Labour candidate Nasreen Khan’s extreme anti-semitism comes to light

The Labour party recently shortlisted an activist, Nasreen Khan, for a council seat in Bradford. It has now emerged that she holds some unbelievably anti-semitic views. Other reports also suggest that the Labour party was in fact aware of these views prior to her placement on the shortlist. Let us all sit back and bask in her cuddly extremism:

Views on WW2 and the holocaust: ‘Stop beating a dead horse. The Jews have reaped the rewards of playing victims. Enough is enough!…Allah-hu-Akbar’.

Views on Israel/Palestine: ‘It’s such a shame that the history teachers in our school never taught us this but they are the first to start brainwashing us and our children into thinking the bad guy was Hitler. What have the Jews done good in this world?’

Defending herself, Ms Khan responded by saying she was “an ordinary British Muslim”, adding that there were “worse people than Hitler” in the world (Israelis, presumably).

As a Jewish atheist (who is left wing), I’m starting to get a bit fed up of being lectured by these guys on how to be ‘progressive’. If only I could put my finger on why…

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A short story about life and death

DUST

What have the movies taught me? Don’t veer down a dark fork. But it’s Halloween and why not take the shortcut, after all it’s almost the witching hour and if we don’t make it out a’treatin’ Sam’n’Jessie will never let me live it down. There are wizards, ghouls and an eclectic mix of other hastily cobbled-together minions hopping through my living room as we speak, desperate for some ‘candy’, their parents waiting at home and relying on my children’s parents’ ability to organise the spooky rabble into a marauding army.

Off to the left we go, by which (witch!) I mean I. Little smirk like a mask, too old for this, to think I’d once have been a tinyyy bitttt hesitant to step from the lit pathway into the woody heath… But who am I impressing? Clearly there’s nobody around to smirk for, apart from the people who might be watching from the darkness. Ha!

Squelchy squelch, one muddy foot after another, what is this song?! Change it, that’s what it is, and what I’m really thinking as I tut (I think). Yes, I’m fed up with the music which is (witches!) now cutting out and jerking back on in white-noise bursts. Gazing up from the luminescent screen my eyes fight through a treacle of black, focussing, focussing, waves in nothingness and pressure in my ears, more gravity than before maybe. Like walking off a white sandy beach into the bar but this is taking a bit longer than it should and should my arms be pressing tightly against my side and why’s my hearing gone?

Time to find a branch to hold on to, was it boxing or the treadmill after which I’d sunk back chest heaving a bit more than it should with a sudden contemplation of lost youth? Instantly forgotten yes but these little starts were getting a bit too familiar, born from a deeper sense of the undeniable. Flailing but that won’t help and it’s clear now I’m no longer upright anyway. Over the woody verge. I’m not held back by leaves and grass and boggy friction actually this is more an endless drift. Gaping through a throat dry and tight. Chest pumpetty-pumping legs kicking into the sky or towards whatever they’re pointed and my back shrinks and withers.

With swirling stopping outwardly I’m peering through cataracts and from an old chair.
Wrinkled hands and aching joints. In slacks and sweater vest and in my favourite cap with book in lap towards my chest I point.

The nurse won’t come but my heart is sharp and full of tension and I’m not easily able to
suck in breaths of air. I’m old. I’m dying. Please hear my call but she doesn’t. I feel a
pressure in my head, a pulsing dizziness and once again I’m in no way in control. Thinking back over Jessie’s wedding, the birth of Sam’s children and my wife’s last breath as I held her hand. Tears on my cheeks I’m drifting out of consciousness and off the world and into dust.

Open your eyes. Just open them and you’ll be back at the fork. Stay right this time.

On this night I’ve seen my last morning. Or had I merely slipped and fallen?

Islamist Jihadism, ‘progressive’ apologism and right to criticise religion

The UK has suffered three hideous terrorist attacks in the space of a few months – the latest outside bars that I regularly visit. It is time to scrutinise the religious basis of these attacks, rather than merely mumbling ‘nothing to do with Islam’, ‘don’t give in to hate’ and other vacuous banalities.

