Written by Roger Allen
Casablanca a city tied to the great Bogart Bacall movie, a city of romance, the heart-breaking goodbye at the foggy airport “Here’s looking at you kid”, the song “As time goes by”, Bogart drowning his sorrows with whiskey at the bar at Ricks cafe one of the greatest one-liners of all time “In all the gin joints in all the world she walks into mine”.
In reality it’s a large unattractive port on the coast of Morocco, not one frame of the iconic movie was shot there but it will always be linked with the film and “Play it again Sam”.
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Days before campaigning started for the British election of 1997, The Daily Mirror were quick out of the blocks with stories embarrassing Tory MPs – whipping up support for the young Tony Blair.
On a cold blustery day in March reporter Nic North and I, along with a workwear clothing expert, flew off to Casablanca where one Stephen Dorrell MP of Conservative Loughborough (also former Health Secretary) owned a clothing factory employing dozens of young girls working the sewing machines for 66p an hour.
Nic had made appointments with the manager of the factory over the phone days before our arrival. We were to be owners of a workwear clothing firm in the UK looking to outsource our production line. Nic was the big boss, I was to be head of logistics and Mike the expert would do the technical bullshit.
“Great not a problem” said the Moroccan manager.
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The three of us arrived at the factory gates bright and early, all the other two had to do was chat away to the top man while I had to get pictures inside the sweatshop. Things didn’t look right as we stepped out of the taxi, the factory building was gleaming in the sunshine, rays bouncing off the new steel structure, uniformed guards at the main gate, glass and aluminium offices set in freshly watered gardens. We had been told that the factory was badly run down and painted bright green.
Once inside the boardroom it soon became apparent we had arrived at the wrong place. Through the plate glass windows, overlooking the workshops, were rows of brand new machines manned by middle-aged women. This was not what we wanted at all.
20 minutes into the waffle about twill and weave, Nic asked “Do you have a British client Stephen Dorrell?”
“No not here my friend, there is another factory with same name on shit side of town – you could try there” the man seemed to guess what was going on he could tell we were a bunch of fakes. After securing the address on the other side of the city we sped off in another taxi.
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Our hearts filled with joy as we walked into the small wooden cabin where the manager sat surrounded by arch lever folders on timber shelves. The main brick factory was indeed green just not very bright, it was now covered in dirty sand. The sign Confection Royale in English and Arabic was nailed to the side of the building.
Once we’d been given tea by the manager we ran through the same old spiel as before, the tubby man dressed in a white nylon shirt that clung to his back with sweat seemed very unimpressed with the three of us. Picking up on the disinterested mood Nic asked about English clients.
“Yes we have, I show you” within minutes Nic was wading through files with the Dorrell name on them, as he found them he passed them to me to photograph, which I did, the tubby chap didn’t bat an eyelid.
“Can we see the factory?” asked Nic. “Come.”
A large wooden door was pulled open in the side of the factory, there in front of us were rows of young girls beavering away at sewing machines. In the corner of the workshop was a group of younger girls sitting on the floor, hand stitching piles of red overhauls. Without asking I pulled out my camera and took pictures of all before me – again tubby man didn’t protest.
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Across the road from the girls’ work place was a large shanty town, we waited in the taxi till lunch break to see if any of the young women lived there. We didn’t wait long before they streamed out of the front gate, across the road into the labyrinth of shacks.
If the girls were lunching so should we. The driver whizzed off to a food stall beside a main road.
“Best falafel ever,” Before us stood a man in a white apron holding a ladle, a large pan of boiling oil bubbled away on a metal table. A steady flow of falafel bobbed about cooking before being placed on a wire mesh rack to drain away the oil.
Apron man handed over two brown paper bags full with piping hot freshly cooked falafels. Beside the stall was another table with paper napkins and a tub of yogurt infused with cumin and lemon juice. Oil seeped through the paper as we munched our way down the bags. So simple, so great with flavour.
We asked the driver to take a slow drive past the dirty township – I sat in the back taking pictures of the rundown homes. We drove past twice – on the third pass a look of horror appeared on the driver’s face. We were stopped and blocked in by three police cars.
Our taxi driver went into melt down, calling on all type of Gods to help him. Mike the expert started wailing that he’d not signed up for this, while Nic and I shook our heads in disbelief that we’d been nicked. I quickly took the film out of my camera and replaced it with another firing off twenty or so frames, I hid the roll of Dorrell film in my sock.
“What are you taking pictures for?” asked the most important cop.
“Well it’s like this …” I began before being told to shut up and get in the nearest police car. Nic and Mike were bundled into one of the other cars, the taxi driver was given a cuff round the side of his head and told to go, he went away praising Allah.
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At a police station somewhere in the city the three of us were split up, Nic started to remonstrate with one of the plain cloths guys who’d met us at the door only to be pushed into a room without a handle on the inside, Mike and I were placed in two other rooms.
“So you are a spy, for which state do you work?” asked a young clean-cut copper, he was dressed in a smart suit with a crisp white shirt.
“I’m not a spy just a photographer, we are there to report on a factory of a British MP. We work for a British newspaper the Daily Mirror” I fumbled in my jacket pocket pulling out my wallet containing my press card. The man looked at with distain, turning it over and over in his hand, he stopped rolling it round and looked more closely at it.
“Scotland Yard it says Scotland Yard” he looked up at me with half closed eyes.
I thought for a moment, this could be good or very bad.
“Well its issued by Scotland Yard police so it is official so it makes us able to work without trouble from police,” I looked at him as he shook his head slowly.
“Wait” he pushed back his chair and left the room with my press card
One hour, two hours went by nothing, into the third hour the door burst open three cops came in, the smart one along with two scruffy ones, they looked ready to beat the shit out of me.
“Go, please you go with these men,” he tossed my press card back on the table, I picked it up and moved to the door sheepishly expecting a kick in the groin.
“Scotland Yard very good I like to work at Scotland Yard” the smart cop said with a laugh.
“We call Scotland Yard and they know you”
“Yes well they would that’s why we have the card” I said in disbelief.
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An hour later the three of us were sat in the bar of The Royal Mansour hotel downing large vodka tonics. As we’d all said the same story without lying, we’d been driven to our hotel in a police car and waved goodbye. Without the press cards that Nic and I had produced we’d have been in trouble.
Darkness had fallen while we’d been banged up, lunch had been and gone so I asked the hotel manager for the best restaurant in town.
“Sir you must go to the Le Cabestan oldest best, run by an elderly French woman Madame Viot you cannot do better”
Waves crashed onto the beach in front of the restaurant the second biggest mosque in the world shone its green light out to sea as we three settled in to feast at Le Cabestan.
The famous Madame Viot greeted us with a glass of champagne before producing the menus. There was a list of French food plus an array of Moroccan dishes. My mouth watered just looking at the menu. After some thought I went for the Moroccan chicken with tomatoes and honey
This was washed down with a bottle of Chablis Grand Cru
The story of Dorrell’s sweatshop made the front page with two more pages inside.
Tony Blair became Labour Prime Minister which lasted from 1997 till 2007.