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Australia Diary Australia


Christopher Gibbs opens his Diary

2 July 2011

12:00 AM

2 July 2011

12:00 AM

I live in Tangier, which of all the cities of the Maghreb has the most ancient ties to Europe. In fair weather we see the coast of Spain from Gibraltar to Cape Trafalgar, a 15-mile swim away through smiling, lethal currents. Perhaps it’s this proximity to Europe that has kept Morocco from revolution. We had riots here in February, when a lost football match spurred a crew of young hotheads to smash banks, loot shops and cause a few hours’ mayhem, but retribution was swift and fierce and since then all has been relatively calm. Yes, there is corruption and unemployment, but King Mohammed VI is not a Mubarak figure; he is perceived as near sacred.

A few weeks ago, on coming north to London, the taxi from Heathrow was loath to take me home to Piccadilly and dumped me in St James’s Square. I wheeled myself uphill through streets thronged with police. Outside Fortnum & Mason was a crowd baying a message of hate, and the store — part of the empire of the Canadian Weston family — had also been invaded. No one had told this rabble that there are few families in England who have done more for good causes here and none who give with less parade. Is this how we say thank you? I struggled home, enraged, over broken glass. I’ve yet to hear how the law dealt with these foes of life and harmony. I hope severely. King Mohammed would have known what to do.

On Sunday, the church of St Andrew in Tangier was full. Illegal immigrants from black Africa swarmed the altar steps to receive the priestly blessing: devout, elegantly dressed and mostly in their twenties. Across the Sahara they’ve trekked towards this chimeric city, surviving, God knows how, yet staying chic, graceful and brave. St Andrew’s is a cool oasis in the city, with texts from the Koran woven into the plasterwork of the reredos and the Lord’s prayer in Arabic script round the chancel arch. Its very existence — built by the Scots, painted by Matisse — encourages a belief in miracles.

Today my friends the Mileses arrive from the Pyrenees. Barry Miles is the intrepid chronicler of the swinging sixties, of the antics of Allen Ginsberg, Gregory Corso and the dear seer and junkie marksman William S. Burroughs. Miles is here to trace the footsteps of the old master; to sit in the cafe where Burroughs, Brion Gysin and their native acolytes dodged little Truman and big Tennessee; to observe the antics at the Petit Socco, the tiny square in the humming medina. Who now remembers the grave, grey gentleman from the Villa Muneria and his English lovers: Ian Sommerville, the mystic mathematician from the north, and Mikey Portman, depraved angel from Bryanston? Who here remembers the Dream Machine and the cut-ups? Perhaps only Blanca Hamri, the wise American widow of Gysin’s painter pupil Hamri, who led the Rolling Stones to the revels of Jajouka more than 40 years ago.

In England to The Magic Flute, in an airy metallic pavilion floating over the lush parkland of Mark Getty’s Chiltern estate. It is Garsington transplanted and transformed, without the tumbling formal gardens where Lady Ottoline dallied with Bertrand Russell, yet somehow richly Arcadian. The queen of cricket pitches sits hard by the lake. The crowd, mostly Londoners but with a leavening of local gentry, remember the cricketing summers and the high pheasants of yore.

And again in London to agonise over the National Trust’s apparent zeal to reinvent itself with an embarrassing notion of benches that speak. It’s strange to see this great institution take its cues from publicists. It is still wonderful to see the subtlety of the trust’s additions to its libraries and to be comforted that scholarship is tempered by imagination. Lighting fires in the hall is right and proper — but please can we rest awhile without being jawed at by Stephen Fry?

Back home in the land of the Moors, I marvel at the transformation of the Medina. Acres of confused building are being torn away to reveal the old line of the city’s limits. Most exciting, the scraping away of rank vegetation reveals fortifications not seen in two lifetimes, including an amphitheatre of stone terracing that we know from 16th-century engravings. Suddenly a wide corniche curls along the northern shore, glorious new strolling ground beneath the heights of this ancient city, which for 20 years in the 17th century, as the dowry of Charles II’s queen, cost England dear.

Christopher Gibbs is an art dealer, aesthete and church warden.

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