Wednesday 19 December 2007

The heaviest element known to science

Shamelessly knicked from the UK Independence Party's website so all credit to them and the UKIP member who sent it in.

In early October 2007, a major research institution announced the discovery of the heaviest element yet known to science. The new element has been named "Eurotium."

Eurotium (Eu) has one neutron, 25 assistant neutrons, 88 deputy neutrons, and 198 assistant deputy neutrons, giving it an atomic mass of 312. These 312 particles are held together by forces called "morons" which are surrounded by vast quantities of lepton-like particles called "peons".

Since Eu has no electrons, it is inert. However, it can be detected, because it impedes every reaction with which it comes into contact. A minute amount of Eu causes one reaction to take over four days to complete, when it would normally take less than a second.

Eu has a normal half-life of four years; it does not decay but instead undergoes a reorganisation in which a portion of the assistant neutrons and deputy neutrons exchange places. In fact, Eurotium's mass will actually increase over time, since each reorganisation will cause more morons to become neutrons, forming "isodopes". This characteristic of moron promotion leads most scientists to believe that Eu is formed whenever morons reach a certain quantity in concentration. This hypothetical quantity is referred to as "Critical Morass".

When catalysed with money, Eu becomes "Administratium" (Am) – an element that radiates just as much energy as Eu, since it has half as many peons but twice as many morons.

Now vote UKIP and help do something about it...

Tuesday 27 November 2007

A (very) short holiday

Living in Angola, I am used to the now thankfully decreasing threat of assault but after over a decade here, I suppose the odds were against me and last week I received a good hiding. Not, as one might imagine, from drugged up local juveniles or hardened criminals but from a completely unexpected source, a British co-worker.

Medical attention here may be a little crude by comparison with UK but at least I did not have to wait hours in an emergency room and the medical staff treated me with the utmost compassion. A few stitches later and X-Ray evidence of compressed vertebrae and a fractured eye socket I was advised to take it easy; lie down and avoid any strenuous activity which included travelling in vehicles on Luanda’s bumpy roads. Instead of thousands of pounds worth of consultant’s time and innumerable tests, the diagnosis was quick and as honest as it was simple. I had received a kicking, was in a bad way but I would live. Nature would take its course and in the meantime, here was a packet of Aspirins. I got into my car and drove gingerly back to the site.

It was my ex-wife’s turn to have Dominic over the weekend and, much as I love Marcia, my long-time girlfriend, the thought of spending a whole weekend alone with her fussing over me was almost as bad as sitting stiff necked in the site recreation area. Clearly I had to do something to avoid feeling sorry for myself.

Fishing, my favourite pastime, was clearly out of the question. My head would have dislocated after bouncing over the first wave. A right eye firmly swollen shut precluded sighting down the barrel of a hunting rifle, never mind the potential effects of recoil so that was out too. So I decided to go sightseeing.

I have been here over a decade and it dawned on me that I have never gone anywhere in this country without a reason. The idea of just jumping in the car and travelling somewhere for no other motive than seeing what was at the other end was alien to me. I did not even know what to take. My camera, obviously. Cash and Identity papers seemed like a good idea. Shorts to swim in. If I got wet, then I’d need a towel. I was bound to get thirsty so a bottle of Grants and a few chilled tins. Honestly, I was pathetic. By the time I had finished loading the car, all that was missing were my golf clubs and regimental sword (I had overlooked that last item hanging on the wall in the lounge).

Marcia, having struggled out into the yard on her own with a cool box sensibly loaded with fruit juice and sandwiches while I was doing a creditable impression of a Pickford’s removal man made short shrift of my efforts. Finally wresting my laptop from my grasp she left the maids to clear up the tonne or so of abandoned kit and ordered me to set off.

With no clear destination in mind, we just drove. South of Luanda, the road is in excellent condition and the scenery a salve to eyes used to decrepit buildings and piles of rubbish. Pretty soon, we were on our own and I began to remember why I fell in love with Africa. To our right, the Atlantic Ocean glittered, its painfully blue surface occasionally broken by the wake of a fishing boat. Overhead, eagles soared as they scoured the ground between ancient Boabab trees looking for elusive prey. It would be corny to say that time stood still, but with my arm hanging out of the open window and us pootling steadily southwards, it certainly slowed down.

We crossed the Kwanza River bridge, no sign of the entrenched machine gun positions I remembered, instead a neat little home-made stand piled high with fruit and two little girls perched on top of a sack of something bulky, probably pineapples, completely oblivious of their reason for being there. In the old days, the sight of a 4x4 braking suddenly and reversing back would have sent them scurrying into the bush but not now. Alerted to the arrival of a potential customer they launched into not so much a sales routine but a well-rehearsed dance. Everything on offer was displayed beneath the most beguiling of smiles and no, they did not have any change.

So I sat there, munching avocados the size of my swollen head, sitting on top of my sack of pineapples and watched the rest of the world rush by. We shared our sandwiches, emptied the cool box and in return, two little girls told me all about the really important things in life in-between stabbing the stitches in my head with grubby fingers and falling about in floppy heaps of hysterical laughter every time I winced.

I can understand it was not exactly Marcia’s idea of a day out and we do have a lot of rotting fruit in the kitchen but for me, it was brilliant.

Thursday 6 September 2007

Identity theft is a bastard and will ruin your day

I trust my Angolan bank more than I do my UK one. It took years for me to switch allegiance. All the time I was in Angola, I maintained my account back home. I had first opened it 30 years ago. Fellow expatriates, advertisements in the international editions, even my own branch, told me that I should move to an offshore account. I could never see the point. I didn’t earn enough interest on the amounts deposited and subsequently withdrawn each month and besides, I really liked the way I could pick up the phone and speak to a human being, probably someone I went to school with, and get them to shift money for me, cancel a standing order or bail me out according to my need.

Then one day, I wasn’t speaking to Sarah, it was a voice whose name I didn’t catch but assuring me that for security reasons, my call was being taped. It was speaking from Liverpool, about a 100 miles from my bank and no, she couldn’t put me through to my branch or deal with my problem. Instead, she put me through to someone in the province of Sheffield, India, who suggested if I wanted a personal consultation, I should pop into my branch. Well I couldn’t. I was in Nigeria at the time.

All I wanted to do was warn my bank that I was in a high-risk area, as the security advice my employers had given me on arrival suggested. Now she understood. A note would be placed on my file. Not the buff coloured A4 folder bulging with all the written correspondence between the bank and I that the manager always referred to on the rare occasions I visited. No, this was an electronic file. I had to accept that this was progress. I was then asked if I would like to nominate extra passwords. Over a mobile phone? I may be a bit dense, but even I felt uncomfortable with that one.

Two months later, I was back from up country and tried to log on to my account. I received a message telling me to contact my branch. This time I got a girl in Glasgow. She told me that she was putting me through to an ‘Account Counsellor’ and no, that person was not in my branch.

It was an interesting first five minutes, neither of us had a clue what the other was talking about. Eventually I accepted that I had to give him a password, any word that would then allow me to see my account on line. Why the hell he didn’t just plug in ‘chips’ or ‘I am an irritating moron’ I have no idea. I gave him my dog’s name.

Having been abroad for many years, several month’s movement on my account usually fits on half a page. Standing orders, salary and maybe the Amex if I had been anywhere civilised reccently Not the pages and pages I saw swimming before me now. At first I could not understand why I was a thousand odd pounds overdrawn. Then I realised I had the decimal point in the wrong place and suddenly appreciated how embarrassing it is to be incontinent.

It got worse. I needed some time to scan through this lot so I was given a number to call when I was ready. This time in Leicester, the closest to my branch so far. Not only had I been shopping in Sainsbury’s for the last two months, I had also moved from the midlands to London. I also seemed to have exchanged a lot of currency and had taken out an unsecured loan for £15,000. The balance on my account had evaporated, I had consumed my ten grand overdraft and I had a 15 grand loan against which I had made no payments. No wonder the bank was keen to talk to me. I called the number in Leicester.

It took a while, but finally they explained what had happened. Apparently, I had sent them a letter requesting a change of address. It seemed perfectly in order as I had enclosed a copy of my passport. A few weeks later, I was careless enough to lose my bank cards which, applying the highest standards of customer service, the bank were only too eager to send replacements to my new address, complete with PIN numbers. I understand that before granting a loan, an examination of the account profile is made. Considering that the evidence of the preceding months suggested I had suddenly popped up on a completely different continent and gone berserk, I can understand why the man in Leicester was never able to convince me how I had been granted such a large loan. He said it was because I had been a good customer.

Good customer or not, I wanted my money back. They were, I have to admit, very good about it. They allowed me to go through my statements and cancel everything I disagreed with. Then I asked them about the instant credit that was available to anyone with a valid bank card, the kind that they had issued to the other me in London. Ah. They could supply me the contact details for reputable credit reference agencies, perhaps I would like to avail myself of their services?

It will probably take me years to sort out. Fortunately, I live in Angola which makes it difficult for bailiffs to repossess the plasma TV I have never watched.

My salary is now paid into my Angolan account. I have my branch, a new one in the smart southern suburbs and all the staff know my name. They know what I do, they know when I am away in Uganda or Gabon on contract. They know my girlfriend. I can send my driver down with a letter to make a withdrawal and I am not surprised when they ring me to confirm. No wonder, then, that I trust my Angolan bankers more than my UK ones.

