Wednesday 16 July 2014

No Sleep!

Sleepless night for me, I am afraid.  Usually this was the time of day I wrote my best stuff but back then my creative juices were fortified with Scottish whisky and not the Ceylon tea I am drinking now.  Alex has a chest cold, a pretty miserable affliction at the best of times but awful in the tropics.  Marcia is desperately tired so I am doing the night shift as duty nurse so that she can sleep and I can keep Alex propped up on his pillows to help him breathe.

The internet connection has been pretty much useless since I returned from England.  While I was there I bought myself a wireless router, a device marketed as a ‘MiFi’ which promised to improve my connection and also allow me to set up a personal hot spot.  The hot spot would allow Marcia to connect as well.  Sounded wonderful except that the local internet service provider refused to configure it (or give me the configuration settings) as they had not sold it to me.  It took me a while to work out but I am now linked to you and the rest of the world through the device, as is Marcia, so up yours Movinet.  Much to my dismay though, as I have to pay for the gigabytes used, I notice that the connection has improved so markedly that Marcia was able to watch her favourite soap channel as a streaming video this afternoon.  Having extolled both the virtues of the device and my own technical prowess, I can now hardly complain if she enjoys its benefits to the full.  Alex is only five but he has already worked out how to stream Ben 10 cartoons onto his Samsung Tablet.  Until the novelty wears off (or the monthly quota of internet wiggly amps is exceeded) the TV appears largely redundant.

For want of tools, I was unable to finish off the installation of the FrankenPump, the working water pump I created out of the dead bodies of two other pumps, so with spit running backwards have had to accept the need to call in a local plumber.  Naturally, he did not turn up so we passed another day of lugging water in buckets from the well to the cottage.

The Jeep is looking years younger now that I have bent my finger joints backwards giving the coachwork a good going over with cutting polish.  Sadly, I can see through its makeover and know that beneath its buffed skin lies a heap of trouble.  It is about time I replaced it with a new car.  Marcia sportingly suggested I buy something small such as a little Corolla.  I put my foot down.  There was no way I was going to allow her and little Alex to travel backwards and forwards to town in a car notable only for its origami like qualities when involved in a collision and I told her this.  So she asked for a Range Rover instead.  I hate Range Rovers.  Sure, they are good looking and very capable 4x4’s but they are so bloody unreliable and outrageously expensive to repair.  I suggested a Volvo XC90.  They’re brilliant.  Comfortable, reliable and understated, everything I could wish for in a car.  No dice, she might stoop to a VW Touareg.

It is hard to buy a decent car here at a decent price.  I generally do not buy cars new, people who do lose a quarter of the value of their investment as soon as they drive it out of the showroom.  I prefer to let someone else take the hit and buy a low mileage year or two old example.  Finding such a car here is, as I have said, tough.  It will either be knackered or overpriced so the only course left is to import.  I have imported a few cars, all of them bought unseen, the decision to buy having been based on photos and the declarations of sellers, a highly risky strategy you will undoubtedly agree but I have been lucky.  I do try to mitigate the risk.  For a start, I will only import used cars from Germany.  Of all the nations in the world, they, along with perhaps the Swiss, have draconian roadworthiness directives and, with a genetically programmed need to keep things neat and tidy, tend to look after their cars. 

Import duties for vehicles are not simple.  They are anything from 2% to 50% and depend on the use to which the vehicle will be put (making it cheapest to ride around in an ambulance), the age of the vehicle (the older it is the more expensive the duty), the type of fuel and the cubic capacity of the engine.  A low mileage Range Rover is cheaper to buy in Dubai than in Germany.  But all Dubai RR’s have hot snot turbo charged large capacity V8 petrol engines so attract 50% duty whereas the smaller capacity diesel engined version in Germany may cost more but only attracts 20% duty if it is less than three years old.

I am too tired to think about cars tonight, it will have to remain a niggling anxiety until I work something out.

