Archive for March, 2010


My name is Frances. It’s a good, old-fashioned sort of name that I grew up hating because it was unusual and sounded a bit posh.

And because I inevitably became Francesca, or Francis, on school reports and dentists’ bills.

To date, the only person to spell my name correctly – without asking how – is the magnificent Mr Stephen Fry. Those people who remain my friends after a few initial encounters are the ones with enough brains to realise that there is no I in my name, and that my involuntary suffix – C & A – should be reserved for a German clothing store.

It irks me most of all when the error creeps in on return emails. Not only do I sign my name in full, but it’s also listed in the inbox – anyone who inserts the dreaded I has been negligent enough to ignore the proper spelling not once, but twice.

It’s funny – after almost 25 years, you’d think I’d have learned to live with it. Maybe I should just change my name to Steve… everyone can spell that.


The woman in room –, 17/3/10

She reads a magazine, glasses pushed to the end of her nose in an effort to prove she has no real use for them. A brash, nonchalant gesture that I presume is designed to make her look younger, but which, in fact, has the opposite effect.

A dry cough, a flick of her hair and a self-important lick of her fingers before she turns the page completes the affectation of intellectual indifference – as though she knows that we are hateful, distasteful creatures and that it is below her to sit amongst us.

I imagine she believes herself to deserve the finer things in life – that she is used to money and the false respect it brings. I am undecided as to whether she is suffering a midlife crisis and wishes to recapture her youth here, or is undergoing a messy divorce and can not afford the sort of luxury she feels is her due. Her bitter-cornered mouth and steely glare lead me to believe she is jaded, sour and sore – it seems to confirm my suspicions of separation and I can imagine any husband being interested in a less venemous partner. A poisonous snake, perhaps? Or a scorpion?

As I flick my eyes in her direction, trying not to sigh too loudly, I realise that I am perhaps being unfair. All she has done is complain about the hospitality of our hosts. I can find no fault in them personally – indeed, I can’t imagine a more welcoming place than this – but she is obviously unimpressed. I imagine it would bother me less if she had made her discontent known in a more open way, instead of whispering behind backs and pulling miserable faces in the shadows.

She is an ugly person, though at first glance you may disagree with my assessment. The negative things she hisses to other guests eat away at the ghost of her once glorious looks. I remind myself to be warm, to greet her openly, lest I too become as ugly as she is. I don’t want to give her the impression we’re friends – that too would be false – but she has done me no harm and so when she passes my way I prepare to tip my pen in greeting and smile. She looks on in distaste,

“You’re writing?”


“What about?”

“Ugly people.”

“Why would you waste your time writing about ugly people?”

She’s got me there.

Why indeed?

Misc. gallery

These are the last few pictures from the trip, displayed in a gallery for your ease of viewing. If you’d like to know where some of them are then just drop me a line.

My last essay will follow tomorrow, then the drawings I did, and then normal posts (or lack thereof) will resume 🙂

Salad, Tagine, Cous Cous – 16/3/10

“Three size of belt,” says the man in the souk, “salad,” he holds his fingers an inch apart, “tagine,” two inches, “and cous cous,” his arm span.

S- and I laugh. S- pats his belly and asks for salad. I pat mine and ask for cous cous. I’ve said it before and I’ll doubtless say it again, I’m not fat. Asking for the ginormous cous cous belt just seemed like the thing to do – an automatic sad mewling for a compliment.

Over the last few months, for whatever reason, I’ve lost a fair bit of weight – it hasn’t been a conscious thing but now a belt is actually necessary to prevent lower-body nakedness, whilst previously it was a mere precaution against the dreaded builders’ bum.

I made the point, not so long ago, that the numbers on the scale aren’t everything – that the size of your waist is as good an indication as any as to whether you’re a healthy shape – but I think that I had perhaps just scratched the surface there. I want to be a healthy shape for my age.

For all my outward bravado on the subject of my weight, my self-esteem never really recovered from taunts such as ‘jelly bean’ and ‘bet you can’t see your privates for your belly,’ which were issued daily throughout my time at school. Don’t get me wrong, I’m a pretty resilient soul and believe that you’re only a victim for as long as you let yourself be one. People can say what they like, but ultimately, it’s how you interpret their comments that count – you can be offended by them, as I was for years, or you can take them at face value, politely raise your middle finger and walk on by. Generally, I do the latter, but the part of my brain that secretly enjoys reading fashion magazines seems to surface every once in a while, make a snide remark about my belly – reminiscent of those above – and then vanish off into oblivion. I suppose today in the souks is one of those days.

