long.’

‘Looks like they’ve actually got some wine’ said one of the Aussies.

‘Different rules for tourists’ the other added.

I couldn’t help noticing they were both attractive women, probably in their mid-twenties, however both were smokers, which was a real turn-off for me – though it does keep the insects at bay. We hadn’t experienced any problems with mosquitoes or other creepy-crawlies, only the odd lizard disappearing rapidly over a wall.

It was no surprise to be presented with two large tagines of steaming food – one chicken and one vegetarian, along with some freshly baked flat bread, and some fruity local wine as an aid to digestion and means of blurring the edges of reality a little. We were excited that one of the guides had promised some magic tricks would follow the meal, which would perhaps include one of the colourful carpets we sat on taking a short flight around the dunes.

‘Nice red’ observed Jess.

‘It always tastes better with good food, and particularly in an environment like this.’

‘You almost sound like a wine expert.’

‘Very funny, you well know that I’m only interested in getting pissed.’

‘So long as you don’t offend the locals.’

‘Sadly, I don’t think there are enough bottles for that.’

It was properly dark as the food was cleared away, and the lantern light flickered on the gently billowing tent walls. Occasionally, a camel could be heard complaining in the distance, or the fire spitting sparks into the clear night sky of countless stars. The magic act began, and the effect of alcohol made the adults unsure of where reality began and ended, while the two young kids of the English family stared wide-eyed and open-mouthed as the cheerful guide performed his well-polished sleight of hand.

Monday, 28 September 2009


At least part of Jess’s reluctance to discuss campus life was because at that time the City of York was gripped by a massive police hunt for a woman employed at the University library, who’d disappeared inexplicably, leaving detectives without a single clue. She was an attractive young woman in her thirties, and from a ‘good family’, which meant the police and public were taking a keen interest; if it had been a tramp or person from the wrong side of town there wouldn’t have been half the excitement.

These kind of cases are almost as if an invisible alien spaceship has descended on our ancient and beautiful city, beaming the young woman onboard in a flash of blinding light. A more likely explanation is usually an ex-boyfriend, a member of the family, somebody known to the victim, or less commonly – abduction by a stranger.

Jess had naturally taken an interest at first, but had then gone quiet on the matter, preferring to maintain her private thoughts. The media had gone crazy, and not just locally, because she was/is a very nice girl, for whom even the splendid Archbishop of York was praying regularly.

From time to time these kind of perceived or real threats from men would grip the campus, as some attractive young student was attacked on a back lane near The Retreat ‘mental’ hospital, or chased coming out of a college bar late at night. We are always reminded that York is a very safe place, and it probably is compared to the larger cities; yet these kind of events can have a major impact on the psyche of those in a smallish community, and particularly on women, and even more so for those closely involved.

We had another recent case in Yorkshire where a young girl went missing and the outcome looked extremely grim, until one day she simply turned-up unharmed; it emerged that the mother and a male accomplice had actually arranged her abduction, with the child spending a few weeks hidden under a bed only a few miles from the family home. They had hoped to cash-in on a large financial reward for returning her safely, but only ended-up with long prison sentences and universal condemnation.

The case of the missing library assistant did not look as though it would have a positive outcome, and it was no fun to watch the father appearing on television and becoming more and more distraught as the weeks passed with absolutely no evidence as to her whereabouts.

Jess knew deep down, like everybody else, the sad fact was she had most likely come to harm at the hands of a man, either one known to her or a stranger. Bad things happen in this life; many millions can’t even afford to put food in their mouths; and even in our so-called ‘developed’ nations we cannot protect ourselves from all the sorrows.

Yet there is still some joy to be grasped, like that relished by Jess and me, still so early in our love relationship – the honeymoon period, a long, long way from any estrangement that might, or might not happen, in an uncertain future.

Sunday, 27 September 2009


It was magical to lie back after a lunch cooked for you in the open air, drifting off into a dreamlike state, with only the occasional grumble from a camel to disturb the peace. All basic human needs were satisfied, and there was no pressure to continue with the journey, which would only be a few more miles inland through the enormous dunes to the overnight camp.

