Tuesday, 28 February 2012

I need one. Not just want one, I neeeed one!



The red ferrolytic soil here when mixed with 5% cement and a little water and then compressed into forms makes excellent bricks. Strictly speaking, planning regulations governing land close to rivers or the sea prohibit concrete or brick buildings, wood should be used instead but considering that I have had no complaints about the shop or the kitchen toilet block I know that I can get away with bending the rules a bit.

As you know, I am busy trying to put something back into the village that sold me my lovely, if sometimes rather damp piece of land and welcomed me into their community. And it is a community.

Yesterday, I suffered my first bit of shoplifting. Trying to instil an ethic of patient queuing is I am afraid, a waste of time. It was during one of the occasional rushes we get that some oik decided to help himself to our most expensive whisky which we foolishly presented on the shelf closest to the entrance. Naturally, when Marcia returned from town and noticed the loss (I had not), it was all my fault and further evidence, if any were needed, that I am a dizzy, forgetful doddering old fool. Marcia even checked with me in case I had drunk it all which says a lot. Well, too much really.

Marcia phoned the Administradora, the person responsible for the administration of the village, told her what had happened and of her intention to close the shop for one week, denying the service to the whole community. This morning the missing whisky was paid for. Naturally, no one could lose face and, notwithstanding my stolen generator which was clearly an ‘outside’ job, no one in the Barra de Kwanza is dishonest so the excuse given was that the purchaser was in such a hurry to catch the bus that leaves on the dot (about the only punctual thing I have seen in this country), so he helped himself since I was so busy, with the full intention of paying for it later. I should put an Honesty Box on the counter and save myself all this grief.

Hopefully this week the trucks will arrive from the lumber yard down south and the first three buildings; the new shop, our little house on the prairie and the clinic will start to go up. The lads were here today installing the 15,000 litre water tank and pump so maybe by the weekend, I will shower in tankered in fresh rather than bathe in the river.

Bathing in the river is not at all an unpleasant experience but, unlike my brother who is hung like a bull elephant in musth, I was never particularly well endowed, even by Caucasian standards so am occasionally a little self conscious washing my bits in front of men doing the same but who presumably have to stand on the toilet seat in order to piss without getting the ends of their dicks wet.

Angolan bureaucracy raised its ugly head again a couple of days ago. I was expecting a visit of a delegation from the Ministry of Health who, together with the Administradora would position the new clinic. A convoy of 4x4s duly arrived and a fat ‘Suit’ was helped out. He came into the shop and studied everything on the shelves, demanding prices as he browsed and also my recommendation for the best wine. I told him I had a half decent Cabernet Sauvignon which was light on the palate or a Merlot which was a bit more full bodied. There was no sign of the Administradora or the Doctor responsible for the district.

The counter now loaded with my best wine, choicest cuts from the meat freezer and a case of cold beer, he introduced himself as an official from the Ministry of Commerce and told me that it would be him that would grant the licence allowing me to operate a commercial clinic.

I asked him how a clinic donated to the community via the Ministry of Health could be considered commercial.

He waved his arm around to encompass the shop. ‘Are these not commercial premises?’ His hangers on sniggered dutifully.

'This', I pointed out, ‘is a shop’

'And citizens come in here and buy things!’

Now I know I am a bit slow but I defy any of you under similar circumstances to divine the point he evidently felt he had just driven home so I just stood there looking, I suppose, like a retard.

He ordered me to fetch my Ministry Of Commerce licences which I did. The licences give the name of the company, the date of its incorporation and a list of codes for the commercial activities authorised under the licence. They are to me incomprehensible but being a bureaucrat, he knew them all off pat and read them out to me: supermarket; import export; tourism; alcohol sales; restaurant.

‘See?’ he demanded. No, I didn’t see and shook my head like a donkey that had been thrashed once too often.

‘No licence for medical services!’ He slapped the docs onto the counter hitting the wet patch left by the last sale of ice cold beer like a marksman.

Oh.

Some people feign stupidity. Right now it was coming naturally. A sort of instinctive bewilderment, the desire to lash out tempered by the thought it could all be a misunderstanding. Had this conversation taken place in the Bull and Lion half way up Market Street, Ashby de la Zouch, I would have decked my interlocutor with a bar stool, accepted with good grace my month's ban from Jake, the proprietor, and that would have been the end of it.

He then went on to inform me that licences for clinics, as they involved the provision of services to high and strictly controlled legislated standards were difficult to obtain and that I would have to prove through University certificates and my CV that I was competent to establish and run a clinic but, after a great deal more of the same, concluded that he could be of definite assistance.

So that was it. Only days after I offer a free clinic, I am getting a shake down.

'But this is a charitable donation' I pointed out.

'In that case it should be handed over to the relevant Government department'

I knew all about the 'relevant government department' from my time helping the two orphanages. They need mattresses for the kids but you have to hand the cash over so the 'Department' can decide the greatest need which invariably translates to new lounge furniture for some functionary's girlfriend. In the meantime, the kids sleep on the floor.

The Fat Suit and his entourage outnumbered my genuine customers who clung to the walls of my shop with the sort of intense concentration on the proceedings that only vested interest provokes.

I looked at them, all clearly worried that the idea of the clinic would be still born or maybe praying like mad that I could afford to cough up and they would still get their clinic.

I looked at the Fat Pig (I mean Suit) and said, ‘Thankyou’

Now it was his turn to look confused so I dived in working on that ever so useful precept that when dealing with bureaucrats, if you talk faster than they can think and appear to agree with them they are quickly lost, so I confessed my gratitude that he had informed me of all this before I wasted my money as, quite clearly, I was in no way competent to meet the exacting requirements that would be demanded of me.

‘So I won’t build the clinic’ I concluded.

There was a collective groan from the villagers and the Fatman knew they would all henceforth look at him as the reason why they did not get their clinic and his crime would be all the more heinous with every telling. Some were probably already stabbing his car tyres.

‘But, but you HAVE to build the clinic’

‘No I don’t’ I said as I totalled up his purchases, ‘It is my money and if you are telling me if I build one I might have problems, I won’t and, speaking of my money, you owe me 23,900 Kwanzas’ I handed the last shopping bag over the counter.

Not to offer to pay now would be all the evidence the villagers needed that this had been a shake down.

‘I only have a Multi Caixa card’ he said. A good move that in what was now becoming a very interesting game of chess. Technically he had made the offer to pay, an offer steeped in the confidence that a little river side trading post like mine with its crude shelves and absence of strip lights and plug sockets, salutary reminders of how effectively the shop had been cleaned out by the same thieves who nicked my generator, would not have an electronic link to the banking system. But, like all poor Generals he had underestimated my reserves and in this particular game, he had completely overlooked my queen, native of Uige and not to be fucked with, my dear Marcia who had installed Multi Caixa.

I pulled the machine from beneath the counter and swiped his card, hoping like mad it would reject so causing him the worst embarrassment of all but it went through. Clearly God thought I had better not push my luck too far.

After he left the villagers erupted. The bastard! The gatuno! He just wanted to steal from you Sr Tomas!

‘What will you do now, Sr Tomas?’ asked one of the older villagers.

‘I’ll build the clinic, what else?’

Over a hundred quid from one customer is pretty good and if the bastard does try to give me grief then I know people too… But, I ain’t stupid. Before he even walked into the shop I had seen the quality of his cars and guards so knew he was low rank shit. Nowadays I will only allow myself to be intimidated by someone in a Savile Row suit and driving a fully loaded Mercedes G Wagen and besides, the really dangerous ones don’t come to visit you, they have you fetched during the night.

So the clinic will go ahead even if I have to raise a village militia, overturn hay carts (or fishing boats) to block the road and shoot ‘Furriners’ on sight.

Next on the list is the water treatment plant. Seems pretty ineffective to spend all that money to treat diseases and not do anything to eliminate the vectors of those diseases which, apart from malaria, are principally water borne. So we need at least five tonnes of purified water per day. Since the water source is brackish, I need a reverse osmosis plant with sand pre filters and UV treatment. I’ll get that. No problems. I have already been warned that all the sources, the factories producing bottled mineral water are owned by the generals or senior party officials and that they will do all they can to stamp out the awful precedent of ‘Free Water’. Fuck em. We’ll just roll over a few more hay carts or fishing boats and encourage the women to praise the Lord and pass the ammunition. Maybe Raschman or SBW can get me a Remington Sendero and then I can start knocking the bastards off a mile away.

I’ll do my little bit to improve the health of the community but what is equally important is a way to improve the economic turnover of the village. I am in no way denigrating the hard work of fishermen but, let’s face it, anyone can catch fish. Any one who retails fish for a living knows that as a commodity, it is bloody fragile and spoils in 24 hours. Unless you have access to hygienic processing facilities, cold storage, packing and transport, you are selling it by the roadside at knock down prices determined by the relatively few numbers of punters that chance by.

Now I cannot afford to electrify the village and get everyone walk in coolers and freezers but what I can do, using primarily local materials, is build a cold smoke house. There are some very nice fish out there, even types that are ideal for Sushi but the majority are ideal for cold smoking. The only cost additional to building the smoker (a few bags of cement and a bit of hard labour), will be the vacuum packing machine from Germany so that we can properly conserve and market the resultant product at ten times its raw net value.

Being a dyed in the wool socialist, of course, I would form a Co-operative so all fishermen putting fish in would get a share of the profit coming out. Then they can buy their own small generators and fridges to keep their beer cold, watch the shopping channels all night and enjoy their filthy capitalist consumerist lifestyles.