The cous cous belt arrives mid-reverie, just as I’m berating myself for the momentary lapse in self-confidence and the cheap attempt to make S- say that I don’t need the giant belt because I look a damn-sight better than any model does anyway.

He doesn’t say anything. Not – I might add – because he is a bad husband, but because my weight has never factored into his opinion of me. I don’t even think he’d notice if I went down the same route as the old lady who swallowed a fly and ended up the shape of an extra wide children’s paperback.

I slip the belt on and it drops over my hips, onto the floor.

“You no Shakira,” says the shop-keeper, disappointed.

He vanishes for a moment to find me a tagine belt and I stare at myself in the mirror. As I said, I’m not fat, but nor do I look like a runway model. On the plane over we’d seen this season’s Paris catwalk, viewed on those little overhead screens. The collection of women which they showed at the end put me in mind of a neon box of set-squares – the type which were popular at Tarves Primary School*. To me, in any case, these so-called beauties appeared as a mass of strange colours and hard angles.

I think of catwalk models as little girls in garish make-up – and that just isn’t me. I’m not a little girl anymore and so it doesn’t matter now what crueller children once thought – I can have curves and hips that stand out. I can

For the very first time a woman stares back at me from the mirror, a proud woman who knows that she is no longer a drainpipe teenager – in every sense of the phrase. She’s grateful that she’s come this far, lived this long. She’s thankful for the multiplying grey hairs and the crows feet by her eyes. She has had a life – not a diet.

Why on earth would anyone want to turn back time, endure the teasing that we’ve all inevitably endured, and regain the clumsy frame of an awkward teenager?

We leave the souk, S- with his salad belt and me with a confidence and peace that I have never felt before. Older – definitely. Wiser – perhaps. Happier – without doubt.

I eat two dinners.


Another great article on this topic can be found here.

* At least they were from around 1994-1997

The Castelgard Effect, 16/3/10

I started the trip reading Michael Crichton’s Timeline and wishing I owned some Tom Petty songs. And that S- didn’t need to borrow my headphones to listen to the vital midi files of Zelda on the DS.

Timeline is, by no stretch of the imagination a literary masterpiece. It is, however, so good a story that reading it is still an absolute joy, despite this being something close the millionth time I’ve done so. The book, at its most basic level, concerns an IT company that has accidentally discovered a way to visit different time periods (not time-travel in the Doctor Who sense… that would just be ludicrous). In a bid to make money, they purchase all the land surrounding key historic sites and donate vast sums to the controlling government, funding the restoration of these monuments. When said sites – such as the fictional town of Castelgard in France – are recreated according to details found from trips into the past, the IT company comes to own all the surrounding land, earning money from the rent of shops and restaurants, and the sale of souvenirs. The baddie – and you know a story is fabulous when you can refer to a single character in such a way – claims that people are no longer interested in traditional entertainment.

In other centuries, human beings wanted to be saved, or improved, or freed, or educated. But in our century, they want to be entertained. The great fear is not of disease or death, but of boredom. A sense of time on our hands, a sense of nothing to do. A sense that we are not amused.
But where will this mania for entertainment end? What will people do when they get tired of television? When they get tired of movies?We already know the answer – they go into participatory activities: sports, theme parks, amusement rides, roller coasters. Structured fun, planned thrills. And what will they tire of theme parks and planned thrills? Sooner or later, the artifice becomes too noticable. They begin to realize that an amusement park is really a kind of jail in which you pay to be an inmate.
This artifice will drive them to seek authenticity.
Authenticity will be the buzzword of the twenty-first century. And what is authentic? Anything that is not devised and structured to make a profit. Anything that is not controlled by corporations. Anything that exists for its own sake, that assumes its own shape. But of course, nothing in the modern world is allowed to assume its own shape. The modern world is the corporate equivalent of a formal garden, where everything is planted and arranged for effect. Where nothing is untouched, where nothing is authentic.
Where then will people turn for the rare and desirable experience of authenticity? They will turn to the past.*

I completely agree.

