Wednesday 28 July 2010

Last of the Summer Logs

Mummy, am I a Polar Bear?

Of course you are, darling, look at your fluffy white fur, just like me and Daddy!

But are you sure I am a Polar Bear?

I keep telling you, of course you are. Just look at your little black nose and sharp claws in your paws. Why do you keep asking?

Well, Mum, if I’m a Polar bear, why am I so fucking cold?

Most might imagine tropical Africa as a place with no seasons; cooling rain showers washing into fertile earth providing regular relief from a baking sun. Lightweight safari suits the norm for those in business, the rest happy with shorts and T-Shirts. Sundowners on the verandah every evening.

Maybe I have been here too long and my blood, now well diluted by alcohol and malaria is too thin to perform as successfully as it did in Europe: efficiently cooling or centrally heating my system according to need, albeit aided by a seasonal wardrobe and Pimm’s or Glühwein as required.

Here in Angola, we are in the middle of what they call the ‘Tempo de Frio’, or ‘Caximbo’, the literal translation of the latter being ‘pipe’ (the one you stuff tobacco in and smoke, not the fluid or gas type). Either way, the Cold Season.

Before I came to this continent, I had heard of dry and rainy seasons but never imagined a cold one. Indeed, during my first few years here I never noticed and was one of those startlingly pale individuals (obviously foreign and hailing from genuinely colder climes) that splashed about in the sea enjoying empty beaches while all the locals were huddled around charcoal braziers and wrapped in shawls. The kids used to chant ‘Russo, Russo’ at me, so rare the sight of anyone in Speedos at that time of year and a reflection of just how many Russian advisors, also presumably clad in Speedos and whiter than the sand they lay on, there were in Angola back then.

I was born in Berlin, where winter brought an arctic wind hurling itself westwards across the Steppes from the foothills of the Urals sawing everything in its path in half and summer, parched forests that would spontaneously combust, village ponds evaporating before one’s eyes. Only in spring and autumn would we feel we weren’t in an all out war with Nature.

I am still a little surprised, therefore, having once been accustomed to the extremes of a continental climate, I should now suffer under such a relatively insignificant seasonal temperature variation. I do not have a thermometer to hand but at four o’clock in the morning I can assure you, the pool is not covered in ice and there is no frost killing the garden plants, yet I wake up with teeth chattering in spite of all the blankets.

The onset of the cold season is heralded by a warning evening chill which encourages one to dig out the old pullover brought over from Europe ten year’s ago, the state of which when found brings the awful realisation that while we were lying on the beach, mice have been nesting in the wardrobe all summer. And then there is the thought that having buried myself in every duvet and blanket I can find, Marcia will get up during the night to heat Alexander’s milk and then defrost her feet on me.

When I designed my house, I had a particular feature in mind. The lounge and open plan kitchen (they call them ‘American' kitchens here, no doubt because the only exposure they get to the inside of an American home is a TV soap opera studio) were laid out so that this feature would be the focal point of a cosy family bolthole. Marcia back then thought I was mad and since I was away in Uganda at the time the house went up, told the builders not to bother.

I rather suspect she regrets that decision.

I have had to wait three years but I am going to install, where it should have been in the first place, a bloody great open fireplace.

I am too old to be motivated by the prospect of frolics in front of blazing logs so will be quite happy to lie on the preserved fur of some dead animal by myself, glass of scotch gently warmed by radiated heat and Caravanserai playing on the stereo but, I bet I won’t be alone for long.

Which reminds me, I must buy flea powder for the dogs.

F@ck my Dad says

As an avid follower of the Suburban Bushwacker, it wasn’t long before I picked up on his link to really quite an odd blog, ‘Shit My Dad Says’.


SBW, in my experience, doesn't link to tosh so I thought I'd wander over.

Basically, it is just some young man pasting in all the crazy stuff his Dad, obviously one of the original Grumpy Old Men, has said to him. Now it looks like there is a book and a film on the way. Brilliant, and good luck to you young Justin, your Dad sounds great.

