Saturday, 30 January 2010

Iraq: where there was doubt, Blair brings clarity at last

It’s such a relief finally to understand one of the great moral questions of our time. And it’s thanks to Tony Blair, whose intellectual and ethical qualities must be one of the wonders of the modern world.

Following his appearance before the Iraq enquiry yesterday, I now realise that our justification for the war isn’t that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction then. It’s that had we not overthrown him, he might have had them now. The legality of the war is unassailable simply because it prevented the development of what might otherwise have become a terrible threat.

This is an exercise in preventive justice that ought to be extended into other domains.

This is an exercise in preventive justice that ought to be extended into other domains.
  • young men without proper jobs should be arrested on the grounds that they might otherwise become car thieves
  • students should be arrested on the grounds that they might otherwise take illegal drugs
  • anyone expressing an inclination to go into banking should be arrested on the grounds that they might screw the economy and then ask us to fund their bonuses
  • and perhaps a British Prime Minister who gave any sign of developing faith, religious or otherwise, should be arrested on the grounds that he might kill an awful lot of people on no better basis than an unshakable belief in his own infallibility

Friday, 29 January 2010

Misty outlook for Darwin

It’s time to look again at some of the underlying principles of Darwinian thought, particularly the concept of survival of the fittest. My cat, Misty, is challenging the fundamental principles of the theory by undertaking rapid evolution within a single lifetime, without the pressure of natural selection.

Cats are proverbially untrainable. Not for nothing when faced with the thankless task of trying to get a particularly obdurate group to do something – people who combine dogmatism with ignorance, like fourteen-year old boys or merchant bankers – we talk of it as ‘like herding cats.’

Now my cat is as untrainable as the best of them. His strength is in training others.

I’ve mentioned before his techniques for bending me to his will. To get my attention when I’m in bed, he starts by pushing my belongings off the bedside table, and if that doesn’t work, switches to biting my fingers, toes or, most recently, my nose. If he’s outside the house, he’s learned how to locate our dog Janka inside it, get as close to her as he can and then put up a plaintive mewing. That gets her barking, which is a highly effective way of persuading us to respond, particularly at 2:00 in the morning.

All this is ingenious and impressive. But recently he’s evolved a whole new dimension of skill. He’s learned that sometimes he has to move away from his goal in order to attain it more surely. That’s abstract thinking and it’s a quality I’ve not previously noticed in cats. Furthermore, he’s used it to widen the circle of trained resources he can call on to cater to his needs.

Because our neighbours Melanie, Darren, Jenny and George looked after him while we were away at Christmas, Misty now knows that they have a key to our house. So if he can’t get into our place, he goes round and mews miserably at the back door to theirs.

Not to be let into their place. To be let into ours. He knows that eventually, despite the cold, the rain or the snow they’ll go round to our house and open the door for him.

Now going to one place in order to be let into another is what tells me he’s evolved a capacity for abstract thought. That feels like a small pawprint for him, but a huge pounce forward for catkind.

And he's learned to influence not just me but a whole new family. Where does he go from here? All mankind? World domination? Will the next major conflict be over access to sardine-flavoured treats?

Even if we just assume that all he’s done is identify someone who’s as soft a touch for cats as I am, it’s still pretty remarkable. That’s targeted psychological profiling. Not something we generally associate with common or garden cats.

Forget Nietzsche and man evolving into superman. We are now in the presence of supercat.

Tremble and despair.

Tuesday, 26 January 2010

A prophet for our times

I’m toying with the idea of founding a new religious sect. Looking around the world, I often feel that there just aren’t enough of them yet. In fact, I’m struck by how often down the years I’ve heard the complaint ‘I’m just not getting enough sects’.