We took a trip out to the Sahara, primarily to ride camels. After almost ten hours of being folded into the twin front-seat of a Ford mini-bus, we reached our destination – a relative nowhere of a town where a group of Berbers waited to lead our tiny caravan into the desert. Carefully, S- and I, the gaggle of American girls and the sullen Frenchmen, attached our bags to the metal bar of the camels’ saddles. With a few deft twists from our accompanying Berber, our scarves were transformed into romantic, sand-stopping headdresses and we mounted up.

Driving through the Atlas Mountains

The Americans were ecstatic, snapping haphazard photographs of one another whilst the moody French party wore dark expressions which clouded their sunlit faces. S- and I made nervous fart jokes** in Danish and drew disapproving glances from all sides for our quiet snickers.

I'd been waiting to do this since A- bought me the Indy hat years ago!

The camels began with a lurch forward, spurred to life with a hissing cue from our guides. Like everywhere else in Morocco, a handful of bright-eyed children materialised from somewhere in the sand and ran alongside our mounts, trying to sell up almonds, tissues and human misery. When their shouts of ‘Merci, merci,’ – what I believe to be Moroccan for ‘I would like the contents of your wallet’ – had faded into the reds of the sunset, silence fell upon the group and we stared up at the great bowl of stars.

As darkness fell, it became clear that patches of the sky were white with stars. Even on a clear night at my parents’ middle-of-nowhere-Scottish-house you can only see a handful of what populates the night sky. Take Orion, for example.

We can see the above marked stars from our little English field. From my parents’ house, you can even make out a sword, hanging from Orion’s belt. In the Sahara though, the space between these well-mapped points is literally teeming with not hundreds, but thousands of stars. I always knew that light pollution interfered with what we see at night, but I never realised the extent of it.

One of the American girls began to whisper to me, tentative and awed, and I begin to whisper back – daring myself to speak a little louder. As the conversation passed between us, it began grew until S- and the other girls added their voices to our chatter. Eventually, laughed bubbled up and we ceased to be alone in the desert beneath the impossible stars.

We continued on this way, clinging to our saddles and the sounds of one another, until we made it to the camp.

The Berber tent, taken at dawn the following morning

Where we ate dinner - taken at dawn the following day

the Berber tents were lit with gas canisters, blue cylinders topped with white flames. We were given shimmering glasses of amber mint tea with far too much sugar. Another group joined us, older – not necessarily wiser – and more ‘into’ the experience. The Berbers began to sing and dance outside the tent and one of the men in the other group closed his eyes, swaying to the rhythm and humming low. Another woman joined him and the sullen French group, who had been cross about various things throughout the trip so far, began to make unimpressed beds for themselves on their backpacks. This seemed to spur the Berbers into serving food – tagine and cous cous which had somehow been heated, despite the lack of fire and stove. We all devoured huge huge portions, despite its mysterious origins.

The Berbers sang again after dinner and lit a fire to dance around. Our new American friends approved of our silly camel fart jokes and this naturally led to a discussion about the authenticity of things to see in Marrakech.

It was decided, in a democratic sort of way, that the nation’s capital was far too geared for tourists. Stall holders chase after you, shouting obscure cultural references in an attempt to draw your attention. S- told the story of how, within the first hour of our stay, we had been dragged into one man’s home to ‘meet his family’ and had proceeded in offending him when we refused to leave with any of the carpets he offered for sale. He tried to insist that I was ‘so gentle’ that he would give us a huge discount, however our continued refusal soon banished the frankly disturbing idea that I was anything close to a lady. The insults began soon after, though we did manage to leave carpet-free and so I suppose there’s a positive in there. It was amazing how many people had not done so – his walls were full of photographs of happy tourists, holding up overpriced rugs.

After discussing the need to haggle – our almost-carpet began at a price of 2000 dirham and was soon reduced to 350 – we spoke about the evening’s camel ride and the Berber guides with Nike trainers.

“This is far too touristy,” S- said, gesturing to the older folks, trancing to the low hum of the drum music.

“Oh for sure,” said one of our four new friends in a soft Texan drawl. She was wonderful – with an accent like a cowgirl and the look of a peaches-and-cream English rose.

“They’re only doing it for the tourists,” another joined in, nodding to the Berbers dancing around the fire.

