We were invited to dinner by Gill Goldsmith in the autumn of 1979, to celebrate the engagement of her eldest daughter Dido to Peter Whitehead. ‘He’s such an interesting and unusual man,’ she said, ‘you’ll get on well together.’ The Goldsmith clan was there in force, and the dinner was magnificent. At midnight I said to Gill that we were leaving. ‘Have you spoken with Peter?’ she asked. I said there had been no chance, but since he was marrying Dido there would be plenty of opportunities. ‘You have to meet him,’ and taking me by the hand led me to the table where he was sitting on his own. Joining him at the table, I could not immediately think of anything to say, and Peter did not appear to want a conversation either. We remained for a while in awkward silence, until he leant forward on the table and I glanced at his hands. On the third finger of his left hand was a thick gold ring with an eagle’s head. ‘How on Earth did you get that ring?’ I asked, ‘I know the ring, I can’t believe you have it?’ There was a long pause. ‘I’ll tell you how I got it if you tell me how you know about it,’ Peter finally answered.
Two years previously, Diane and I went to Marrakesh. Venturing out onto the Jemaa al-Fnaa we found ourselves persecuted by an unshakeable swarm of capering youths, offering us hashish, their sisters and a whole host of other local delights. To escape them we ducked into the souk, and running through its by-ways until we had lost them found ourselves in a quiet courtyard. A boy came up and suggested we visit the shop in the corner. As we approached, an elderly man in a karakul hat came out to welcome us, offered us tea, and insisted that we had no obligation to buy anything. We sat and enjoyed his tea, but as we got up to leave, he said: ‘Why don’t you look round my shop, you might find something you like?’ I answered that I had a shop like his in London, and could see there was nothing there for me. ‘You think you know everything!’ he declared, and after I had protested, continued: ‘If I show you something you’ve never seen before, will you stay and have another cup of tea?’ Reluctantly we agreed, and it was at this point that he removed the heavy gold ring from his finger and thrust it into my hand, demanding: ‘Now, what’s that, if you know so much?’ It did not look so old, its eagle head rather reminded me of a fraternity ring, and wedged inside the head was a piece of brown stone, opaque and muddy coloured. I had no idea and told him so. ‘See! You don’t know everything,’ he said triumphantly, ‘now, sit down and I’ll order some tea.’ And as we sat sipping it, he told us the tale of the ring.
The stone inside, he said, had a particular quality, which was that a snake could not come near it. When eagles were ready to nest, they would fly over the High Atlas until they spotted one of these stones, which they then deposited in their nest to protect the eggs from snakes. In Morocco such stones were deemed to hold great power, and were accordingly greatly valued, and each family that possessed one would pass it down from generation to generation, usually mounted in a piece of jewellery.
I had to admit that his was a terrific story, which more than proved his point. And as a result of this I passed by his shop most days, to sit and talk, or to wander around the souk with him, a procedure that revealed a side of life there that I could never have imagined. Much of it revolved around the Moroccan pharmacies, full of reptiles and other creatures floating in jars of yellowing liquids, and large ceramic containers of herbs, spices, bark, minerals and other unidentifiable substances. It was here that I found an entirely different view of life from our own, but with its own logic and rules. Things invisible to us were a reality for them, within another coherent conceptual structure that dictated the meaning and pattern of their lives. It occurred to me that if magic and the like are not considered mysterious or imaginary, they can become something to be worked with. It just required a shift of focus, which this whole community I was introduced into seemed to have achieved. There was a ragged, tattered heap of a man crouched each day in the opposite corner of the courtyard. He was clearly mad, and I asked one day what had happened to him. ‘He got too involved with the pharmacies,’ came the answer, ‘and lost his mind. We look after him now.’ Those days in Marrakesh were so interesting that I always remembered the ring that made the introduction. And hence my surprise at seeing it on Peter’s finger. Peter’s story began much the same. It diverged at the point that he was sitting in Nessi-Bey’s shop drinking his tea, spotted the ring, and asked about it. He then explained that he had come to Marrakesh to find two eagle chicks to be trained for the hunt, on behalf of a Saudi prince. Marrakesh was to be his base while he scoured the High Atlas for a suitable nest from which to steal the chicks. Nessi-Bey was delighted, and insisted that Peter move into his house, instead of the hotel on the Jemaa al-Fnaa where he was lodging. At the moment Peter was removing the eagle chicks from their nest he saw the stone, put it in his pocket, remarking to me that it was covered in eagle shit, which was proof of its authenticity. When it was time to leave, Peter presented the stone to Nessi-Bey to thank him for his hospitality. In response, Nessi-Bey removed his gold ring, handed it to Peter, and said: ‘This is not a gift, I am lending it to you. You have many problems, this ring will resolve them. Next time we meet you will give it back to me.’ Peter did, indeed, have many problems, but when he returned to England they disappeared, and more importantly he met Dido, and their lives were also changed. At the end of his tale, Peter explained that Dido’s father, Teddy, had given them a bunch of gold sovereigns, which they had melted down to fill two casts of the eagle ring, and the one on his finger was not the original. The original he drew out of his pocket to show me, and said that on his next visit to Marrakesh it would return to its owner.
During 1984 and 1985 I saw Peter and Dido quite often in Saudi Arabia. They lived on the top of the Souda Mountain in Asir Province, where Peter ran a falcon breeding programme, artificially inseminating the females and hatching the eggs in incubators – a tricky business at the best of times since the female falcons didn’t welcome being interfered with in this way. He was working for Prince Khaled al-Faisal, a poet and passionate falconer as well as governor of the province, who was also my patron at the time for an exhibition I was organising at the King Faisal Foundation. In 1995, Dido went to stay with her mother in South-West France, where one of the obligatory rituals was to leap off the bridge into the Lot River. As Dido resurfaced from the deep water she realised with horror that the eagle ring had slipped from her finger and was lost. Mark Shand, her brother-in-law, was on the bridge, and learning what had happened, found a piece of chalk to mark the exact spot from which she had jumped. Leaving Dido despairing on the bridge, he went to find Gill, who, practical as ever, summoned the local frogman. A crowd gathered to watch, expecting a body at least to emerge, and when they learned that a ring had been lost they howled with laughter. Locating such a thing in such a deep flowing river was impossible. But the frogman did find the ring, and here it is to prove it.