An aspect that I find especially endearing about some of the established religions is their dietary laws. The Jews, the Hindus and the Moslems are particularly hot on the topic, but even the Catholics had a few, at least until recently – fish on Fridays, for instance. My problem is that I’m not keen on some of bans the established religions impose. For instance, I can’t really think of any pork dishes I haven’t enjoyed. I mean, even my Jewish family had trouble when they smelled bacon frying – a difficulty many of my vegetarian friends share. In my case, my partiality for pork has been deepened by intimacy with that glorious Eastern French province, my wife’s native land, Alsace, where what they don’t do to a pig just isn’t worth doing. And certainly wouldn’t be legal.

On the other hand, I’m not unduly fond of cheese. Raw, at least. I like fondue and I like parmesan on my pasta. So it occurred to me that my sect could ban raw cheese. That, however, seemed a little unfair to those of my prospective acolytes who might be partial to a bit of cheese. So I’ve decided that all my followers would have to find some dish they really couldn’t stand, and then strictly ban it from their lives. Of course, that’s still unfair to those people who don’t have any food phobias at all, but you can’t be fair to everyone. They’ll just have to make do with one of the established cults.

But my religion wouldn’t be all about bans. There would also be things that it would actively encourage.

One of the charms of my recent visit to Morocco was the Muezzin’s call from the Minarets, though at a quarter to six in the morning it was nothing short of vile. In my religion, therefore, there will still be Minarets and calls to prayer, but just twice a day and at civilised times. The first will be at midday and be some appropriate variant of ‘get home and have something to eat, but do try and desist from anything that happens to be on your banned list.’

The second would be at six in the evening, and warn you that ‘if you haven’t finished your work yet, you’re being inefficient; wrap up now and go home and have a decent meal without, if possible, eating anything that you’ve decided to forbid yourself.’

Perhaps one of the more significant innovations would concern sermons. I’ve always regarded these as one of the most tedious aspects of Christian worship: they last too long and, above all, you have no right to reply. So in my religion they would be limited to a quarter of an hour and the minister would speak for only the first five minutes, after which the debate would be thrown open to the congregation.

My view is that if you can’t say it in five minutes, you just haven’t got your thoughts in order. In that time you should be able to tackle intelligently any interesting contemporary topic, such as why professional sportsmen get paid so much for playing a game they presumably like – shouldn’t they be paying us for going to watch them and cheer them on?

The sermon would start at a quarter to twelve and be brought to a close by the muezzin at midday. His call, adapted for the occasion, would point out ‘you’ve had quite long enough to debate this point, if you haven’t decided yet then you’re rambling inconsequentially, go home, have a meal without any banned ingredients, and come back once you’ve got your ideas sorted out properly.’

What do you think? Pretty smart suggestion or what?

I think it’s got potential.

Sunday, 24 January 2010

Epic journeying: episode 2

There are moments when I realise that I’m living through an event that takes me beyond the mere everyday and belongs more the great current of the traditions of our culture. Knowing that somehow ennobles the experience and takes my mind off the actual tedium or frustration of the moment itself.

One of those traditions, much used by novelists of the past, is the travel misadventure. A coach breaks an axle or gets stuck in the mud and the passengers have to wait in the nearby inn, passing the time by telling each other stories or swapping their experiences.  

It was that tradition I felt I joined during the second stage of our trip home from holiday, between Madrid and Liverpool.

Having spent a night longer in Marrakesh than planned, it was a relief to catch our flight to Madrid the next day without incident. As we boarded, we were greeted by an air hostess who had only to open her mouth to leave no doubt of her origins in Liverpool

‘I’ve been working out of Madrid for a few days,’ she told us, ‘but I’m heading back to Liverpool this afternoon, I’m glad to say.’

To Liverpool? Not on the 4:30? How amazing. So were we. 

As we left the plane in Madrid, we cheerily called out ‘See you this afternoon then.’

We were speaking too soon. Far too soon.

When we got to the airport to check in, we were greeted by the dismal sight of long snaking queues of passengers trying to rebook on other flights, their own having been cancelled due to snow, at Gatwick, Luton, Amsterdam, even Rome. Rome for God’s sake. 

We’d heard there were difficulties at Liverpool so we asked at the check-in desk. 