From Italy I can get the very best artisan juicing machines which will allow me to make the Horseradish and Hot Pepper sauces vacuum packed with the German machine to accompany the smoked fish, the ingredients for which the village can grow so long as they can keep the feral pigs at bay.

Then there are the pigs. From them we can make bacon, smoked sausages, salami and Parma style ham. At the moment, the villagers raise pigs for slaughter and immediate consumption. I can afford to buy the product, cure it and wait nearly a year before I start to see a return on investment having added considerable value to the raw material.



The pre fabricated clinic is paid for and is on the way. I am working on the water treatment plant (still short of a few funds but one way or another I will get them, we are not talking millions after all, just a few thousand) so what I need now are designs for a traditional, artisan built cold smoker. While the professionals are putting up the clinic, me and the lads could be making mud pies and turning them into a smoker and a way of adding value to fish. That way the fishermen would earn more so instead of raping the sea with fine mesh nets, they can use hooks and lines and target the right size and species of fish knowing that just one would generate enough income to feed the family for a week.

In all that, there’s a plan somewhere.

video

Sunday, 26 February 2012

On being Spineless…



Last night I saw for the first time a documentary entitled ‘Bomb Hunters’.

I knew from the Association of Ammunition Technicians that this documentary was in the pipeline and was produced some time ago but these sort of programmes take time to get as far south as I am. I am sure that you have all heard that old soldiers never die, they just get very boring so since my military career is now in the dark and distant past, I felt no reason to bang on about it to Marcia or any one of my new friends. Sometimes, though, it is impossible to ignore the indiscreet enquiry of a dinner guest so I usually restrict myself to a hopefully humorous anecdote before changing the subject.

Marcia and her brother were sitting on the sofa, the second largest piece of furniture we have managed to squeeze into our temporary accommodation and next to the bed, the largest bit of furniture when the programme came on. Before I could tame my tongue, I blurted out, ‘Blimey, that guy was one of my instructors!’ I was referring to Sidney Alford, one of the leading lights of the Institute of Explosive Engineers and the man who has probably had a hand in training every single bomb disposal officer for the last forty years and has been responsible for many of the innovations that kept, most of them at least, alive.

Marcia and Edu were enthralled. I found the programme vain, shallow and self promoting, not the qualities looked for in your average ATO. Its only saving grace was that it was as factual as such a short narrow brush stroke over decades of service by bomb disposal officers of all arms from inception to the enormous demands now being made of them could be.

I was mildly irritated, for example, at the suggestion that defusing aerially delivered bombs or magnetic underwater mines during the Second World War was essentially less risky than defusing Improvised Explosive Devices ‘because the operators had technical manuals’. In the Army I was trained to deal with IED’s and, yes, the programme authors are correct, there are no handbooks, no circuit diagrams save for the essentially historical technical information rushed round the detachments each time some new, yet more cunning type of device was successfully neutralised. The initiative lies always with the verdant imagination and skill of the often highly intelligent and well informed bomb maker. But such an outrageous contention denigrates the unsurpassable courage of those with little or no training, even less technical knowledge (despite the odd out of date manual) and specialist tools that were only developed in response to the death of yet another operator, many of whom dug down to these bombs knowing that there was every chance it wasn’t a ‘dud’ but was in perfect health and fitted with a variable time delay pistol behind which was probably an anti handling device.

I am in a position to make a direct comparison because although being trained to dispose of conventional munitions (for which we had detailed technical manuals and established procedures) and IED’s which required the mental set of a specially trained chess player, in Angola, with none of the experience and knowledge that Royal Engineer bomb disposal officers enjoy, I found myself having to deal with albeit (and thankfully) much simpler iron bombs tossed off Migs and Sukhois.

Having sought his advice, the ex East German equivalent of an ATO (and, therefore, ironically my former cold war enemy) explained how to defuse these things armed only with a basic tool kit comprising primarily of set of Allen Keys, a monkey wrench and a couple of screw drivers. He went on to say that these bombs were very reliable so if they had not gone off on impact, they were likely fitted with a time delay mechanism no more sophisticated than a glass ampoule of acid shattering on impact and a copper wire the thickness of which determined, as the acid ate through it, a delay of anything from half an hour to twenty four, although, he added as he took another swig of his whisky, he had seen some go off a bit quicker.

To qualify as an Ammunition Technical Officer I had undergo days of psychometric testing (to, according to the documentary, eliminate those motivated by self aggrandisement or possessed of a death wish) before attending the Royal Military College of Science and then undergoing more practical and theoretical training at the Army School of Ammunition. Now I was being taught to defuse aircraft bombs in a bar using the only visual training aids at our disposal, beer soaked napkins and a lead pencil. Clearly, the psychiatrist that examined my results all those years ago had overlooked something.

The final piece of advice he gave me was that sod’s law meant the bomb’s orientation after it had discarded its tail on impact (the presence of which on the surface was often the only indication we had of where to start looking and then digging) invariably meant the pistol pocket was on the lowest and most inaccessible side (if anything round can have a side) and that once I had loosened the annular ring , praying all the time the bomb would not settle suddenly onto me) I should watch out for a face full of acid. Further improving my confidence, he reminded me that the time delay itself was as powerful as a grenade so I should get rid of it as quickly as possible (he said ‘Ab in die Wüste’ meaning I should sling it into the desert pretty damn quick) but if I had survived thus far it was then merely a requirement to remove the bomb to a safe location before either detonating it or burning it out.

As an aside, I was pretty rubbish at burning these things out once I had them somewhere safe as they always burnt to detonation so since I had to take all the precautions for a massive explosion, I thought I might as well just frag the bloody things. It was only when I was working in Nigeria years later that I ran into a guy who had done the same sort of stuff while, if anything, even less qualified than I was, and he told me how he used to pack champagne bottles to make shaped charges which would always initiate a successful burn. But then he came from a fashionable regiment and not a Corps so was probably more familiar with champagne bottles and their alternative uses than I was. Without going into the technical details, it won’t work with whisky bottles the only alternative uses for which I can think of is the advantage they give as a weapon in a drunken brawl.

I don’t think I am blessed with any particular form of courage. I know I am not. Lot’s of things scare the shit out of me. Heights. I cannot bear heights. You want to see my knees buckle and me wee my pants? Stick me up on a high building and ask me to look over the edge of a balcony. If it is high enough (more than three storeys) I’ll vomit as well. I feel vulnerable swimming in the sea ‘cos I’ve seen Jaws, and snakes scare the crap out of me. In fact, the older you get, the more nervous you become. Last time I was in UK and I saw the yobs dominating the pavements and park benches I was more scared than I was walking through the shanty towns of Luanda, Lagos or Johannesburg.

I didn’t particularly fancy digging down to something which left to its own devices would detonate destroying whatever remaining bits of essential infrastructure were left to a debilitated population, a population oblivious to this insidious threat who, assuming the raid was over would throng the streets and move back into the danger areas. Dealing with landmines was bad enough and they don’t go off unless you do something stupid or innocent, like step on them, or poke them too hard or fail to realise they are connected to something else. Scatterable munitions are small and rockets relatively so, so you can usually get away with blowing them up in situ or, if you really understand what you are dealing with and have balls the size of planets, you can collect them up and execute a controlled demolition. The local police used to collect the smaller stuff and bring it to me in buckets, which was as good for waking up as an ice cold shower, but the archetype big as bastard hell ticking bomb? I dealt with one which just as I got to it, a wall gave way and I and it clanged into a bloody dark as hell full of crap basement, my torch now buried in the collapsed tunnel. Adrenalin is brown and sticky but amazingly, the cellar stairway was clear and I scaled it faster than a burning rat up a drain pipe, leaking undies notwithstanding. But then someone had to go back down there again and finish the job.

I think it was probably the awful carnage of the First World War that raised if only a guarded recognition of what we now call Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. That young men, especially poorly trained and essentially unmotivated conscripted young men, would crack under awful stress is now no surprise and that they should be treated with compassion and given reasonable assistance seems, on the face of it, the least a decent society could offer.

I for one, however, believe that just as much as wrapping a child up in cotton wool produces wimps, some members of society over value their contribution and, more importantly, the rewards that should accrue to them when really all they deserve is a swift kick in the teeth and an uncompromised instruction to get on with it and for God’s sake stop whining.

‘Another great lesson […] has been the restatement, in terms that everyone who wishes can understand, of the old political axiom that every right carries a corresponding duty. […] It is well to have been reminded of it, for in the development of modern social ideas there has been an increasing tendency to look upon the state as a universal provider, from whom everything is to be expected, to whom as little as possible is to be given. Such a tendency is in direct conflict with our old national ideals and our old national character. It is subversive of discipline both in private and public life. It opens the way to political corruption and to all the social evils that have led to the decay of empires. It is destructive of that power to combine for the common good and for the maintenance of any idea above self.’

Clearly, Field Marshal Douglas Haig, 1st Earl Haig, KT, GCB, OM, GCVO, KCIE, ADC was prescient when he delivered this speech on the 14th of May 1919. It isn’t so much that his dire prediction of the decay of our society holds good today, it is more valid as an ‘I told you so’. The decay has long since set in and as inhabitants of UK plc, we are tenants of a house beset with woodworm, wet and dry rot, death watch beetle and even termites from abroad.