I watched Jess for a while, who must have been sleeping because now and then she would snore quietly for a few seconds, before lapsing into a period of gentle breathing. I felt lucky to have established a good relationship with her in a fairly short time; life was much more fun with an attractive companion, and someone to have a laugh with.

I gazed into the dying embers of the fire, even hotter than the hot day we had been trekking through, wondering if there was any kind of real threat in the bustling markets of Essaouira. It was hard to believe bad things could happen, most locals were so friendly, despite the lack of English being spoken – they were much more inclined to use French after Arabic, because of the colonial history.

‘Are you awake Jess ?’

‘I am now; what do you want ?’

‘Nothing really.’

‘Well, thanks for disturbing me. I was having a lovely dream about Hugh Laurie.’

‘What ? The comedy actor.’

‘Apparently he’s quite a heartthrob in France.’

‘They’re a peculiar nation, despite being so close to our own geographically.’

‘I couldn’t imagine life without a hot croissant and strong coffee.’

‘We’ve had some lovely breakfasts at the riad – very much French influenced.’

‘I remember once staying in Paris; the so-called Continental breakfast was so insubstantial I nearly fainted in Pigalle.’

‘I trust you didn’t visit any of those sex shows ?’

Jess laughed, and turned away to resume her snooze.

The only problem about going on holiday is that while you can leave most things behind that are familiar and perhaps dull about your life, it’s not really possible to leave your entire self behind as well, which means you’re not just carrying the baggage for the aircraft cabin.

Perhaps though there is a much greater chance of breaking familiar patterns and rediscovering a sense of childlike joy in the world and people around you, and even some delight in your own jaded personality. This appeared to be happening, as each day in Morocco brought new experiences and a different perspective on daily existence.

In England it is only possible to sunbathe outside for a few days every year; our expectations have been raised far too high by cheap package deals to Spain or Greece, which inevitably brings a feeling of deep disappointment when we experience a chilly and damp Easter long weekend of too much chocolate and persistent drizzle.

Now, I could start to imagine myself as a ‘blue man’ – a member of the desert Tuareg people - so distinctive in their customary blue clothing that forms such a strong contrast against all the sandy colours of the endless dunes. One of these people took us down another back alley in Taroudannt to look at their wonderful hand-woven carpets, yet there was none of the hard sell or rip-off tactics used by some other cheating locals – only a quiet dignity and modesty that spoke of so many years battling the harsh elements of the vast desert, sometimes with only the strange and ugly humped beasts as their companions and means of survival.

After a long and shaded rest we left the lunchtime encampment, with both of us trying to ride side-saddle, which did offer a greater degree of comfort, but also the danger of falling more easily from a great height, and then experiencing the Moroccan health system. It’s easy enough to injure yourself riding a horse, but it feels so much higher on a camel, and the abundance of sand is no guarantee of avoiding serious injury.

‘It’s good to be back in the saddle !’ Jess shouted.

‘You sound like you’ve been with camels all your life.’

‘It’s waking-up and staring at your face every morning that reminds me so much of these delightful animals.’

‘I’ll remember that later, when you need a hand getting down.’

I was certainly glad to be wearing a hat as we snaked through the baking afternoon dunes towards our night under the stars, occasionally responding with a smile to a look of concern from our guides, as they observed our lack of skill in adopting the correct travelling position when riding one of their forever jerking camels.

Saturday, 26 September 2009


I had plenty of time to re-acquaint myself with the delights of historic York, while poor Jess had to make the short journey up to the University on a daily basis to earn her crust. My personality is not really suited to full-time labour, or any work come to that – I just like to wander the streets and reflect on things, like a vagrant of the mind.

