Thursday 18 March 2010


Lamenting the fact I was no longer a Black Pouched Pistol Packer, I gazed out of the window for inspiration

CZ 83. Works straight out of the box

I have just heard from Nicholas Shaxson, a friend of mine for the last fifteen years, the man who encouraged me to start this blog. He’s given me a sharp poke in the ribs for being so lazy so here I go again.

I met Nicholas in 1994 in Luanda when I had the good fortune to check into the same wonderful old guesthouse where he and another poverty stricken stringer, Chris Simpson were staying.

The Hotel Avenida is next door to the Centro de Imprensa, the Press Centre, the only place at the time where one stood even the remotest chance of getting an international connection or sending a fax, located in a side street under the shadow of the Ministry of Foreign Relations where, in 1976 the Angolans tried and convicted three British and one US mercenary executing them by firing squad soon after a fair trial, and opposite the rather optimistically named Café de Paris. More importantly, it was cheap.

It was straight from the pages of a Graham Greene novel with its wide mahogany central staircase and colonial architecture. Think of the Hotel Trianon without the lush tropical gardens but still with earnest looking young men in mirror shades clutching AK47's in the lobby and street, along with a strange assortment of visitors and you get the idea. Chico, the owner, was no Richard Burton but was as much of a character in ways that would, had Mr Burton emulated, been grounds for yet another divorce and quite a few videos in the scandalous section of the yet to be conceived ‘You Tube’.

There was only a breakfast room so for lunch, we had to walk to one of the few cafes within striking distance where paying in Dollars could get you arrested by the Economic Police who seemed always to outnumber the clientele. For dinner, we would stroll to the Hotel Tropico on the road up to Kinaxixi, not to eat there, it was far too expensive for us, but to buy chicken grilled on charcoal braziers at the road side and drink beer that arrived on demand by a bucket on a string from the flat of the local entrepreneur several floors above.

The short walk entailed, however, at least half a dozen demands for papers from alternating police and military checkpoints or, frankly, anyone else who decided he did not like the look of us or was simply short of cigarette money. Much to the consternation of my colleagues I tired of this and stopped carrying my documents choosing the inevitable verbal duels instead. I believe Chris set up a sweepstake betting on how long I would last. Fatalism seemed to be endemic in Angola back then.

Next to the Tropico and, I have to confess, more of an attraction than chewy road kill and warm beer, was the sort of steamy night club that seemed to draw in everything from itinerant oil workers to mercenaries (the ‘Black Pouched Pistol Packers’ described by Karl Maier in an article for one of the US broadsheets). I once saw a Russian (NIET! I am not spy. I am correspondent for Pravda!) towed at speed several hundred yards down the street after a couple of opportunists in a Corolla tried to snatch his bag as they drove past us. We that remained didn’t see the final outcome but he was back presently with a bit of road rash and his bag. None of us had the courage to ask. Whatever blood that hadn’t already been replaced by Vodka was boiling.

There were also a fair few individuals of various nationalities who mysteriously described themselves as ‘Accredited Trade Attaches’ and, of course, the Journos. If you wanted to know what was going on in a country as dictatorial and mad as Alice’s wonderland, you went there. Or the French Club. But that’s definitely another story. I can say this without fear of contradiction. Back then, there were more guns in Angola than cars. Even the bandits would have to steal a car before they could pull off a heist. Something they did with almost monotonous regularity spawning a massive security industry and, paradoxically, yet more guns.

Thankfully, all this has changed and most of us have moved on. Chris I know not where but over the years, rather like the soul soothing sensation a familiar vista evokes after a long time away, he pops up every now and again. Nicholas appears to have lost his itchy feet somewhat and settled down in Zurich (he's clearly not a petrol head; Switzerland?), and has found the time to encourage two children to spring from his loins, has had one book published and is finishing off another, no doubt equally well researched.