In the same vein, demonstrating prescience and naivety in equal measure, General Robertson stated ‘That he held strongly that the utmost should be done for the welfare of men and their families, and that they should be trusted not to abuse the privileges granted to them.’

Robertson was bang on. We needed a welfare safety net to take care of those who contributed selflessly to their country and its residents, and I suppose we can forgive him the fact that having grown up in a society that both knew how to spell Integrity and understood its import, it never occurred to him that his trust could so easily be betrayed. We are now cursed with a disparate community for which honesty, service and integrity are wholly alien and is led by the corrupt politicians predicted nearly a hundred years ago.

Society is less interested in mutual co-operation than individual gain. Rats fighting each other to get their noses into the corn sacks that are our security for hard times, or climbing over each other to abandon a sinking ship when those lean times inevitably arrive. Arguably no longer a society, a definable entity the members of which willingly accepting a form of mutually agreed governance for the common good with the implicit self sacrifice often required, but more a return to a survival of the fittest, in modern society a case of who steals the most and works less thereby getting an easier deal is somehow ‘cooler’. The gloating in the wine bar about the magic deal just pulled down.

Courage can be expressed or is evidenced in many forms. Are the medical staff who work exhausted through one shift after another to patch together the young men, now horribly wounded, who charged with insane bravery an enemy position any less courageous than the rather battered remnants of humanity they are now treating? Is the fireman who with scant regard for his own life entered a burning building to rescue a child no less deserving of the nation’s highest accolade? Why is it that only serving military personnel can be awarded a Victoria Cross and civvies have to make do with a George Cross? Why should such recognition not carry a financial reward? Perhaps a generous annuity merely for having done one’s job? After all, if London Transport employees feel they deserve recognition merely for driving fuller buses and trains during the Olympics I think we should introduce a new supertax on those who hold down any kind of remunerable employment to fund a ‘get out of bed’ incentive. Naturally, captains of business should receive rewards independent of performance.

The term ‘Hero’ means little now. If I walk down any suburban sidewalk and am attacked by a dog, I am a ‘victim’ and will immediately engage a lawyer in the invariably successful pursuit of compensation. A postman if barked at through a letter box will be a ‘hero’ and also engage a lawyer to sue his employers. Firemen will demand compensation because ‘it was jolly hot inside that burning building and we saw dead bodies’ and will be described as heroes. Policeman will complain that some unruly brute resisted arrest and called them something nasty. Dustbin men will quite rightly refuse to handle the dirty, filthy contaminated waste from equally filthy capitalist swine in their three bed semis unless it has been safely packaged in a manner commensurate with the intellectual capacity they would have acquired at school if they hadn’t played truant so often. An office worker will slip on a damp washroom floor or trip on a blindingly obvious cable and claim like everyone else, they are suffering from stress, a heroically endured condition unique to public servants and one wholly inapplicable to the majority of society who wilfully endure lives of quiet desperation (those in or genuinely seeking gainful employment). The rest are either on the take or trashing society or both. The really genuine hardship cases, of course, slip to the bottom of an administrative bureaucratic nightmare.

Real heroes are very thin on the ground. Nowadays just doing your job with all its inherent risks is classed as heroic and if, God forbid, you are hurt or traumatised in its execution, you are somehow entitled to lifelong support.

Haig summed it up far more eloquently than I ever could, suffice to say the attitude now endemic in our society is little more than that of a street side beggar confident that the state has castrated the courts, immigration control and mandated that every passing taxpayer must give a percentage of his hard earned cash. The rot has permeated not just general society but also the establishment, our politicians and even the military.

I cannot and would not even presume to give you the definition of a hero or try describe the unique qualities that set him apart from other ordinary men since I have never met one but I am willing to have a bash at describing a good citizen, or a good soldier, by paraphrasing Generals Haig and Robertson:

Every right carries a corresponding duty. Everything should be done to ensure the welfare of a man and his family and they should be trusted not to abuse the privilege.

It's Duty. You know? There is no reward. For the sake of the common good, you just do it.

Now for an anecdote. I still haven’t had the courage to tell Marcia that I shall deplete our already straightened reserves by building a clinic for the community hence the title of this post: Spineless. I really am the biggest coward on earth. Back in time to 1987…

I received a phone call from the tasking authority, the Joint Service Explosive Ordnance Disposal Reporting Centre in the middle of the night telling me to go to Felixstowe, a port on the East Anglian coast to deal with some sort of mine. Now a mine is considered a ‘Conventional Munition’ rather than an ‘Improvised Explosive Device’ and as such, had probably been there since the Second World War which was the last time live munitions were distributed gaily and with considerable abandon around the countryside in anticipation of a Nazi invasion. So there was no rush. If It had been there nearly fifty years, so long as no one poked it with a big stick or played football with it, it wasn’t going to go off and I could return to a decent night’s sleep, and deal with it after breakfast.

The lads, and ladies, that manned the JSEODRC, especially at night, were at the most just corporal signallers responding to requests for EOD assistance from police forces all around the country. They were nowhere near as well trained as us bomb disposal experts and you can imagine how they felt at waking up a Captain in the middle of the night but if my name was on the duty list, it was their duty to ring me. No matter how crap it was.

JSEODRC was a good system. It stopped every Tom, Dick and Harry from contacting a very thin and often overstretched resource directly (in what we called the ‘silly season’ we received a hundred taskings a month) and it also allowed JSEODRC to task the most appropriate team.

I explained to the kid on the end of the line that this was a CMD task and not a blue light job (I was still thinking of the rest of the night in bed followed by a decent breakfast) when he asked me to ring Felixstowe nick directly. This was unusual.

‘Tide’s going out see and we just found it there. Big bugger ‘nall. We were lucky cos Charlie wuz on shift and he lives down sea front so guz ‘ome that way and he saw it.’

‘Saw what?’ I said.

‘I dunno. Charlie sez it’s a beach mine. He seen em before when they were clearing the beaches at end of war. Sez they mek a hell of a bang’

‘Alright, cordon that area off with a few Constables and I will be there at first light to deal with it’

‘No, that’s no good, it’s the spring tide see?’

No, I didn’t bloody see (or sea) but it was my duty to find out.

Much of the level of the land on which Felixstowe had been built was, like most of Holland and all my land here in Angola either just at or slightly below sea level. Unlike me now, Felixstowe town council had the funds to invest in some pretty spectacular sea defences which were now threatened by a bloody great beach mine which, on the only authority they had, our Constable Charlie, they where convinced would make one hell of a bang. The duty Sergeant then went on to say that they had woken up the Mayor and the Chief Constable and that the Chief Constable had ordered all off shift policemen to report back for duty and that the Mayor had woken up the council to initiate the emergency flood plans.

I thought it only sporting that the Army should attend as well so tasked my team.

On arrival, the problem was immediately obvious. It was a type C beach mine containing 25 lbs of Amatol that were hurriedly laid when the threat of invasion was imminent and between 1943 and 1947 a 151 men died trying to remove them. This one was sitting right on the bottom step of the sea defences. I could just blow it in situ as I really felt that an untamped detonation would see the blast directed out to sea but had to confess I wasn’t entirely sure I could guarantee the structural integrity of the sea defences thereafter, defences about to be tested by some severe tides and all the time the tide was now coming in and I had a Mayor and a Chief Constable and their considerable entourages breathing all over me. Talk about deciding under pressure. Speaking of pressure, I knew from the books that a type C anti tank mine required 50 lbs of pressure to set it off but that with corrosion of the mechanism this could be reduced to 4 lbs ‘or less’.

Standard Operating Procedures dictated that I waited until daylight, had the area cordoned off and then blew it in situ. Under these circumstances, the police where always very hospitable and would offer me and my number two a berth in their cells and I could claim NRSA, the Nightly Rate of Subsistence Allowance of nearly forty quid. A nice night’s work in other words but even I could see that ignoring the mine until a particularly vicious tide had had all night to rattle this thing against the sea defences was hardly professional and that just blowing it in situ sort of defeated the object of calling me out in the first place, especially when just behind the sea wall was a beautifully constructed, glass fronted edifice all the panes of which were guaranteed to be history a nano second after the bang and possibly under water, along with much of the rest of the town, a few minutes later.

The sea defences where a series of concrete steps and I knew that I could walk along them about half a mile to the end carrying the mine and then I would reach a shingle bar where I could leave the mine and deal with it in the morning. It was three in the morning so there was no one on the sea front so if the worst happened, most of the blast would be directed upwards and since I would be holding the mine, there would be no intimate contact between it and the sea defences so most of the blast would be dissipated.

I explained to the police what I intended to do and that I wanted a rolling road block to run along the sea front above me as I walked.

My Number Two, Andy Grey, dived into the back of the bomb wagon and emerged carrying the spare 5 shot semi automatic 12 bore Browning shotgun we had as part of the team kit and started to load it.

‘What do you want that for?’ asked a copper.

‘If he Fuck’s up,’ said Andy pointing at me, ‘I’ll keep the Seagulls away’

Saturday, 25 February 2012

Friday, 24 February 2012

Marcia will go ballistic.


You may recall I mentioned the mass vaccination programme? Perhaps you don’t, I do tend to rabbit on a bit so it will come as no surprise to you to learn that the nickname I quickly acquired at the Royal Military Academy was ‘Gobber Gowans’.

Just to remind those of you with attention spans that would not stress an amoeba, since my arrival in the wonderful community that is the Barra de Kwanza I did notice the lack of on site medical support and commented thus. This singular failing was first brought dramatically to my attention when, only days after our arrival, both Alex and I went down with Malaria the only effective treatment for which I discovered much to my dismay, muscles rigid with fever, was a trip in a truck 60 kms north of where we were both dying.