Anyway, it got me thinking about my Dad. He was lean and very mean when he wanted to be and, as an ex Sergeant Major, had the razor sharp wit that used to verbally flay even the cockiest recruit or over arrogant young officer and continued, post service, to be aimed at anyone that irritated him, especially me.

He started off in the King’s Own Rifle Brigade and then transferred over to the Ordnance Corps. He ended up as the Stores Materials Control Manager for British Gas with offices in Derby, where he built the National Strategic Stockyard (and I learnt to drive), and the Natwest Tower in London. I started in the Light Infantry, one half of the Light Division that subsumed the Rifle Brigade and was then commissioned into the Ordnance Corps so had unwittingly started in his footsteps.

When I pointed this out to him his reaction was simple. ‘So you think ending your days working for the bloody Gas Board is some kind of achievement?’

Judging by the number of people who turned up at his funeral, the lovely house and pension he left our Mum, yes Dad, I think it was.

There was a massive intellect there that never had the chance to flower. He could quote any passage of Kipling you cared to mention and once recited the Ancient Mariner while driving well over the speed limit all the way from Leicester to Newcastle. He was Captain of the British Army Trials team and could shoot the balls of a gnat.

When he was a kid, his Dad dumped him off in a pub in York where he slept under the counter before making his way back to Liverpool and ended up carrying his younger half brother on his back through the burning blitzed out streets to safety. He lied about his age and joined the Army as soon as he could. I never met his half brother, Trevor.

Oldest sons can never do right. We are expected, especially once the younger siblings arrive, to be blessed with a maturity well beyond our few years. How many of us are guilty of the same? The nagging doubt you may have bred a mutant retard; the neighbour’s kid is walking, what’s wrong with ours?

Well, speaking from experience, nothing actually. I was perfectly content to dribble porridge down my face and shit in my nappies. I wasn’t going to crawl, let alone walk to reach a bunch of coloured blocks when I knew that patience would be rewarded by these ‘big’ people eventually bringing them to me. I was too young to realise I was surrounded by dizzy aunts who spoilt me rotten. It was only when I saw something really interesting, like a scorpion, that I felt I just had to wander over and have a chew. That got me loads of attention.

My earliest recollection is sitting on my father’s lap behind the steering wheel of some car driving through Tripoli. He was dead keen that I would do well but, being a Sgt. Major, he was sometimes a bit colourful with me.

I was devastated when my father died so suddenly. I had left the Army and opened a motorcycle dealership in Germany which grew until I went international and opened another in Bratislava. I never really earned much money out of that outlet, my customers were basically the local Mafia but God, was it fun. I would run a Mercedes panel van all the way down Germany, through Austria and then be met by these hoods at the border so crossing was easy.

I’d build the ‘bikes up, usually in the car park of whatever night club the big man owned and then we’d go racing around Bratislava at quite frankly, really scary speeds, across greasy cobble stones first laid when the place was part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire until His Highness was satisfied that I had sold him the very absolute pinnacle of unbeatable hot snot.

The business turned out to be sort of self sustaining as each ‘boss’ realised he had just been upped by his nemesis down the road and demanded something even more crazy from me. I felt like an arms dealer selling to all sides, one of them was bound to get pissed off with me in the end.

So I invited my Dad along.

He was due to retire in six months but there was no way he was going to spend his twilight years with his feet stuffed into slippers, hunched in his wingback sipping cocoa.

'You are running empty vehicles back from Russia’ he said to me one day.

'Not Russia, Dad, Czechoslovakia’

'Commies, same thing. Bet you they’ve got loads of antiques over there'


'I want to be an antiques dealer when I retire and if I have a son too stupid to get loads for his returning vans, I might as well cash in'

So I contacted the Boys and next trip, my Dad rode shotgun in the truck.