‘Poisoned Wells’, his first, was a very good, thought provoking read so I am looking forward to the next one. I recommended Poisoned Wells to Hazel Hector, a Senior Official for the Department of Trade and Industry visiting Angola for the first time when I was fortunate enough to be seated next to her at dinner at the Embassy the other week. Unlike some of the visiting civil servants I have met, she was bubbly and intelligent and had the courage to ask all the right questions and make more than a few perceptive observations of her own, which got even a cynical old bastard like me thinking. She is a vegetarian but then again, no-one’s perfect.

Given that there is no such thing as a free meal I recognise that the small guest list was comprised of those Brits who have spent some time here and are in business, the idea being we were to give Ms. Hector an idea of not only how to do business in one of the fastest growing economies of the world but the opportunities and pitfalls as well. So I hope the Ambassador will forgive me when I confess that the animated conversation he observed between Hazel and I across his table had nothing to do with Angola but ranged from Glasgow tenements through John le Carre and on to a common familiarity with Berlin.

The new Ambassador is great. He had the foresight to buy up loads of whisky, shoved it into old port casks and has been hoarding them for fifteen years now. With that kind of foresight, patience and taste, he will be a great asset to the Foreign Service in Angola. I have seen so many come out here for a short two year tour only to see them crushed when they realise they are not going to teach these wily Angolans anything. At least this Ambassador will be able to demonstrate that, just because it says on the label that Chivas is 12 years old, it is still undrinkable in comparison to a well matured malt. It may do a lot for small distillery exports from Scotland but, standing in the Embassy garden under the same tree that Livingstone did all those years ago it would be ironic to reflect that the most recent civilising influence the British will impart has nothing to do with abstinence.

Although not usually indecisive, nine months gestation (or at least the time between his wife exiting the bathroom clutching one of those little white sticks with two accusing blue stripes across the window, and the subsequent birth) appeared insufficient for Nicholas to decide on a name for his latest. I can imagine that in a country infamous for its ramp of legislation and enforced cuckoo clock efficiency, this was simply unacceptable to the authorities and, indeed, Nicholas was given an ultimatum. Pressed, he came up with ‘George’.

Living in Switzerland, it would have been unbelievably Kitschy to have settled on William, a similarly regal name, although it would have made it incredibly easy for me to choose a christening present. I would simply have bought the lad a crossbow.

Now George isn’t a bad name. Granted, England had a King called George who was so mad he shook hands with a tree, mistaking it for the King of Prussia and never noticed that he had lost a trivial colony, subsequently called the United States. But, all in all, it sounds the sort of name that evokes images of nannies and private education.

The authorities in Switzerland appear no different to those here. Unlike Nicholas, I had my son’s name chosen from conception: Alexander. Come the day though, the Cuban trained bureaucrat told me that Alexander was not Angolan enough. It had taken Marcia and I weeks to get to this desk clutching the forlornly limp collection of now very clammy 'necessary' documents to register him so, lamenting the fact I was no longer a Black Pouched Pistol Packer, I gazed out of the window at the street below trying desperately to think of an Angolan name.

‘How about "Autocarro"?' I said. ‘Autocarro’ is Portuguese for ‘Bus’. I find it quite romantic that Native Americans call their children after the first thing they see after the birth. Why do you ask, Two Dogs Shagging?

‘Now you are being ridiculous', Comrade Stalina snapped, nay, spat.

'And you aren't?'

At that point Marcia dived in and after a heartfelt and sincere apology from me delivered through gritted teeth, we got away with 'Allessandro'.

Now to me, that sounds a real sissy’s name. It’s the sort of name that is usually uttered by those with a lisp, the kind who always look gawky, have labels around their necks so they can ask a nice policeman the way home and have their tongues permanently resting on their lower teeth. Instead of ‘Alexander the Great’ I got ‘Allethandro the Thweet’.

Now that I have had time to think about it, it isn't bad. It still irritates me when the maids call him ‘Shandy’. I got beaten up at school for having a German mother. Imagine the abuse if your nickname is Hand Shandy.