‘Any problem with the flight?’     
‘Problem?’ The young man at the desk seemed surprised that anyone should question the reliability of Liverpool airport. He glanced at his screen. 

‘No cancellations, no delays,’ he announced. He gave us a look which said ‘Ye of little faith’ though he didn’t actually pronounce the words. 

The confidence of the check-in agent seemed to be justified at the departure gate, clearly and boldly marked ‘Liverpool’. We settled down to read and wait, reassured that the flight would go. So it was a bit of a shock when I glanced up and noticed that destination marker had surreptitiously changed to ‘Dakar. Equatorial West Africa had replaced North West England. Possibly a more desirable destination in January, but not one that suited our needs.

Nothing told us what had happened or what we should do next, except that our fellow passengers were heading in a body for the exit. 

‘It’s been cancelled,’ said Danielle, ‘and they’ve been through the experience before. That’s why they know what to do.’

She was obviously right. And if others were going through a repeat of a cancellation, why should we be spared the experience? 

‘Time to follow the crowd,’ I replied, my heart sinking. 

Twenty minutes later we were in the same queue of people looking for new flights that had attracted our pity so little time before. How the mighty fall. Any sense of superiority we might have felt before had been replaced by despondency at sharing the same fate. 

The Easyjet staff were as pleasant as ever.

‘Ah, yes, the Liverpool flight. It has been cancelled,’ they told us airily, with a cheerful smile, as though they had never previously assured us with such confidence that the plane would take off. There were many thoughts I would gladly have shared with them on the subject, but, hey, we were dependent on them to re-arrange our flights and generally look after us. I bit my tongue.
‘Unfortunately,’ they told us, ‘there are no seats for tomorrow. You will fly on the following day. In the meantime, we will put you in a hotel near the airport.’

Our room was warm, comfortable, equipped with free broadband access. But the sheer scale of the hotel – with nearly 900 rooms it claims to be the biggest in Europe – was a little daunting. It made me feel as though we weren’t so much in a hotel as in a people warehouse. And, since practically all the guests (if the word isn’t inmates) were off cancelled flights, and most from our own airline, it felt like an Easyjet passenger warehouse.

Still it wasn’t a bad place to stay, as Easyjet’s guests, for a couple of days. The meals were copious and well-prepared. There was even free wine on the tables.

The best aspect, though, was the people. We met a Spanish woman living in Leeds where her English husband taught at the University. We met another Spanish woman travelling back to her English husband in Bradford. Now, I like Bradford. It has to be a strong contender with Leicester for the title of best city in Britain to get a curry. But when I first went there, a friend of mine, admittedly from another and therefore rival Yorkshire town, told me that Bradford was the only city where the birds flew backwards, so that they didn’t have to swallow the smog. 

‘Err…’ I asked the lady in question, ‘where are you from?’

‘I’m originally from Andalucía,’ she told me.

‘Ah.’ I nodded. ‘And the Alhambra in Granada, the Alcatraz in Seville, the Mezquita in Cordóba, really fade into insignificance don’t they, set against the Wool Exchange or Town Hall in Bradford?’

‘My husband works there,’ she replied, a little briefly I felt.

Is the charm of an English husband enough to overcome the allure of Andalucía? I must check with my French wife Danielle some time.

At any rate, these chance encounters ensured we had company at meal times, and entertainment to overcome the monotony of the wait. 

With the bonus of an additional evening with our sons in Madrid itself, we made it relatively easily through the two days and headed again for the airport. Once more we came together with the other passengers at the departure gate. Once more the airport staff said the flight would definitely take off. Once more the sign at the departure gate said ‘Liverpool’ in lights cheerful enough to brighten up the dullest spirits.