We got to Bratislava, met the gang, built up their bikes and then, because they really, really respect older people, especially father’s of colleagues, fell over themselves to help my Dad out. First with a selection of Italian birds that had me exploding in my Y fronts, and then with what he was really interested in, antiques.

There was no real open commerce but there were always those places were simple folk could flog the sort of stuff they didn’t need anymore. We would walk in, score what we fancied, and then let the boys do the negotiating. Once I had the temerity to ask the shop owner the price before leaving it to the minder and she told me X Squillion Dollars. The boy went in, came out, told me not to do that again and the price was 50 bucks. For a Viennese wall clock. I say boy. He was built like a brick shithouse.

When it came time to go home, all our loot was concealed in the footwells of a fleet of Ladas complete with mothers and suckling babes under the feet of whom was concealed the stock for my Dad’s fledgling Leicestershire antique shop.

In those days the length of the queues waiting to cross a communist border was measured in days, not miles. The man squished into the cab between me and my Dad directed us into the oncoming traffic and, at the head of a convoy of Ladas we hurtled at the border. Cartons of cigarettes sailed out of the window landing in the arms of border guards as easy as we sailed into Austria.

Two weeks later, my dad was found dead in his workshop having died of a massive heart attack while carving a garden bench he had made.

Even now I dream about him sometimes. For seventeen years I have only thought of him fleetingly. I miss him like hell and obviously it hurts if I think about him too hard. But while reading the shit that young Justin’s Dad says, I started to remember all the grief my dad gave me. I loved doing things with him and he obviously liked to have me along because he took me with him everywhere, into his office, down the armoury letting me pick up pistols and SMG's, helping him work on his cars but God help me if I did anything dumb. Actually, I think everything I did was dumb because my ears always seemed to be ringing from some flash remark of his.

So, here are just a few:

I asked you for a fucking ring spanner not an open ended you dozy bastard, don’t you know the difference?

No dad.

Well stick your finger up your arse. That's a ring. Then stick it in your ear. That, in your case Son, is open ended.

What the Fuck are you doing?

I’m sorry, Dad, my dick itches like hell, I was just scratching it.

Well try washing it more often… By the way, I hate men who lie. You’re a wanker so just admit it.

C'mon Dad, tell me about the scars on your arms

OK Son, I was riding a motorcycle across the desert when an Arab shot me

Christ Dad! What did you do!!!

I fell off

OK, Son, indicate right and just ease up to the junction... Is it all clear, Son?

Yes Dad

Ok, Go!... That's it, now I know my son is a genius!

Why Dad?

Only you could stall a fucking automatic!

Look, Son, it's dead simple. Look through your windscreen. Tarmac, blue sky? Good, accelerator. Big fucking mountain of earth and trees? Bad, brake. Can you grasp that? Maybe I didn't explain enough about what that bloody great round thing you're holding does...

Dad! I qualified as a Marksman!

I can hit a running Arab at two hundred paces, your Mum says you can’t even hit the toilet bowl so don’t give me that shit.

How long did it take for you to make Corporal, Dad?

First or third time son?

What did he call me?

I didn’t hear Dad.

Look, I’m the deaf sod around here, what did he say?

He called you a Wanker, Dad

Right, that’s it

I don’t know Dad, he looks pretty big to me.

That’s alright Son, if he takes a swing at me, you stand in the way and I’ll get him while you’re going down.

Don’t worry Son, you look like a fit, young bastard so he’ll go for you first and then while he’s kicking your teeth in, I’ll get him with this.

Christ, Dad, that’s a starting handle!

Yeah! Beats the shit out of a Karate chop.

Fuck! Shit! Bastard Fucking Hell Christ Almighty!

Bash your head on the chassis of the car again, Dad?

It’s your fault, you little shit!

By bringing you a cup of tea?

You should have brought it five minutes ago.

So you’re an Officer now Son?