Well, it is six in the morning, Alex and Marcia are sleeping peacefully and my laptop battery is about dead so I shall try and snatch a few myself.  Germany won the world cup as we all know and I am sure you picked up on the fact that it is the first world cup a united Germany has won.  Well, with the ex DDR mob involved, it isn’t so hard to believe that Germany cheated.  This new, brash young team were bred from birth to win…

7 Up - They don't like 7 Up in Brazil.

Monday 14 July 2014

Cock and Bull Stories

A big cock

The internet is more down than up.  Things keep breaking (the well pump has just burnt out so I am busy stripping it and an old pump to try and get one good pump going) and my blasted swollen leg will not give up annoying me.  I used to find the time to write my posts in the wee small hours, usually tanked up to the eyeballs.  Now I am generally busy during the day and go to bed knackered and early.  This, I am informed on good authority, is a healthy lifestyle.

Early this morning Marcia asked me why African football teams never did so well in international competition.  I was just being handed the keys to my fully restored Triumph Stag, on the hand stitched leather passenger seat of which Kylie Minogue was working out how best to arrange her legs for maximum effect, and now suddenly I was being dragged back to reality.  It was a bastard of a way to wake up.

Since my return I have been ever so slightly, just a teensy weeny bit guilty of reminding Marcia what a shithole this place is, how useless everyone who lives here is and how bloody corrupt everything is so thought, just for a change, I might try a softer approach to filling this awful gap in her knowledge and lie.

‘African countries do not have the population or infrastructure to support the large number of well-populated leagues they have in Europe,’ I said.  ‘African teams really do not have the local competition or get the practice they need to compete at an international level,’ I continued, ‘the only quality players they have are those who play in European or South American club football.’  This utter codswallop seemed to satisfy Marcia so I sloped off to the kitchen to satisfy myself with a cup of tea.  Political interference and corruption along with a huge dose of selfish arrogance rather than team spirit, I thought, that’s why African football teams are crap. Mind you, the selfish arrogance bit applies just as well to England.

We turned on BBC news in time to hear a breathless reporter quote a Cameroon Football Association representative: "Recent allegations of fraud around Cameroon 2014 Fifa World Cup three preliminary games, especially Cameroon vs. Croatia, as well of the existence of seven bad apples in our national team do not reflect the values and principles promoted by our administration.” 

It begs the question, what’s left that does?  But I did not say anything to Marcia.

Last night I briefed the new building crew chief.  I have kept my original Filipino carpenter but I have now sacked all of the old crew bar him.  I know I had their issues sorted the day I arrived after hurrying back from UK but I lied to them as well.  I thought it best to get them back to work and not stick them full of leaky holes but I could not allow them to get away with trying it on with Marcia while I was away.  It has taken me only a few weeks to find another crew and this time I was not lying to the original team members at all when I told them if they were still on my land by nightfall I would stick them full of leaky holes.

Marcia’s car was overheating more than when I left so it is not purely down to the engine running lean.  I still cannot forgive Marcia for the artisan repair she allowed the Pork and Cheese mechanic to effect, though, as the problem is a leaky radiator.  It will cost me 400 bucks for a new one (quite reasonable for Angola) so while I am at it, I might as well cut the old fan off and replace all the bits damaged by the ‘repair’.  My life would be much easier if I could find a wrecked Jeep and pillage the parts from that.  It is a hell of sight easier to swap out an assembly rather than strip and fix one.  In UK (or anywhere else civilized for that matter), you’d just by an exchange reconditioned part.

My one week’s freedom in UK has spoiled me rather.  In Milton Keynes I was in a Sainsbury’s store bigger than the largest (and only) shopping centre in Angola.  It didn’t just sell food, it sold everything.  I had gone in there not to buy food, oddly enough, but to buy an Amazon gift voucher because that’s where said I could buy some.  Since the Visa debit card on my Angolan Bank was being laughed at in UK, Amazon gift vouchers were the only way, apart from asking a friend to use his card and me refunding him in cash, I could make on line purchases.  The shop was so large and I was so precarious on my pins, I asked an assistant for help locating them to save unnecessary walking.  In other words, like all good explorers I procured for myself the services of a native guide.  On the way we passed a rank of fantastically futuristic looking devices lined up on display.  I gave up trying to work out what they were (I considered water filtration devices or pumps but remained unconvinced) so asked my guide.

‘They’re vacuum cleaners,’ he said, his voice as flat as his expression.