Thanks to the small inheritance left by my dad I’d escaped one of York’s major employers, the City Council, and what I considered to be the nonsense of targets and worksheets. If I had any kind of definite role it was now that of the traditional ‘housewife’, with the vague expectation that I would conjure from a few fresh and not so fresh ingredients, an evening meal for my beloved.

It’s impossible to live in a place like York and not be aware of all those that have inhabited the city before – to some these are literally ghosts marching as Roman soldiers in the basement of the Treasurer’s House, but mostly the awareness comes from the surviving architectural history, or the rubbish excavated from places like the famous Viking dig.

‘And what did you do today dear ?’

‘I like to forget about my job when I get home’ said Jess wearily.

‘Does any real work go on at that campus ? Apart from folk like the cleaners and cooks.’

‘I guess it’s not heavy engineering or traditional manufacturing; the cutting edge of science and thought perhaps.’

‘I thought it was all students getting pissed and jumping in the lake.’

‘I can’t deny that’s part of it. What have you been up to anyway ?’

‘I strolled across Ouse Bridge, explored the streets off Micklegate.’

‘Sounds exciting.’

‘Not many shopping opportunities where I went; wouldn’t be any good for you.’

‘I once went in the Cock and Bottle over there, it’s supposed to be haunted.’

‘So they say.’

‘Don’t you believe in all that ?’

‘I think most apparitions come from the person’s imagination.’

‘Maybe.....I’m not so sure.’

Even though we had somehow got onto the subject of haunting, Jess seemed a little more cheerful, though always reluctant to talk about her work, as if she was employed at a top-secret military research establishment.

‘This concoction is interesting. Is it yesterday’s lamb ?’

‘Sprinkled with some of those spices we got mail order.’

‘Yes, I can definitely taste something exotic.’

‘That might be the Marmite.’

Friday, 25 September 2009


Riding a camel proved to be one of the most uncomfortable activities of my life; neither of us had experienced the pain of giving birth, but it seemed that this particular pursuit must at least match a prolonged and painful labour.

I suppose it depends on the type of camel, the design of seat, and the suppleness of the jockey – all of which conspired to grind our hip joints into premature disintegration. I think it was even worse for Jess as she comes from a family that are no strangers to arthritis and the early onset of the most painful joint conditions.

A famous gymnast such as Olga Korbut would experience little discomfort mounting and riding one of these peculiar beasts of the desert, at least that would have been true in her youth, perhaps not during the challenging period of middle-age and beyond.

We joined several other brave souls on a camel ‘ranch’ not far from Essaouira, with the intention of trekking in the massive dunes by the wild Atlantic Ocean, then spending the night under canvas ‘away from it all.’ Perhaps not the challenge of the vast Sahara, but on first mounting my unfamiliar companion it seemed I’d be lucky to make more than a few yards.

Our guides, one of whom was a local surprisingly called Barry, told us that the ancient ruins beyond Essaouira were a popular haunt with hippies in the sixties and seventies; the kind of lifestyle that was not really compatible with the teachings of Islam. Most tourists these days were of the more well-heeled and well-behaved kind, which didn’t much apply to us two – in terms of wealth anyway.

‘Bloody hell Jess !’

‘Shit !!!’ was all she could utter as we both jerked skyward and upright, attempting not to dismount on to the rough, stony ground.

‘This is agony.’

‘Good view though.......ouch !’

We were beside the only stream in Morocco that actually had water in it, though it was possibly only an inlet of salty water. I wondered how the country could function with years of little rain, except in the mountains; in England we’re always making a fuss about water shortages, but nothing compared to this.

‘I don’t think I can stand it.’

‘Don’t be a baby !’

‘Are you enjoying it ?’

‘Not yet.’

We were led in a modest camel train towards the ocean roar, the deserted shores that stretch endlessly – at least to Agadir anyway. A kind of rhythm established, but it was an uncomfortable one felt in hip joints and lower back; the sun was also getting high and hot, despite it being only late spring.