Yes Dad

Well you know what Officers are, don’t you?

Leaders of Men?

I didn’t ask you what officers are supposed to be you stupid sod, I asked you what they are!

Don’t know, Dad

Lighthouses in the desert, Son. Very bright but fuck all use.

Don’t give me that one about officers and maps, Dad, I am brilliant at map reading

Well, keep that one quiet, Son, or you’ll get the map, fuck up one day and prove me right.

So you're going to be a motorcycle dealer, Son?

Yes dad

What do you know about motorcycles?

Everything you taught me

Don't blame me, Son, there's a hell of difference between everything I tried to teach you and what you actually fucking learnt.

Why aren't you coming to see me Son?

I got the auditors coming around, Dad.

Fuck 'em. Auditors are the bastards who get an all expenses paid trip to the battlefield in order to bayonet the survivors.

Of course I am doing OK, Dad, I just got a brand new convertible for my wife

You selfish bastard, you never thought of getting me a good deal like that too?

What the fuck is that?!!!

It's an SL Mercedes Dad.

A GERMAN car?!!

Yeah Dad, I like them.

OK. Give us the keys, you can drive my VW Passat.

Stop! STOP! You've gone too far, GO GO GO! Around the block. NOW! FOR FUCK’S SAKE! Who taught you to drive?

What the F… hang on Dad…alright, we’re coming around again

THAT’S IT! Slow down, SLOW DOWN! Christ you’re such a dick.


Hang on a sec Dad, you just got me to break every fucking traffic law in a communist country just so you could take a photo of some tart in a short skirt?

Believe me Son, when you get to my age you’ll realise it was worth it.

Why are you such a grumpy old bastard, Dad?

‘Cos it beats the shit out of being nice to idiots.

Does that have to include me, Dad?

Like I said. Idiots.

God I love my Dad so much. Pity Dominic and Alexander will never get to meet him in this life.

Tuesday 27 July 2010

Yo Yo's for the Troops?

Albert Rasch, author of a blog I follow, The Rasch Outdoor Chronicles has clearly been spending far too much of his time in the Afghani sun. Either that or he has gone stir crazy. An obsessive recluse, the sort of withdrawn individual that spends all his time training a pet cockroach to do somersaults.

With Raschman, it all started when he found a broken Yo Yo lying in the desert sand. Only a born and bred outdoorsman would have thought to deploy to Afghanistan with everything needed to fix a broken Yo Yo.

You might imagine that the sight of a rugged mountain man playing with a Yo Yo in a war zone would have resulted in the hasty medical repatriation the mentalist was obviously going for but no. The first to stumble upon this weird scene paused to watch and then had a go themselves. Now, instead of turning as much ordnance into scrap as possible, our steely heroes are ‘walking the dog’ and ‘rocking the cradle’.

Raschman’s most recent post, Yo Yo’s for the Troops, has reminded me of what it was like to be on call all the time, never knowing what was going to happen when the call came. Life for the troops really is long periods of boredom laced with trepidation interspersed with really scary shit. They are all roughy toughy hard men but deep down, we are all fun loving kids at heart. Something as innocent as a Yo Yo in an environment as brutal and tragic as Afghanistan just has to be a welcome sanity saving distraction.

Albert A Rasch, Afghan Yo Yo Champ

So Rasch isn’t as mad as a hatter after all. His idea is for as many people as possible to send a Yo Yo out to the troops. Maybe a few of them would fall into the hands of local kids. No bad thing. In the First World war, they had a Christmas day ceasefire for an impromptu football match (at least the Germans won something) so maybe we can call a halt for the Yo Yo International? At the very least it would be good for Hearts and Minds; those of our troops and maybe those of the locals too.

So, daft as it sounds, there is logic to Rasch’s lunacy so please, read his post and send a Yo Yo to him. It won’t cost much as the postage to forces post offices is subsidised. It’s a tiny individual contribution but will make a big difference.