In Angola, the fastest I travel is about 80 Kph.  That’s a maximum.  Usually it is about walking pace in traffic.  Any faster than that and I start to get very nervous.  Now this might surprise some people, especially those who tried to keep up with me in Germany when I was stuffing sports cars or motorcycles through the scenery as fast as I could.  If I were the only person on an autobahn, I could still make it a race; I would have to beat my fastest time between two locations and if I had never been there before, I would still want to set a benchmark.  I can still remember some of those benchmarks today:  Three hours and fourteen minutes from Venlo to Baden-Baden; fourteen hours and twenty minutes from Split in Yugoslavia to Bielefeld in Germany (both in Golf GTI’s if you are interested, proving that nippiness beats brute power).  The fastest I have travelled while still in contact, however tenuous, with the Earth’s surface was not on a race track, but on the A33 from Bielefeld to Paderborn riding a motorcycle, 170 mph.  What at normal speeds were virtually unnoticeable curves, now required me to lean the ‘bike over far enough to get my knee down.  Being passed by a large capacity motorcycle at full chat doing a hundred miles an hour faster than you were must have been heart stopping for a dear old lady in a VW Polo.

When I left hospital, I did not have far to walk.  Trains to Milton Keynes leave London from Euston and the hospital was only across the road.  Walking was bad enough but standing still was misery so when I saw the queue to buy tickets from the counters, I decided to use a Virgin Train as they had half the station devoted to machines from which passengers could buy tickets without having to queue.  Sadly, of the fifty or so identical machines, not one took good old cash so I had to ask a rather hyped individual dressed in red trousers and waistcoat who I correctly assumed was a Virgin employee.  It says everything about a modern cashless society (and rubs in the difficulties I was experiencing sans plastic) that there were only three, dusty and forlorn looking machines tucked away in a corner that accepted cash.

My old friend Paul was waiting for me when I arrived at MK Central.  Paul had tried hard to convince me that he should pick me up from the hospital.  I supposed he imagined me being wheeled out in a chair and deposited at the road side.  This, as I explained to him, was madness.  It would take him hours to fight his way into Central London, would cost in petrol and congestion charges and, since I would not know exactly when I would be released, would involve one of us hanging around waiting for the other.  Much better for me to walk a few hundred yards, pay fourteen quid, and be in MK thirty minutes later.  Besides, he had a wedding to arrange, his, so hardly had the time. 

I must pause here to consider his fiancée Karen who I had not yet had the pleasure of meeting.  As far as she was concerned, I was just some oik who her husband-to-be had met years ago (I was his armed bodyguard in Angola back in the mid Nineties), I had been rushed into an infectious diseases ward of a London hospital after arriving suddenly from darkest, Ebola infested Africa where, despite best efforts, the beasty causing this awful flesh eating affliction had not been identified and now, just two weeks before their wedding, Paul wanted to put me up in their house.  The fact that she obviously allowed this is testament to the true love I hope they enjoy for the rest of their lives for I wouldn’t have gone within a mile of myself had I the choice.  Karen, as I expected, was completely laid back, allowed me to use my e cig in the house and fed me everything my heart and stomach craved which really came down to anything with salad and horseradish sauce.  Paul seemed a bit tired of salad (the fridge was full of it) but I couldn’t get enough, salad is a luxury in Angola.

Paul had come to collect me in his toy.  I have been so long in Angola I had never seen a Porsche Boxster in its tin flesh.  It looks miles better in real life.  Paul is a geologist and does mathematics as a hobby.  His brain is about the size of a small planet but he is by no means a geeky intellectual.  For a start, he is a big bloke and I often wondered who would be protecting whom if the shit had hit the fan in Angola.  I suppose he felt comfortable knowing I had a gun and was licenced to use it.  One of the most interesting walks I had was with him along a Cape Town beach listening him explain just when and how all the rock formations surrounding us were formed.  He is also mad keen on motor sport, especially Formula One.  I am sure it is no coincidence that his lovely house is set in the North Buckinghamshire countryside within sight of Silverstone Circuit. 

After admiring the Porsche from the outside, I then had to get into it.  This was easier said than done for me as one has to slot oneself down into it, not an easy feat with a gammy leg but worth the effort, the Germans do make exceedingly good cars and when Paul started it, it was an aural delight as well, especially as the hood was down. 