I insist on calling him ‘Alex’, but the bureaucratic nightmare has resulted in one unexpected advantage. He has an Angolan passport in the name of Allessandro Manuel and a British passport in the name of Alexander Gowans, which expands his career options from the kind of successful financial consultant who never pays tax anywhere in the world, to international spy. Either way, it will be a lot easier for him to disappear suddenly if the need arose. Or would have been if I hadn’t just blown his cover.

Given that they demand the presence of the child being registered in the relevant office and the conditions endured during the process, I now understand the high infant mortality rate: most of them expire through heat exhaustion before even being officially recognised. If after an hour of waiting, the queue shuffles forward an inch and the person in front of you doesn’t move, check their pulse. If they are dead you can legitimately push by.

I am constantly amazed at the quiescent nature of the Povo who continue to endure this trauma with exemplary stoicism. It isn’t the legacy of slavery that is retarding progress, it is inherited Portuguese red tape. Try that shit in UK and the average life expectancy of a registrar would be as long as it took him to get outside. Old Joe Soap might not use an AK but would definitely administer a well deserved kicking in the car park.

Poor Ranulph Fiennes ('Knuckles' to his friends), the great contemporary British adventurer has, I read recently, been responsible for a little high street pile up after competing in yet another highly physically demanding event, allegedly having fallen asleep at the wheel of his car after spending the whole night tramping up and down mountains in the snow. If he is still so keen on ultimate tests of endurance, he should come to Angola and apply for a driving licence.

It can only be the sheer malice of the person who designed the application form that resulted in separate boxes for date of birth and age. By the time your process is finally complete and you receive your summons to Mumbai Haupt Bahnhof to get your fingers scanned, wait patiently in the queue and miraculously reach the counter seconds before they knock off on mass only to be told your application has been rejected because of inaccuracies (no corrections being allowed on the form which now bears the stamps and signatures of the various civil servants through the hands of whom the document has passed at glacial speed and cannot, therefore, be changed in any way whatsoever) and then discover said inaccuracy is that you are now 50, no longer 49, the age you were when you originally filled out the form so the mistake is your fault, even Mother Theresa would cast restraint aside and pin her faith on an involuntary manslaughter plea. And she is so laid back, she’s dead.

The other problem with my application was that the fingerprint card had ten spaces but only eight prints on it. Clearly, I was a moron and had wasted all their valuable time. I was told I would have to go for prints again. I waved my hand in front of his face to prove I had but eight fingers, waggling my stumps for emphasis. I would have enjoyed going on to tell him I was Yakuza and had fucked up a couple of times like he was about to, but thought better of it. Changing tack quicker than a politician and without a flicker of emotion, he told me the error was not the fact that the prints of the missing digits were missing on the card but that the fact that the digits were missing had not been officially recorded on the card. God these guys are good (or at least able to talk faster than I can think).

Actually, this would be an excellent endurance test for Sir Ranulph Twisleton-Wykeham-Fiennes, 3rd Baronet, OBE. He hasn’t got a full set of wagglies either. For those of you who don’t know, Sir R was severely frost bitten during one of his Arctic expeditions and on return to UK, medical advice was to allow the maddeningly irritating blackened stumps to fall off naturally. For a man determined enough to be the first to walk to both Poles and be the oldest, at 65, to climb Everest (among dozens of other achievements and his way of recovering from double bypass surgery), clearly this advice was bollocks so rather than sitting in his wingback struggling to hang onto a glass of scotch in his claw-like hands while waiting for his fingers to eventually drop into his soup, he used a hack-saw in his garden shed to complete, in what could only have been eye-wateringly agonising hours, the task that nature and his doctors intended many painful months to achieve. This is the kind of man who would strangle the crocodile attacking him with his bootlaces, and would then use the same laces to sew his own arm back on.

Given that these clerks are about as literate as Bengali fishermen yet can zero in on such ‘errors’ strikes me as yet another example of how their ilk can easily circumvent any anti-corruption initiative poor old President Dos Santos tries to install, exploiting a subservient population too numb to care. They look at you with the sort of smug expression, a face you know could be greatly enhanced if your fist was planted in the middle of it and they know that you know, any sign of irritation and they will suddenly note that you are over fifty and wear glasses. Not only would they insist I need an eye test, they would have me take my driving test again.

