Saturday 9 August 2014

Well, I'm glad you're out- er... back

All this talk about me coming home and having a car waiting for me put me in mind of this clip from a classic British film...

Obviously young Charlie Croker got off lightly; he only went down for two years, not twenty.

Marcia rang me out of the blue this afternoon and told me that Dr. Abel and his (charming) daughter Maya were coming to stay.  I wasn't quite sure what to say.  The last time I saw Dr. Abel, he was slashing my leg with a scalpel and then he and a beefy nurse tried to strangle it.  As one operation followed another in UK Marcia apparently told Dr. Abel that in the opinion of his esteemed professional colleagues in London, he was a butcher.  Now it is entirely possible that after my bloody encounter with him I may, as I limped away from his clinic, have suggested something along those lines but I never expected Marcia to attribute those sentiments to Doctors in UK and inform Dr. Abel on my behalf.

'Well that explains why he hasn't rung since I returned to find out how I am,' I muttered bitterly when Marcia told me what she had said to him soon after I got back. I never expected to see him again and was wondering just which doctor I could see now in an emergency. Dr. Abel was literally the family doctor, he's Marcia's cousin.

I dug out a couple of bottles of Cabernet Sauvignon and uncorked them to breathe before hauling out the ingredients for Lasagne.  Not knowing exactly when they would arrive, I thought an oven finished supper safest.  Pressed into military service, Dr. Abel had honed his craft during the civil war so I knew he could take a joke.  No doubt he would if not laugh off such a slight, at least just shrug it off.  He was coming to stay so that was a good sign.

I shook his hand as he walked in. 

'No need for me to ask how you are,' he said, 'since you have been treated by the finest Doctors in Europe.' 

Irony so dense it caused ripples in the Earth's magnetic field.

Sunday 3 August 2014

I Think, Therefore I Am. At least I think so...

Cottages are shaping up, just need glass and varnish

I have just been asked by a sensibly cautious man in West Sussex to prove I exist.  I could tell from the careful wording of Charles’s email to me that he was ever so slightly uncomfortable with having to ask but, believe me, with the time I have spent in Africa, I can well understand why he wasn’t going to risk exchanging any kind of information, however seemingly innocuous with a potential scammer (as he delicately put it).

Doing business here is murder (it really is sometimes).  If you live in UK or any other civilized country, send an enquiry to a supplier and they will fall over themselves trying to sell you something.  If they read an email enquiry and realize it has come from West Africa, they will call in an IT expert to have their laptop scanned for viruses.  I can send out a dozen enquiries and receive only one response which, paradoxically, makes me nervous about the respondee.  There is no point me lying and trying to pretend I am in UK for that in itself is a deception easy to uncover and then impossible to explain.  I tend to say I am ‘on contract’ in Angola rather than admit to living here.  It isn’t really a lie for every time I need to replenish the beer tokens, I take a contract.  In the meantime, I am building my restaurant but you try explaining why any sane and honest man would want to make his way here in this shithole?  You could not do that in a single short paragraph which is all you would have before the recipient was hitting the delete key and changing all his passwords.

I know how they feel, though.  I made two transfers recently, one to Germany and one to China.  I wasn't worried about the one to Germany, that was to my brother and I know he exists.  That transfer has arrived.  The one to China is for commercial kitchen equipment and 400 metres of panel fencing.  It was for a not inconsiderable amount of money, enough to really make my eyes water if it disappeared.  That transfer has not arrived.  Before I made it, I checked out the recipient.  Unless you pay a professional due diligence company to do this for you, it isn’t easy to prove that the company with the impressive web site or the very nice man speaking reasonable English on the other end of the phone actually exist.  I did all the usual internet checks and had someone in China verify that the factory existed at the address given, that all the phone numbers listed also existed and were answered by real people who admitted involvement in the production of commercial kitchen equipment and even turned up a file in the New York legal archives listing a case where the same company had been unsuccessfully sued in a New York court.  Normally, finding evidence that a potential supplier had been sued would cause a carillon of alarm bells but in my case I was reassured.  You can’t sue a non-entity and besides, the case was thrown out the company having been deemed by the presiding judge to have complied with the terms of the contract to supply equipment and was not liable for the plaintiff’s inability to clear the goods through customs.