Innocent people are being murdered on our streets. They are being murdered by Islamist jihadists. These scumbags themselves openly and repeatedly state that they are motivated by this worldview.

It is intellectually dishonest and politically regressive to avoid mention of the religious ideology – Islamist jihadism (i.e. the desire to impose a particular version of fundamentalist Islam on society by force) – that motivates these attackers, or to claim that they are not in fact religiously motivated at all but rather are merely ‘evil’, ‘mentally ill’, or ‘lone wolves’. Doing so is an attempt to avoid addressing the terrible fact that there are a substantial number of people in this country and worldwide who hold, or are at the very least too tolerant of, extreme Islamist views.

As I have previously posted, the mosque attended by the Manchester bomber hosted preachers who spouted some of the most rabid anti-Semitic, homophobic, sexist bullshit it’s possible to imagine. The people who committed last night’s atrocity will have come into contact with, and held, similar views. Merely repeating platitudes about the ‘religion of peace’ and ‘carrying on as normal’ in the aftermath of each terrorist attack does nothing to address the need to vigorously challenge and confront these horrendous views wherever they arise. It also screws over moderate Muslims, such as Maajid Nawaz, who are often at the forefront of the fight against these nutters, by failing to make a clear distinction between the ideology of Islamism and the views of more peaceful, tolerant Muslims – who need our support.

The ability to freely criticise religion, and fanatical murderous religious extremism in particular, is an essential right that must be defended. For too long so-called ‘progressives’ have hypocritically sought to avoid doing so, and to smear anyone who does as bigoted. To be truly progressive, it is necessary to challenge racism, bigotry, sexism and homophobia wherever and whenever it arises, whether it is being justified by a particular form of religious fanaticism or not.

My thoughts go out to anyone affected by the terrible events of last Saturday night. It has been a very sad few days.

HIV/AIDS: Are we winning the fight?

The spread of antiretroviral drug therapy has led to a profound decrease in AIDS-related deaths worldwide

HIV/AIDS: Are we winning the fight?

The fight against HIV/AIDS is undoubtedly one of humanity’s most pressing health and development challenges. Since the disease was first recognised in the early 1980s it has claimed over 40 million lives. The World Health Organisation estimates that 37 million people are currently HIV-positive.

The latest UN figures, however, show that significant inroads have been made towards bringing the crisis under control.

The past decade has seen a dramatic reduction in the number of annual AIDS-related deaths. At its height in 2005 the HIV/AIDS pandemic was claiming over 2 million lives each year. In 2015 that number had fallen by almost half to 1.1 million. A range of concerted anti-transmission initiatives such as efforts to encourage condom use, provide sex education and counter social stigma associated with the condition, have played a role in this. By far the most decisive factor however has been the development and increased availability of antiretroviral drug therapy (ART).

percentage of adults living with HIV

Though not a cure, ART enables people with HIV to live longer, healthier lives, as well as massively decreasing their risk of transmitting the virus to others. In 2010, 7.5 million people with HIV had access to ART. By the start of 2016 this figure had risen to 17 million, nearly half of all people with HIV worldwide.

These are enormous improvements over a short period. At the turn of the millennium only one in 50 people with HIV had access to ART. By 2020 the UN is hoping for 90% ART coverage. This looks likely to be achieved.

UN goals

The beneficial impact of ART proliferation has been felt in almost every global region. Last year Western/Central Europe and North America saw 6000 fewer AIDS-related deaths than three years previously. 44000 fewer people died in Eastern Europe and Central Asia, and 82000 in Asia-Pacific over the same time period.

The statistics for sub-Saharan Africa, the region worst affected by HIV/AIDS, are in a different ballpark entirely. Almost half a million fewer people were killed by AIDS-related illnesses in 2015 than 2012 in the region. The fact that the number of people receiving ART more than doubled in the area since 2010 is no coincidence.

global aids related deaths

Clearly, huge challenges do still exist. The majority of people living with HIV worldwide continue to lack access to ART, and according to a study published in medical journal The Lancet a decline in infection rates seen since the mid-1990s has now stalled at approximately 2.5 million new cases per year. All the while, the prospect of a cure remains a distant one.