Naturally I coughed up the extra immediately and now have my licence. Like Sir R, I could see the merit of short sharp pain in favour of prolonged agony.

It is the same, I am sad to report, with my company registration. The fact that registering a company, rather than merely applying for a driving licence, takes far longer should elicit no surprise. I have been on the case for over a year and gave them everything, right down to their own notarised copies of the building plans. In recent emails to friends I rashly suggested that my import-export, hotel, restaurant and car hire business, collectively and rather grandly known as the Complexo Turistico Floridita (in homage to Ernest Hemingway’s favourite watering hole in Havana) was now legal. That was because I knew the licence would be published in the Diario da Republica today.

A copy has just landed on my desk.

Entry No 4025 of page 185 of Register Number B-54 of Number 2 Archive of the 9th of October 2009 (yep, five months to get it published in the Government Gazette) licences me as 'Flordita' (spot the typo? All my company stationary is now little more than toilet paper) to be active in the area of 'Restaurantes com Lugares ao Balcao'. To add insult to considerable injury and just in case I hadn't already burst a major blood vessel reading it in Portuguese they even, in parenthesis, translated that into English as 'Snack Bar'. Imagine, a restaurant where I can only legally sit clients at the bar, not at all the tables and chairs I imported and set out in the beautifully thatched Jango. I guess the poor bastard guests will have to sleep on the bar stools for if the tables are illegal, I suppose the beds in what will soon be beautifully thatched en-suite rooms are too. God knows where they can legally take a dump.

I used to joke that I was going to retire from Aggreko to flip burgers. Looks like that's all I am allowed to do for now.

But, it is my own fault. You would have thought that after fifteen years here I would have worked it out and at least learned from the experience with the driving licence. I was, the emphasis being on 'was', licensed in addition to cars, for motorcycles and HGVs. The licence fee goes up for every category of vehicle you apply for, a consolidated fee that I paid. My only form of transport at the moment is a truck but my new licence only allows me to drive a car. My admin guy, once I had relaxed my hold on his throat enough for him to gargle, explained that had I insisted on waiting until the process had passed through all the various departments necessary to obtain the categories I applied for, I would wait years for the licence. In other words, it was my fault again. I was in a hurry. No mention of the fact that I had applied in March and the licence expired in May. Last year. After some further encouragement he explained that the now extra money I had paid for the categories I did not get was a sort of float that officials could help themselves to as, in the end, their books would balance (only one category going through them and only one being issued) and they would be more inclined to deal with such lucrative applications…er…faster.

You should not believe everything a man in fear of his life tells you but there is a twisted logic in this and it explains the short change on the company registration. They have given me enough to be getting on with and they know, rather like Patagonian Killer Whales waiting for seals to calve, I will be back.

I suppose that after lighting the burners for the first time in the kitchens of 'Flordita' I should expect a visit from the Fiscal Police (even more venal than civil servants. And they have guns). Marcia persuaded me ages ago to place my hunting rifle and shotgun in safe custody (she said she was worried about the kids getting at them. I wonder now just whose health she thought at risk) but I will still be working in a kitchen. A decent dropped forged steel chef's knife wielded by a pushed-over-the-edge maniac could be just as lethal I would have thought, especially in a space as confined as a ‘snack bar’.

On the TV right now is a football match airing from Brazil between two teams of leggy Amazons dressed in skimpy underwear, stockings and suspenders. Unreal. But they are going at the game hammer and tongs and there have already been two bookings, a penalty and two stretcher cases. I have decided that I fancy the referee. I hope the idea catches on. Beats the hell out of watching Beckham limping off every five minutes and they are a lot better looking than Wayne Rooney.

I note that having been distracted by this missive and the football match, I failed to notice that Alex needed a dump and couldn’t find his potty. So he’s just eased springs in the corner of the lounge. Only eighteen month’s old yet such a decent chap. He could have laid one on the rug, instead he chose the wipe clean parquet.