I began to think about Michael Crichton and Robert Doniger then. Yes, these people probably were just doing it for the tourists, for people – like us – who were interested in seeing how the Moroccan people ‘really’ live. We forget though, until we come out to these places, that people don’t really live like this any more – the Berbers live in towns around the Sahara and have satellite dishes, paid for by pretending they don’t live in towns with satellite dishes. The only reason they come into the desert and dance these ancient dances is because they get paid to do so.

And there – for me, at any rate – is the value of tourism. Admittedly, I’m not all that keen on being asked to ‘walk far out into the dunes to see the stars’¤, but that these singing and dancing traditions -which are thousands of years old – still exist is certainly something that shouldn’t be sniffed at. Despite the fact that our satellite dishes and Nike trainers have penetrated a world where possessions could once be carried on a camel’s back, those of us who seek out Crichton’s participatory activities whilst on holiday are somehow contributing to saving what might otherwise be forgotten. Yes, it feels cheap, bastardised and far from authentic, but that we can save some shred of our ancestral lives has to mean something.

“They’re only doing it doe the tourists,” the girl had said.

“I know,” I replied, trying to keep the smile from my voice. The Castelgard Effect – conservation through experiential tourism.

Another picture at Dawn

Across the dunes at Dawn


* Michael Crichton, ‘Timeline’, Arrow Books – Random House, London 1999,  p. 443-444

** Get a cat – suddenly fart jokes are hilarious again, and you rediscover an area of humour that has lain untouched since your early teenage years.

¤ I was asked, on my way to the bathroom, to accompany one of our guides far from the light of the camp so that he could properly explain the stars to me. When I said, “Great, I’ll fetch my husband,” he looked sulkily at me, replied that it didn’t matter and that he’d better go check on some other guests.

Home again, and with pictures.

Well, the trip Marrakech and various other places through Morocco has drawn to an end and I find myself once again with a cat in my lap in sunny Kentford. I managed to get a lot of writing done while I was there, which I will posting throughout the course of the week, and an astonishing amount of pictures – ranging in quality from good to ‘fecking-awesome’.

Doubtless I’ll mention it again as I type, but I just wanted to say that Riad Marrakech Rouge is possibly the best hostel I have ever been to.  If you like the pictures below and fancy visiting Morocco then get in touch with these guys – I promise you won’t regret it.

Right… on with the barrage of pictures!


Mint tea at the hostel

Start with the important things – tea! The tea in Morocco is of the mint variety and whilst I am assured it’s incredible, I can’t say I share the enthusiasm, being a long time hater of mentha requienii. Don’t get me wrong, I could drink it when it was served without sugar – high praise indeed – however I much preferred the spicy coffee, something I normally detest.

Dad's sunglasses from 1989

In 2007 I drove up to Scotland, lost my sunglasses and grabbed Dad’s old ones off the kitchen table. They had been there for a good long while – after purchasing them in 1989, they were finally retired from his service in around 2001. They have been with me ever since, despite the fact S- believes them to be the most hideous things ever created by human hands. I love them. Here the are on a table in Place D’Jeema El Fna.

Speaking of which… here are some photos from Marrakech’s main market place.

Orange Juice Stand

The Place D’Jeema El Fna was filled with juice stands like this one – they don’t look all that impressive during the day, but at night….

Place D'Jeema El Fna after dark

Motorbike at Place D'Jeema El Fna

Place D'Jeema El Fna from a cafe terrace

More of the orange stalls

Food stalls

Food stalls close up

Situated off this incredible hive of activity – fortune tellers, henna artists, men with monkeys and snake charmers – you will find the souks. These are even more insane than Place D’Jeema El Fna. I have never, in my life, been anywhere louder.

The shopkeepers sales tactics are wonderfully simplistic – yell cultural references/insults as loudly as you can, then ask way over the odds for your goods. It is up to the tourists to haggle their way to a decent price, usually only a third of what they initially ask for.