We purred menacingly out of the station car park and I was just wriggling myself into a comfortable position in the soft leather upholstery when all hell broke loose.  One second I was feeling all soft and fuzzy, next something punched me hard in the kidneys and I was wondering why I was staring at the sky with my head welded to the headrest.  My stomach, I suspected, was lying as surprised as its ex owner in a moist and slithery heap in the car park.  Bloody hell the car was fast.  Did you know that a cricket ball making its rapid progress down the wicket actually gains weight?  It’s something to do with relativity.  I too felt as if I had gained weight, a lot of weight but I think that had more to do with inertia as, when we arrived suddenly at a junction I lost all sensation of weight before regaining it again when I hit the limit of the seatbelt.  The car must have brake disks the size of dustbin lids. 

If someone had driven me that fast in Angola, I would have ordered them to stop the car before shooting them by the roadside.  It was different with Paul, though.  Not only is he a very competent driver, he knew both his car and the road we were travelling along like the back of his hand so I was really enjoying myself, terrified but having fun as people do, for example, on maniac roller coaster rides.  As he slotted the car through another roundabout, expertly hitting every apex I marvelled at the car’s grip.

‘This car has a hell of a lot of grip,’ I said but then stopped myself from concluding with, ‘I haven’t heard the tyres squeal once.’  That really would have been a bit of an invitation.  Well, maybe not, Paul is very sensible but I didn’t feel like putting his maturity to the test, there’s an eighteen year old lurking dangerously in all of us.  I was in a spinning mid-engined sports car once, it was a Ferrari and I had just lost control of it.  Let me tell you, mid-engined sports cars spin like a top and once they’re spinning, there’s bugger all you can do about it until they either stop of their own accord or, more usually in such a circumstance, wrap themselves and their about-to-be-deceased passengers around something unforgiving.

It wasn’t for that reason, however, that I was relieved to be travelling to Wales in Paul’s Saab.  Going there in the Porsche would have been miles more fun but there was no way I would have been able to cope with my legs stretched out horizontally in a cramped cockpit unless Paul took along an engine hoist to get me out again.  Besides, I like Saabs.  I know that towards the end they lost some of their quirkiness and have now finally gone bust but their cars were always interesting and driven by a ‘certain’ type of person.  You were more likely to see one driven by an architect (or a geologist) than a rep.  Naturally Paul’s Saab had the bigger engine with twin turbos so it was no slouch either.  I have never, ever been in an estate car that could corner so fast and was so comfortable.  They are rare cars, I only saw one other on the journey which, by amazing coincidence, was the same model and colour as Paul’s and parked in the car park of the same restaurant at which we had stopped to have breakfast.  The affinity amongst dying breeds, such as Saab owners, must be strong for Paul and the owner of the other Saab exchanged waves to acknowledge their shared automotive and gastronomic taste.

The fact that I was travelling to Wales at all was by pure happy chance.  I had been fortunate enough to meet two fellow bloggers while I was in hospital.  Both Pete, better known as the Idiot Gardener and Sten, aka the Suburban Bushwacker had come to see me on several occasions cheering me up immensely and both of them couldn’t have been more helpful.  I was disappointed I could not take them up on their offers for get togethers once I was out but I really was in no position to be doing any travelling more involved than climbing onto a train at Euston and getting off again half an hour later.  I was hoping to meet JayGray in London on my way out but it transpired that I would be flying the day before he arrived in the city.  Paul had obviously picked up on this for he asked me whereabouts in Wales John Gray lived.  Paul was to travel to Wales to meet up with his son in Llandudno.  After checking on the map, we realized he would pass within a couple of miles of the Ukrainian Village and its small suburb, Trelawnyd.  I would get to visit John and Paul would have company on the journey.