Such findings highlight the precariousness of recent successes, and serve as a powerful warning against complacency. AIDS is one the world’s deadliest killers, and efforts to overcome it must not be allowed to flag. Nevertheless, if sufficient resources are devoted to the cause, an end to the pandemic by 2030 appears to be a realistic prospect.

Originally written for Raconteur Magazine

The decline of cash?

I wrote an article for Raconteur Magazine. Here it is.

The spread of new forms of digital payment is leading to claims that we are entering a cashless world. How accurate are they?

The decline of cash?

Recent years have seen the emergence and rapid proliferation of cashless technology. Contactless cards and apps such as Apple Pay mean it’s easier than ever to pay in an instant. The massive growth of e-commerce has transformed Amazon, eBay and a host of other online retailers into some of the largest, best-known companies on the planet; it’s now possible to buy almost anything on a laptop or smartphone.

Across the developing world, ‘mobile money’, a form of cashless mobile payment, is spreading like wildfire. Companies such as M-Pesa allow users to deposit, spend and transfer money using an account on their smartphone. In some countries more people now have a mobile money account than a traditional bank account.

In light of these changes, it’s hard not to view crumpled bundles of paper and coins as relics of a pre-digital age. But it is important not to overstate the claim that cash is dead.

Worldwide, the significant majority of all transactions are still cash-based. A lack of a widespread or accessible cashless infrastructure (few or no point of sale terminals in stores, slow internet connections, the unavailability of broadly accessible financial products etc.) hinders many poorer regions, and where large numbers of people work outside the formal economy paper money is king.

Cultural factors, too, play a role. Though there is a correlation, the relationship between a country’s level of economic development and its use of cash is not perfectly linear by any means. According to a MasterCard Study, Germany and Japan have been relatively slow to transition away from cash due in part to the fact that low crime rates in those countries mean the risk of carrying notes is minimal.

All of this makes for an interesting picture worldwide. As the following charts show, we are well on the way to a cashless world. But we are not there yet.

FOP_Dashboard

Over half of North American transactions (52 per cent) were cashless in 2015, a higher proportion than any other global region. Asia-Pacific’s developed economies, with a 35 per cent cashless rate, and Western Europe at 34 per cent, are second and third on the list.

Across the rest of the world the picture is very different. There is not a single other region where more than one in 10 transactions is cash free. In Africa, the region most dependent on hard currency, only 1 per cent of transactions are cashless.

Cashless-transaction

Big differences exist between nations, too. Singapore boasts the highest cashless transaction rate of any country in the world (61 per cent), followed by the Netherlands (60 per cent), France and Sweden (both 59 per cent). The UK, where 52 per cent of transactions are cashless, is in 7th place.

The contrast with countries at the other end of the scale is a stark one. In Egypt, Peru, Saudi Arabia and Malaysia only around 1 per cent of all transactions do not involve cash.

There are some notable European inclusions towards the bottom of the chart. Greece and Italy both remain heavily dependent on cash, with only 2 per cent and 6 per cent of consumer transactions in these countries cashless respectively.

Cashless-transaction-worldwide

Between 2009 and 2014 the total value of cash-free transactions worldwide increased by almost half, from £269bn to £389.7bn, according to research by Capgemini.

Increasing financial inclusion rates globally, widespread adoption of contactless cards and the spread of cashless mobile payment systems in developing and emerging economies mean this trend is predicted to accelerate.

For the moment, though, cash continues to be used in around 85 per cent of global consumer transactions. It may be on the decline, but it remains the most commonly used payment mechanism in the world.

The road to a driverless world

Driverless vehicles will transform our way of life for the better

Fellow motorists probably don’t find the sight of Steve Mahan driving past them very interesting at all. But for Mr Mahan, who is blind, it is a highly unusual experience. For the last 20 minutes he’s sat in the driver’s seat as the car he’s in, one of a fleet of self-driving vehicles owned by technology giant Google, has navigated through the Californian streets by itself. As the driver, for want of a better term, he has not had to do a thing.