This, I like to think, ‘near death’ experience (yes, we both survived in the end but only after much suffering), encouraged me to look at the medical support available to this small, but thriving community. Purely for selfish reasons, you understand. Since the results of this analysis were solely for my own personal benefit, I was willing to offer my consultancy services Pro Bono. Had I been tasked by the UK government, of course, I would have had to fly in a large team from UK to have ‘power sessions’, ‘work groups’, create at least three think tanks and conduct an environmental impact study. Instead, I walked around the village, smoked half a pack of fags and downed a couple of beers before deciding after thirty minutes that there were fuck all medical services available. Since the exercise probably did me good it would be churlish to charge for that so the cost of this survey came to 50 Kwanzas for the ciggies and 200 Kwanzas for the beers so let’s call it US$ 2.25. It would cost me more in postage to claim that back from the World Health Organisation. A WHO funded survey would have cost hundreds of thousands of dollars only to eventually reach the same conclusion, this place has no clinic but it really needs one. Most of the expenditure, by the way, would have been on the committee tasked with deciding whether calling it a 'clinic' was politically correct or not and after additional funding would have plumped for 'Community Health Centre' oblivious to the fact that the acronym CHC sounds more like a recreational drug or powerful toilet cleaner (and is in fact the airport code for Christchurch in New Zealand). I like to call a spade a spade (an allusion to simple tools, not my coloured neighbours for to do so would see me having a spade buried into my head by a justifiably incensed spade) so see nothing odd about calling a clinic a clinic.

There is cash in the village, the fact that my shop is so busy bears that out but not every family has cash all the time. That is why, and this is a new word I have learned, we offer Kilapa. Kilapa is what any regular in an English pub or the now long dead ’Open all Hours’ corner shop will recognise as ‘putting it on the slate’. Interest free credit, in other words. This being a fishing community, we have gone one step further and accept payment in kind. Either in the form of freshly caught fish or good old honest hard labour.

If I haven’t any jobs that need doing, I can always invent one. I wasn’t an officer in the British Army for nothing as many a sweating soldier who carried sand bags from one end of a rifle range to the other can testify. I realise that officers are about as much use as lighthouses in the desert but even a lighthouse so inexpertly positioned can provide some hope of succour to the man crawling dehydrated through unforgiving sand. While the dissolution under duress of the last dregs of human energy is still considered useful with regard to military discipline, I find the same moral courage irreplaceable when it comes to the construction, for example, of the raised vegetable and herb beds that will allow nature to bless us all with her occasionally verdant issue and a pastime which, for the participants is a damn sight more agreeable than excavating and fashioning the revetments that in times past protected us from yet another artillery barrage.

What occurred to me, though, was that kids never get sick when their parents are flush. They will always keel over with a raging fever when parents are strapped. Also, this is a fishing village so at two O'clock in the morning when the fever hits 104 and the kid's eyes are rolling into the back of its head, where do you get transport from?

I have learnt to my cost that there is no use fighting nature so I have resigned myself to the fact that if God wants the sea to have a big chunk of my land he will have it whether I like it or not, regardless of how much I spend trying to disagree. After all, if you believe the press reports, He made the universe so a few lorry loads of expensive in fill hardly amount to an impediment to His Almightiness. This means my project will come in under budget. Not through superior fiscal management but because I have less dry land upon which to build.

I haven’t yet decided on a name for the new river crossing my land or the one acre lake the views across which I have now decided I enjoy, especially as it is now teeming with water fowl and its banks afford genuinely pleasant places to sit and contemplate what might have been but it really bothered me that kids were dying for lack of medical attention. No disrespect to the Angolan Government. Since the war they have made great strides and in twenty years this place will be brilliant but given that most kids die before their fifth birthday, time was clearly a luxury not available to my new neighbours or, more pertinently, to their offspring.

I know I am a sad old alcoholic. Some people have kindly described me as a rough diamond which is sort of romantic but if I am, I am flawed to the core and under the stress of the cutter’s wheel would probably shatter well before acquiring any sort of polish. Korsakoff’s Syndrome, brought on in part by the steel toe capped head kicking I endured at the feet of an Aggreko employee, will ensure that my comprehension of reality is sporadic, that I can never drive a car or motorcycle again and that I am apt to make some bizarre decisions but even pin balls eventually find their way to the slot. Only the disciplined routine I learnt in the Army will help me remember where I took my boots off the night before. It is the dogs, who sleep under my bed carrying my boots off to chew, and a maid who insists on placing my underwear in a different drawer every day that confound me (I am barefoot right now as I have not yet worked out what this teasing bitch from hell has done with my socks). But I cannot bear to see a child suffer. I may be a bit simple now, but that much I know.

For that reason, I organised the mass vaccination programme. I thought that Marcia’s uncle would pitch up but clearly he understood the system better than I did and engaged the local doctor responsible for the area who attended instead. I was annoyed and finally at best reticent but this local Doctor was accompanied by a bunch claiming to be from the Ministry of Health and, I have to confess, he was pretty adept at stabbing kid’s arms with needles which, after all, was the objective. He was also a really nice bloke.

It dawned on me, thankfully not too late, that I had a delegation here.

There are, apparently, many thousands of villages all over the country that need medical services and it will take time for every one of them to enjoy a clinic. Even I could see that. But during that time, countless kiddies would die. Even they could see that.

‘So how about I build the clinic?’ I said.

Marcia will go nuts. She is busy cooking dinner right now and I haven’t told her but I think this will be one of my better investments.

The best part, I mean the really best part of all, is if she beats the crap out of me tonight, I’ll have forgotten the reason why by tomorrow and will still stumble around looking for my boots the same as ever but the kids, the kids, they will still get their clinic. Now that is definitely worth a thick lip but before anyone gets emotional, like I said, it’s purely selfish. Next time me or Alex get malaria, we will only have to totter 300 metres instead of being driven 60 kms over African roads. Any sane person would agree that a well staffed and equipped community clinic is a small price to pay by comparison. I only hope that Marcia is, by my casual definition, sane.

Friday, 17 February 2012

Survival Rations

I like to think that I have retired. This, of course, is nonsense. Yes, I have dropped out of the mainstream and can quite legally call myself a beach bum but even bums have to work if they are not to be found dead in a ditch clutching a half empty bottle of methylated spirits.

The crew are busy working the site but at the rate they are going, it will be a couple of months before the restaurant opens and I can explore the boundaries of my culinary expertise. In the meantime, I must help out where I can.

Marcia’s brother was with us for the last ten days. He provided the much needed muscle power to load the truck up with all our chattels and deliver them here. As a real Black and Decker man (a tool for every job) he fixed up temporary wiring, plumbed in the gas, fitted doors and door locks, unblocked silted up drains and generally made himself very useful. When Marcia had to go into town to buy stock, he tended to the shop, serving customers and with a memory as good as the very best Vingt e Un players, had all the prices locked into his memory in no time at all.

The day before yesterday, however, was his last day as he had to get back to work running the security teams that do all the cash in transit runs between the banks here. An unenviable task and hardly surprising that his working attire includes ballistic vests, AK47’s and pump action shotguns. While he was toting guns, however, I was the only one left to take over the running of the shop.

If you had asked me twenty or thirty years ago where I saw myself ending up, being a shopkeeper would have been way down the list assuming it even made it into my consciousness. I could think of nothing more boring, more grindingly tedious, than flogging tinned and dry goods and the odd penny lollipop. But, in the spirit of us all wiring into the new family enterprise, my turn arrived yesterday morning. It had never occurred to Marcia that I would stand my shift in the shop so she had locked it up and banked the cash before shooting off into town with the truck to buy more stock. Left on my own, I lamented the sight of all the potential customers with my money in their pockets milling about in front of a closed shop. So I opened it.

For customers, I have decided, shopping is a blood sport, the shopkeeper being the quarry. They have their list of requirements already memorised so can shoot it out at the speed of a runaway Gatling gun. I, hearing it for the first time usually was lost by, or soon after the second or third item. Couple this with the fact there is no queuing culture here; I am trying to total up one customers purchases and confusing them with those of a second, third and fourth customer. Marcia’s pricing consists of marking one item of each product. This meant that for each item presented, I had to find it on the shelves and confirm the price. By then, of course, the six items I was pricing had turned into twenty and I had no idea who wanted what and what belonged to whom and everyone was pissed off with me and tugging at my shirt demanding immediate attention. I was wank at shopkeeping and I was even more inept at basic mathematics. How does 17 chicken legs at 150 kwanzas a piece add up to 1,550 kwanzas? I had just lost Marcia 1,000 kwanzas because I forgot to carry the one in my multiplication.

‘EVERYONE! SHUT UP!’ I bawled. There was a stunned silence.

‘Right. You lot stand in a line there and don’t touch anything. Look, but don’t touch. I see you touch, you go to the back of the queue’

Order. That’s what I needed.

After that, it went swimmingly. If Marcia hadn’t marked a price, I rang her and this became a bit of a joke with the clients. Shopping at Tommy’s was turning out to be a bit of a humorous adventure. Since I had no float to begin with, I had no change so encouraged the first customers to buy enough to drill the whole thousand or two thousand kwanza note they were presenting. I had customers who came in only to buy a cold beer at 100 kwanzas and left with hair conditioning products as well. Since they all have the very closest crew cuts here, that was rather like selling ice to Eskimos. A guy came in for a torch. I sold him two torches, one for back up, and four sets of batteries, two sets for back up because, as I explained, it is no use having a back up unless it is guaranteed to work so you should back up the back up. Coincidentally, this came to 1,000 kwanzas, the value of the note in his hand and now in the cardboard box that was my till.

