Algeciras redux, a tale of The Assumption

Tangier harbour- the closest I got to Africa
Tangier harbour- the closest I got to Africa

If you’ve read this blog before, you may be aware that The Knife is and was a Catholic boy, though greying rapidly. That’s not a claim to saintliness in any shape or form, as sadly it doesn’t work that way, but it naturally informs one’s world view. If like me you were brought up in the faith, then various things are inculcated from an early age. Which brings us to tomorrow’s feast day, that of The Assumption. This is a ‘holy day of obligation’ which means it has the same remit as the sabbath (see the Third Commandment). In other words, you’re meant to get to mass.

So tomorrow is the 31st anniversary of me being kicked out of Morocco.

I was travelling round the Iberian peninsula with a couple of mates, with the plan that we’d get the

Salvador Dali: Lapis lazuli corpuscular assumption 1952
Salvador Dali: Lapis lazuli corpuscular assumption 1952

ferry over to Tangier for a week. At the time, I only had the now defunct ‘visItor’s passport’ issued by the British government, via any post office. I hadn’t got a full passport in time. It only allowed unfettered access to certain countries, mainly mainland Europe. Knowing this, when we got to Madrid I went to the Moroccan Embassy to get my visa. How I managed this I don’t know, as it was in a Madrid suburb, and there was no internet or anything like that (I realise younger readers may be struggling with this). I probably used a phone directory and a public library map.

In the embassy I queued for about 4 hours. That is to say, I queued, as a proper Brit, while the numerous Moroccans in the room jostled around, barging people out of the way. I think there may even have been a goat there as well. When I finally got seen, the visa man yelled at me “you British, no visa!” several times. No discussion about the concept of the visitor’s passport, despite my attempts, and that was it. No visa, I supposedly didn’t need it. The British could go anywhere with impunity.

A few days later, August 15th 1983, we boarded the ferry at Algeciras, an authentic dump of a port, loomed over by Gibraltar, and full of people trying to sell you dope. The year before I’d been part of a summer school football team (I was teaching English) that had been humped 10-1 by our Algeciras rivals, we being from upmarket Marbella. The ‘1’ was a completely unjustified penalty. So I had bad memories of Algeciras. It was also the Feast Day of the Assumption, so the trip meant skipping mass. This was irrelevant to my buddies but I had a lousy feeling about it, no doubt taggable as ‘catholic guilt’, but it was real enough. I had no idea that there were churches in Morocco (quite a few, as it turns out), this being pre-internet etc. So I was indeed wilfully skipping mass.

At this point I am aware that most readers will be labelling me as a pathetic Catholic neurotic/loser. Fair enough.

The ferry took a couple of hours, and by a remarkable coincidence, there on the deck was the man from the embassy. He remembered me, we said hello. At Tangier, just before the disembarkation gangplank, there was a passport check. I handed mine over, the Moroccan official said no, and when I attempted to explain the embassy’s view, yelled at me to get back to Spain. At this point I spotted my embassy man who’d just said hello. He’d seen the altercation, and when I tried to engage him, he literally ran off up the deck.

That was it, we parted ways, and I sat on the deck all the way back to Algeciras, with an arrangement to meet in one week at Faro, Portugal. On arriving in the early evening back in Spain, with my guilt intact, I heard church bells. A few streets away there was a steady stream of Spanish mass goers heading in, for their obligation. That moment confirmed my growing feeling that I’d been conspired against by unseen forces. I trooped in to church, sat at the back with my disgusting two weeks of unwashed clothing plus rucksack, and fulfilled my duty.

Following mass I felt a little lighter in spirit, but only a little, and it was getting dark, I didn’t know the town and I had nowhere to stay. So I headed for the Plaza Alta, following the road signs.

Then things started to get better.

As I trekked up the slope to the  square, doing the usual surveillance for cheap pensiones, an upper floor window opened and a ‘well preserved’ lady stuck her head out, asking in a charming French accent was I looking for somewhere to stay? I was. Not as great as it promised, as I ended up paying for a bed in a room shared with an otherwise silent snoring giant. However, the landlady couldn’t have been nicer. I went to the magnificent Seville the next day, and ended up teaming with three lads from Wigan who were out of their heads on pills and megacheap red wine nearly all the time. Nice guys, if unsure as to where they actually were as we travelled around the Algarve. After a week, the rendezvous in Faro happened as planned.

So, why this story? I don’t believe in karma, and nor do I subscribe to the hippy dippy/soppy girl declaration that ‘everything is meant’, but…..any of us would be an idiot not to ponder significant events in our lives, and try to discern if there is indeed something we should be taking from them. Very very few people sincerely believe that everything is just random, if they are honest with themselves.

For me this was just one small piece in a very large jigsaw that maps out why, despite everything in my life that might point in other directions, and despite society’s frequent contempt for religious belief – often tinged with fear of the unknown, I would say – I’m still a (flawed) Catholic.

Algeciras - best seen from a distance
Algeciras – best seen from a distance

The evolution of uncertainty, about evolution

This is really a straight lift from a highly skilled writer and medical colleague, James Le Fanu. He’s used it more than once, most recently in the Charterhouse column of the Catholic Herald, but it’s no worse for that. The opening paragraph sums up my problem with all this:

The philosopher Thomas Nagel in a memorable phrase laments ‘the ludicrous overuse of evolutionary biology to explain everything about life’ — where there is nothing too sensational, extraordinary or bizarre about the living world that cannot be accounted for as having evolved to be that way over billions of years by the same known materialistic process of natural selection acting on random genetic mutation.

Well, quite.

The most obvious of those ‘puzzling questions’ that he cites is the ‘gene number dilemma’ epitomized by the most astonishing revelation of the Human Genome Project — that we have roughly the same number of genes, a modest 20,000, as the millimeter long worm, C.elegans — that is fashioned from just 1,000 cells (compared to our 60 trillion) in all, has neither a circulatory system nor internal skeleton and a life expectancy of just two weeks. Since then every newly sequenced genome has added its own further twist to this surprising lack of any correspondence between gene numbers and organismic complexity — where flies and chickens, it emerges have a third fewer genes than the diminutive C.elegans while, at the other extreme, plants such as rice and soya bean have twice as many.

The further yet more ‘puzzling question’ is the revelation of the interchangeability of the master or homeotic genes across diverse species, where for example, the same gene that orchestrates the fly’s distinctive compound type eye does so for the very different mammalian camera type eye. That interchangeability across species reaches its apotheosis with the finding that we share 99% of our genes with a mouse. How so trivial a genetic difference can generate such diversity of form defies all explanation, other than to suppose it must be ‘something to do’ with gene regulation, ‘the turning on and off of genes at different times and places in the course of development’.

The implications are clear enough. Biologists could in theory sequence every living creature on the face of the planet, but this would only confirm they all share the same core set of genes that account for the nuts and bolts of the proteins and enzymes of the cell of which all living things are made. But beyond that the really interesting question — that of ‘form’ — what it is that so readily distinguishes the elephant from the octopus, fireflies from foxes would remain as elusive as ever.

These are reasonable points, and as yet, science doesn’t have the answers. It’s not even close.

Come on then, explain us away…