Google is investing vast sums of money in what it calls its ‘Self-Driving Car Project’, and it is not alone in doing so. As well as other technology companies including Uber and Cisco Systems, car manufacturers Jaguar-Land Rover, Audi, Ford and several others are devoting significant resources to the development of autonomous vehicle technology.

The result of increased investment has been a rapid proliferation of driverless features in commercially available vehiclesSome Volvo and Audi models now come equipped with systems that allow the cars to change lanes and brake to avoid accidents. Owners of a Tesla Model S, an electric car, are able to direct their vehicle to park itself with the click of a smartphone button. As yet, fully autonomous vehicles, those that require no driver input whatsoever, are not commercially available. But they are not far off: By 2018, Tesla believes it will have one on the roads; Nissan and Ford expect to have theirs ready by 2020. Indeed, many industry experts believe it will be regulatory rather than technological barriers that most hamper the spread of these new machines.

As with the emergence of any disruptive new technology the path ahead is by no means obstacle-free. Automation poses moral problems (whether driverless cars should protect their passengers over pedestrians or other drivers, for instance), as well as economic ones (a dramatic reduction in crashes bodes ill for the automotive insurance industry; taxi drivers, bus drivers, machine operators all face an increasingly uncertain future). But the shift toward autonomous vehicles is likely to have profoundly beneficial consequences also, perhaps the most significant of which will be its impact upon safety. In 2014 road traffic accidents killed over 1.2 million people. According to a recent survey by the US Department of Transportation, 94 per cent of collisions are due to human error. Cars, unlike us, cannot take their eyes off the road. Google estimates its self-driving cars have driven nearly two million miles, with only 13 accidents so far (only one of which was caused by one of the cars).

As the need for drivers to control vehicles is eliminated, the nature of travelling will be dramatically altered. With no reason to focus on the road, travellers will be free to spend their time in other more productive ways. Morgan Stanley, a bank, predicts this will lead to productivity gains of over £5 trillion globally. Car design, too, will change. Why sit behind a steering wheel if you aren’t driving? A concept model recently displayed at the Geneva motor show contained reclining armchairs that face each other, and a TV screen.

Completely autonomous vehicles may not be commonplace yet, but they soon will be. In the meantime assistive technology is growing increasingly ubiquitous. Some are reluctant to embrace this change – the romantic freedom of the open road may not be attainable when there’s a computer behind the wheel. But self-driving vehicles offer a different freedom, from inefficiency and unnecessary loss of life. As consumers grow accustomed to these developments, it is unlikely they will look wistfully backwards. All signs point towards a driverless future.

Riding the bullet

A journey across Japan by bullet train

Cars_2_fuji_mount.png

‘Speed is the only truly modern sensation’, said Aldous Huxley. Well, he never rode the bullet train. We’re rocketing through Japan at 200 miles per hour; at this pace a Formula 1 car going flat out would struggle to keep up with us. Inside the carriage, though, it’s virtually silent. My coffee in its styrofoam cup rests on the tray table in front with barely a ripple.

I’m travelling from Fukuoka, a small city in Japan’s south west, to Tokyo, and press my face to the window. Across a vast chessboard of misty fields Mount Fuji, squat and imperious, keeps watch over the ancient landscape. Towering beside the rising moon its party hat of white snow catches the fading sunlight and splinters it in pink sparks. Down below we scream through the flatland, passing farmhouses and tree groves that flicker into view before vanishing behind us.

A waitress approaches wheeling an over-stacked trolley of disorienting Japanese snacks. As virtually nothing in the country is written in English ordering food is essentially a game of ‘point and pray’, a method which at a restaurant the day before had left me munching through a gristly bowl of fried pigs ears. I’m relieved, therefore, to discover the nondescript white packet I tentatively jab at contains chewy purple chicken strips and nibble merrily away. Deep down know it’s octopus.

I feel like chatting to somebody, and in a moment of inspiration remember the word for ‘delicious’.