Wednesday 5 September 2007

All expats are failures...

I live in a twenty-foot container in Angola. It may be air-conditioned, have hot and cold running water and electricity, but it is still a steel box for shifting cargo.

I was reasonably content but then I read Jeremy Clarkson’s article in which he suggested that all expatriates were failures. Nothing more than people who, unable to be any kind of fish at all in their own ponds, migrated like eels to distant pools setting themselves up with the proceeds of house sales and redundancy payments, grimly determined to demonstrate they had made the right decision. A gin and tonic fuelled self-delusional existence leading to bitterness, liver failure and skin cancer. I downed my whisky and started thinking.

Seventeen years ago I was in the Army. I enjoyed the social benefits of an honourable profession, not least the tolerance of a bank manager who appreciated the disastrous consequences of not being able to pay a mess bill on time.

Whatever madness it was that brought me to Angola, it wasn’t a desire to emigrate. I came here to start a humanitarian mine clearance project. In UK, I had a three-bed semi in a provincial mining town. I regretted leaving the Army and was drinking myself to death. The final blow to self-esteem was when my wife ran off with a married gas bottle filler from Aga Gas. I lacked the courage to put a bullet through my head so pushing off to a war zone to clear explosives seemed the next best thing for a man hell bent on going out as quickly and spectacularly as possible. So far, Clarkson is spot on. I had fallen into the gutter and was running away.

The job satisfaction was intense. In six months, I lost 23 kilos. I worked for cigarettes and whisky and if the odd bun or two were thrown in, I was in paradise. I ate one meal a day, charcoal chicken bought from street vendors and lived in an establishment that normally rented rooms by the hour. If the girls had problems with a client, I bounced for them. In return, they looked after my washing and other occasional needs and never, not once, was anything stolen from my room.

Now I run a power station. I have an eight year old son who goes to a private, Angolan college. He is bi-lingual, rides a motorcycle and, because we hunt together, is responsible with a firearm. He recently fought some older boys who were bullying a girl and suffered stitches in his face as a result, but refused to rat on the culprits. He is not racist; for him all men are divided into nice types or ‘Ladroes’, bandits. He is fit, healthy and, as I am sure the older boys would testify if pressed, hard as nails. He has even caught a 90 Kg Tarpon.

Angola has everything going for it. Name a crop and there will be somewhere with suitable climatic conditions in which to grow it. The fishing, both commercial and sporting, the kind that interests me, is excellent. It has oil. Angola’s significance as the second largest African producer is witnessed by the size of the American Embassy, a huge, bomb proof monolithic structure that dominates the smart Miramar skyline overlooking the rest of down-town Luanda and its increasingly busy port. It is a major diamond producer. Angolan diamonds are some of the finest in the world and along with oil, fuelled the long running civil war that only ended with the death of the rebel leader, Jonas Savimbi in 2002.

There are plenty of organisations that lament the lack of transparency, worry about the ‘missing millions’ and claim Angola is a dictatorship, not a democracy. I can only go by the evidence of my own eyes. The country has embarked on house building on an impressive scale, specialists have been brought in to assist with energy production and water distribution, Chinese contractors are rebuilding the railways. Roads are being improved. Hospitals are being modernised and new ones built. There is even a modern shopping centre. Luanda is a lot safer than Johannesburg and the idea of a kid on a BMX shooting another is unheard of. It is the fastest growing economy in Africa and opportunities abound, just try getting a confirmed hotel reservation. So who cares if a few people abuse their trust and make a lot of money out of it? If this is a dictatorship, then at least it’s a benign one. Let the elite have their cake and eat it, there are more crumbs dropping off President Dos Santos’ table than Mugabe’s.

Granted, I live in a 20-foot container in the poorer end of town. But only during the week. Fridays, I am driven home in my company car and, since my long time Angolan girlfriend is a good Catholic, enjoy a fish supper in my nice house in an agreeable country without having to worry if my son is a drug addict or a gang member. When I die which, according to my doctor is long overdue (he insists I settle my account after every consultation), I will leave my son more than the gold cufflinks my father left me. Here, the assets of the deceased pass to heirs, not the state. I will leave him houses and a farm he can rent out to pay for his further education and the benefit of a broad experience and tolerance I would imagine difficult to replicate in UK.

Life in Angola isn’t perfect. But sitting here with my family around me; safe, content and happy, no mortgage, the sun shining, the pool almost ‘de-greened’ and the house full of friendly, cosmopolitan Angolans and only 6% income tax, it’s bloody close. Petrol is 27p a litre and diesel half that. It isn’t a crime to drive a 4x4, there is a race track only five miles away on which I can lay a bit of rubber whenever the urge takes me, and a golf course even closer. There are nice beaches where the smaller the Bikini the more fashionable, and I get to spend a lot of quality time with my son.

Mr Clarkson’s article did get me thinking, but having done so, let him have the Cotswolds and leave me the dictatorship. I vote for Angola.

Tuesday 14 August 2007

Call of the Wild...

I have not managed a run ashore to slot any of the local wildlife for ages and the ever increasing amount of time I am wasting surfing the net trying to decide which would be best, a 'sensible' 30-06 (since we can 'acquire' the ammo from the local military at next to nothing) or my current fixation, a flat shooting Remington Sendero in 300 Remington Ultra Mag (which will require the difficult importation of ferociously expensive factory ammo) is testament to this. I need to take a break and get out in the bush. And soon.

It is odd, the way we all can justify even the most bizarre desires. I haven't shot anything at much over a 100 yards for ages yet I am irresistably drawn to the Sendero. You could set up a 30 inch tube, 500 yards long and with that rifle, and that ammunition, put one round after another down it without one of them rattling the sides and they would still have over 2100 foot pounds of energy at the end. Overkill? Not half. Basicaly, if I could see it in the cross hairs, it's dead. And without me having to exercise whisky depleted brain cells with ballistics calculations too much. For anything deer sized and up, the kill zone is bigger than the anticipated spread, just point and shoot. Undoubtedly, with this new and increasingly, to me, essential addition to my armoury I would be comfortable taking longer shots. None of us relishes the prospect of tracking a winged animal across miles of countryside so limit our ranges accordingly. How many of us have scoped an animal and given it up in favour of a long route march in the hope that the beastie will keep going in the direction we suppose so that we can get a more certain shot only to find sod all at the end of a lung bursting slog?

Read the US sites and you will discover how many of these rifles are available, second hand, hardly used. Not because it fails to live up to Remington's claim to be the most accurate 'out of the box' rifle, but primariliy, it would appear, because of the recoil (so buy a .22 and stop complaining) and also, significanlty, because of the weight. Weight? Nine and a half pounds? I defy anyone that is reasonably fit to tell the difference between a cumbersome and awkward nine and half pounds and an eight and a half pounds after a few hours of bush bashing. And besides, that's what bearers are for.

I know that I am talking myself into it. I know that a 30-06 will do all that I could expect of it but, well, you know.

Anyway, since I have very kindly been linked to a true hunting site, 'Bashing Bambi', for those of you surfing over here from Bambibasher's musings I reproduce a section of an earlier post related to hunting in Angola: I promise to get out as soon as I can and post more.

We have found an excellent place in the interior to go hunting. It’s a valley accessible only via an overgrown track and is full of Guinea Fowl, Francolin, deer and Pacassa (a sort of African buffalo, meat is fantastic). The local village Soba, to whom one should always pay one’s respects, said that noone had been down there for years. So we dashed him some sacks of pulses and the odd cans of this and that and he agreed that if any other hunters turned up, he would tell them the track is mined. Funny how the accepted wisdom of moving about in a mine polluted environment, primary of which is avoiding exactly what we drove down, a track unused for years, is subsumed by the desire to hunt. I remember reaching a village the occupants of which, were forced to walk miles for water yet within 500 yards, there was a river. There was also a bridge so the banks and abutments had been sown with mines in a futile attempt to prevent its destruction (the remains of it were barely visible above the tea coloured flow).
‘How long has it been like this then,’ I asked of the assembled village elders who were by now well into the couple of bottles of Passport Scotch I had given them.
That could be a couple or twenty. Didn’t matter. These were once again virgin waters. Yes, I was going to demine a route down to the water anyway, but I was bloody well going to take my rod with me. Best day’s fishing I’ve had since spending a day hoiking Barracuda out of the waters around the mangrove swamps of the Cayes off Belize.

I wanted to import a decent rifle and shotgun but found out that there is a blanket ban on importing firearms to Angola so I’m pretty stuffed at the moment. My pal, Julian, has a 30-06 Moisin Nagant, which must have seen service either with or against Napoleon’s troops in Moscow. It was ‘legally’ acquired as part of the process to obtain a firearms licence from the police.
‘So, you want a firearms licence, do you? Well, you’ll obviously be needing a firearm and guess what?’ (You can see this coming, can’t you?) ‘We just happen to have one on special offer…’
You can see your file in front of him. He’s grinning, it’s a game to him. On top is a piece of paper, a form, already filled in with the irregular typeface of an antique manual typewriter, the ribbon on its last legs. There is your name at the top. Surname mixed up with Christian name and inevitably hopelessly incorrectly spelt. A single passport sized photograph is clipped to the edge, the whereabouts of the other three they insisted they needed unknown. Just one signature, that’s all that separates you from a licence to kill. His signature. By the same hand currently wielding a conglomerate of corrosion and decay, a barely convincing semblance of a lethal weapon. It has taken months to get to this stage.
‘Oh, alright, I’ll buy the bloody gun as well.’
The resignation with which the last is delivered is usually quickly followed by a strangled, ‘HOW MUCH?!!!’

