AS YOU peruse this page, gentle reader, pausing only to look at the brave wan smile of your spring-damp garden or to join in the family debate over which supporting wall of your home should be loyally assailed with a pick axe to accommodate a papal visit commemorative brick, spare a thought for my sand-swept plight.
For the last few days in the interests of investigative journalism I have been trying to establish a meaningful dialogue with a camel.
I realise now how poor Lord MacCarthy must have felt when grappling with the rail dispute. My humpy adversary is flexible and clearly capable of rostering but only on his own terms.
He specialises in a form of toothy malice as fearsome as that practised by doctors' receptionists and appears to be following some quixotic form of work to rule where the rules are changed every ten minutes.
suspect he may be labouring under a long-endured inferiority complex, thinking of his impeccably behaved, decidedly less pungent Chinese cousins who are not only hairier, pleasanter and likely to live longer but also have twice the number of humps.
Life must be confusing for a desert dromedary. The nomadic desert tribes who never stay in one place long enough to do degrees in the Open University or build model aircrtaft our of used matches.
. Saharan camels can be described in nine hundred different ways in Bedouin poetry so perhaps it is small wonder they react to this smothering attention by refusing to answer to any name at all.
A few days ago I set out from the Moroccan oasis town of Ouarzazate with its medieval fortress, sporadic electricity and attentive mosquitos in search of the cave paintings of Irherm before turning southwards towards the great desert where according to Herodotus men neither dream dreams nor eat any living creature.
Modern guide books can be grossly over-rated. Admittedly they offer useful maps but they have a sober addiction to fact and commonsense which do not make them inspiring companions.
Herodotus might be a little unreliable in measuring distances but he is so scrupulous in reporting every rumour no matter how absurd that he can make any tourist no matter how gullible feel highly sophisticated. He is good for the ego. Under his tutelage, 1 have learned to be surprised by very little. His Sahara is dotted with oases of luxuriant oddity as well as of spring water.
I have yet to meet his Atarantes, the oasis dwellers who have no individual names and who shout obscenities at the sun as it rises. I certainly hope I will come across the cattle of the Lotophagi.
The herds will be easily identifiable since they graze backwards to avoid getting their horns embedded in the sand.
Prepared as I have been for these phenomena, Morocco has still managed to spring a few surprises on me. I find it hard to believe that somewhere as obviously unAlpine as Oukaimeden in the High Atlas can be a great skiing centre.
It seems faintly wrong that so many clearly non-French people should speak French as a native tongue and it seems downright implausible that wild boars on both still exist and will only agree to be killed on Tuesdays, Thursdays and Sundays Herodotus would not have fallen for that.
Even the desert is far from predictable. Before you come to the fabled sandy dunes across which Raoul the drummer of death rides on the wind softly beating his fatal warning, as the mountains of sand slip and slide, punctuating his messages by sharp hammer beats as stones crack in the freezing desert nights, the valleys of the Atlas range are vibrant with asphodel — an unlikely setting for the meadow flower of classical paradise.
There are even what at first look like unexpected escapes from the English cottage garden — lavender, mint, heather, broom, rosemary, mugwort and miles of marigolds.
These African marigolds used to be a great favourite of St Hildegarde of Rupertsberg, a strong minded, long lived hypochondriac who divided her time between telling Popes what they should do, having highly imaginative apocalyptic visions and acting as infirmarian to her long suffering community. She recommended marigold tea for snake bites and blockages in the liver.
At times the desert seems to be pretending to be an open air sculpture exhibition which someone forgot to dismantle.
The stone age Saharans who left their graffiti of elephant, antelopes and huntsmen in the caves of Irherm have also littered the stony plain with their smoothgrinding stones like a random selection of Henry Moore's waiting to replace those Tate bricks.
And if that seems fanciful, remember that thousands of copies of stranger than fiction books claiming that those huntsmen with horn headdresses are in fact spacemen have been eagerly swallowed all the world over — although why the spacemen should be killing antelopes with primitive spears is a moot point — perhaps they could not remember behind which Henry Moore they left their laser guns.
It's easy to jump to wrong conclusions and impossible to avoid feeling slightly time disorientated here. The Muslim calendar has only 354 days which is unfortunate since the year has three hundred and sixty five and a quarter.
The discrepancy is dealt with by having eleven leap years in a cycle of thirty years. This means that annual religious holidays slide bewilderingly up and down our staid Gregorian calendar.
The Moroccan year is dominated by the major feasts of Islam and a string of smaller local festivals normally held in honour of a marabout or holy man.
The roots Christianity struck into the stone and sand here in the early centuries of Roman domination have for the most part withered and died.
A few traces of that frail Christianity remain.
The promontary of Monte Hacho boasts an embattled dusty defeated cathedral and also the Church of Our Lady of Africa near the site of the sixth century church built by Belisarius the general who was famed for making the entire Byzantine court twitchy by being disconcerningly honest and not entering in the normal Constantinopolitan round of plots and counter plots.
The church which looks as though it has been magic carpeted from the other side of the Straits of Gibraltar is about 270 years old. It was built in haste and relief in celebration of buckpassing vindicated after the Portuguese governor unable to stop the spread of plague among the people of his garrison town tried to lift morale by passing the problem on to a higher authority in the manner of non plussed civil servants down the ages.
With more pomp and ceremony than conviction he placed an olive branch in the hands of the statue of Our Lady of Africa.
The plague immediately disappeared and in thanksgiving the governor ordered a new church to be built on the site of a disused mosque which commanded the best views over the Straits of Gibraltar.
Traces of Morocco's prePortuguese Christianity are hard to find. Few suspect that Tangier which so assiduously lives up to its seedy shady cinema image should in fact be a place of Christian pilgrimage. It was here that St Marcellus the centurion the patron saint of draft dodgers and slow thinkers was brought to trial.
He was a convert who found suddenly that formulas for the
toasts he had to propose in celebration of the emperor's birthday were more than he could take. The more he thought about it the more he realised the small print of army loyalty demanded an allegiance which did not belong to any caesar.
He was quickly identified as a dangerous man and was whisked off to the deputy prefect at Tangier before he could influence any who had been under his command.
He was sentenced to death but even in the court room his faith was infectious. The clerk of the court was so moved by the defendant's sincerity that he refused to record the sentence and so accompanied Marcellus to anonymous martyrdom in Rome. The medina of Yangzers bears no sign of their Witness.
Why not tootle off to Jarrow?
IF YOU are using these last few days of March, which used to be thought as unlucky days unsuitable for anything beyond scheming since they had been "borrowed" from April, for planning improving outings for your family in less arid areas than the Sahara you could do worse than turn your mind to the Bede Monastery Museum in Jarrow.
There from Easter Sunday until June 4 you can see an exhibition of the plan of the St Gall monastery, the blueprint for monastic architecture throughout Europe complete with all sorts of elucidations.
It's a stirring example of order coming from disorder. The St Gall foundation owed its origins to what we would now call severe negative interaction between St Columbanus, who was a very prickly pear, and St Gall, a much more docile character.
The two were engaged in a missionary journey from Ireland to Italy, a form of coals to Newcastle ecclesiastical operation popular at the time with Irish monks. St Columbanus thought St Gall was being less than enthusiastic about the journey and so set off in high dudgeon to Bobbio.
St Gall remained where he was with a few other stragglers. The site of his settlement was used about a century later for the foundation of the great abbey which now bears his name and whose architectural strictures were listened to by monasteries all over Europe — including. naturally, those houses founded by his former travelling companion. In his own way St Gall has the last word.