Then the hours started to tick by. Madrid doesn’t like to break bad news all at once, so they announced a two-hour delay and then, when that was nearly over, another three hours. But we weren’t fooled. We had met the Liverpudlian air hostess from the Marrakesh flight again and she was in touch with Easyjet directly. She let us know that the company was confident the plane would fly, but not till 10:30 – five hours late. On balance that was good news: it meant frustration but eventual success. So our little group, consisting of the air hostess, the Anglo-Spaniards adn us, chatted and kept each other entertained to pass the time. 

At a certain point, Easyjet announced we could collect a free snack from the café. We went and were disappointed by the mouldy sandwiches and unappetising drinks. But here the Spanish woman from Leeds proved herself a star – appropriately enough, since her name was Estrella. She berated the café manager for not at least offering us sandwiches with the famous Spanish Serrano ham. To her surprise the manager agreed; to our amazement, only a few minutes after her return, he joined us clutching a handful of baguettes stuffed with Serrano ham and several bottles of beer. We all toasted Estrella’s seductive charms.

In the end, even the huge delay until 10:30 proved an optimistic estimate. The plane eventually left at half past midnight, seven hours late, but at least it left. We travelled together with our friends in adversity and only parted company in the small hours at Liverpool airport, almost certainly never to meet again. On all sides, however, we’ll remember that we had made our mutual frustrations more bearable by sharing them with each other. We had had taken part in a classic travellers’ tale, so in a sense what we underwent wasn’t a misfortune, but a privilege, the opportunity to join one of the great, time-honoured traditions of our culture.

So I feel under a debt of gratitude towards Easyjet. They extended our holiday by a couple of days, ensuring we were well looked after and entertaining us with good food, fine wine, and excellent company.

So no complaints. In fact, let me raise my glass to the continued prosperity of a great company. Long may Easyjet continue to enrich our lives.

Thursday, 21 January 2010

The thing about Avatar

It was in a slightly shamefaced way that I admitted to my mother that Danielle and I had been to see Avatar at the weekend. For the second time.

I like to think of us as much too sophisticated for this kind of simple fairy tale dressed up as sci-fi. Though the Chinese apparently take it seriously: they’re banning the film from state-run cinemas. It seems they’re too worried that the plight of the Na’vi people in the film (think Sioux nation) at the hands of the ‘Corporation’s’ forces (think Custer and his brutal rabble of vicious cutthroats) would remind too many people in China of their own disappointed national aspirations (think Tibetans, Uighurs and no doubt a panoply of other disaffected groups).

Still, even so potent endorsement as one from the People’s Republic of China can’t dispel the feeling that Avatar is fundamentally far too trivial for anyone with intellectual pretensions (and no-one pretends more mightily than I do). So in enjoying it I’m giving way to a slightly shameful indulgence, like a eating a chocolate biscuit or travelling first class on the railways.

In fact, to justify going to see the film for the second time, we took Jenny and George who, at 15 and 12, can still just be classified as children. I like to think of them as honorary grandchildren, or possibly adoptive grandchildren; they’re actually from two houses down from us.

I also made attempts at witty mockery to give myself an air of superior detachment from the film.

‘You’ll need to watch carefully,’ I warned them, ‘to spot the love interest.’ It takes nanoseconds after the arrival of the Na’vi woman, showing nothing but incandescent contempt, indeed hostility for the protagonist (she actually draws her bow to kill him), to realise that she’s the one he’s going to fall for. And who’s going to fall for him.

‘It’s a morally complex film too,’ I told them, ‘where you struggle to work out just who the good guys are, who the bad guys.’

George looked at me pityingly. ‘The good guys are the blue ones.’

I realised that being a smartarse about the film was just a defence mechanism, an attempt to insulate myself from the fact that somewhere deep in me, remote from all the urbanity and cynicism, I’d just simply enjoyed it.

And I suppose, when all’s said and done, that this is the thing about Avatar. It may be irredeemably trivial, it may heap cliché on worn-out cliché, it may dodge anything that remotely resembles a quandary.

But it’s fun.

Tuesday, 19 January 2010

Running smart

Great piece in The Guardian today. It seems that physical exercise, and in particular running, can actually regenerate brain cells. In other words, running can increase your intelligence.