Scrap metal is expensive in Angola. Or at least firearms certificates are.

Most of us are aware of what could go wrong when the chamber of an ancient and badly maintained weapon is unexpectedly subjected to the enormous pressure generated by exploding propellant contained in cartridge cases devoid of any residual ductility, burning rates significantly affected by the projectile’s reluctance to squeeze itself along a heavily corroded barrel and, judging by Julian’s expression as he screwed up the courage to fire it for the first time, such visions were unwelcome visitors to his consciousness as well. After all, there is not much that can be done to alter the design of the weapon so sighting along its barrel means that the short trajectory of a departing bolt will inevitably, painfully, perhaps fatally, be arrested by the skin, bone and gristle of the firer’s face. Either way, a failure of the sears, pins and detents designed to hold it all in place will leave an indelible impression on your mind. Now that I know it works, though, I’ll use that for the time being as I cannot bring myself to hunt with an AK. Accepted wisdom, by the way, suggests that a heavy bullet must be used for Pacassa and that a 30-06 or 7.62 short is a bit light but someone has obviously forgotten to tell the locals that. The sight of a wizened local guide, so old that his age could no longer be determined with anything approaching accuracy, as he calmly stood his ground and reloaded an ancient single barrelled Baikal and poured load after load into a no doubt surprised and increasingly outraged bull Pacassa is one to be cherished and should form an essential part of British Army Training videos.

Wednesday 18 July 2007

Filius est pars patris

A bit of an update. I have recently been pretty lazy regarding the blog but in my defence, I have been quite busy.

I paid my dues to Marcia’s family and things are OK now. Her family accept that until I have my residency, I cannot divorce Dominic’s mother or I will risk the invocation of the expulsion order I received back in 1997 when they kicked all the undesirables out. I was only allowed to stay by virtue of being married to an Angolan. I had to sign a declaration, though, that I would never again be involved in ‘Security Services’ in Angola. Until I get my residency then, the family at least can see evidence of my fidelity and that I treat Marcia better than most men, especially around here, treat their wives.

I finished installing the wood floors and the kitchen in the new house during my recent leave and Marcia now lives there. Dominic and I spend most weekends with her. It really is pleasant inside but the garden still looks like a building site. The offers for the house are trickling in but we are holding out until the pool is finished and the patio around the pool laid. I made the mistake of importing a prefabricated pool from South Africa. What a bloody disaster. Everything went swimmingly (sorry) over the weekend as we completed the final, three week long installation and last night, at 1800hrs, the tanker came and we swam in the pool for the first time. This morning I woke to a scene of utter devastation, one of the walls had given way. I have had to leave Marcia to try and sort it out as I had to get back to work.

I really do like the house, the design, the layout and the finish but as with anything one attempts for the first time, building a house presents a steep learning curve and we made many mistakes, some of them expensive. I am, therefore, looking forward to selling it so that we can start building the next houses where, hopefully, we will fall victim to fewer errors. Most of the errors, by the way, fall under the category of ‘False Economy’. The pool is a classic example.

I am hoping that I will get enough for the house to simultaneously start the build on the big plot near the original house (where we want to put at least eight houses), and the house on the River Kwanza. If they could go up at the same time it would be marvellous. It would be nice to have a house that was not destined for sale so that we could make it a home. At least with the Barro de Kwanza house being on the river only a few hundred yards from the beach and sea, I do not need to worry about a bloody swimming pool!

Dominic has just gone off to school having spent an evidently enjoyable weekend racing his motorcycle across the countryside and then yesterday evening, jumping around in the pool (fun while it lasted). Finally, he is starting to see some of the results of all my hard work since the separation. I still feel very bitter that his mother’s selfishness, or hot knickers, whichever way you want to look at it, have robbed Dominic of his childhood. Only now is he slowly starting to enjoy the things that, had everything continued as they should have done, he could have enjoyed all his most formative years. I have given up working for my own benefit. With a very dodgy heart, failing eyesight and an inability to make the lifestyle changes that I should, all I want to ensure is that I leave my son with more than a watch and a pair of cufflinks, and see Marcia OK as well. After a very poor performance at school, I fought like hell in the Army to get on and finally succeeded in gaining a commission. With a foresight that belied his scatty appearance, my company commander at Sandhurst called me in and during a fairly convivial interview, reminded me of where my determination had brought me and then, with stunning perceptiveness asked me, ‘What are you going to do now?’ Being young and stupid, I failed to grasp his point but time, very little of it as it turned out, proved him correct. Without a long term goal to push for, I would become, as indeed I did, a ship without a rudder. Bored in other words, and never a truer word spoken when old sages remind the young that the Devil finds work for idle hands. My long term goals now are a decent house in Europe, a house here and a decent sport fisher tied up at the jetty next to my house on the Barro de Kwanza. I am 30% of the way there but I do find myself wondering what will happen to me if I do achieve them. Knowing my luck, I will be found dead in the cockpit of my beautiful sport fisher, the instruction book in one hand and the unused ignition keys in the other... Still, I will be grateful if God gives me that long having called me in for three hat on, no coffee interviews so far.

I was called to collect Dominic last Thursday. A quite unusual occurrence and all the more anxious as the telephone communication was opened with, ‘now, there is no need to worry...’ Naturally, in a town where one could be considered lucky to be able to engage third gear, I hit over a 120 clicks accompanied by a frankly quite terrified driver (who had been relegated to passenger as a result of his to me, criminally sedate progress during the early stage of the journey to the hospital, and was now weeing into the cushion of the passenger seat next to me and wondering when the airbag would explode into his face). I bounced up onto the pavement in front of the clinic, told the congregating security guards and Police to fuck off, burst into the clinic and there he was, my son Dominic, his beautiful visage now blighted by a row of stitches perilously close to his already blackening eye. Even I know that it is hard to sit an eight year old down and demand off him ‘what the Hell happened’ without intimidating him slightly so instead, I headed back to the site, collected two of Dominic’s favourite engineers, Bill and John, and together set course for the Chinese restaurant. Still he would not say.

Slowly, over the course of the weekend, the story came out. I have conducted murder investigations that were easier. Apparently, there is a new girl at school who travels on the same bus as Dominic. While evidently a hit for Dominic, she was the subject of some considerable bullying by certain other boys. Obviously something happened while they were all trapped in traffic (exact details still unclear) but whatever it was, it was sufficient to provoke a reaction from Dom who, it is alleged, launched a vicious and sustained attack on one of the boys, two years his senior. Apparently he managed to head butt the boy several times in the confined space of the third row of seats before the others dived in, whereupon Dominic inflicted some further fairly widespread damage before being struck by a boy wielding, believe it or not, a seat belt buckle which of course, opened his face. That was the bit that the bus driver, having managed to bring his vehicle to a safe stop, witnessed. The facts that Dominic , rather unsurprisingly, came off worst and that the only adult witness seems to have a bit of a soft spot for him and coloured his testimony accordingly, are the reasons why I am writing this and not being arraigned in front of an Angolan tribunal as a prelude to being sued by irate parents. So what conclusions can we draw from this? About the girl: Dominic is not a poufter. And if he turns out to be one, then at least he understands his duty to protect the weak. About the fight: Dominic is no chicken. About his subsequent reticence, his unwillingness to name names: he is an honourable man. It’s a bit hard to tell him off really, isn’t it? God I hope he joins the RAF. I would blub uncontrollably at his passing out parade. Is there a school I can send him to in UK that feeds all its output to Cranwell? He keeps asking me about when he can go to that school, the one that he can sleep at.

So, as you can see, life continues pretty much as normal. For the Gowans’ family that is, not a ‘normal’ family. My client is evidently quite happy with the service I provide and has asked that this site be doubled in size and another 30 MW site be constructed elsewhere in the city. Target date? Christmas day naturally, so it’s another case of ‘Merry Christmas, Mr Thomas’. Still, unless I seriously fuck up, I think it unlikely that I will find myself buried up to my neck in sand under a hot sun humming ‘Ground Control to Major Tom’. Who would have thought, though, when I marched out onto to Old College Square 23 years ago, that I would end up building and running power stations in Africa? Me? The only thing I know about electrickery is that sticking one’s fingers across the terminals is bound to hurt.

Thursday 28 June 2007

Facit experientia cautos

I note that there is a small, but ever more vociferous group of sadly influential individuals who are keen to see the age at which one can legally be in command of a vehicle rise from 17, as it currently stands in UK, to 21. This in response to statistics that suggest the majority of tragic accidents are caused by young and obviously inexperienced drivers.
My son was very upset with me recently because he wants to learn to drive a car and I seemed, as far as he was concerned, criminally disinterested in teaching him. Fortunately, it was easy for me do deal with simply by plonking him in the driver’s seat and watching dispassionately as he realised, with ever increasing frustration, that even with his advanced age of eight years, he was still not big enough to reach the pedals. Naturally, it was all my fault that his legs were too short. I helped him get over his disappointment by sitting him on my lap and operating the pedals, thereby allowing him to take the car for a spin in the field.