‘Oishiiringo!’, I yell, pointing at my food and turning to the businessman next to me who, it turns out, was sleeping. Terrified out of his slumber he stares at me blankly.

Not knowing the word for sorry I’m left with little option but to hesitantly repeat myself in an apologetic tone.

‘Oishiiringo…?’

The man, as well as a row of university students opposite burst out laughing. Later I learn ‘Oishiiringo’ roughly translates as ‘yummy apple’, but for now I remain blissfully unaware if somewhat bewildered at the response. I’m the only English speaker, but relying upon the universal language of backslapping, ‘Michael Jackson Beetles!’ being screamed by all, and occasional fits of random hysterics, we enter into a lively conversation. A round of cheap tin can beers is summoned magically from someone’s bag, and we sip them as the train powers onwards.

It’s night now. The flickering lights and neon flashes outside herald our entry into Tokyo’s sprawling suburbs. I peer into the web of twisting streets, trying to ignore my own reflection as it grins dementedly in the background. 39 million people live in the Greater Tokyo Area, well over half the population of the UK in a single buzzing, broiling, electric hub of humanity. This is by far the largest city anywhere, ever, and we’re headed straight for its heart.

As we begin to slow I bid farewell to my new friends and prepare to disembark.

If the journey to get here was anything to go by, I think I’m going to like this place.

 

A summary of Bourdieu’s (pretentious, and probably useless) theory of art, with a particular focus on the concept of a ‘field of cultural production’

This is a summary of Bourdieu’s theory of cultural production. It’s pretty terribly written, because I haven’t proof read it. But in terms of the content, it’s accurate. 

Bourdieu saw that to understand a work of art, we must look not only at the piece of art itself, but rather at the conditions of its production and reception, the specific logic characterising the field of cultural production, and the way in which that field relates to the wider fields of power and class relations. Doing so, he argued, reveals that the field of cultural production is cut through by two opposing principles of heirachization; the autonomous and heteronomous principles, and that as the degree of independence from the financial imperatives of the economic sphere grows, the autonomous principle, an exact inversion of the principles of heirachization governing the economicsphere, comes to predominate. Bourdieu’s work on culture provides a strong argument for the need for a theory of art that roots it in the specific conditions within the field of cultural production at a particular time. However, it is not without its weaknesses, and his conclusion that the field of cultural production is the ‘economic world reversed’ is slightly overblown.

Bourdieu was highly critical of those forms of internalist approaches to art, which attempt to understand the nature of a work of art through an analysis of its internal structure and form alone, and of those which subscribe to what he termed the ‘charismatic ideology of creation’, which attempt to locate the creation of art in the genius of the artist himself. At the same time, however, he was also heavily critical of deterministic structuralist approaches, such as that commonly adopted by many Marxist critics, which attempt to see artistic products as a mere reflection of determinent social structures and devoid of any subjective input, leading to claims such as the idea that art is merely a reflection of bourgeois interests and nothing more. Rather, what was necessary was a sociological approach that attempted to locate the production of art within the particular social conditions that gave rise to its production and the production of its value, but that did not descend into the extreme subjectivism or objectivism that most forms of cultural analysis relied upon. Bourdieu attempted to resolve this problem through the application of his theory of fields to cultural production. It is first, therefore, necessary to provide a broad overview of bourdieu’s wider theory.

At the heart of Bourdieu’s work is an attempt to transcend the opposition between structuralist and agency-orientated views; the antimony between what he calls subjectivism and objectivism. Central to attempt to do this are three particularly important concepts for analysis of culture: Habitus, capital and field, which together make up the central components of his theory of practice, which is an attempt to uncover the dichotomal relationship between agency and structure and the way in which these combine to give rise to one’s actions. It is only through his distinctive theoretical approach that Bourdieu believed the nature of artistic life and production could be truly grasped. His views on the field of cultural production springs from an application of these principles to the artistic world.

