45. The Cut-throat and the Poet

By Peter Fraenkel

Food was not a major problem for Sinclair in Tangier. With every glass of wine he ordered came a plate of tapas. A second glass brought a bigger plate and the third still more. Wine was cheap but it had to be paid for and Sinclair had little money. He offered poetry readings to cafe owners in exchange for booze.

“I am a poet,” he told them, “a surrealist poet, a great poet. Crowds will come.”

They were not convinced. Nor had I been when I attended one of his recitals. I had the advantage of understanding the language – English – but few others did. Arabic and French and Spanish and even Italian were more     widely spoken in Tangier than English.

Despite this, a small English-language weekly was published in the town – mainly for tourists. It carried adverts for hotels and resorts and tours. Occasionally it reprinted an article pirated from an English or American publication. These were full of misprints. Sinclair saw his opportunity: he persuaded the editor that the journal needed a proof reader or even, perhaps, a writer-in-residence to contribute local material.

He was taken on. It gave him a modest income. But then he had another idea: stories he could sell in England. Tangier had become the home of colourful characters – many of them with a shady past. In those days it was one of the few places on earth that had no extradition arrangements with the rest of the world. Moreover, it had a pleasant climate. Easy young women were available, and even handsome boys. It was an agreeable hiding hole.

One of the best known of the new residents was a man known as Benjie-the-bank- robber. Rumours had it he had a history of violence. They said he had slit the throat of a rival gangster back in London. Or perhaps it had been a dispute over the proceeds of a robbery.

One of his more profitable robberies had been widely reported in England and even years later Benjie was still living in some style at Tangier. Sinclair listened to the gossip and took notes. He questioned bar keepers who all said they knew Benjie well. Their tales of his violent past made it advisable to keep some distance from him. One day, when Sinclair turned up at the English-language weekly to correct proofs, they told him someone had been asking for him.


“Odd-looking character. Said his name was Benjie. Says he needs to speak to you urgently.”

The next day Sinclair was standing at the printer’s upstairs window when he saw Benjie arriving. He escaped down the back stairs.

This cat-and-mouse game went on for several days. Sinclair came to see me, looking worried.  My wife and I were renting a charming small house with a walled courtyard and a roof terrace.

Sinclair – whom I had known since our student days in South Africa – explained his predicament: “Do you mind my sleeping on your roof terrace for a night or two? I’m sure all this will blow over.”

He spent his days on the beach, swimming or sun-bathing but came to write his curious poetry on our roof terrace. After dark he introduced me to a variety of bars in town. He knew the scene well. He always surveyed the clientele cautiously before deciding to enter a place. At the end of the week, however, his luck ran out. We were just coming out of Pablo’s bar when we ran straight into Benjie-the-bank-robber.

“Sinclair!” the man shouted, “at last!” I stayed close, wondering whether a witness might provide some protection for Sinclair. But then it occurred to me: Was I running risks myself?

“You’ve been making enquiries about me!” I heard Benjie saying ominously.

Sinclair stammered: “Well, you see….”

“Yes, I see. But why do you go sneaking around behind my back? Are you a man or a mouse? Why don’t you come and get it from me …. Straight from the horse’s mouth? ”

Sinclair stammered, saying nothing.

“I ain’t had no notices in the press … almost a year now. I miss publicity. So does my Nan. You know, she keeps a book of cuttings ‘bout me back home. Now you come and have drink and …” he hesitated for a moment and eyed me “… bring your pal too ….provided he ain’t a bloody copper. Let’s talk. It’s taken long enough to catch up with you… Pablo! A bucket of bubbly.….!”