Then I ran out of beer. I had noticed that a lot of local workers were coming in, grabbing a sausage and a beer or two before going back to work. There was no where for them to sit so they stood uncomfortably outside the shop swigging and munching before moving on. All my decent furniture is stored in a tin shack on site so I grabbed a couple of these lads, opened the shack and together we extracted my dining room chairs and set them up in the unfinished Jango along with an old oak kitchen table. Beer and sausage sales tripled until the beer ran out. Apart from hard liquor and wine, the only alcoholic drinks I had left were a few Savannahs, a South African cider, and loads of Spin, a vodka based fizzy drink. Angolans think that Savannah is a beer, a bit sweet but still a beer so when I told them I had run out of beer, they all went for Savannah. I only had enough for one more round so I really needed to get them onto Spin.

‘You know Savannah is made from Apples?’ I said to the crowd.

‘Apples? Really?’

‘Yes, apples.’ I said, ‘They drink it a lot in England. Well, at least the girls do’

‘Girls?’

‘Yes, Girls. Savannah is a girlie drink in UK, men don’t drink it, Men drink Vodka. Would you like to try a Vodka cocktail?’

So I sold all the Spin as well.

By now I was absolutely knackered but enjoying the best time I had in ages. I bloody love selling. The shelves were emptying and my card board box was over flowing. Every few minutes I was meeting someone new and interesting. A lot of them were fishermen. The early morning rush is all fishermen. They buy bread and tinned tuna, beer and fruit juice to sustain them on the water. Around 4 pm I get the night fisherman who, about to set out, stock up with the same with the addition of maybe a bottle of scotch to keep their spirits up. They all ask me for my bencão (blessing) for a fruitful trip so I give them matches and cigarettes and tell them I will buy all the fish they catch.

This largesse irritates Marcia but, as I pointed out, successful or not, they come back to our shop. The lucky ones trade their fish and get a shopping credit in their favour. The unlucky ones can open a slate with me so their kids are fed. It all evens out in the end. Marcia says we are earning nothing on the bread, I point out that having bread means the clients buy tuna and tomatoes to make sandwiches. I am doing what the banks should be doing in UK, I am supporting small local enterprise. Together, we will all flourish.

It is the kids that get me, though. For some of them, it is the first time they have ever seen a shop. So they come in clutching a raggedy 5 kwanza note. Three of them and ask if they can buy a lollipop. If I sold them just one lollipop they would share it, each taking a suck before passing it on. I can’t afford to gain the reputation of being a soft touch. As Marcia so often points out, it is a business not a bloody charity and I agree with her but there is a bit of flexibility in everything, isn’t there? So I growl at the kids. I screw my eyes up and try to make my eyebrows beetle and instead of running away in terror, the kids start to giggle. So I growl some more and tell them I am going to EAT THEM and they fall about in hysterics. So I tell them, here is a broom, sweep the shop. The rest of you, pick up all the litter and put it in that oil drum over there. In the meantime, I lift a couple of tins of tuna from Marcia’s shelves and spread it over a few loaves, boil a pan of water, throw a few teabags, sugar and milk in and then we all sit down to munch a sandwich and drink tea. I get a clean yard and they get breakfast in return. As well as a fistful of lollipops. And they pay me five whole kwanzas (50 US cents), I reckon I am on a good deal here.

I was chatting to one customer last night. His father is a vet. I used to own and cherish pedigree dogs, Alsations, but every time they reached maturity, they were nicked so I gave up. Now I have two Bairro dogs. They need their injections, especially for rabies so I asked this guy if he could persuade his father to come down here from the city and do the business, give the dogs the works. Easy deal. That got me thinking. There are loads of kids here who probably aren’t even properly registered let alone up to date on their vaccines. So I rang Marcia’s uncle who is a doctor and asked him a simple question. ‘How much would it cost to vaccinate a whole village?’

Have you ever noticed that the more professional a person, the more awkward they are?

‘How many people are you talking about?’

‘A village’. Christ, this guy has qualifications running out of his ears and he still couldn’t grasp how big a village was.

‘Look’ I said, ‘you just come down here with a bagful of the necessary and if they can’t pay, I’ll just add it to their shop bill. I know you like fish so you can take payment in kind and Marcia has some pretty decent Chilean Cabernet Sauvignon…’

Next week, we have the mass vaccination programme, dogs, kids, anyone else who needs a jab. It will mean turning my bedroom into a surgery but since that will merely require me to make the bed and hide the whisky, it is hardly onerous.

I shut up shop at 2 am. At six this morning, the fishermen came for their tuna and bread breakfast. The hour depends on the tide so in a few months time, I will be serving breakfast at 4 am.

‘Lobsters,’ I said, ‘and crabs.’

‘Loads,’ they replied. ‘just off the pedras’ The pedras are the rocky cliffs just south of here.

They had given up catching them because there was no guaranteed market. They would catch a load but then watch them rot as with the absence of freezers, they had to be sold the same day. With no regular supply, you cannot entice regular customers.

‘OK, lads,’ I said, ‘I have the freezers, I have the contacts in the city, let’s do a deal’

From Army Officer through mine clearance and God knows what else to shopkeeper and now Lobsterman. I will be 53 in May. Let’s see how many other careers I can get a crack at before I start pushing up daisies. In the meantime, the kids will dig me out of bed at six and like a bear with a sore head I will growl at them over a mug of tea. If I don’t find the clients in the city, they could be enjoying lobster and crab for breakfast.

Just as an aside, you know what it is like when you get the munchies at night? Imagine if you had the keys to a well stocked supermarket in your pyjama pocket...

Thursday, 16 February 2012

Bureaucracy II (UK style)

"Dear Mr Gowans, I am instructed to inform you that the fact you left UK in 1987, have no assets in UK and have never returned does not constitute Prima Facie evidence that you are no longer in the country... "

As most regular readers will know, I left England a long time ago. 1987 to be exact.

For a lot of the intervening time I was a tadge too busy to keep up to date with the parochial issues dominating UK news channels so only ever so occasionally caught brief snapshots. Over the years these have amalgamated into an impression of corruption, inefficiency, greed, indolence and violence; the right to behave thus enshrined in something called Human Rights. I know that only bad news makes the news but you have to admit that a week cannot pass without some kid being stabbed in the park or outside school, or some family burning to death in their torched house or some figure in the public eye being arraigned for corruption. Equally, the courts are burdened with pensioners who took a poker to an assailant and are now being sued to destruction for compensation or foreigners malignant with hatred seeking the court’s grace to remain in the country.

To the casual outside observer, UK PLC presents a pretty bleak picture except, perhaps, to those enjoying the largesse of the welfare state. I, for example, never realised that after my heart attack two years ago, I was entitled to a UK disability benefit. What? I haven’t paid taxes in UK for over twenty years so how come I am entitled to any benefit whatsoever? I don’t even live in the bloody country. It must be paradise for those that do and know how to work the system. In the meantime, Inland Revenue fine me each year for not filing a tax return. And then fine me again for not paying the fine.

There are three regional tax offices dealing with my case. I have tried to explain to them that I have gone, emigrated, slipped my moorings, been transported never to return but gave up completely when I had to explain that when I said I had done twenty years in Angola I was talking about the country in Africa and not the Louisiana State Penitentiary of the same name. Since I have no inclination whatsoever to visit UK and am confident that should I wish to do so, UK borders are now so porous I could slip easily in and out without ever being noticed, none of this bothers me in the slightest. After all, we are only dealing with civil servants, the unemployable miraculously employed at the rather more obscure end of the intellectual spectrum. All you have to do is talk faster than they can think. And if any further evidence were needed, how about the closing comments of a half hour international call I made to the Liverpool tax office (I have never been there or worked there yet somehow they have a file on me as well as London and Leicester) at the conclusion of which the guy at the other end agreed that I had stated my case most convincingly and all I had to do was pop into his office in the morning and sign a few papers.

‘I am in Angola’ I said.

‘I realise it may be a bit inconvenient, SIR, but I have your file open and we can close it in the morning. After all, Leicestershire isn’t THAT far away’

‘Leicestershire? I haven’t lived in Leicestershire since 1979!’

‘Well, it is up to you, SIR, but I think we need a ‘face to face’ to sort this one out’.

Face to Face? Is this the new bureaux speak? From then on I was taking the piss.

‘I can get a British Airways flight on Friday, it gets into London on Saturday’

‘Oh no, no, no. That won’t do at all. We are closed at weekends’

‘Do you think I am in a bit of trouble?’

‘Well, you haven’t filed a return, well, ever and with the accumulated fines I really think, Mr Gowans, you need to come into the office and let us help you to help yourself’

Momentarily speechless, I left a long enough pause for him to feel the need to continue:

‘Really, Mr Gowans, it is no use you burying your head in the sand. Like an ostrich’ he added ‘Best you come and see me in the morning.’ Naturally I was enthused with the idea of coming to see him. I wanted to tie him to his chair, pour petrol over him and set fire to him in the hope that as he frantically made his way to the water dispenser he would ignite one or two other workstations so overwhelming the sprinkler system and reducing the whole edifice to smoking ruins.