Apart from the dramatic scenery of enormous sand dunes and untamed ocean, I found some distraction in watching the arse of the Australian nurse in front – not an exceptional arse, but good enough to ease the discomfort of our jarring passage through sand and waves breaking on the shore.

After an hour or so our guides encouraged the camels to kneel, which they did fairly readily, allowing us the relief of standing tall again. The beasts were all in good humour; I’d expected a more cantankerous attitude from them, and plenty of spitting, but perhaps their reputation was not justified as pains in the arse, except literally.

‘Thank God for that’ Jess exclaimed.

‘It’d be more comfortable riding a pushbike without a saddle !’

‘I’m going to just walk with the camel on the next bit.’

‘Good idea.’

It was fantastic just to lie back on the sand, drinking from a bottle of mineral water, and watching the waves crash in; a shame that the idyllic spot was spoilt by all the rubbish that had either washed up on the beach or blown from Essaouira.

‘I’m sure somebody was following us in the medina.’

‘You’re imagining it’ I replied.

‘Maybe so, but this bloke looked really dodgy.’

‘How do you mean ?’

‘I don’t know, there was just something about him.’

‘That kind of detailed evidence should really help the police.’

‘No, you’re probably right, nothing to worry about. Blokes are always staring at women.’

‘Reproduction is a biological imperative.’

‘This was just leering.’

After a short break the camel train continued through the sands a little more quickly than walking pace, which meant that Jess and I were trailing behind the main party - who were not showing the same level of discomfort in their temporary role as camel jockeys. We didn’t mind losing touch with the group, walking barefoot in the clear shallows of the ocean, occasionally looking back towards the white fortifications of Essaouira several miles distant.

‘There’s nobody out here to follow us’ Jess said.

‘No, we are the followers now. I’m ready for some grub.’

‘Always thinking of your stomach.’

We watched the camels turn inland, and we struggled to keep in touch at all through the deep, soft sand; it was well past midday, and we were both dripping with sweat, which was not a bad feeling, as if all the real and perceived toxins of daily life were being expelled through our burning skin.

Our guides had already lit a fire in the shade of some trees and placed a couple of large tagines on the embers, which were quickly releasing some wonderful smells of cooking chicken. The camels had all settled down not far from the people, who were either guzzling from large bottles of mineral water or swapping stories about their adventures in Morocco. It seemed like there was almost a competition going on – who had stayed in the most luxurious riad in Marrakech ? Who had come closest to being killed in a traffic accident ? Who had met the most amazing travellers in Fez ?

Jess was much keener to get involved in this kind of conversation, but I was happy to just lie back in the shade and listen to the food bubbling away above the now distant sound of the Atlantic breaking on the seemingly endless shoreline.

‘It’s good to be away from all the traffic’ I said.

‘I’m quite excited about camping out overnight.’

‘What are the toilet arrangements ?’

‘Trust you to break the spell of romance.’

‘These things are important, particularly as one gets older.’

‘You’re hardly a pensioner !’

‘A man reaches a physical peak in late teens.’

‘I suppose that is a long time ago for you. Women blossom much later of course.’

‘And you certainly have.’

The simple feast of tagine chicken, couscous, a variety of salad and fresh bread seemed superior to the finest restaurant cuisine, because we had already taken part in a small adventure away from our humdrum lives, an uncomfortable journey in parts, yet it felt like we were almost real travellers replicating the same kind of odyssey that had been undertaken throughout human history, in a challenging environment where nothing seems to flourish but death, under the relentless sun.

Thursday, 24 September 2009


I was already on my third pint of Old Brewery Bitter when Jess finally arrived at the York Arms.

‘I thought we said eight o’clock ?’

‘Wasn’t sure where it was.’

‘It’s right next to the biggest bloody building in York.’

‘Calm down, and get me a drink.’

‘Are you trying the bitter ?’

‘Have they got any decent wine ?’

‘Glass or bottle ?’

‘Make it a bottle of white.’

‘White ? Red’s better for you.’

‘Not if you’re drinking by the bottle.’