I have absolutely no doubt that this is the case. I can point to my own experience as proof. I’ve been running for a couple of years now, and at first I thought it was fun. But gradually, as my brain has grown new cells, I’ve begun to understand more and more that it’s a miserable experience and totally exhausting to boot. Now that my intelligence has reached unprecedented heights, I’ve realised that it really is one of the most appalling forms of exercise there are.

Of course, I haven’t actually developed sufficient brainpower to go as far as to give it up. I’ve changed my mix of exercise to include more of other things, but I still do some running. And it still knackers me and still leaves my ankles gasping for relief from the sheer horror every few weeks.

Still I suppose it’s progress that I’ve at least built up the intellectual capacity to have a true appreciation of the sheer ghastliness of the whole business.

What a tribute to the intelligence-enhancing properties of sport.

Thursday, 14 January 2010

Making an epic of a journey: episode 1

There’s little that is duller these days than travelling by air. Any glamour there may ever have been has long since evaporated. The low-cost airlines, in particular, provide services more appropriate to a bus than to a ‘clipper’, the term the former aviation giant Pan Am liked to use for its aircraft.

So at the end of our recent holiday in Marrakesh, what on the face of it seemed to be a a major inconvenience was perhaps a blessing in disguise: it broke the monotony of the services usually provided by Easyjet.

As we arrived at Marrakesh airport, I complacently announced, ‘We’ve done well, we’ve finished our holiday and haven’t missed any of our cars, coaches or planes, and none of has been mugged or had a wallet stolen.’

I spoke far too soon. Morocco hadn’t finished with us yet.

Arrangements started to unravel with the announcement of a three-hour delay to our flight to Madrid.

The hours came and went, and planes came and went, but not ours. There was a moment when ‘Madrid’ with our flight details appeared over one of the gates, to raise our hopes, only to be replaced with ‘Lyon’ a few minutes later to dash them again.

After we had been waiting four and a half hours, a ragged cheer rang out among the passengers. An Easyjet plane was landing. It ran along the runway and out of sight. We chewed our nails and gazed anxiously, longingly out, willing it back to the gate. Casually, gently, it taxied up and stopped. Passengers left the plane. We were summoned to the gate. This was it. We were going.

But as we approached the gate, the plane slipped away into the gathering dusk. We were met by airport representatives, telling us that the pilots had reached the maximum hours they could work. They couldn’t take off that evening. We would have to wait until the morning.

The French Revolution took place in Paris. There never was a Spanish Revolution. But the grisly scenes I witnessed in the terminal at Marrakesh told me that there could have been. The Spanish passengers mobbed the three airport representatives. They stood shoulder to shoulder, the diminutive young woman between the two men gallantly defending her from the baying crowd. Step by step they retreated till they stood, backs literally to the wall, and had to deal with their foes. I suspect that had a rope and a lamppost been available, we would have witnessed scenes that would not have been out of place in the Faubourg St Antoine.

It was a glorious illustration of the incapacity of a mob, made up though it is of individuals capable of rational thought, to act rationally as a collective.

‘Easyjet will accommodate you in a five-star hotel in town,’ the staff were telling us.

‘No,’ cried the crowd, ‘we will stay here, all night if necessary, to keep up the pressure on the authorities.’

‘But your pilot is already on the way to the hotel.’

‘We don’t care,’ they called back, ‘we shall not be moved. We shall stay here.’

On the edge of the crowd I was timidly clearing my throat, holding up my hand. ‘Errr… if it’s all the same to you… and even if it isn’t… I’d like to go to the hotel please.’ I’ve spent the night in airport terminals before. Call me eccentric, but I prefer five-star hotels.