There are a series of milestones in every child’s life that are a part of growing up but cause great angst to a parent. Their first day at school; the first time they start to stray from the safety of home and garden; riding a bike on the public highway. About the worst, though, has to be when your whole reason for being passes his driving test. I have a few years left to ponder this before the inevitable fear manifests itself, but Dominic’s evident keenness to get behind the wheel (he can already ride a motorcycle, albeit a miniature version of the real thing) reminded me of how keen I was, and, worryingly, how I behaved after passing my own test.

I am as ashamed of requiring three attempts to pass my driving test as I suppose a student pilot would be at taking twenty or so hours to go solo rather than ten. My first attempt ended suddenly with my head bashing painfully off the steering wheel as the examiner, noticing the distraction the blonde in the red E-Type was causing his young, testosterone laden candidate, decided that his intervention was necessary to prevent me ploughing down the little old lady who had evidently grown old assuming that a pelican crossing with an illuminated little green man provided some sort of invulnerability. The second test ended, somewhat to my dismay considering that I was driving a 1957 Morris 1000 with a crash gearbox, in a failure due to incorrect use of the gearbox. Undaunted, I had another go but on the morning of the test was so nervous that I stammered through the number plate I had to read at a distance to prove that I could at least see enough to recognise a car at ten paces, and stalled the car so many times before I even got out of the test centre that I was ready to give up immediately and save everyone a lot of time and paperwork.

Despite what many people say about driving examiners (and lawyers), there are one or two decent ones about. Sadly, as they very rarely advertise their humanity with a neon sign welded to their foreheads, they are almost impossible to recognise until at some very unexpected moment, like the sun finally breaking through hellish storm clouds with the attendant promise of easier sailing ahead, their bureaucratic façade crumbles to reveal, well, basically a decent bloke. Maybe it was thoughts of an uphill entry onto the very busy A50 and, based on my performance thus far, his chances of survival that prompted the examiner to tell me to pull over. As I pulled in, kerbing the wheel in the process, I resigned myself to the ignominy of being driven back to the test centre by an unimpressed examiner. Instead of ordering me out of the driver’s seat so that we could swap places, however, he pulled out a packet of unfiltered Players and offered me one.

Glorious nicotine. We sat there together in the car without a word, he probably wondering how hard earned his paltry salary was and me just rejoicing in the waves of peace that flushed gently through me. OK, I obviously wasn’t going to pass but it wouldn’t be the end of the world, would it? The statuesque Sally Bent and the sylph like Melanie Whateverhernamewas would just have to wait for the romantic lay-by trysts that with youthful optimism I was sure were guaranteed, as soon as I had my own wheels.

Being a decent bloke as I had now decided he was, the examiner had to at least do me the courtesy of going through the motions, so we had a relaxed run around the town before ending up at the test centre again. I answered the obligatory questions on the highway code and then we both got out of the car, me looking for my instructor so that I could be driven home, he fumbling with his clipboard and flip charts. I went round the car to shake his hand, sportingly. I didn’t like the idea of failing again but I didn’t feel badly done by, certainly not as outraged as I was the last time for being censured for not stuffing my Dad’s gearbox up by changing into first while we were still rolling. He gave me a piece of paper and without looking at it, I thanked him. It was only when my instructor came over to take the car keys from me that I realised. She was too nice a person to rejoice at the prospect of providing me with yet more expensive lessons. I had passed. The examiner looked at me as he had no doubt thousands of other fledgling motorists and waving his clipboard in the general direction of my instructor gloomily pointed out that, ‘This young lady has taught you to pass a driving test, now you must learn how to drive. For God’s sake, son, take it easy until you really know what you are doing.’

‘When will that be, do you think?’ I replied.

He studied me sadly and reached into his anorak pocket for another Player’s. ‘Never’.

On the way home with my instructor driving, for even though I had the pass certificate in my pocket, the law sensibly precluded me from driving excitedly away from the test centre (dying with the ink still wet on a pass certificate causing newsworthy carnage on my way to Valhalla no doubt being bad for Department of Transport pass statistics), she pointed out that the examiner’s remarks were not so much directed at me as a general indictment of human attitudes to risk, especially young male humans for whom risk is, let’s face it, as vital to overall well being as food, beer and the ever present chance of a first bonk. So naturally I wasn’t paying attention. I was looking forward to my first solo. Then I would be in charge and could drive without the constant nannying; ‘The outside of the curve, please’; ‘Take the long way round, less chance of you skidding’; all delivered in the monotones of the long-suffering, undoubtedly very bored professional.

Long way round? I had never seen Moss, Clark or Hill take the long way round, not unless they wanted to see someone sneak up the inside and spray their goggles with dirt and second hand Castrol racing oil before disappearing into the distance. No. These guys left rubber on the inside kerb and kicked the dust off the outside of the exit. All that tarmac was there to be used and if I managed to get round a corner at 45 the last time, what the hell was wrong with trying it at 50 this time? I am sorry. As far as I was concerned, the A5 was the Mulsanne Straight and the only way an 1100cc Vauxhall Viva was to sneak unexpectedly by the P6 Rover in front was by slipstreaming two inches from its back bumper and then popping out on a downhill stretch and beating it to the next blind corner. There must have been hundreds of middle aged duffers who, gratefully accepting slippers and journals from the mouths of faithful mutts, sank back into their wingbacks wondering what it must be like to drive with the consummate skill demonstrated by the young man in the Viva who had just forced them and their shiny jalopies through the roadside hedge and into the Leicestershire countryside.

My fun lasted exactly seven days. Having taken three attempts I was one of the last of my contemporaries to acquire their first wheels, mine were on loan from my mother, so it was a big group that I joined at the Globe Inn near Snarestone. I didn’t get the bonk I was by now pretty desperate for, but I’d enjoyed the beer and I was about to get all the excitement I could still walk away from. Having rather spectacularly failed to persuade the luscious Sally to explore the local highways, byways and secluded lay-bys with me, I decided that it would be rather cool to roar off into the setting sun in a cloud of swirling dust and tortured rubber. I am sure that Colin McRae could have done it. Or Vattenen. Any Finn at all really. But I wasn’t McRae. Or my brother come to think of it; if our surname was Schumacher, then I would be Ralph and he would be Michael, and my brother’s name really is Michael. And he lives in Germany. As far as I know, I have no Viking blood in me whatsoever so there was no way that I was going to get mother’s car through the quarry bends at over 60. Especially not with a couple or so of pints of Pedigree Best Bitter sloshing around inside me more or less where the seatbelt should have been.

The back tyres let go and the arse end smacked a telegraph pole spinning me across the road and into barriers that impeded an involuntary flight into the famous quarry, but well patinating the other side of the car in the process.

Have any of you seen that famous 1970 film, Le Mans? The bit where Steve McQueen in a Porsche skids out of control and rattles between the Armco before finally coming to rest and then sitting there, head bleeding, reliving every agonizing second of his sudden departure from the race while what’s left of his car steams gently away? The ticking of hot metal cooling? The smell? Well, it was exactly like that.

I vomited up the steering wheel and carefully extracted the handbrake lever and seat cushion from the ever so tight grip of my sphincter. Astonishingly, the car still ran and, even better, there had been no witnesses so the council could sort out the unexpected damage to their barriers by themselves and at leisure in the morning. 

I was too young to believe, or even understand, this delayed reaction stuff. I had survived, further proof to a juvenile mind of amazing motoring skill so what we now know as ‘Post Traumatic Stress Syndrome’ came as a bit of a shock to me. I was fine, my only concern the compilation of a plausible excuse. It was an accident, by definition an unexpected event the blame for which attached to forces beyond one’s control. A couple of hours later, however, I suffered severe injury as a direct result of the same accident. Oddly enough, about five minutes after my father arrived home and saw what I had done to the car.

My Mother did her best to protect me but my father was as fit and fast as a terrier and had the advantage of having survived a twenty year career in the Army so knew all the dirty tricks I had never even dreamt of. I didn’t stand a chance. Mind you, it did encourage me to learn the delicate art of body repair; firstly my own, although I will concede that Matron at the local cottage hospital and Mother Nature had hands in that; but then I had to fix the car I had so recently trashed. Amazing what sins can be hidden with the judicial use of a ball pein hammer, about a ton of body filler and all the Holt’s paint spray cans my paper round money would run to.

So all in all, I was lucky. And looking back on it, now that I am a father, so was my Dad. I had an accident, a scary one, and walked away from it. I had cost my Dad a lot of money. Bashed up and sagging with the weight of amateurishly applied body filler, the car was worthless but, even though I had behaved like a lunatic, I hadn’t killed anyone, I hadn’t killed myself and, most importantly, I had learned a lesson I would never forget.