I had so far managed to conceal my delight at her arrival, which diverted my attention from the chap who’d been smiling at me for thirty minutes. It’s not that I’ve got anything against gays, I just don’t fancy a hard cock shoved up my arse; and from the point of view of human biology a male penis has evolved to enter a female vagina.

‘What do you actually do for a living ?’ Jess asked.

‘Not much since dad left me that money; it was a relief to hand in my notice at the Council.’

‘I’ve been at the University for three years.’

‘It’s not proper work though, is it ?’

‘What do you mean ?’

‘Dossing around with all those students.’

‘You’ve got some refreshingly outdated ideas.’


I noticed Jess hadn’t drunk much wine, she was one of these people who could drink and eat slowly, which was something that I envied as a lifelong glutton. It would have been nice to be able to consume just about anything without putting on any weight, but not many people can get away with that.

‘What did you think of me when we first met ?’ I asked.

‘Not a lot !’

‘That’s nice !’

‘No, I liked your sense of humour, and you listened, which is actually quite rare for a man.’

‘Do you know what I liked about you ?’

‘My tits.’

Wednesday, 23 September 2009


We found Essaouira beach a wonderful escape from the madness of the souk, the sands stretching endlessly by the side of the chill Atlantic. Occasionally we were bothered by young men selling a variety of cakes, but it was not the kind of hassle you get on the beaches of Goa, where they want to perform all kinds intimate services, from ear cleansing to vigorous massage. Maybe those kinds of things were available in the peak season; but now we were able to lie back on the splendid soft sand, mostly undisturbed.

It was probably the paranoia of a tourist, but I always felt like we were being watched in the market areas, sized-up as potential victims for some surprise scam. Jess kept telling me to relax, because she was incredibly laid-back during daylight hours – it was only after dark that her imagination got going.

She’d already bought several small wooden objects, including a couple of camels, a donkey, and a special box from which a snake miraculously appeared. I have never had any interest in shopping, spending most of the time pacing up and down outside such outlets, while Jess examines everything in minute detail for what seemed like hours in the cavern-like interiors. She was fairly hot with the bartering too, which I also couldn’t be bothered with after a lifetime of mostly fixed prices in England.

I would always prefer just sitting or lying on the beach, watching fishing boats, children playing football, camel rides in the distance, local women covered from head to toe while a few tourists pranced about virtually naked. The sea was not really suitable for bathing, but windsurfing or kitesurfing appeared to be quite popular amongst more affluent local men and the young chaps newly-arrived from Europe.

At times you could almost forget being in a Muslim country, until the call to prayer drowned the cries of seagulls or shouts of children as a goal was scored.

‘Do you fancy the museum later ?’ Jess asked.

‘I’m more interested in something to eat and drink. Do you know what the three strands of Moroccan cuisine are ?’

‘I expect you’re going to enlighten me.’

‘Tagine dishes, couscous, and the Laughing Cow cheese triangles.’

‘That’s nonsense.’

‘It’s more or less what we’ve had so far.’

‘Anyway, getting back to the museum – they’ve got jewellery, costumes, weapons, musical instruments and carpets.’

‘I bet it’s not so good as the Castle Museum in York.’

‘Try forgetting England for a few days.’

‘I will if you buy me some nice coffee and a sweet croissant.’

‘A chance to practice my French, I suppose.’

Tuesday, 22 September 2009


I only have to sniff the jar of tagine mix spices in the kitchen at home to be instantly transported back to the dark, covered market in Taroudannt, where we were taken by an apparently helpful young man, who only guided us to his father’s stall to extract large amounts of money in exchange for a few stale spices and a small block of sandalwood.

That was a few days after we left Essaouira, and it should have perhaps served as a mild warning of how things can unexpectedly go awry in somewhere like Morocco. Inevitably, they will try to get the better of you in the bartering process, and almost always succeed, but to be guided through the alleys of a town for the sole purpose of fraud is another matter.