But the baying wasn’t done. At one point, the poor young lady found herself alone against the masses, her back against the locked door leading to the outside world, fighting off the crowd. Gradually, though, the revolutionaries left, to conspire amongst themselves, and we at last found ourselves at the front with just the rational minority of Spaniards and an Estonian couple distraught at the prospect before them – Estonia is one of those countries, like New Zealand, which is inherently remote – I mean, New Zealand has an excuse, since it’s surrounded by thousands of miles of sea, but Estonia is just as remote even if it has land borders on three sides. The couple had to get from Marrakesh to Madrid, from Madrid to Zurich, from Zurich to Helsinki, and then get a boat home. When they told me that, I pictured them rowing across the Baltic in some open vessel, though of course it turned out to be the famous Helsinki-Tallinn ferry, justly celebrated for providing Finns with about the only opportunity available to them to get completely legless without having to take out a mortgage to fund the alcohol or travel hundreds of miles to more enlightened countries. It’s an opportunity, I’m told, of which Finns avail themselves freely.

Anyway, in the meantime the Estonian woman was in tears, while the Moroccan lady from the airport was close to the same state.

‘You are all so unreasonable,’ she told us.

‘No, no,’ we replied, ‘we’re the reasonable ones.’

‘But you all shout at me.’

‘No, no,’ we told her, ‘as you can hear we’re speaking quite softly.’

‘But you all want to stay in the airport.’

‘No, no,’ we reassured her, ‘we want to go to the hotel.’

‘But you refuse to go to the hotel.’

‘No, no,’ we repeated, our teeth perhaps beginning to grit a little, but nonetheless keeping our voices down, ‘we would really like to go the hotel. If you’d just open the door we’d go now.’

Eventually some form of sanity prevailed, the doors were opened and we started to head out of the airport; by chance, we happened to be at the head of the queue. At the bottom of the steps we were met by plain-clothes policemen, clearly far from happy about the bad behaviour that had been shown to the woman from the airport.

‘What’s all this?’ they demanded of us accusingly.

‘Err, nothing,’ we replied handing over our passports.

‘You have been behaving in a threatening manner towards the staff.’

‘Not us,’ we told them.

‘You need to calm down,’ they admonished us.

‘We’re calm,’ we replied.

Fortunately, at this stage one of the policemen looked at my passport.

‘British!’ he exclaimed. ‘Of course you are calm. It is the famous sang froid anglais. You may go.’

I didn’t tell him that as a child I’d enjoyed a comic song which translated sang froid anglais as ‘the Englishman and his usual bloody cold’. As it happened, I had a pretty lousy head cold at the time. But I was just grateful to be allowed out.

We gathered on the car park and waited for the coaches to take us to the hotel. Of course, there weren’t enough to take us all in one trip. Entirely unsurprisingly, the people who fought and shoved (and would no doubt have bitten and kicked if necessary) to get on to the first coaches were the very same who’d made such a fuss previously about refusing to go the hotel at all.

At dinner that evening – which was excellent, by the way, and massively superior to the appalling sandwiches on offer at the airport – we shared a table with the Estonian couple. Pleasant conversation and mutual commiserations helped us while away the evening far more easily than we might have expected.

Next: what happened on the Madrid leg of the trip. Don’t miss the final thrilling instalment of the epic

Saturday, 9 January 2010

The acute charms of Berber women

It was with some pleasure that I discovered that I would be accompanied by two Berber women on the holiday I spent in Marrakesh over Christmas and the New Year.

It was also a bit of a surprise. I mean, I knew I was going with two women. However, one was my wife Danielle, who is technically French, and the other was my son Michael’s girlfriend, Lucía, who is technically Spanish. It turns out that they were honorary Berber women, accorded that status by the merchants of the Marrakesh Souks.

When I say ‘honorary’ I don’t mean that the shopkeepers bestowed the title as an unambiguous honour. They used it with wry rather than cordial admiration. They used it to recognise a talent for bargaining prices downwards, apparently a talent in which Berbers, and specifically their womenfolk, excel.

It really is a talent, incidentally. I bought just one thing in Morocco – a T-shirt that doesn’t really fit and for which I paid a price pretty similar to anything I would have been charged in England. Danielle and Lucía – and indeed Michael who got a great price on a handbag for Lucía – showed real Berber qualities.