Paul wanted an early start.  As I was still on hospital time (for over four weeks I had been woken at five every morning by the temperature and pressures nurse) this was no problem so even though Paul intended to stop for breakfast on the way, I had plenty of time for a cup of tea and a few slices of toast.  Coming into the village of Stony Stratford soon after setting off, Paul drew in on the High Street saying he needed the cash point.  Almost as an aside he told me that the hotel opposite us, the Cock, was one half of the Cock and Bull legend.  The other half, the Bull was only a few yards further along.  I was fascinated.  I had never given the origin of a ‘Cock and Bull’ story much thought.  I thought it meant a load of rubbish.  Now that Paul was explaining it to me, I realised it didn’t necessarily mean that.  It was really a case of how stories got better in the telling; which did you believe, the story you heard in the Cock while sinking a pint or the Bull version you heard over another pint only a few paces down the road?  Staring at the Cock and Bull set in this typically English town made me aware of England’s rich heritage.  Even the place names have meaning, revealing their ancient Briton, Roman, Saxon, Viking and Norman roots.  I attended school in Ashby-de-la-Zouch and had a girlfriend living in Thorpe Constantine.

Americans love this sort of thing, direct links all the way back to their ancestral origins.  That’s why once a year on the 17th of March a good proportion of Americans paint everything including themselves green and drink so much green stout that the resultant sewage turns the Chicago River the same colour.  Or that in late January every year grown American men of pale complexion and red hair pull on skirts and spend the evening getting rip roaring drunk on whisky, head butting each other and the ground eventually throwing up the frankly awful substitute for Haggis they have there.  Bizarrely, imports of Haggis to the United States were banned in 1971 as one of its principal ingredients is sheep’s lung, which evidently posed a severe threat to the health of citizens.  Such concern (even though ludicrous) could, I suppose, be considered heart-warming until you note that America only got round to banning the use of lead in paint 44 years after the Europeans did and American canners were still using lead solder in the manufacture of food containers until as recently as 1993.  No wonder their Generals are all crazy, they’ve gone mad on a diet of tinned army rations. 

Once on the M1, I saw my first wind turbine.  God they’re a shocking eyesore, a real blot on the landscape.  I told Paul this.  He told me to wait a while, I hadn’t seen anything yet apparently.  With his cruise control set to just a tadge under 100mph, a while was not long at all.  The national speed limit on the UK’s motorways is seventy miles per hour (112 Kph) by the way but it is speeds of or above 100 that really cause the Federales to lose their composure.  Quite a few years ago I hired a hot snot Mercedes at the airport because I was in a hurry to get to the Midlands and was dismayed to find it had been limited to 100mph.  I might as well have rented a weedy compact.

Occupying the whole of the vista in front of us were bloody great white windmills, hundreds of them.  That was bad enough but I realized just how ludicrous all this was when Paul pointed out that only a third were actually running.  Wind turbines, another Millennium bug style scam.  They are only economically viable to their owners because of tax payer subsidies.  You can’t get away from them.  As soon as one lot faded into the distance, another lot hove into view.  What I was witnessing was the tip of the ice berg.

There were none of the problems I expected crossing the border from England into Wales, not even the sight of a startled farmer caught with the hind legs of a sheep stuffed into his wellies.  The sun was shining, something I thought hardly ever happened that side of the rain shadow, and Liverpool could be observed from the safety of the Flintshire side of the Mersey.  My finger was now tracing our course across the one inch to four mile road map accurately at a speed commensurate with our progress (it had lagged behind til now, so deceptively fast was the smooth riding Saab) and I knew we would be at John’s in less than fifteen or so minutes.  We were running late, I had said to John that we would arrive mid-morning, it was now lunchtime.  Where we had lost time I wasn’t sure.  Traffic had been reasonably light, I suppose we had dawdled over breakfast but I was sure John wouldn’t mind.  I had a clear image of John in my mind, an image developed over several years of reading his blog and our occasional email exchange.  What if he was nothing like this image?  What did I really know of him?  He was a nurse who lived with his partner in Wales.  He kept animals, liked scotch eggs and zombie films and was very community spirited.  Whilst I would risk asking him to care for one of my animals, I would never entrust him with the care of my car.

First cottage after the Church he had told me.  We couldn’t miss it, not because it was a huge country pile, but because it was exactly as I imagined, only nicer.  The lane was narrow, bounded by high stone wall capped verges.  Just down the hill the road curved to the right in front of a gate towards which was walking the unmistakable figure of John.  Through my open window I called out in my best BBC voice,

‘I say, old boy, I’m looking for a rather affable gay Welsh raconteur!’

And so, twixt cottage and field in the middle of Flintshire, the Hippo met Mr. Gently.

A load of Bull