There was still plenty of time before that upsetting episode to savour the refreshing atmosphere of Essaouira, though it did really stink in the area of the harbour, which was possibly also an outlet for any effluent emerging from all the chaotic human and animal activity behind the city walls.

Of course we had a map of the fairly small town, but it was just so completely different from the neat street patterns of England, or even America, where a simple grid arrangement is used.

‘I’m not going out after dark’ Jess said at first.

‘But we have to go outside to get an evening meal.’

‘Not if we buy chocolate in the day time.’

‘Now you’re just being ridiculous.’

‘That’s easy for you to say, you’re not an attractive, pale-skinned English woman !’

‘I can’t deny you’re attractive.’

I remember pulling her close, and trying to offer some reassurance.

‘It’s probably much safer than Leeds or Manchester out there.’

‘We’re bound to get lost.’

‘True, but when that happens we’ll just head in the direction of the smelly harbour with all those noisy gulls.’

For some reason this dubious logic seemed to improve her mood, though the truth was that without some kind of satellite navigation device we’d possibly have to doss down in a filthy alley overnight.

Monday, 21 September 2009


One good thing about a country like Morocco is that you could have a lovely ride on a motorbike at most times of the year, so long as you avoid places like the snowy Atlas Mountains. It would be great for me as a non-car driver, though you would be indulging in a more risky form of transport, if our initial impressions of road use in North Africa were anything to go by.

Before Jess and I got a flat together in York I was always travelling to her place by scooter, and due to the often inclement English weather and my spectacle wearing, found that the visor and glasses were often steamed-up. I’m sure it would be fairly easy for manufacturers to make heated visors widely available, along with heated gloves, boots and other clothing, but this kind of stuff can be very hard to find – hence the need for a warmer climate.

I would often arrive at Jess’s with my balls frozen, and it would take ages to thaw out and de-mist my glasses, so at last I could admire her uncomplicated beauty. It always seemed extra cold at her place overlooking the river - thankfully not one of these soulless luxury apartments, but a building of faded Victorian grandeur not far from the fire station.

I suppose our romance was something of a whirlwind; one minute the nonsense of speed dating, and before too long we were looking for a place together – somewhere with a bit of character, not far from the centre. Of course York is a popular place for tourists and locals, which means the price of property is often inflated, limiting your choice unless you happen to be the heir to a fortune.

‘You look like a drowned rat’ Jess would typically say when I first arrived on my bike.

‘Less of the drowned !’

‘I suppose you’d like a drink ?’

‘What about the York Arms ?’

‘I’d rather stay in.’

‘Have you got something against gays ?’

‘The York Arms is a gay pub ?’

These large gaps in her local knowledge would sometimes baffle me, though she had only lived in the city for five years. I was more than prepared to overlook such trivial details, because I’d always have to remove my damp biker clothes, and she would usually start undressing as well.

Sunday, 20 September 2009


It was lucky that our cheerful taxi driver walked with us all the way to the riad accommodation, because we wouldn’t have had any hope of finding the way alone. We were also accompanied by a man with a trolley, which wasn’t really needed for our wheeled cases, but it’s hard to say no.

The entrance through the fortified walls at the Bab Marrakech reminded me of the very similar arrangement in my home town of York. Perhaps Morocco was not so different from the UK after all ? We were both too exhausted to really take-in all the sights, sounds and smells assaulting our overloaded senses; any thoughts of a quick shag were fast disappearing in favour of a late afternoon snooze.

After ten minutes following a route down so many dark and dirty passages we arrived in the heart of the medina, and stepped through an ancient, tall wooden door into a most delightful courtyard with a fountain in the centre. This central area was open to the brilliant blue sky high above, and surrounded by four floors of rooms leading off pillared balconies draped with climbing plants.

A young woman greeted us warmly in English, offering some refreshment in the cool interior; these buildings were certainly cleverly constructed to escape from the heat and filth outside – it can reach fifty degrees Celsius in the summer months.

‘This is more wonderful than the pictures’ said Jess.

