GEWGAWS BLITHERING KNUCKLE
With all the excitement of Alli’s visit at the end of last month, which we both treated more as a holiday than as spousal site inspection, the beginning of the month of April had a bereft look. I forced myself back into a solitary life, a compulsory choice as the work was unremitting and accounted little for personal space or time. It was poignant for me to read how the spring had exploded in the Alsace and to look at the beautiful photos from home of our garden and of the cherry and other blossoms across the region (followed of course a couple of weeks later by snow), when here the only indication of a new beginning was from the jagged clouds, the grumbling sky, and the occasional downpour to herald the rainy season. And all at over 30 degrees’ centigrade.
Gwen’s success at the London Marathon, April 2017
But the really big news from home was that Gwen completed the London Marathon as she had always said she would, and after training for months, hardly breaking sweat, and apparently smiling throughout. She posted less than 24 hours later, “I never really was a runner and to think this was impossible to me a year ago, I can say I am very proud of myself. You can do anything if you put your mind to it.” Hear hear. Her achievement (also in raising £2,000 for the wonderful People’s Dispensary for Sick Animals), joins that of Ella and Jessie who also finished the London Marathon in the past two years, making it a female threesome of Stanbrook Marathon runners in three years. Alli, Ella and Sam were in London to cheer her on as she ran, and I couldn’t stop thinking about it in the day from far away on another continent. The girls are accelerating past their father’s footsteps. My last encounter with anything like this was a heart-stopping half-marathon, 35 years and 25 kilos ago in Brussels.
I attended the humanitarian benefactor Mo Ibrahim’s annual conference on governance and leadership in Africa, located this year in Marrakech. The main routes into the city are preternaturally clean and tidy, with clipped hedges, swept sidewalks and colourful flowers planted along the new main roads. The airport itself was spanking new. I got nowhere near the interesting parts such as the main market centre Jemaa el-Fnaa. A taxi took me instead to the foliage-rich Palmeraie Palace Hotel complex, a millionaire’s paradise studded by shiny SUVs and with hissing lawns, sparkling fountains, a well-appointed golf course, and swimming pools galore. The conference featured Kofi Annan, several African Presidents, celebrity journalists, and other well-bronzed international benefactors in dark glasses, including the ubiquitous Bono, who led a few hundred shiny grey suits in a faltering rendition of Happy Birthday to Kofi Annan on the second day. Bono also called everyone “dude” which was cute and old-time. There were some excellent speeches, one from Paul Polman, the Chief Executive of Unilever, known for his energetically positive approach to corporate responsibility, and another from the Emir of Kano. The hotel was more show than substance, as the cluttered rooms were stuffed with useless tasselled cushions and other otiose gewgaws. Mosquitos were a continual problem, and room service vanished altogether for three entire days and nights. The main lobby at floor level was badly served by its own intricate Islamic architecture, where sight lines and directions were equally obfuscated. Service from the concierge was at best patchy, and the plethora of VIPs processing around the Palmeraie Palace was a cauchemar protocolaire – anxious trails of delegations and retainers intertwining and snagging with each other as they coiled around the carpeted labyrinths.
Two straight weeks in Abidjan followed. I used the time to get ahead of my work, finishing several texts early in order to make more time for the predictably frantic Spring Meetings of the World Bank in Washington. The weekend before the US visit I joined some friends at Assouinde, staying in a rough and ready hotel on the beach, adorned with old fishing longboats next to a ghostly abandoned Club Med complex, then came back on Easter Sunday, getting dropped off at the Notre-Dame de l’Afrique in Bietry, an open air religious space which incorporates a cathedral, a meeting house, schools, accommodation, a couple of chapels, stations of the cross, a pilgrimage centre and a grotto. I stayed and listened to the service, with its beautiful ethereal singing, before going home.