Here’s how it works.

The process starts with the shopkeeper proposing a price double what he hopes to make. This is what I like to think of as the ‘try-out price’: after all, someone might say ‘yes’, and why not get it if you can?

Danielle asked for a price on two linen shirts.

‘500 dirham,’ we were told.

She responded with an excellent imitation of a good-humoured chuckle. ‘I’m sorry – that’s far more than we intend to pay.’

‘250,’ said the shopkeeper.

This is the ‘desired price’. A lot more than he would accept if pushed, but what he’d like to get in an ideal world.

Danielle shook her head. ‘Oh, no. Much too much.’ She thought for a while. ‘How much for three?’

‘For three? 350 dirham.’

Danielle sighed. ‘Still too much for us.’ She put down the shirts. ‘We’ll try somewhere else.’ We started to leave the shop, the shopkeeper bowing politely as we went. But, as Danielle reached the doorstep, ‘Wait,’ he called out, ‘how about 320?’

‘300,’ said Danielle.

‘Make it 310 and you can have the shirts.’

Danielle sighed as though she could hardly believe that she was agreeing to so excessive a demand and counted out the money.

Just to give a sense of perspective, 10 dirham is about 90 euro cents. But these bargaining sessions aren’t about money, or not mainly about money. There’s a principle at stake here, and above all a game to play.

Incidentally, 40% of the ‘try-out price’ is, in my experience, about the best we can get – it is what I think of as the ‘European price’. I suspect a real Berber woman could get lower. But it’s still a great victory in an ancient game when an honorary Berber woman gets that far.

Saturday, 2 January 2010

Discreet charm in Morocco

What a delight this morning to discover that the Muezzin from the Mosque next door to our Marrakesh Riad had apparently been replaced. The new one seems to feel less inclined to bellow and is a great deal less garrulous than his predecessor. Instead of keeping us awake for quarter of an hour, he just issued a discreet call to prayer and let us get back to sleep.

While we've been here, I've been struck by the highly developed courtesy that people show us. I wonder whether this might not be another example of the same thing? Perhaps someone read my previous post and decided that it would be a kind gesture to us poor foreigners and unbelievers to keep the volume and the length down. If so, I'm profusely grateful to whoever is behind such an elegant gesture.

The other aspect to have struck me is how often I have the impression of being in Southern Spain. This is partly because of the number of Spaniards one hears (of course, we brought one with us - my son's charming girlfriend, referred to by the admiring men in the crowds here as a 'gazelle' - if you react, they point out quickly that they mean it as a compliment, which actually I'd never doubted). There are a great many other Spaniards here as well, though - I think they must be the second biggest group of foreigners after the French.

As well as all the Spanish voices we hear, the other strong Spanish flavour in the place is, of course, the architecture. Internal courtyards with patterned tiles, sculpted stucco and carved wood are, I discovered, still referred to here as 'Andalusian style'. I'm constantly reminded of Seville and Cordoba as we come into another sumptuous courtyard or see another soaring tower (really, how can the Swiss pretend there's any objective justification for their banning minarets?)

Yesterday we travelled into a valley of the Atlas Mountains. The Berber villages were a revelation: they're built of local clay or local stone, with the result that they blend into the landscape. At one point, as we scrambled up a near-sheer hillside, with more or less difficulty depending on our natural agility and adequacy of footwear, to an attractive series of three waterfalls, I looked back to the cliff face opposite. Space for houses had been carved out of the rock itself, and the stone used for the buildings, so you had to look twice to spot them. In the clay house villages surrounded by the same red earth, only the mosque stood out, as it alone would be built of brick.

The way the buildings blended into the background reminded me of the Alhambra in Grenada, nestling into the cliff and built of the same stone. Consummate discretion.

I only hope our local Muezzin will continue to show the same restraint over the last two nights of our stay here.