Only a few years later, I passed my General Flying Test. I went solo in less than ten hours but doing so did not qualify me yet. Oh no. I had to complete a further 26 hours training before I was allowed to go for the test itself which qualified me for the most basic licence of all, the Private Pilot’s Licence. I could not fly at night, I could not fly into clouds, basically, I had at all times to be able to see where I was going. I could not fly fare paying passengers, anything with more than one engine or anything heavier than a Mini. I could not fly any other type of aircraft than the ones I had learnt in. If I fancied a change, I would have to pay for more lessons to qualify on type. To usefully progress, I would need many more hours of training to qualify for my instrument rating, night rating, multi-engine rating, commercial licence, the list goes on and on just as the costs rise. Everyone accepts that flying an aircraft is a major responsibility and only the competent should be allowed to do so. And yet UK law allows, should I have been so inclined and the necessary cash been available, to buy a car capable of three times the speed of the aircraft I was licenced to fly immediately after passing what is, let’s face it, quite a simple driving test. A few hours of instruction, a quick exam and the sky, or at least the horizon, is the limit. An aircraft doing 120mph in a wide open sky has to be far less dangerous than a Bugatti Veyron doing 300 mph on a crowded motorway. Less dangerous even, than a Ford Mondeo sticking to the speed limit. And yet the training requirements are so vastly different. I am not sure what most people think but I would say that a cursory comparison between the percentage of light aircraft that plough in and the percentage of vehicles that crash suggests that the Civil Aviation Authority are doing something right, and that the Department of Transport haven’t quite got the hang of things. All those hours and professional training to get the most basic of pilot’s licences yet a driver’s licence requires only a few hours pootling about, doesn’t even have to be a professional instructor, your Granny could teach you if she was inclined, followed by a quick run around the block with a DoT examiner and you are legal. No wonder parents are nervous when the law says it is OK for their adolescent and inexperienced off-spring to be in charge of a motor vehicle after only the most rudimentary preparation.

Nearly three decades on, and with my father long gone so no-one to turn to for advice, Dominic is on my heels. To be honest, it is probably a bed that I made for myself. At age two, he was driving around the garden in an electrically propelled jeep and, a couple of years later was clearly longing for more. By then we were back in Angola and, evidently taking complete leave of my senses, I took him to the new motorcycle dealership, the first one ever in Luanda. Naturally it had to be a Yamaha dealership and, of course, right in the middle of the showroom, sweetly lit by overhead 12 volt lighting and not nearly obscured enough by a large pot plant, was a PW50. Dominic leapt astride it and sat there. All went silent. Even the noisome salesman understood enough to keep his gob shut. For Dominic, the walls of the showroom were now transparent. The neighbouring blocks of flats had disappeared and all he could see was the long straight down to the first bend at Magny-Cours. He didn’t just want it, he needed it or he would expire in the next five minutes. I just happened to have enough beer tokens on hand, and enough of them inside me, to conclude the transaction.

As a father, of course I was very nervous. Anything that propels us faster than our legs can carry us is inherently dangerous and even our legs let us down occasionally (mine usually outside pubs, but so far such tumbles haven’t been fatal and I was invariably too anaesthetized to feel pain anyway). Dominic was determined to learn to ride a ‘bike and there was very little I could do to stop him. In a moment of lunacy, I had given him the means so now, instead of suddenly returning to the real world at the end of a half hour of Discovery Channel and wondering where in the house he might be, every five seconds I was darting to acute consciousness and wondering how many miles he had covered this time.

I was seventeen when I had my first and most serious accident. My son was four when he had his first and, let’s hope, most serious. Going full tilt on his PW50 (despite my advice; I am old and stupid in comparison to a young blood and should, therefore, be ignored), he failed to notice the lunatic hurtling in from his left and painfully smacked into the side of his car at, ooh, I don’t know, 20 miles an hour? Running a kid over here is seriously bad for one’s health so the driver of the then severely dented car was grateful to make it out of the neighbourhood with nothing more than a bit of phlegm on his windows and a few half empty beer cans bouncing off the bodywork as a highly partisan crowd of hitherto bored neighbours launched gleefully into the melee. Dominic was scared witless, not I suspect at the damage he’d caused but at how close to death he had been and an uncertainty about my reaction. So what should I have done? Beaten him half to death for his recklessness? The owner of the car damaged in the accident had no doubt learned not to risk driving irresponsibly in a residential area. The neighbours had ensured that I would not liable for any compensation. The damage to Dominic’s motorcycle was easily repairable and the cuts and abrasions he had suffered would be a salutary reminder, for a week or so at least while his body healed, of the folly of driving too fast for the conditions. I was sure that he had a new awareness of the dangers that can so unexpectedly thrust a stick in one’s spokes.

My father once caught me smoking. Instead of giving me the hiding I undoubtedly deserved, he sat me down on the sofa and suspecting, with some justification, that I had been at his spirits as well, poured me a very large glass of malt whisky. He then selected one of his larger cigars and made me smoke it and finish the scotch to the last drop. Neat, no water, no ice. I was fourteen at the time. I did feel ill afterwards but soon recovered. Sadly for my father, considering that his was a game and humane attempt to dissuade me from the evils of tobacco and alcohol by a man brought up as he had been with Victorian attitudes to discipline and, therefore, far more likely to resort to the rod, all he succeeded in doing was to provide me with a taste for fine malt and Cuban cigars, a taste I still have to this day. Nicotine and alcohol, although vices, are pleasurable pursuits the dangers of which are, especially for someone so young, completely incomprehensible. Are they not obviously enjoyed by so many? Not, however, by my father, who although had the odd drink and smoked a pipe, did neither to excess. Having suffered directly at the irrational and malevolent hands of an alcoholic and then watched him expire painfully as a result of emphysema and finally, the coup de grace, cancer. Sad then that his innovative attempt at child psychology should fail so miserably in this instance.

An accident, a near death experience, however, reminds us of how vulnerable and fragile we are. A youngster is, by nature, an optimist. Death is such an abstract notion and the possibility of it so far away that it rarely intrudes on the consciousness. And this is good. It is nature’s way of ensuring the survival of the species, of ensuring that there would be sufficient brave enough to poke a woolly mammoth in the ribs with flint tipped sticks to guarantee the survival of the larger group. The ability to appreciate the consequences of one’s actions is undeveloped when young. Necessarily so for if it were, the human race would have died out long ago having achieved nothing. We would have been a bunch of wimps beaten to extinction by a more aggressive species. The human race survives because of, not in spite of, the recklessness of youth as it has always been tempered by the guidance, the reining in of over exuberance, by the experienced. That is why the idea of raising the age before which one can drive is silly. I advocate lowering it. I am in favour of raising the age before one can legally drink alcohol to 21 as it is widely accepted by an experienced medical profession that early exposure to alcohol vastly increases the likelihood of developing some form of alcohol dependency later on in life, the consequences of which are profound. I am a heavy smoker but am 100% in favour of any and all legislation that limits smoking. It is never too early, however, to gain useful experience, the kind that will develop maturity, the appreciation of the consequences of one’s behaviour. Driving is not a vice it is almost a necessity, a part of modern living. I do not need to smoke or drink to earn my living but without a car I would be stuffed. Raising the age barrier will only serve to delay the inevitable. What parent has any real influence on a 17 year old, let alone a 19 or 21 year old? If these youngsters have not learnt the lessons their parents can provide before being wracked by hormonal changes, then there is an ever decreasing probability that they can seriously influence their child’s behaviour thereafter.

I am generalising of course as there will always be exceptions. Legislation is a very blunt tool, a sort of ‘one size fits all’ but in this case, I feel rather than achieve its noble aim of reducing the accident rate amongst young drivers, it will have little effect and cause a great deal of frustration and dissent. Seventeen? Twenty-one? Whatever age they start, when they first take to the roads, they will still be inexperienced. The proposed legislation rests on the assumption that all seventeen year olds are irresponsible and must, therefore, be excluded from the highways. Nonsense. Some are irresponsible of course. The majority, however, are good, honest citizens who just want to get on in life and enjoy all it’s benefits. The only thing they lack, through no fault of their own, is the sense of responsibility that only guidance and experience can develop.

In the old days, and certainly when I first learnt to ride a motorcycle, a sixteen year old could ride a 50cc moped. To all intents and purposes, a motorcycle but limited in its performance by its tiny capacity and the power it could produce. At seventeen, however, there was no limit and having passed a simple test, the young blade could then ride a motorcycle of the biggest capacity he could afford and capable, in some cases, of ridiculous speeds. Not surprisingly, the death rate amongst young riders was horrific. Recognising this, some sensible legislation, modified over the years, was introduced. Essentially, power output of the ‘bike is limited according to entitlement and experience. I am over simplifying the regulations but basically, it takes two years of riding and various tests before the full entitlement to ride whatever you want can be achieved. The age limit wasn’t raised, a sixteen year old can still get astride a ‘bike, even if of meagre performance, it will just take longer to get that unrestricted licence. Now, instead of the majority of motorcycle related deaths being in the 17 to 21 year old bracket, it is riders in their thirties. Why? Well simple, really. The new laws that have done so much to force teenagers to learn as safely as possible, have completely ignored that it is experience not age that counts by providing a fast track to the full licence for the over 21’s. The typical motorcycle casualty these days is the individual who, having secured a stable career, has met his obligations to his family, is in control of his expenditure (and is finally enjoying some disposable income), and now wishes to let his hair down a bit and revel in the last of his youth. Nothing sexier than the latest Honda Fireblade or Ducati, is there? They are not going to buy the 50cc Yamaha FS1E that I learnt to ride on and get some experience under their belt. They can afford the very best, the fastest and most powerful exotics in the showroom and passing the test is easy. Sadly, enjoying the last of their youth is exactly what all too many do. Right up until they plough into the Armco at 150mph. Or even 30mph. Losing control can be fatal at any speed. Age has bugger all to do with experience.