Habitus refers to an acquired system of generative schemes objectively adjusted to the particular conditions in which it is constituted.In other words, habitus is our set of intuitive, or doxic, dispositions that inform the way to behave in different contexts. This is formed at a young age through the process of socialization, and once formed is relatively stable over time. The habitus is often referred to as a ‘feel for the game’. It provides people with a familiarity with certain social settings and conditions the way in which an individual reacts to and perceieve their social surroundings, but is shaped by the objective social conditions in which it originated. This explains the similar habitus’s of individuals within the same class. As it reflects the objective conditions of the field in which it originates, a habitus serves to reproduce the conditions of that field.

A field refers to a system of social positions structured by power relations and characterised by a struggle for dominance between its members. Agents do not act in a vacuum, but rather social life takes place within objective social settings governed by particular sets of social relations, which bourdieu refers to with his concept of field. According to Bourdieu’s theoretical model, any social formation is structured by way of a hierarchically organised series of fields. Fields interact with eachother, but are heirarchical, with most fields in a subordinate position relative to the field of power, a term which bourdieu uses to refer to a composite of the field of the economy and the field of politics. Fields are relatively autonomous from one another, but at the same time all fields are structurally homologous, in that a field is always the site of struggle between the dominant and the dominated, in which by exercising their symbolic power within each field, certain groups are able to ensure that the field is structured in such a way as to maintain their privileged position. However, the resources being competed for are not always economic or material, and this competition is not always based upon conscious calculation. Rather, numerous different fields exist, such as the field of education, politics, culture and so on, and success within each of these fields results from the capital that an individual posesses.

Capital, as Bourdieu uses the term, refers to specific qualities that an individual possesses that enable him/her to ensure success within a given field. By capital, Bourdieu is not merely referring to financial capital, as the term is usually employed. Rather, various forms of capital exist, and whilst they may in some cases be mutually convertible they are not reducible to one another. Bourdieu outlines various forms of capital exist, and which are necessary for success within varying fields, such as cultural capital, economic capital, symbolic and social capital. Those in posession of the greatest amount of capital are by virtue of this fact dominant within the field in which that capital is valuable, and able to structure the field in a manner which serves to reinforce their dominance. Understanding the relationship between field, habitus, and capital, argues Bourdieu, allows us to grasp the way in which our subjective experiences are both shaped by, and shape, objective social structures, and it is the doxic interrelationship between field, habitus and capital, argues Bourdieu, that gives rise to social action. This can be best summarised through the formula [(habitus)(capital)]+field=practice.

In order to understand the nature of artistic production, then, Borudieu argues that we must appreciate that when a writer or artist produces a work they always do so within a context or field that is structured in certain ways. As with all other fields, the position that an individual occupies within the field of cultural production is dependent upon both their class habitus, and the degree of capital that they possess. The field of cultural production is one amongst many fields of human endeavour, and the extent to which the actions of its members are shaped by its own internal logic depends upon the degree of autonomy that the field possesses from all other fields, in particular the field of power. Looking back historically, Bourdieu argues that an historical analysis shows that the field of cultural production has grown increasingly autonomous from the field of power, meaning that cultural production has increasingly come to be determined by the internal logic of the field of production itself. Whilst Bourdieu views this as a very positive process, his work is an attempt to show that, in contrast to the claims of those such as proust and his lesser followers, artistic production is not necessarily autonomous, rather it has been able to become increasingly so as a result of a specific set of historical conditions.

Whilst the autonomy of the field of cultural production has increased over time, cultural production is not entirely autonomous, as the field of cultural production remains situated within the field of power. It is for this reason that the cultural field is a site of double hierarchy, as it contains its own internal logic of heirarchization – the autonomous principle, as well as the heteronomous principle, which reflects the principle of heirarchization that exists within the field of power. Were the cultural field to achieve total autonomy from the field of power, the autonomous principle would rein unchallenged, the degree of success of autonomous art relative to art affected by the demand for profit reflects the relative autonomy of the cultural field at that time. Were the cultural sphere to disappear, lose all autonomy, then artists would be subject to entirely the same laws as those prevailing in the field of power.