If he starts banging on about Hula Hoops though, I will send over the men in white coats.

A Yo Yo, for those of you who don't remember. This one, apparently, is a 'Duncan Butterfly'. Gosh! But is it bullet proof?

Monday 26 July 2010

Clarkson Junior?

Nothing a decent haircut couldn't sort out. He even dresses like Clarkson...

So many half finished posts.

It’s ridiculous considering I have so much time on my hands. My wife sees me typing away at the keyboard and assumes I am finally pulling together my novel when really I am only plugging key words into Google, a useless distraction to avoid having to replace failed hinges on the visitor’s bedroom door, changing the oil in the generator, securely fixing that dodgy curtain rail or anything else remotely ‘Man About the House’. I am pathetic at the moment.

Still, so much time wasting did allow me to stumble across a new blog. A petrol head blog and, therefore, potentially dear to my heart now that The Times Online has gone the subscription route denying me my weekly Clarkson fix.

I would willingly pay to have access to The Times but, with my UK bank constantly allowing anyone to rob my identity, I have had to cancel all my charge cards and am now struggling, yes struggling, to create my own new identity.

This, I have been told, is illegal.

I can't see why. Somewhere in Slough, not even the same hemisphere as me, there is a git pretending to be TG and buying up all the local Comet warehouses and leaving a trail of grief for me to sort out. If my bank has been careless with my identity, why can't I choose a new, safer one? But no, Tom Gowans cannot henceforth be known as Rock Hunter and must instead endure constant communications from bailiffs armed with liver excising scalpels demanding payment for wide screen TV’s bought on credit in his name in Brixton, or somebody else’s weekly shop in Sainsbury’s. I live in Africa, for Christ’s sake. So I am sorry, Jeremy, I cannot pay on line anymore. I need a free alternative.

Sam Skelton is a full time student of politics and has been published by several well known journals some of which, amazingly, I have heard of. Thankfully his blog, ‘From the Captain’s Chair', is less to do with politics and more to do with cars.

Here’s but a fraction of the slagging he gave the new Range Rover Evoque:

‘The interior is even to be designed by a team led by the original 'footballer's wife' - Victoria Beckham. A Rangie with a Spice Girl interior. It's sacrilege…’

I couldn’t agree more.

In another article he admits to experimenting on his own mother after bribing her with the offer of a picnic in the countryside.

How about his take on an old British Leyland colour in his article about Jaguars?

‘Alpine Green is a slightly musky pale metallic-silvery green colour with a hint of gold, which in the right light really manages to look the part on the leaping cat’

Well you try describing the colours that BL paint shop workers mixed up when not warming their hands over picket line braziers.

‘Right light’ is the key here. I had a Triumph Stag painted a colour the factory documentation of which recorded as Magenta and the registration authorities, and anyone else not colour blind, considered Purple.

Under street lamps at night, it looked really cool.

In the daytime the colour resembled the mixture of blood, puke and spilt beer I had waded through the night before in Pop’s and Eddie’s, two pubs across the road from each other close to Joint Head Quarters Rheindahlen in Germany and mostly frequented by a fairly even spread of Army and RAF, a fairly volatile solution. Down right explosive if you mixed in a few visiting Americans.

But whereas I often resort to the vernacular, Mr Skelton has the eloquence that no doubt he will one day use to verbally eviscerate his opponent at the dispatch box, wit thankfully triumphing over bragado. The most risqué remark of his I have read so far was one referring to the new Morgan EvaGT:

‘The company have released a teaser sketch – one of those that barely shows you anything, but what it does show is pure pornography’.

Hmmn. When my wife isn’t looking, I might surf over to the Morgan site.

I have put the link to ‘From the Captain’s Chair’ in my Interesting Blogs column on the right of the page. Drive over and have a look.

If you do, leave your monikers there. We should encourage this guy. Not least because I can't pay my Times subscription. Yes, I know. Just do it.