‘About as far away from the Travelodge you can get !’

We had both perked-up a bit after arriving at the riad, and Jess was happily reclining on the giant, shiny cushions scattered everywhere. I was gripped by a desire to explore, and almost bounded up the marble staircase to the roof, which offered a spectacular view across the bustling town to the ocean.

A few minutes later we were shown to a fairly compact room with high ceilings on the first floor, which was beautifully decorated in green, red and gold. It seemed that none of the bedrooms were very big, leaving the lovely, large open courtyard at the centre for residents to congregate in.

Jess immediately went into the large, open shower, where our thoughts of sleep evaporated like the hot steam. We kissed passionately as the wonderful water washed away all the grime and exhaustion of our journey; it finally felt like we’d arrived in a place better than our imagination.

Saturday, 19 September 2009


In the early part of our relationship in York I vividly remember the Sunday we walked around the entire city walls, not that they are entire, but still pretty substantial remains stretching for about four or five miles. You can get some fantastic views of what’s left of old York, and particularly the massive Minster that dominates everything – architecturally, not spiritually any more.

These kind of small adventures seem so easy when you’re just starting out with somebody, it’s only later on when it becomes difficult to rouse yourself from in front of the bloody telly. Happy memories of exploring York as a child are so powerful in the mind that at some point you will always go back and walk the walls again, even if there’s a gap of twenty years.

Jess is from Milton Keynes, which means she doesn’t have any childish thoughts stored away about Romans, Vikings, the Middle Ages, and all the way through to the age of steam and beyond. She is good at showing a polite interest though, while always at the back of her mind harbouring guilty ideas about visiting a new fashion shop or trendy bar.

‘This is one of the best views you’ll ever get.’

‘What, anywhere ?’

We were standing on the walls not far from the railway station, looking back over the Ouse towards York Minster.

‘In England anyway.’

‘My legs are tired. Why do they have all these gaps in the walls that mean you have to keep going up and down steps ? And they don’t even have fences to stop you falling off in some places !’ complained Jess.

‘Just try and enjoy yourself; at least the sun is shining. We can stop for a coffee in a little while.’

I knew that Jess was secretly enjoying our long walk, or that’s what I half-believed; and I was planning a surprise visit to the posh cafe Betty’s, even though we were heading in the opposite direction towards Micklegate Bar (one of the places they used to impale the severed heads of enemies).

Those were the days when we didn’t even feel the need to go abroad for stimulation – a clear, bright Sunday morning and an invigorating stroll with the beloved was more than enough. It was quite fun walking too close to tourists on the walls as well, so they almost toppled-over onto the grassy banks below. Round Old York Green Banks I View – that’s how we learnt the colours of the rainbow, in the days before Internet and mobile phone.

We did eventually duck into Betty’s when it started spitting with rain, and shared a Fat Rascal with some rich, strong Peruvian coffee. I couldn’t help noticing how good the waitresses looked in their black dresses and freshly laundered white pinafores – perhaps something we could try at home !

Friday, 18 September 2009


It felt like it was going to be a long, hot drive to the coast and Essaouira, and the driver only had a few words of English and a big smile. The road out of Marrakech was very uninspiring, with human and ordinary junk scattered everywhere; perhaps if we’d gone first to the mountains it would have been a more delightful outlook.

We were both tired after an extremely early flight from Manchester, and I was particularly keen to get to the ancient riad accommodation and remove the black underwear barely concealed by Jess. She was nodding-off all the time, which was probably for the best as she wouldn’t have to witness the risky overtaking by our driver in the face of oncoming lorries and cars.

There were many police checkpoints on the route, but they always seemed to wave the tourist vehicles through, concentrating on giving the locals a hard time. Guns were always very prominent, and again I thought that it would not be a good idea to get on the wrong side of the law.

After a couple of sweaty hours in the back of a maxi-taxi, Jess asked the driver in her schoolgirl French if we could stop somewhere for refreshment. He was happy to break the journey, and after a further fifteen minutes we parked at a large hotel and restaurant complex.