Instead of raising the age at which a person can get behind the wheel, they should lower it to sixteen. At sixteen, as with motorcycles, an individual should be allowed to obtain a provisional licence. For cars, this would entitle them to attend a basic vehicle handling course delivered by a registered institute after which, accompanied by a full licence holder, they may drive vehicles of limited weight and power output on public highways. This would allow parents to let their children, once they are sixteen and have passed the basic handling course, to chauffer them to the shops and on any other trips they need to make. At seventeen, their offspring may apply for a test, which, if they pass, would allow them to drive the same vehicles of limited weight and power output unaccompanied for two years at which point they would be allowed to take their final test. The successful completion of this would then entitle them to drive whatever they, or their benefactors could afford. The only exemption that an older student driver could enjoy is the requirement to drive for one year accompanied by a full licence holder. They would still, however, have to attend the basic handling course, followed by the usual series of driving lessons before taking the intermediate test allowing them to drive restricted vehicles for two years. If I know young people at all, the chance of getting behind the wheel at sixteen, even if it means being accompanied by a nagging co-driver, would be irresistible and there would be a high percentage that would take advantage of the opportunity, much to their own ultimate benefit and that of other road users. 

I could go on and suggest that persistent offenders, those convicted of several speeding offences, driving without due care and attention or reckless driving should face the threat of having to re-enter the system. There is no question that an individual convicted of driving under the influence of alcohol or drugs should be banned without hesitation but it is sometimes hard for a magistrate to hand down a sentence for a lesser offence which would effectively preclude that person from using the means necessary for him to earn his crust. Under the system I propose, however, it would be a damn sight easier for the same magistrate to limit a person’s access to powerful cars if the accused has clearly demonstrated his lack of maturity behind the wheel. Condemning an irresponsible Porsche owner, whatever his age, to driving an Aygo for two years is going to hurt. His pride for a start and definitely his lifestyle but it would not prejudice his ability to live or, more importantly, support his family. Having to sell his Porsche and stand in the queue at a Toyota dealership would leave a lasting impression.

And there are other advantages. Such legislation would create a demand for smaller, lighter, less powerful and, therefore, less polluting vehicles. As far as I can see, both sides of the political spectrum, Labour with their congestion charges and anti 4x4 legislation, and the Conservatives with their new green veneer, would welcome any initiative that encourages more efficient vehicles onto the roads, at least for the two years that all new drivers would need them. Similarly, manufacturers love a captive market and would respond with the development of increasingly innovative vehicles that, while within the constraints of legislation, would attract the novice driver. Insurance underwriters would love it. Instead of having to cover the risks posed by inexperienced drivers causing mayhem with powerful cars, they could sleep easier at night knowing that a significant portion of the risk they must cover has been mitigated and the lower premiums have not affected their bottom line. Overworked and under funded accident and emergency departments of hospitals would enjoy some relief, with the resultant reduced demand on strained finances. Parents might be able to relax, at least a little.

I can see it now. Loads of small, safe, efficient cars running around with stereos more powerful than their engines, the driver’s of which are all the time gaining the experience that will allow them to enjoy themselves in the future without endangering their own health or that of other citizens.

So there it is, a simple choice. Raise the age limit for a licence and see hordes of crazed 21 year olds going mad or start them off early and gently. I say, don’t raise the limit, lower it and let our kids gain the experience they need as early as possible. Rather than legislate to delay the inevitable, face it as early as possible. But responsibly.

Wednesday 23 May 2007


Oh Daddy! When are we going to get to the Hippo?

Which Hippo son?

The Hippo, the Hippo in the story!

Patience my boy, there’s plenty of time. The Hippo comes near the end.

Well let’s go straight to the end then!

Why do you want to wish the story away? Aren’t you enjoying it?

Yes, but we can always go back.

That, son, is something we can never do.

Tuesday 22 May 2007

On Top Gear

I have been reading Jeremy Clarkson’s articles ever since the early 90’s. My itinerant lifestyle means that I am very rarely in a position to buy the magazines that publish his musings so I rely for my weekly fix on the internet, especially the Times on line to which he is a regular contributor. Satellite TV allows me to enjoy what for me, is one of the best entertainment shows ever; incisive wit riding on a motoring theme combining two things that invariably put me in a very good mood, humour and exotic cars. The last thing I want when I settle down to a Sunday evening’s viewing before another week of hard slog then, is mind numbingly dull reviews of run-of-the-mill family saloons. I am surrounded by them every day on my way to work. The last time I was in any way inspired by a programme of that ilk was when Rula Lenska leant over the back seat of the car she was reviewing to demonstrate the roominess of that part of the vehicle's interior. I can assure you, it wasn't the contours of the split folding rear seats that entranced me.

No other motoring show has ever been so successful and therein lies a problem. So many still try to categorise it as a motoring programme when quite clearly it is entertainment and lifestyle; the entertainment being the antics, and the lifestyle the exotica most of us can only dream about. Why is it then, that a programme should be censured for not appealing to the masses, even though it attracted over eight million viewers in UK alone? I would be no more interested in a holiday programme, just as an off the cuff example, that claimed guest houses in Blackpool and donkey rides on the beach as its high points than a wee small hours of the morning Open University dissertation on yak farming on a ping-pong ball. I want exotic sun drenched villas and scantily clad maids dripping in sun tan oil. So why must I sacrifice elements of the show I enjoy so much so that a few anoraks can marvel at the fact that the latest Hyundai is fourpence cheaper than a Daewoo on a run through the town centre to Sainsbury’s and back?

No wonder Mr Clarkson is depressed.

And if anyone is in any doubt as to his state of mind, read the last couple of months or so of his articles in the Timesonline. Mr. Clarkson, nil illigitum carborundum, my friend, nil iligitum…

As with any delightful new experience, its devotees want more. That’s why people overdose; once they get used to one high, they want ever increasing ecstasy and if they can’t get it they become bored, boring or, much to the relief of those around them, kill themselves. After so many years, it must be increasingly difficult to come up with the fresh ideas needed to feed such widespread addiction. A significant change could very well be disastrous and ratings tumble. You are only as good as your last job so who wants to preside over the demise of a success? Certainly not Mr Clarkson who despite, or maybe because of, his morbid preoccupation with his fast approaching half-century, is still worried about the need to earn his crust for a few years more at least. I could not imagine the anguish of a man who contributed so much to the success of a programme overhearing the pub conversation dismissing Top Gear with, 'Oh, yeah, TG. Used to be good but isn't it boring now?'

Perhaps it is this uncertainty that manifests itself as brief, but worryingly persistent rumours of JC's departure, evident doubts over the tenth series format and content, and an uncertainty as to when it will finally be aired. I am writing from the middle of Africa so if any of these issues have been resolved already then I apologise for my ignorance but right now, from where I am sitting, it all looks so unnecessarily glum. I can understand, though, that having attempted to shoot a Reliant Robin into space and ski jumped a Mini, it is going to be hard to top that sort of outrageous drama.

Maybe a brief hiatus then. Less of the really crazy stuff that demands ever increasing doses of the utterly audacious, the formulation of which no doubt taxes the creativity and imagination of content managers and scares lawyers and insurance brokers witless. But what to fill the void with? Staid reviews of tin clothed motorised roller skates? Please no!

Top Gear has three good presenters. Clearly defined individuals in their own right. Eloquent and articulate, maybe some of their own interests could be exploited? I could imagine James May presenting an ‘old’ classic which, by name and commonality alone would realise very little if sold, yet the owner has spent a fortune restoring it to a breathtakingly new and, more importantly, modernised condition providing a contra point to the current crop of faux retro offerings from the motor industry. There are enough ‘eccentrics’ about who have done so. I can imagine him highlighting the best, unsung heroes, cars that really should have done better but for whatever reason never achieved the high demand they merited. The bargain buys. That should go someway to alleviate the thirst of those that long for car reviews and the lust of many who want a lifestyle they really cannot afford.

The ‘Hamster’ is evidently very interested in all things scientific. I am sure that he could come up with some very interesting video articles on the latest innovations, the weirder and zanier the better. And what about addressing the conundrum of youngsters who want the sexiest wheels on the planet, for severely limited financial outlay; and their parents who prefer their offspring to drive the safest, most boring car ever? How about getting a representative sample of cars and an equally representative sample of new drivers (remembering that girls will think differently to boys and Vive la Difference) and letting them decide? That would go even further to satisfy the review hungry, appeal to an up and coming future audience and I am sure that in the hands of the Top gear presenters, it would be bloody amusing. Maintain Mr Hammond’s credentials as the fastest man on Top Gear (or is that Captain Slow since the Veyron?) and get him to drive a Formula 1 car, or an Indy car, how about a Nascar?

