Brian Viner: 'Over here, haggling is not quite cricket; over there, it makes the world go round'

Home And Away
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The Independent Online

A feature a few days ago in another newspaper suggested that, in these recessionary times, we should all learn to haggle. The writer tried it on in John Lewis, Selfridges, WH Smith and even at a London Underground station, with distinctly limited success, although she did blag £10 off a bottle of Krug at a branch of Nicolas, and all credit to her for doing so. I get closer to offering a tenner extra to those Frenchmen behind the counter at Nicolas, in the face of their formidable Gallic-ness and obvious contempt for an Englishman who isn't sure what he wants, and might even be, in that dreaded English phrase, "just browsing".

The fact is that, for most English people, haggling goes against the grain. It offends our sense of fair play. It's not quite cricket (even though cricket isn't either, any more). And I was powerfully reminded of this last week on a short trip to Marrakech, where, of course, haggling makes the world go round.

With a couple of hours to spare, I hailed a taxi and asked the driver to drop me anywhere in the old city. He dropped me off in the heart of the medina, and waved away my 10 dirham (about 70p) note. "No, don't pay me now," he said in French. "I'll wait for you here, for as long as you like, and you can pay me later."

I didn't like that idea at all, but he reassured me that the waiting time would be free of charge. "One hour, two hours, no charge," he said. It still seemed like a somewhat suspect arrangement. I insisted on paying. He insisted on staying. Eventually, I prevailed, and he accelerated away in a fit of pique, almost hitting an old woman and her goat. I wasn't sure whether I had shown my colours as a man of the world, or just a mealy-mouthed tourist.

A few minutes later, I ambled into a pottery shop, where that English culture of browsing came into direct conflict with the Moroccan culture of haggling. I picked up a tagine, with no real intention of buying it, and a man wearing a Manchester United shirt materialised at my elbow. "Very nice, yes?" "Yes." "Only 120 dirhams." "No thanks." "OK, 100 dirhams." "No, I really don't want it." "Then 80 dirhams." I smiled politely, and left the shop. He followed me. "Come on, 80 dirhams. Very good price." I returned to my hotel room and stepped into the shower. "Then how about 60 dirhams," he said, soaping my back.

This is a slight exaggeration, but he certainly attached himself to me for slightly longer than I was altogether comfortable with. He must have been having a slow sales day. Anyway, some way down the street from his shop we agreed on a price of 60 dirhams for a tagine that I didn't really want, and I ended up buying five more. Haggling 6, browsing 0.

It wasn't as if I had gone to Marrakech to shop. I was there for the eighth Marrakech Film Festival. A PR company based in London had offered to fly me out and put me up, promising me an interview with John Hurt, among other treats. That afternoon, I was taken to his hotel, where I was greeted by a French PR woman with a clipboard and a worryingly officious demeanour. "You have 15 minutes with John Hurt," she said. "But I've come all the way from England for this, and I was assured that I would get at least half an hour..." "He only has 15 minutes." "Can't we squeeze 20 minutes out of him?"

I realised that I was haggling again, and fleetingly wondered whether I might end up with no interview at all but another couple of tagines. Just then, however, John Hurt hove into view. We sat down. I started asking him about the forthcoming television drama in which, 33 years after The Naked Civil Servant, he plays Quentin Crisp again.

He answered my questions courteously, but seemed more than a little distrait, and said that he hadn't been expecting an interview. I told him that it had been fixed up for weeks. "Oh really, by whom?" he said, eyes narrowing, and looking rather more Caligula than Crisp.

After nine minutes, he brought proceedings to an end, saying that he just wasn't comfortable. I asked him whether we might be able to resume our conversation back in England. He suggested that I call his agent. As yet, I haven't. Frankly, I'm not sure whether I can face any more haggling.