The existence of these opposing poles of heirachization gives rise to two competing sub-fields; the field of large-scale production, and the field of restricted production. The subfield of large scale production is governed by the heteronomous principle, as it exists in a dominated position relative to the field of power. In this subfield, goods are aimed at the largest possible audience, and are produced primarily in order to create a profit. This subfield involves what we usually call mass or popular culture. It is sustained by a vast and complicated culture industry, and success within this subfield depends upon the possession of large amounts of economic capital.

The field of restricted or small scale production is governed according to the autonomous principle. Production is relatively free from the demands of the economic field, and goods are produced for a narrower public of other producers. Success within this subfield is dependent upon achieving the symbolic recognition of other members of the field, and thus requires high levels of symbolic capital. As this subfield grows increasingly autonomous from the field of power, it reverses the principles of heirachization that govern the field of power to an ever greater extent. Success comes to be dependent upon being able to appear to be entirely free from the constraints of the market – there is an ‘interest in disinterestedness.’ Any art which is successful economically is seen to be ‘selling out’. It is for this reason that the field of cultural production is referred to as ‘the economic world reversed’ by Bourdieu, as in the subfield of cultural production in which production is most autonomous from the field of power and therefore is governed most in accordance with the autonomous internal logic of the field of cultural production itself, symbolic recognition is dependent upon the ability to produce works that systematically invert the principles of heirachization that exist within the economic sphere.

I hope this essay was of some vague use. Please show some support for Max (the author) by going to the bottom of this page (after the comments) and ‘liking’ the Facebook page, which will help you keep up to date with all his latest posts. Thanks!

Morocco

A while ago I went travelling around Morocco with a total waster called Pete. I wrote this article as an entry for the Daily Telegraph’s travel writing competition, it’s basically just a description of what happened when we arrived . It’s pretty pretentious, but I thought that would mean I won. I was wrong, but here it is anyway.

As our taxi sped through the African night, I was grinning like a nutter.

Just that morning I’d been on a rainswept platform waiting for the train from Kentish Town to Cricklewood. We’d only booked the flight (one way, no return) five days earlier, after a few beers and staring down the barrel of the dark, wet British winter. Morocco sounded better.

I looked at the world outside; a group of laughing kids playing a game of tin-can football, stray dogs rummaging through rubbish heaps, a rusty moped – driver sandal-clad, one foot on the seat – that fizzed past the window with a metallic hum.  Silhouetted in the distance the towering Atlas mountains, dusky brown with glistening white peaks by day, now the darkest shade of blue-black against the starry sky, stretched along the horizon.

view from a cafe overlooking the central square

The driver had decided I was mad the third time I asked him how ‘full’ he was in broken French, meaning to ask ‘how far?’ But he was just the first of many ridiculously good natured Moroccans we’d meet, and his deep bellowing laugh cut through the language barrier better than words could. Pulling up by a small gathering of people huddled round a curbside fire and handing us our bags, he smiled, smacked me on the back – ‘shukran!’ – and rumbled off down the dusty road.

I looked at Pete, my friend and travelling companion, and raised an eyebrow. Neither of us asked; we each knew the other had no idea where to go, and we didn’t have anywhere booked. So, figuring we’d find a hostel near the central square, we started off down the best lit street we could see, stopping every so often to ask directions in a language we couldn’t speak. Here and there we passed groups of men in robes, congregated under the luminescent white light of a single shadeless bulb, drinking tea, chatting, smoking shisha. We caught glimpses of family life through shutters and ornate archways, and walked on wide eyed.

took this from the hostel roof terrace the next evening

An hour passed, and we knew we were lost. Lights began to go out, and at last we were alone between the stretching facades, save for the odd mutt padding softly behind, and a cat or two.

‘Speak English?!’ We turned. ‘I work at a hostel. We have beds.’

Later, we would learn that many new arrivals get lost in the winding alleyways like we had, overwhelmed by the intensity of it all. But for now we simply followed our new friend gratefully, and asked very little.

That night, for less than the cost of a London bus fare, we slept on a roof terrace beneath the stars.

We didn’t return home for quite a while. Strange, that.

By Max Klinger – follow me on twitter here