Where? From which distant part of the universe do they get these guys?

If I do get picked up sneaking into UK, (and let’s face it, the risk is worth taking for a few scoops of real ale), I’ll claim refugee status. In the meantime, until Inland Revenue employ someone who has passed his eleven plus or, judging by the conversation I endured, anyone even old enough to sit the exam in the first place, I shall ignore them.

Wednesday, 15 February 2012

Never 'Assume'


Every morning, my Grandmother would eat stewed prunes for breakfast. As a child, especially a child in Germany where social taboos are strictly enforced in smart society, I learnt that I could stop adult chatter dead with a simple, innocent question. And so it was when, with guests present and me on my best behaviour, I asked my Granny why she ate prunes for breakfast and not the delicious Brötchen smeared with local butter and home made cherry jam that we all enjoyed. Frau Waldmann suddenly found something incredibly interesting beyond the window to distract her attention while my grandfather choked on whatever it was he had intended to swallow rather than inhale. Clearly no one seated around the breakfast table had the inclination to explain to a curious little boy the efficacy of prunes on regular bowel movements. My grandmother, with Teutonic reserve, said, ‘Because I like them Andy. Would you like another cup of tea or will you take coffee?’

I am the same age now as my grandmother was then. Thankfully, I do not need to resort to prunes or anything else for that matter. I eat what the hell I like and still you could set your watch by me. It’s a good start to the day. Mug of steaming tea, my fags and a good book and ten or so quiet yet productive minutes sat in splendid isolation.

We are not plumbed in yet so water has to be carried up from the river. Water to cook, wash, flush or rinse, it is all carried in 20 litre yellow plastic containers that once held vegetable oil. No one buys proper water or fuel containers, we all just recycle the ubiquitous cooking oil container.

As it started to get dark this evening I thought I had better prep the gennie so that is was ready to go. I hunted around for the fuel containers and found one stashed in the lean to quite close to the gennie. I sloshed the fuel into the tank and checked the oil. I then went into the shop and told Marcia everything was good to go but that she would need to buy more fuel tomorrow as I had just put the last twenty litres into the tank.

‘That’s impossible!’ Marcia exclaimed, ‘we had 80 litres delivered last night!’

‘Well in that case,’ I said, ‘someone has nicked sixty litres because all I found was one full container.’

She didn’t believe me so I took her outside and showed her where I had found the container and pointed out that there were only two containers there, one already empty and now the other as well.

‘That’s diesel’

‘What?’

‘You have just filled the petrol generator with diesel. Didn’t you smell it?’

Well, to tell you the truth, I didn’t. I wasn’t even suspicious when, as I was pouring the ‘petrol’ into the tank it foamed up and overflowed, a distinct characteristic of diesel. I spun the lid off the tank and took a good whiff. Bollocks. Since we only had a petrol generator, I just assumed that all fuel on site was petrol. Half an hour later I had drained the tank and flushed the carburettor and went hunting for the missing 80 litres of petrol. Eventually, I gave up and dragged back to the shop to tell Marcia there was no other fuel on site. Clearly irritated, she charged out of the shop with me trailing behind. Kicking the door of the bog open she pointed to four yellow containers and asked me what they were.

‘Water?’ I ventured.

‘Petrol’ she said.

‘So let me get this straight, Marcia, every morning I have been coming in here to have a shit, light up and smoke a cigarette while sitting next to 80 litres of petrol in a 2 metre by 2 metre enclosed space?’

You see, I had just assumed it was water.

Monday, 13 February 2012

Cecil B DeMille I am not...

Alex can't believe how much fun this all is

We are starting to identify a few ‘regulars’; people who seem happy to patronise our humble premises more than just once. One of them is a Cuban engineer who is busy building some houses across the other side of the village. He misses his family who are back in Cuba and has taken quite a shine to Alex who in turn, adores him.

He pitched up today and started flashing a video camera. This thing was no larger than a couple of packets of fags so I was intrigued. He took a couple of photos with it and we downloaded them onto my laptop. Not bad.

I was really disappointed when my camera was pinched a few months ago and more so once I moved down here as I really would like to record the before, during and after pictures of the build here. So I said to him, ‘Give us a cabby!’ and nicked his camera so that I could video the site as it is now.

I have never made a video in my life and had absolutely no idea what to do once I had transferred the files, for although I thought I had shot one movie, this apparently translated to millions of files on my computer, none of which would play in Windows media player. So I tried to import them into Windows movie maker only to be told there were codecs missing. WTF are they? I was annoyed but not surprised, I have long since ceased to be taken in by Microsoft marketing hype claiming that everything is seamless on their platform. We all know it is crap and is the fundamental reason that even though you pay to have a system professionally installed, your ageing Mother is still unable to send a simple frigging email which is why you do not know if she is alive or dead.

Now, I do not know what you are like but this sort of thing effing irritates me. Common sense says I should leave this until the morning, take it easy and work through it logically. Bugger that. I WILL post a video, my first one, even though it may be unscripted crap and camera shake has all my viewers spewing with sea sickness. So I went onto the interweb and downloaded a promising looking programme that said even a moron can make and upload a video. ‘That’s the one for me’ I thought. 140 odd mega bytes and a couple of hours later I had it installed.

Just two things. First, it turned 30 Mbs of video files into Giga Bytes. Secondly it said that unless I paid them a squillion dollars it would stamp a watermark in the middle of the video, which it duly proceeded to do. Still I refused to give up. I can live with the watermark, as I hope you can for the time being, but I needed to get the file size down if I were to have any chance of uploading it via the bean can and string internet system I have here. So I downloaded another programme and got the file down to just under 20 Mbs.

So, Ladies and gentlemen, my first ever video, wholly unscripted as it was a very spur of the moment thing, lousy camera handling, awful aperture control, you name it I did it wrong. This is a crap film shot this afternoon at the Barra de Kwanza. Please excuse the watermark in the middle of the screen, please excuse everything but at least it gives you an idea of where this madman has washed up.


video

Maybe Chris over at Grow Fish Eat could give me some advice...

Sunday, 12 February 2012

Hang on lads, I've got a great idea...


Just a quick note at the end of the first week at the Barra de Kwanza and what an eventful week!

I shan’t dwell anymore on the well reported disasters, principle of which was an overly enthusiastic lunar and wind driven series of high tides that wrecked the site, these things happen. I would rather dwell on the, oh so minor but deeply satisfying successes.

First and most important was getting the restaurant kitchen kitted out as a berth for us to bunk in and the ladies restroom fitted out as a galley to cook in. Check.

Then there was internet access. Ambitious I know but having rigged up a remote antenna I actually have a stronger and faster connection than I did in town. Figure that one out.

Despite more than a year of indolence providing me ample opportunity to plan this project and its execution down to the last detail, to design and pay for the pre fabrication and subsequent erection of the cottages, the finishing and fitting out of the restaurant and countless other essential activities, it is only once on the ground that the ‘Plan’ could be given a reality check. Clearly, certain modifications were necessary. I was still trying to get my head around the various options (I was dithering, in other words) when the sea kindly invaded and left me with far fewer courses of action to consider.

Having faced Nature’s test, I know that the restaurant and kitchen are safe. Despite the Atlantic Ocean’s best efforts, it could only drain, frustrated no doubt, around these essential components of Flordita’s infrastructure so I am confident enough to carry on with the restaurant and it will open soon. The rest of the land, however, has only just started to dry out, it will in due course but in the meantime I have to accept that I must build the land up before I can even think of erecting cottages. Anyone with an even basic grasp of mathematics would be able to calculate that raising two hectares up by 30 cms (doesn’t sound a lot) will require six thousand cubic metres of soil, about 300 truck loads which, at $600 per load would cost me $180,000. Time to be morose again? Not at all.

By the most amazing coincidence, my neighbour on the other side is excavating a dock for his new yacht and has been transporting the spoil miles out of the village to dump it. He is more than happy to save about a million litres of diesel for his trucks by running it two hundred yards to my property and dumping it there instead. For free. He has even said that once I have enough, he will send his bulldozer and grader down to do a proper job. Another tick in the box.

I had become used to no television. There is too much to do and besides, now that the sun is shining and sitting in what is paradise compared to the city, who wants to stay indoors anyway? But I have to think of poor old Alex who,, in the evening, would really misses his Tom and Jerry and In The Night Garden so I had to get the dish installed. Bereft of a compass or an azimuth gauge this really was harder than shooting at the moon, at least you can see the Earth’s original satellite. Took me bloody ages but using geometry perfected by Pharaohs and a ‘pass the message on’ system of communication while I made infinitesimally small corrections, we now have satellite TV.

At the same time the generator was stolen, Marcia’s shop, empty of stock, had been broken into and all the racking, light fittings even plug sockets had been lifted as well. They took the shop door as well leaving just a gaping hole where it had once been. As I say, these things happen so we knuckled down and fixed up the shop as this will provide our essential initial income. Using the scrap wood from the old cottages we were demolishing, we knocked up shelves. There was one almost complete cottage that I wanted to keep as it would not take much to make it habitable, allowing us to get out of the kitchen and let the builders get in and finish the restaurant. The old cottage walls had been made using a local material called bordão, which is basically the central stalk of very large palm leaves. It makes an excellent building material but the new cottages would be constructed solely of hardwood so I asked the builders to remove the bordão walls in preparation for wood cladding. Marcia wanted this cottage to be demolished as well as it had a thatched roof, which I liked, but the new cottages will have Portuguese tile so she wanted all cottages to match. For goodness sake, when she met me she must have realised what I was like, none of my furniture matched and some of it I had dragged around the world with me on my various travels. I was appalled some years back when I came home after a long business trip to discover she had bought a 3 piece suite and tossed my old Persian rugs in favour of shag pile carpets. Whereas I had been content with an upturned cardboard box next to my old arm chair on which to rest my fags and whisky, now I had a low, designer coffee table in the middle of the lounge I could not reach. I shan’t tell you how much she paid for the ‘set’ but it ran to thousands. The only furniture I ever bought was at jumble sales or expatriate house clearances.