The following day I worked on the speaking programme before starting to pack for Washington. Less than four hours from the flight departure I looked around my small studio for my passport and could not find it or the wallet in which I knew it to be. There followed two hours of barely controlled panic as I looked everywhere again several times, turning jackets and trousers inside out, upending drawers of man-stuff, and stripping the bed, while I tried to think logically about where the wallet could be. When my driver arrived I decided to go back to the Cathedral, which was on the way to the airport, to see if it had been handed in, only to be told that there was no lost property office as handing in wallets and other items (even in churches) wasn’t a popular custom. Despairing and in the last ditch, I decided to search the car in which I had been before being dropped at the Cathedral. The car belonged to a friend who told me that it had been cleaned out earlier that day. As we went to the parking space, I thought of all the unpleasant ramifications of having to miss the flight, given that several colleagues had fallen ill and I had already been given extra responsibilities on the mission. After searching methodically in quiet desperation in all the obvious places of the car I started feeling with my hands around the nether regions on the dark underside of the seat and suddenly touched soft leather. The wallet’s snug contents still contained the passport, various ID cards, the bank and credit cards and cash. It had become wedged unobtrusively in a crevice between the bottom of the seat’s sliding machinery and the inside wall of the car. I grasped it with a warm gasping relief that is still tangible even as I write this now. I could proceed to the airport with confidence and pretend it never happened. And I would not have to admit to being a blithering idiot to my work colleagues. Hurrah on both counts! Later that evening I sipped a contented gin and tonic in the airborne plane and briefly reflected on the social, administrative and emotional dislocation of what might have been. I wonder if wandering around the Notre Dame de l’Afrique the previous day, enjoying the devotional music, and offering a small but heartfelt material appreciation of the experience as a whole, might have helped to create this personal miracle. However it came about, in such things I continue to be the most fortunate person I know.
The week in Washington was my first experience of the Spring meetings of the financial world-rulers. The centre of Washington was clogged with large black tank-like chauffeur-driven cars. I was staying at the over-elaborate Intercontinental Willard, which I disliked for its facades, ruches, chandeliers, poor service and unnecessarily limited spaces. The place is summed up by its absurd “High Tea” served with hot water and tea bags on reproduction garden furniture thrust along the mirrored length of a carpeted corridor, a meaningless ritual misunderstood and transcribed to the indifferent plucking of a harp. My booking had not been registered so I was bundled into a room far from the delegation, which made synchronised group movement difficult. I spent the week taking notes, editing texts and giving advice, and it was far from exciting, although I did meet Gordon Brown (ex-UK Prime Minister) and Christine Lagarde. I also discovered an excellent bistro nearby, the Hamilton, which I visited thrice with great pleasure, as I ate very little during the bilaterals, conferences, replenishments and assemblies. I also managed to slip out to buy a much-needed new suit, jacket and trousers, as well as a year’s supply of pain-killers.
One widespread custom I have not yet mastered in Africa is that of the handshake. I was brought up on one type of handshake, a manly one with a firm grip and a brisk shake, and with confident but not intrusive eye-contact. At some stage in the 1970s this started to include the thumb-guided “handstand” grip, but only (in my little world) with West Indians and hippies at rock concerts. I had just about kept up with this and with some of its subsequent variations but now in Africa there are all sorts of shakes with multiple stages of greeting, even up to quintuple-stack handshakes, starting with the handstand thumb grip, morphing into a knuckle clench, followed by a palm-touch then a fist-to-fist and finally a High 5. These have to be rehearsed exhaustively to look spontaneous, but I have not seen a hand go awry yet (except mine). Any combination is possible with anyone at any time, but I always miss and end up ham-fisted, with either my fist not connecting, my knuckle not clenching, my palm not touching, or my five not getting high. How does everyone else know what to do as someone advances with outstretched hand and big smile? I am without compass. It is destroying my confidence and turning me into a social wallflower. And don’t get me started on the the male hug..
Yours with an uncertain flutter of the fingers,