  1. “Gavin and Stacey, what is occurring?” How this man could possibly have known about Gavin and Stacey is beyond me. It’s such a peculiarly English cultural nod.
  2. “Take care of your child, Mister. You get good baby.” Needless to say that after this particular heckle, S- stopped walking around with an arm protectively around my waist.
  3. “You are starving.” This is a common call from outside the food stalls and there are numerous variations – usually directed at men, informing them they look scrawny.
  4. “Thinner than Starvin’ Marvin.” Similar to above, but as the Southpark reference took my back to my youth, this appears to have made the list.
  5. “You play games like the Jew.” This comment was spat at us by a man trying to sell carpets. The more times S- said no, the more violent the insults became until this little gem was hurled in our direction. Tom Lehrer’s National Brotherhood Week* song is indeed correct – apparently everyone does hate the Jews.

A wall of old cameras in one of the Souks

A real Aladdin's cave of things

Herbalist and natural remedy doctor

Still at the herbalists

Examples of wool in the souks

Some of the leather shoes on offer

I’ll be posting more pictures over the next few days, as well as a few things I wrote whilst I was there – stay tuned!

*If you don’t know this song, shame on you. I demand you go to youtube right now and search for it.


this is not punctuated properly because i am in morrocco using an
arabic keyboard

the holiday so far is very good

we have ridden camels into the desert and annoyed a man in the souk
who thought we had bought one of his carpets – its a very long story

today we saw a memorial garden for yves saint thingy and then a very
kind lady explained who that was

i am tired of begging children now but am still enjoying the bevy of
pregnant cats and kittens who howl at one another in strange ways

i will be buying d-a fez hat – but not one of the monkeys that you
can rent to take for a walk

jenni and i were shortlisted for a novel competition but did not win

i finished timeline again and am now enjoying high fidelity

all of the buttons are in funny places and i have used up my hour so i will go

A private moment at a public gathering

Another writing prompt piece today… though the characters have been ripped from my latest pet project. I hope I’ve got the chemistry between Green and Lazlo across in this short little bit and I hope you all like the group! I’ve grown rather fond of them all!

I’m off to the physiotherapist in a bit because I ruined my back picking up a teabag (yes, that’s right!), then I’m on my merry way to ride camels on Friday so posts will be sparse!

Shayne Lazlo cupped the coffee mug in both hands as Morn and Green approached, the former patting Lazlo’s shoulder on her way to the tea machine and the later sitting close enough that Shayne could feel the warmth of his leg next to hers.
“You get parked OK?” he asked. Lazlo nodded, taking another long gulp of the strong black liquid,
“Yeah – I parked up Castle Hill Road and walked down,” She paused, “Look, Green, before Morn comes back I just want to say-”
“- I know. I’m going to tell Claire later on, but until I have, I don’t think it’s fair on her that Morn knows first.”
“Morn saw us.”
“She did?”
“Yeah – as we were smuggling Dora into the van. I think it’s time to explain.”
Shayne sipped her drink and Green nodded. Both stared blankly at the formica table and sat in silence as Morn returned with two steaming cups of tea-coloured water from the vending machine.
There was an awkward pause in which Lazlo knew she should speak, but all she could think of was how painfully close her thigh was to Green’s. In the end, he began the conversation, glancing furtively over his shoulder at the various colleagues, littering the other tables.
“I love Dora,” he said straight off, “And I needed to get her away from Steve and Lee. That’s all. Laz just said she’d help me.”
Morn glanced at her friend with an expression that clearly said, You dumb fuck, but voiced none of her disapproval.
“I’m going to go home, break it off with Claire and that’ll be that. Laz has said she’ll move onto the boat and Dora and I can have her room in the house.”
Morn shook her head, “You’re all insane,” she muttered, and sipped her tea.
Lazlo laughed then, loud and bright, and all eyes in the canteen were on them.
“I think we’d best go,” Green sighed.


Dorset Cereals little awards


Today I decided to check my spam folder, in case any emails from prospective jobs had made thier way in there. This magnificent prose is what I found instead.


My Dearest,
my name is miss rita,l read your profile today
at( and i choosed you as the only one whom i can give my heart as far as love is concern ensuring i bring joy and happiness into your door
step.lf you are interested in me and want to know more about me and to
view my beautiful pictures,you can contact me
( My dear i want you to understand that there is
no age,race,colour and religion bar when it comes to true love.only
what is important is pure and devoted relationship.Hoping to hear from
you as soon as possible.Thank you
Miss rita.


I wonder if the lovely Miss Rita honestly believes that someone would reply to that? Love, after reading a profile….