Let Jeremy continue his assault on the lunatic fringe that man the barricades of political correctness. Let him answer the questions that many of us have, those whose mortgages are now thankfully paid off and have rediscovered disposable income and now want to know what they should buy. Is there a new car out there that would fit the bill or should it be Jeremy’s nemesis, God forbid, a beautifully restored classic?

Critics say the programme bears little relationship to reality, encourages a yob culture and is politically incorrect. The first two criticisms are utter nonsene but I cannot deny that TG is wildly PC insensitive. I do relish, however, the fact that at least someone has the couraqge to fling the garbage back in the faces of the severely mentally challenged, arrogant twits who tell us what is correct. Nevertheless, it wouldn’t hurt to involve the public more. Clearly, eight million viewers are not sufficient endorsement (the head of BBC must be bewildered by the unfairness of it all), so get some of the public in front of the cameras and onto our screens. It is good to see the interaction in the studio between audience and presenters; even better to let a lucky few get their hands on the cars. Now wouldn’t that be absolutely compatible with a programme designed to make us dream? There’s a limited number of ‘Stars’ out there but an awful lot of normal folk, the hard working man-on-the-street joe now used to interactive programmes, reality TV and instant on-line surveys. Get some of them involved, after all, it is these same citizens who have come out in the defence of a damn good programme.

Top Gear obviously likes to travel so how about showing us some of the best drives in the world? And I don’t mean the usual crop of Italian alpine curves or romanticised US highways, I mean the best in the world. And those of us that have travelled, I mean really travelled, all know of such places. Top Gear is a global phenomenon now so why not appeal to a global audience. There may be occasions when Jeremy would need reminding that when in Rome, especially if the locals carry AK 47’s, it might be better not to poke a verbal stick in their eyes but his commentary would still undoubtedly be hilarious. If he cheers up, that is.

I see plenty of mileage in Top Gear but it might have to get off the Autostrada and explore a few more B roads but please, please don’t let it turn into a pastiche of the really inane 5th Gear or a TV equivalent of ‘What Car?’ Like I said, Top Gear is entertainment. It provides an hour-long weekly escape from the day to day drudgery that most people have to endure.

There are over eight million in UK and a whole bunch more abroad who like Top Gear as it is. For those few who don't, there are dozens of other channels out there, both terrestial and satellite and the average four year old can help you switch between them so there is no excuse really. No-one has tied you to a chair with telephone flex and is forcing you to watch Top Gear. If you still insist on statistics, go into Smith’s or Exclusive Books and look around. There’s shelf loads of it and for a few quid, you can exercise your God given right to overdose without boring the rest of us to death.

Sunday 20 May 2007

The Cat's Paw

Managed to contact a lawyer through the local German ‘mafia’, the expat group who stick together like super-glued flesh of which, by birth I am an honary if not terribly active member. Naturally, a man as busy and corpulently successful as Herr 'T' would only see me on a Saturday if I bought him lunch, and being Bavarian this included 5 litres (yes, I was quite impressed as well) of Bitburger Pilsner. I didn't even know they sold it here, whcih is probably why he insisted on choosing the restaurant as well.

The long and the short of it is that it is vital that the divorce is not contested. Otherwise, she could go for half of everything again. That'll teach me to laugh at guys like Richard Burton but at least Mr Burton masochistically repeatedly married his wife thereby legalising his subsequent flaying. I have paid out once already and am still trying to get the same four year process concluded and yet there always seems to be just one more, invariably costly impediment that must be surmounted. It is like hiking in the Alps. You go cantering and singing over the crest of, ooh, I don't know, about the thousandth hill so far only to discover that all these highly paid experts have somehow forgotten to tell you about the sodding great mountain that still sits between your exhausted body and Switzerland. Sound of Music? There is something noisily rushing through my mind at the moment but it has more homicidal than poetic overtones. Naturally, the lawyer confirmed all my worst fears by explaining to me that his practice would fight loyally on my exclusive behalf and that everything would go OK...unless I ran out of money.

In my favour, I have kept everything out of my name. On the bad side, the court will want to see my bank statements. Bad enough with the amount of money I have pushed through it of my own but bloody disastrous when all the company money that went through it to build the site is noted. Try convincing an Angolan court faced with a foreign plaintiff and an Angolan respondent that none of that was mine. I think I need to take the bank manager out for lunch. I think I will be buying a lot of people lunch in the coming few weeks...

I was hoping to file my accounts and reports to head office today so that I can finally go on leave tomorrow. Server’s down. I have rung Dubai and they assure me that they will get me on line again. In the meantime, I am idling around mainly trying to stop Dominic, who is with me at the moment, setting fire to anything. He’s unfortunately a chip off the old block and shows all the signs of being a true pyromaniac. And while he doesn’t know what to do with them once he has won them over, he regularly charms the wits out of a seemingly never ending series of highly attractive women. Yesterday it was the Chinese waitress in the restaurant. God she was stunning. Took him about five minutes to get her name and telephone number. Not bad considering that her command of either English or Portuguese was about as good as Dominic’s Mandarin Chinese. Sitting opposite a cynical Teutonic lawyer, I did my best to keep up the pretence of being a responsible, cruelly cuckolded husband all the while that Dominic exhibited every sign of being a highly trained hound bringing the best birds home to its master. Believe me, if it hadn’t been for the presence of the worst kind of witness and with Marcia locked up in a tower for safe keeping by her family and all, relief of the sort that Dominic was arranging and I could have so easily closed in on would have been particularly welcome. Having to accept the addition of frustration to my list of woes is particularly irritating. All the accommodation on the site is full so I cannot nick a spare mattress out of one of the other rooms and at eight, Dominic is well able to fight for his space in the bed so I slept on the floor of the container, separated from hard, unyielding steel by only a millimetre or so of linoleum. It was a rotten night not helped by the dogs who, loyally intent on demonstrating that they at least still loved me and delighted that I should choose to sleep with them, tried to lick me to death and shared everything they had with me, including foul breath, buckets of saliva and clearly starving ticks.

Just received a phone call from the lawyer. I must pay him $5,000 before we can pass ‘Go’, and to get round the board, so long as I do not land on any community chest or go to jail squares, will cost me another 10-15, just his ‘legal’ fees you understand. Gulp. I told him to get on with it. Odd isn’t it? I was hoping that the whole deal wouldn’t cost me much more than five grand but took 20 out of the bank on Friday. Bastard must have been hiding behind the pot plants.

Is 14.00 too early to start on the scotch?

Oh, what the hell.

Friday 18 May 2007

Semper in excremento sum, solum profunditas mutat

‘Always in the shit, only the depth varies’ should be my motto.

The equable division of assets

Realising I had better do something fast to sort out the Marcia issue, I felt it about time to fix bayonets and come out of the trench fighting. I wouldn’t just tackle the ‘Pedido’ issue, I would get to the root of it and file for divorce. I realise that one of the consequences may be my deportation from the country but I am trusting on the support of friends and, hopefully, my soon to be won over new family to avoid such a calamity. Like those poor bastards on the Somme, though, I have run straight into a withering hail of machine gun fire.

What I needed was a decent lawyer. Choosing a lawyer has to be about as scary as choosing the means by which one will be tortured. Do we prefer the bamboo splints under the fingernails or the wet towel over the face? Perhaps a good beating with rubber hoses or a toasting over hot coals? However horrible, if the pain is defined and anticipated, one can at least prepare for it. In this case, all I have to aid me in my choice is a series of nameplates on doors, the potential horrors within completely unknown to me but enhanced by nervous imagination.

I am really frightened of lawyers. They seem to have the finely honed skill of assessing their victim’s, I mean client’s worth and then exhausting all of that in the pursuit of an increasingly academic outcome. Securing the divorce their client wanted may be another success for them but the fact that their client is now ruined doesn’t seem to count against them. A victory is a victory, even if it was a Pyrrhic one. Perhaps this is why I have left it four years before finally taking the plunge.

First thing I did was to ring my wife.

I was pathetic. The last thing a wife wants to hear is their estranged husband bleating on about how much he loves his girlfriend and how he only wants to build a new life with her. For no matter how long said husband has been with said girlfriend, as far as wife is concerned, the silly girl is just the latest in a no doubt long string of doomed alliances and merely further justification of her decision to leave said husband in the first place. Naively bearing one’s chest like that only gives her one more opportunity to stab it with a bread knife.

Reeling on my back foot, I hung in there and eventually an agreement was reached. Naturally, all costs are down to me. The wording of the paragraph in the petition dealing with custody of my son will have to be formulated with the delicacy and careful eloquence that would tax a trained and experienced diplomat.

Having been given the green light, I now had to appoint a lawyer. With so much riding on the outcome, I lacked the courage to make the decision by myself so solicited the advice of those few trusted friends I have here. As they are all normal, well balanced individuals, other than for business matters, none of them has had any experience dealing with lawyers in the resolution of personal issues. They could also recognise a mine field when they saw one and none of them wanted the moral burden of a recommendation that could so easily go horribly wrong. Polite and sympathetic as they all were, not one was willing to make any kind of commitment and I received only the vaguest references. Oh, they all seemed only to eager to man the dressing station and patch me up if I survived but the final assault on enemy positions would be my honour. Essentially, I was on my own.