Nature, who I have cautiously decided might actually be on my side, decided for me when she threw the waves at me. Its structure weakened by the removal of the walls yet still supporting the weight of a few tonnes of thatch, the hut gave up the ghost and with a groan of tortured timber, collapsed into the maelstrom. Marcia was delighted and we concentrated on the shop since this was now about all we had left.

From the day it opened, the shop has done a roaring trade. Rather than bank the profits, I told Marcia to use them to increase stock levels. Not far from here is the bridge over the River Kwanza which is controlled and guarded by a sizeable unit of police. The Detachment Commander, hearing that there was a shop so near visited and emptied the freezers and most of the shelves in one go. He left Marcia with a list of ‘must be in stock’ items so it looks like we are now suppliers by appointment to the Angolan Police Force. We are supplying wholesale but charging retail. I should send Marcia on Dragon’s Den or whatever the programme is called.

You need to understand that this is nothing more than a little trading post on the banks of a river in the middle of nowhere. Cut out the violence and it could be something out of Heart of Darkness, white trash eking out a living selling candles, paraffin, booze and tinned goods to the natives. I was surprised, therefore, when Marcia returned from yet another resupply run the day before yesterday, tossed a box at me and asked me to get the contents working. I was surprised because it was a TPA, a Terminal Pagamento Automatico. It is one of those machines all shops in civilised countries have allowing clients to pay using cards, in this case, Angolan bank cards and Visa. It works over the mobile phone network, as I learnt reading the instructions. So I charged it up (the power in Angola fails more often than not so it has its own back up batteries) and eventually managed to link up to the bank. The news that we had Multi Caixa, as it is called here, spread like wildfire and all yesterday we were taking multi caixa payments.

Now this is brilliant. It means that the amount of cash we end up with on site is kept down and we have a whole new ramp of potential customers. Still, we were taking too much cash so when one of Marcia’s customers asked her if she could charge his card and give him the cash she came to me for advice.

‘Do you know him?’ I asked

Apparently he lives in the village and every time he needs cash, he has to drive all the way into town, a cost of both time and expended fuel. I pointed out that the bank charge us 1% for every transaction. Marcia explained this to him butt he said she could charge him 10% it would still work out cheaper for him, anything to avoid driving into town, searching vainly for a cashpoint with cash in it before ending up queueing for hours in the bank. They agreed 5%, a rate apparently so attractive there was a rush on the 'bank' so to speak. She is now an unofficial branch of the bank for residents of the village and we can transfer all our takings electronically to our account rather than doing a cash and bank run and everyone is delighted.

So what of the cottages? No point in even thinking about them just yet. Nature has pointed out I still need to do more groundworks but she was kind enough to do so before I erected the huts, not afterwards which truly would have been disastrous. So now I am turning four of the six cottages I have paid for into one new shop for Marcia closer to the main road and a two bedroomed cottage for us to live in. By the time our new shop and home are complete, I will have the groundworks done and we can complete and open the restaurant and start erecting the cottages for Flordita.

I quickly lost track of the days but I know today is Sunday because all our customers are dressed in white, de Rigeuer for attending Church here. The sun is shining brightly, the sea is benign and for Sunday lunch we have beef filet which I will sear over glowing charcoal.

It took a tidal wave, but it looks as though we have a plan now. Not bad for just the first week.

Friday, 10 February 2012

Mermaids


In Angola, they believe there are two sorts of Mermaids, one of the sea and one of the river.

Like neighbours who hate each other, and these two Mermaids detest one another according to local lore, they stick to their own territory and mind their own business. Usually. Every now and then, though, something stings their tails and they are at each other’s throats pulling each other’s hair out and scratching each other’s faces. The River mermaid out of sheer spite will try to pour as much fresh water into the sea as she can. The Sea Mermaid will retaliate by throwing up a tide so high it pours into the river. Or it could be vice versa, in a domestic it is always hard to tell who started it and generally no one cares so long as they stop.

In the case of the two Mermaids, they usually wear themselves out but occasionally, if the perceived slight was great, they will battle it out until finally the local Soba (village Elder) has to step in and conduct a ceremony on the water to calm the two down, making offerings of food and wine and intonations known only to him having been passed down verbally through a line of Sobas going back to the Beginning. I am told it never fails. Clearly, King Canute was not from the same esteemed lineage, merely an ignorant peasant who deserved to get wet.

Apart from a bout of Malaria that laid little Alex and I low for a couple of days, a bit of a downer (I have stopped sniffing about the stolen generator), the spirit of the post I was drafting a little bit at a time telling of our arrival at the Barra de Kwanza was so optimistic. I wanted to describe going to sleep with the roar of the surf, the brilliance of the stars revealed in a darkness unknown to city dwellers and to tell SBW and Raschman about all the feral pigs the dogs have flushed but it wasn’t to be.

Marcia has re opened her shop and I reckon the whole village passed through on the first day and emptied it. She is running the truck every day to keep up with demand. Dominic and his little brother chased happily between river and beach and back again oblivious to the crappy living conditions and having to wash in the river. They ate everything put in front of them and were asleep by nine in the evening. Marcia and I were asleep half an hour later. At six in the morning, everything kicked off again. My fingers are like sausages with all the dragging, sawing and hammering I am doing and I have sunburn for the first time in years. I have not drunk a drop of alcohol since I arrived. It is bloody great to be out doors again.

I managed to get through a lot on my list for yesterday. I collected and piled up tonnes of old scrap timber. We got the temporary wiring circuit in so that all living areas including the loo are covered (who likes to dangle their willie down a bog in the dark in the tropics?), a whole heap of stuff. As we are no where near putting in the concrete pathways that will connect each building enclosing what will be garden areas, I can understand Marcia’s frustration that a lot of sand was being traipsed into the restaurant kitchen which is our temporary home so I thought, ‘I know, I will knock her up a slatted wooden door step’.

I was busy sawing and nailing away at this 90x60 cm mini stoep when I looked up at the sea and thought, ‘Blimey!’ Then I saw a palm tree fall over and squeaked, ‘Fuck me!’ Wave after enormous wave pulverised the shore. Then a series of really big waves came in breaking over the sand dunes. Once over the other side the water had nowhere to run except onto my land. It started as a trickle but with each successive wave it turned into a torrent which quickly washed out the main entrance to my property. I grabbed Alex and threw him into the truck and fumbled for the keys in the ignition. They weren’t there. I rang Marcia, who was shopping in town, she did not know. I ran back into our room trying like hell to remember the name of the bloody Saint you pray to for lost things but couldn’t so I sent the most fervent prayer I have ever said with no address and it must have gone DHL because the keys were on the bed. I got the truck onto high ground and then waded back to the site. The skiffs were floating away.

The whole site was flooded. The only thing that saved our room and the shop wwere the slightly higher ground on which they were built and the large load of sand I had dumped for the builders which diverted the water.

The series of extraordinary waves leading to the breach of the dunes occurred exactly at the highest point of the tide. My neighbour suffered even more, fifteen of his chalets were washed away. The road leading to his property passes between mine and the sea, the very bit where the breach occurred. One of my lads ran to his place to tell him he would soon be cut off, an advisory that was quickly followed by a convoy of vehicles, some towing boats to high ground.

As the tide began to recede and I stood there numb with shock, an empty pit where my stomach had once been, I realised that whereas before I would have to stand up in what was soon to be my restaurant to see the sea, I could now sit on the floor. The sea was fifty metres closer and the dunes that protected my land were gone. Oh it looks very romantic, sloughs of white sand reaching across what once was spinney grass like fingers about to caress my bit of God’s earth but believe me, knowing that the next high tide was at five in the morning and knowing that now there was sod all between me and it, I began to think that maybe that Idiot Gardener was right. Or maybe he jinxed me. If he did, I hope his shed burns down and his smart sink falls of the wall taking all the tiles with it.

Marcia arrived back from shopping and noticed the truck on high ground. She splashed knee deep through the water and onto the higher bit of the restaurant.

‘Why is the truck up there?’

To be honest, I thought the reason it was 'up there' was bleeding obvious. I couldn’t think of anything coherent to say, in my mind I was ruined, intoxicated by misery only three days after IG penned those prescient words. I had sold all my possessions including my house and now I really was standing forlornly in a very muddy backwater.

I pointed to where the dunes once were, rolling whitecaps, although receding, clearly visible.

Marcia tutted, ‘Isso não e nada’, she said, irritated by my obvious bleatingly childish concern.

‘What do you mean? “This is nothing”, this is a DISASTER!’

‘No it isn’t’

I tried to break it to her gently. I’d heard about people, especially women, who go into denial when dealing with great shock.

‘Darling, we have to face it, we are ruined’

‘No we’re not’.