‘I couldn’t have coped much longer in that vehicle.’

‘Nice to get a cold drink’ said Jess.

‘Not very exciting countryside so far.’

‘I hadn’t really noticed.’

‘No, you’ve actually been snoring at times !’

‘Don’t be ridiculous, a lady doesn’t snore.’


As far as I can remember the scenery after that stop was much improved as we left behind all traces of modern life, leaving only goats, a surprising number of trees in the arid landscape, and the occasional camel. With the boost given by our pit stop, and having finally worked out how to open the windows, we sped on through a unique and unfamiliar environment towards the Atlantic Ocean.

‘I’m excited about seeing the riad, it looked really special in the pictures.’

‘Do you think they’ll have all mod cons as well ?’ I wondered.

‘No, you’ll have to wash and crap in a bucket.........course they’ll have good facilities – it’s a luxury hotel.’

The driver eventually stopped again on the high road above Essaouira and the vast ocean, inviting us to admire the splendid view. It felt a long way from all the hustle and bustle of Marrakech, even though the drive had only taken about five hours, including the break for drinks. It was the last chance to take a breath of fresh air before once again being thrust into the chaos of a Moroccan town.

Thursday, 17 September 2009


I’d first met Jess speed dating at a bar in York, and was surprised when we actually reached another date. I remember the second occasion very well because we had a few bottles of the Moroccan Syrah: Tandem, which had a nice picture on the label of two people on a tandem, with a large palm tree in the background.

Inevitably, the medium-bodied red wine had relaxed us both, and our conversation became much freer and eventually hysterical. It was at that specific point I realised just how long it had been since I’d shared that kind of laughter with another person.

‘I’d love to visit Morocco’ she’d said.

‘I’ve never been to Africa; India yes, but that’s a completely different ball game.’

At that time neither of us were thinking seriously about travelling – Jess was engrossed in her work at the University, and I didn’t have enough for a plane ticket. Still, it was good to dream of exotic souks and uninterrupted desert landscapes; and while the wine still flowed there was always hope of further intimacy – to put it politely.

Our relationship developed quite quickly after that, and there always seemed to be plenty of alcohol around, and we didn’t listen much to any health-related messages coming from our esteemed Government. We were just a fairly young couple wanting to live life to the full, and falling in love at the same time.

Wednesday, 16 September 2009


The first place we were going to stay was the coastal town of Essaouira, a few hours drive by luxury taxi from the magnificent new Marrakech airport. We’d wasted quite a bit of time at the airport form filling, because the Moroccan authorities like to maintain a strict control.......of everything really. I’d just been reading about the alleged torture of terror suspects in Morocco on their way to Guantanamo, and wasn’t about to upset any of the men in uniform by making light of their import procedures.

The next stop was another queue at the currency desk; unfortunately the dirham is not available at Marks and Spencer or a Post Office counter in exchange for our own weakening pound, but we were bound to benefit from the very low cost of living, or just about existing, for many in Morocco.

‘It seems rather hot’ observed Jess.

‘What did you expect, the feel of a rainy day in Blackpool ?’

‘I’m just glad we didn’t come in August.’

‘It should be a little more refreshing by the sea.’

‘Do you think they’ll have Essaouira rock ?’

‘And donkey rides !’

‘Mainly camel I think.’


Tuesday, 15 September 2009


Because we were typical British binge drinkers I’d reacted fairly casually when Jess said she would really fancy ‘a good Moroccan.’ I’d immediately thought of red wine, as I know the North African country produces some excellent wines, despite its religious leanings.

It is only now that I realise how this apparently innocent conversation was the beginning of so much violence and agony; I now await the inevitable knock on the door from police and Foreign Office officials.

We were just an ordinary couple who perhaps enjoyed too much the intoxicating blood of grapes; and you could almost taste the sand of the desert wilderness, like mysterious sediment in every large glass.