In the years that I have been here advising clients on asset protection and risk management, I have made a few contacts and am aware of some of the more reputable legal firms. Most of them are affiliated to Portuguese firms and support the various industries here in Angola. Not one of them, not one, would touch a divorce in Angola. It is hard to remain confident when, having delivered my protestations that I had the assurance of my wife that the divorce would be uncontested so it was merely a bit of form filling and filing, I saw the man on the other side of the desk barely able to hide an incredulous sneer at my evident naivety.

The subsequent conversation always went something like this:

‘So you separated over four years ago?’


‘And this separation was confirmed by a Notary Public and registered with the court?’


‘I see.’

At this point the lawyer would fiddle with the papers on his desk, avoiding eye contact, preferring to glance instead at the door through which he was no doubt praying his clerk would emerge to breathlessly remind him of that ever so important appointment with the Minister now waiting for him in his chambers. The clerk, of course, would fail to appear and the lawyer would sigh.

‘You married under the regime of ‘Communiao de Bens’ (joint assets)’.

‘Yes, but at the time of the separation I paid my wife out. I gave her the house in Maianga and I sold the house in Cape Town’

‘And these payments and transfers of title were recorded and duly notarised by a Notary Public?’


Now there was no disguising the look of utter stupefaction on the man’s face.

‘Since this, erm,' his eyes searched the room for the right phrase, 'non-legalised separation, you have made investments?’

‘Well, yes of course, I have the house in Benfica, the farm, another big plot in Benfica and I am buying a riverside plot on the Rio Kwanza.’

I could see him doing a quick mental calculation.

‘And your wife, how much is she worth, do you think?’

‘Haven't the foggiest idea. Apart from the house, not much I would have thought.’

‘You see the point I am making?’ He studied me carefully as a schoolmaster would a particularly dim-witted pupil, in an attempt to discern any kind of comprehension whatsoever.

Despite what I had previously felt about lawyers, these were reputable individuals that had no desire to preside over the financial destruction of a client.

‘I really hope that your divorce will be uncontested but, sadly, we find ourselves unable to take you on. I really do wish you the best of luck’

And they were sincere, I am sure of it. I am also convinced that they were left incapable of understanding how anyone, with even the remotest modicum of common sense, could allow themselves to be so exposed. In a nutshell, it was because I was scared of losing access to my son. This isn’t my world. I am a very small fish in a large, very strange pond predominantly inhabited by predators. Hiding in the weeds has kept me alive so far but only served to delay the inevitable. Perhaps I wasn’t hiding in the weeds all this time after all. Maybe I was just dancing on the end of a hook. I will find a lawyer and I can only hope that small as I am, and at my age, I can still swim as fast as I am going to have to over the next few months.

My current motto may have proved singularly appropriate to me. I wish, though, it had been, ‘Semper letteris mandate’.

PS: On the subject of awful latin, 'Divorce' is latin for 'extracting a man's wallet through his penis'

Devon Sims, aged six.

Sky News is the TV equivalent of the high street rags referred to as ‘Red Tops’, those daily journals with the lurid headlines that accuse you from the newspaper stands in the same way that equally illiterate morons emphasise every other sentence in emails using block capitals. Like the Red Tops, Sky News is very popular and on my site, democracy (unless I lose patience and put my foot down) generally rules so if it isn’t sport, then it’s Sky News that blares out of the satellite TV system. Any man that has been married more than a few years will have learnt to shut out unwelcome intrusions so I can happily conduct my day to day affairs oblivious of the constant, dire drivel of in your face, jump straight into the living room style journalism that characterises the network.

For the last two weeks, however, I have watched with increasing dismay, the coverage of the Madeleine McCann abduction. Instead of taking tea in my room every morning, I am now jumping out of the shower, dressing hurriedly and slurping my breakfast down while glued to the screen hoping like mad that I will see the breaking news banner announcing the little girl’s safe return to her anguished parents. Instead, it’s a feeding frenzy. The London studio has been emptied of its ‘top’ journalists (I say that in the loosest sense) and we are treated to live, on location reporting at its disgusting, vile worst. I have no doubt that the intense media interest will put pressure on the poor Portuguese police to redouble their efforts but, if I know the Portuguese, their love of family and all its values, they would be doing all they could anyway. Their own population would demand it. Such crimes are almost unheard of in Portugal and I can understand to a certain extent how the Portuguese press, reflecting popular opinion, suggests that this heinous crime could not possibly have been committed by a Portuguese national. And yet, completely forgetting so many equivalents that ended in tragedy and grief in UK, the British press have lambasted the Portuguese authorities for inefficiency and have completely ignored the constraints of the laws under which they operate. Laws, I might add, that do nothing to inhibit the ability of the police to investigate, indeed enhance it, and do much to protect the rights of the individual. If, as a policeman, I reacted to a tip off and kicked a citizen’s door in only to subsequently discover that the information was flawed, it is a damn sight easier to apologise to the individual and pay for a new door than see his whole life destroyed and his wife and children permanently traumatised by seeing their daddy’s photograph in all the papers under headlines proclaiming him all but tried and guilty of some disgusting crime. Shit sticks, even to the innocent and Sky are tossing a lot of it around. And none of it is helping the police to concentrate on the job in hand, which, surely, has to be more important than ratings? As a policeman desperately trying to find a poor little girl, I would love to operate in secrecy. Just see how many bloody doors I would kick in then.

Two weeks of this has left me feeling desperately sorry for the family, terribly concerned for the welfare of the child, pity for the Portuguese authorities and completely nauseated by Sky News.

Just when I thought that they had got to the very bottom of the sleaze barrel, they come up with Devon Sims. This is a Sky News exclusive. It could be exclusive because of the keen investigative journalism of the Sky News rep in China. It could be that Mr Sims approached Sky News for help in publicising his plight. It could also be that no reputable news agency was willing to touch the story in the manner it was finally aired. The end result, however, is that Sky got its story, and Mr Sims was left wandering down the road, clutching his son’s hand, no doubt into a heap of trouble and probably the waiting arms of the Chinese police.

For those of you that are unfamiliar with the Sims case, Devon Sims is the six year old son of a British businessman and his now estranged Chinese wife. Sims senior has been working in China for over a decade and during that time he married a Chinese girl and had a son. Sadly, two years after the birth, the marriage fell apart. Even though the Chinese courts granted visitation rights, he has not been able to see his son for four years and has now resorted to kidnapping his boy off the street near to his school. While the Sims case cannot match the McCann case for tragedy, the report, or the manner of its reporting, was just as cynical. In addition, the parallels between Mr Sims situation and mine are uncanny.

I too, live in a foreign country. I also married a local girl and had a son. My marriage also broke down leaving me to tussle for access. Immediately after the break up, with boiling blood and no common sense whatever, I left the country with my son and returned to England. I was now jobless and the sight of my boy wandering forlornly around the garden in a strange country broke my heart. Whatever happened between his parents, he still had the right to see both of us. I got on the plane and flew back.

Mr Sims may have thought that the British Ambassador in Beijing could help him. Sky News were evidently aware of Mr Sims imminent arrival in Beijing on the night express since they were there to film it. Selecting that day to turn up at the embassy could not have been a coincidence with the UK Foreign Secretary, Margaret Beckett due to give a press conference at the embassy later in the afternoon. Mr Sims, obviously at the end of his tether and under increasing stress as the full realisation of what he has done dawns on him, could be excused for assuming that the Ambassador could do something for him. Sky may argue that they have provided valuable publicity for the Sims’ plight but they really should have known better than to be complicit in an act that will severely undermine Mr Sims’ position. Mr Sims could very likely go to jail. He will lose his job, if he hasn’t already lost it and will lose all rights to Devon. There would be no chance of him ever being allowed to holiday in UK with the boy. One may argue that he wasn’t enjoying any of his rights anyway so what other course of action was open to him? Just because it seems that all options have been exhausted cannot be an excuse for resorting to an act not only illegal, but self-defeating and with no chance of success. A far better story would have been the Sky news reporter dissuading Mr Sims from prosecuting the act and then accompanying Mr Sims to the Embassy so that he could hear for himself how, under the circumstances, it would be extraordinarily difficult for the British to intervene on his behalf. To be seen to support a felon, as Mr Sims is now, would be impossible for the British authorities. Had Sky prevented the crime and then used its influence to gain an audience with the Ambassador for Mr Sims, it could have set the scene for quiet diplomatic negotiation and still provide all the publicity desired. And what of the boy? Devon is at the heart of all this and one must question whether any of this is in his best interests. Hard though it is, in such situations parents must set aside their own feelings and be prepared to sacrifice certain ‘rights’. To be near my son, I have resigned myself to a life here in Angola and I will make the best of it. When the boy is sixteen, he can decide for himself.

The reporting in both cases, the McCanns and the Sims is shocking and shows a cynical disregard for the victims. Instead of concentrating on looking for Madeleine, the Portuguese police now have to divert valuable resources in managing the media to prevent their investigation being scuppered by indiscrete revelations. The degree of collusion in the commission of an ill-conceived and illegal act in China will never be known but again, the reporting was irresponsible. Whose interests are being served? The poor families involved? The right to know of viewers? Or simply ratings?

There is not much that I can do except hope and pray for both families. And stop watching Sky News.