Best go and make her a cup of tea, I thought. Seeing her mentally unhinge so quickly made me forget my own sorrow and grief; in times of great crisis or danger, it is the man who must get a grip of himself and look after his family softening, as far as possible, the awful blow with a solid display of optimism. I went into the galley, put the kettle on and burst into tears.

Darkness blessed my tortured eyes by obscuring the two hectare lake I owned and as Marcia was tired as well as unbalanced, I made supper.

She was more seriously affected by all this than I thought for all through supper and on into the evening she prattled on about exactly where (in the lake) we would position the houses; when Julian would install the barbecue grills in the covered barbecue area (under water) and that she needed to go into town the next day to really stock up the shop as Saturday and Sunday were going to be crazy busy. It wasn’t the quantity of customers that was crazy, I thought. Finally I could not take this lunatic optimism in the face of abject failure anymore. I was thinking practically. I still had an all risks insurance policy from when I was in bomb disposal. If I shot myself, the family would get the payout and in my own way, I would have provided for their future.

‘Marcia, at five O’clock in the morning we get the next high tide, this time there is nothing to protect us, the sea will just come pouring in and there is nothing we can do, we can’t even run, so what is the point of thinking about stocking up an underwater shop, what are you going to sell, full aqualungs for passing spear fishermen?’

‘Honey’, she said with all the condescending patience she can turn on with the speed of a flicked light switch, ‘everywhere is flooded. You should have seen how deep the water was at Ramirez’ on the way home, the sea was over the road!’

It floods every year in Bangladesh as well, I thought, but why should that make me feel any better? I stepped out of the room and sloshed my way round to the heads (that’s what loos are called on ships). To me, the ship in which I had invested everything should have been called the Mary Rose, not Flordita. Except of course, mine never even made it out of the port, it sank at its moorings. Clearly that comment on one of my posts saying I wasn’t a nice person was true and I was now paying for it. I had always dreamt of a place either by the sea or on a river and was over the moon when I found a place that satisfied both criteria. I wasn’t expecting both of them coming to greet me so intimately. The next high tide would finish us. I sat there on the bog and groaned. We haven’t got the false ceilings in yet so the sound travelled to the room.

‘What’s the matter, Honey, are you sick?’ Marcia called.

I didn’t answer.

The night was terrible. There was no way I could sleep. Marcia, still clearly mad as a fucking hatter thought that this was because I was feeling a bit frisky and tried to administer appropriate attention so I said, ‘What was that?’ and got up and went outside. The full moon and (unlike me) stiff onshore wind, which I knew to be the real cause of all my grief rather than two catty mermaids, were up and by the light of the former, I could see the waves were no longer crashing over the remains of the dunes, they were rolling over them. My personal pain aside, it was an astonishing sight, a testament to the inexorable power of the sea, especially when viewed at night by the light of the moon. If I could have conjured up two thousand tonnes of hardcore and dropped it in the breach it would not have made a jot of difference. Official high tide was still a few hours away but I knew the onshore wind would add another half hour to the agony. The water just poured in and kept coming. The truck was up to its axles. All the saplings I had cultured at the old place and transplanted here, Lemon, Guava, Avocado, Mango, Cedar, Eucalyptus and another tree I only know by its local name ‘Monkey Banana Tree’, years of patience and tender care in anticipation of finally settling here had all been washed out. There was no way we were going to construct the cottages on the site, the cottages the wood for which had more or less been trimmed into prefabricated parts and were due to leave the mill down south next week. It was like watching my life, all my hopes and dreams being bleached to a meaningless blank. I went back to the room, found the keys to the shop, let myself in and helped myself to a bottle of whisky before sitting on the hammock in the jango, taking the occasional swig as I rocked to and fro. I was washed out.

As the sun came up, I could really appreciate the extent of the damage. Everything but the shop, the kitchen and toilet block and the restaurant jango was under water. But I no longer cared. Not in any despairing way, I no longer cared because with the aid of the Clan MacGregor family product, a few fluid ounces of which were now inside me, I had a plan. OK, I will admit I did have some extra help. During the night, a local walking by who must have had the combined eyesight of an owl and a shit house rat as well as the olfactory power of a dog had waded through the water to join me and make a better effort than I to empty the bottle. So we had chatted. His attitude was the same as Marcia’s.

‘Isso não e nada’ he spat contemptuously, ‘you should have seen the Great Storm of 1887’, and took a swig before passing the bottle back to me. Like all Africans steeped in tradition he didn’t merely listen to the stories handed down through generations, he lived them through his ancestors.

‘What happened in 1887?’ I asked, not really caring if his Great Grandfather's head had been severed by a hurricane borne coconut.

He turned and waved vaguely at some point a mile or so inland, ‘the Mar reached there and took everything, EVERYTHING!’ the last word delivered with a timbre redolent of the awful horror that must have transpired and definitely worth another swig of scotch, he felt. Like Marcia earlier on, he was doing a grand job at pissing me off. ‘But don’t worry’, he continued, ‘the sea will give it all back’.

This terrible storm of which he spoke was an aberration, he went on to explain. Nothing like that has been seen since, or at least in living memory. Every year, he said, just like the tide ebbs and flows, the sea at this time of the year nibbles away at the land and then every year puts it all back again. Some years are worse than others, obviously, but generally, there is nothing to worry about. The people who really get themselves into trouble are the rich people.

‘How so?’ I said, warming to my nocturnal companion.

Rich people he had concluded, come in from the outside. They pay neither attention to or respect local tradition. They want their houses on the beach even though it must be blindingly obvious that no local builds there.

I was never rich and right now I was trying to get my head around being poor but since I too had ‘come in from the outside’ I thought I had better ask his advice lest I became poorer still.

‘What about my place?’

He looked around. ‘Oh you’re OK, you might get flooded every couple of years or so but then we all do but everything is soon back to normal’, I was beginning to see a glimmer, ‘but’, he continued, ‘you really should think about building the land up a bit before you build like you've done this bit’.

I told him that was exactly what I had planned to do but had been beaten by the waves. He told me that I was like a lot of Branquinhos in that I expected everything to go according to a schedule that nature would never recognise. Besides, he pointed out, I was in Angola where nothing goes to plan. He told me that it would be at least a month or so before I could get a machine in there. In the meantime, I would see the sea gradually throw the sand back up onto the beach again. I told him about my saplings and he looked at me as if I had suddenly started drooling spittle. He asked me if I had seen any lemon trees or avocados growing here. I had to admit I hadn’t but had thought I should give it a go. He advised me against thinking and observing instead, do as the locals do was his advice.

There can be no question that once I got the land, Marcia has been a driving force for Flordita and, of course, I loved the idea but I like taking baby steps while Marcia’s enthusiasm would put an Olympic triple jumper to shame. I know less about running a hotel restaurant than I do about gardening so I was not only nervous about sinking everything into one pot, I was also nervous about simultaneously building a restaurant and the cottages and then having to manage the lot with all the untrained staff required. A couple of scrapping mermaids had trashed my building site but they had also given me a wonderful opportunity to acquire an insurance policy. Marcia’s apparent mental breakdown was no more than her fear that I might get cold feet and run. She did not realise that I was in so deep I had no choice but to keep playing. My new friend left to go home to his wife’s wrath but with the benefit of his advice, I now knew how to play my hand.

Up the road (on higher ground) we have another plot of land where, after the hotel restaurant opened, we were to build using profits, Marcia’s new shop. For accommodation, we would use one of the cottages. A real eggs in one basket scenario and we still would not have a house of our own. If the restaurant failed or, in a fit of malevolence the sea decided not to give back the land but to take more and I had invested everything, I might as well have packed all my money into a box and tossed it into the sea and be destitute as I had nothing to fall back on. On the other hand, if I scrapped the idea of the cottages, for the time being, and just got the restaurant up and running and used the money for the cottages to build Marcia’s smart new shop AND a house for us and then used the profits from both, or one or the other to build up the land and build cottages...

The sun was up and I knew Marcia would be awake soon.

As Marcia and I surveyed the damage I pointed out that we would never get a machine in to fill and level the ground for ages. She reluctantly agreed but before she could bang on again about my sudden lack of faith I dived in.

‘Marcia’, I said, ‘Rather than abandon the project, why don’t we finish the restaurant and instead of building the cottages, tell Julian to build your new shop and a house for us on the other land?’ I did not give her chance to reply and rushed on, albeit as calmly as I could, ‘That way in the same time it would take to build the restaurant and hotel leaving you without a shop until Flordita coughed up enough to pay for your new shop and the time it would take to build, you could have the profit from the restaurant AND your new shop and that could be used to fund the filling and levelling and the cottages and we would also have our own house again?’ I inhaled deeply.

‘You’ve been drinking’, she said.

‘Yes, Marcia, I have been drinking’. How was that for a slap down? I must have looked pathetic.

‘You were doing so well’

‘I know, I’m sorry it’s just that last night, the storm…’

‘You haven’t slept, have you?’

‘No’

‘I’ll go and make you a cup of tea’ and she headed for the galley. I’d prefer a double hemlock, I thought.

‘I think it is a great idea’, she called over her shoulder.

YES! Out of disaster SUCCESS!

OK, I have lost a bit of hard earned cash but experience is never cheap.


Flordita Restaurant Opening Times and Menu:

Low Tide:

Full A La Carte

Any Other Time:

Please reserve snorkelling kit when making your booking. Please note: Restricted Menu - Sushi only.

Full Moon High Tide Special for Spear Fisherman:

Half price beer and spirits, Bring All You Can Eat!!