The fact remains, the funds have not arrived, I am sick as a dog and really pissed off with a bank whose only response to my concern is, ‘you have to ask the recipient to ask their bank to start a trace from their end’. 

Even the transfer to Germany wasn’t painless.  Micky received a call from his bank demanding to know why someone was trying to send him money from abroad.  Their concern was something to do with money laundering legislation and the source of the money being a country on the ‘watch list’.  Money laundering, it’s all a load of bollocks.  It has bugger all to do with money laundering by criminals and terrorist organizations and everything to do with taxation.  Governments can’t stand the thought of citizens getting away with not paying the ludicrously high taxes imposed to fund fantastic levels of debt created by self-serving politicians who have forgotten that the big flaw with Socialism is that you soon run out of other people’s money.  In an attempt to control the movement of money around the system, so it can be taxed, they have come up with these draconian laws justified, once again, on an overstated threat.  It took an age for Micky to convince his bankers that the money was from me to buy a reverse osmosis water treatment plant and a rowing machine.

Just finding a supplier for the water treatment plant was an exercise in itself.  No one was interested.  Sure, there were large multi nationals who would send in a team and build me a water treatment factory by the sea capable of supplying clean water to a city, but finding someone who would sell me a small plant capable of supplying just 12 tonnes of potable water per day to a small tourist complex was a bit harder.  Nervous enough of me being an individual in Africa and not the flush representative of a corrupt regime, as soon as I asked them for their bank details so I could make the transfer, they stopped replying to their emails and took their phones off the hook.

Micky has a day job which keeps him busy enough as it is but in the evenings, he occasionally has to act as my European broker disbursing the funds I send him to suppliers on my behalf.  I can’t use my UK bank to do this as, since the unfortunate incident when they allowed some Nigerian scammers not only to empty it but gave them an unsecured loan as well, I am reluctant to trust them.  Read about it here and you will understand why.  I wish Mr. Charles had been my banker.

I did speak to my bank, by the way.  Actually, I spoke to someone in Liverpool which is where my call ended up.  My bank is in Ashby where I finished school.  He told me that in accordance with EU regulations any transfer coming in that exceeded 10,000 euros would be reported.  Beating me to the drop he went on to confirm that a series of deposits of 9,999 euros would also be reported.  I suppose he thought he was being helpful when he pointed out that if I had continued to have all my pay deposited in my UK account I would have all my money in UK and not Africa.  Unless you give it all away, I thought.

So, what is my interest in Charles, the undoubtedly decent man from West Sussex and what do I want of him?

I rather fancy his Stag.

After my recent spell in a London hospital and the brief run ashore I enjoyed in England and Wales recently, I am determined to come back.  Marcia is up for it which pleases me enormously.  I will finish off Fat Hippo’s, get it running and then get a foothold in UK again.  I still have to overcome the slight problem of how to explain where all the money came from to buy a house in UK.  In touch with estate agents as I have been, I now know that they cannot take a cash payment.  I also know that if I transfer the money to my UK account, the account will be frozen and it will take a lawyer and a very expensive accounting firm to thaw it out again.  It is harder, apparently, because I am a British Citizen.  If I was an Angolan, it would be easier.  Marcia’s friend has just bought a house in London for which she paid by transferring the whole amount in one go to the selling agent the explanation for her wealth being that her dear departed husband left her a sack of diamonds that he, along with other ordinary Angolans blessed with the riches their country has to offer in abundance, had dug up out of the ground.  Russian oligarchs and Libyans can pay cash for houses in UK, Angolans with husbands very much alive can buy houses in UK, an honest Englishman can’t.  So Marcia will be buying the house in her name.  I just hope I do not have to die to convince the HMRC man she acquired the money legally although I suspect he would demand nothing less.

Seven years ago when I first wrote about Triumph Stags I said that I could not think of a new car that would excite me enough to buy it.  I still can’t.  If I am going to be visiting UK with ever increasing frequency I will need transport.  Hire cars are all well and good but they are rather like renting a house, you get the convenience but are effectively burning money.  When it comes to a long term hire, a month or so, you might as well buy a runabout and stick it through an auction on departure. Or leave it with all the others in a Heathrow multi storey.  I am all in favour of public transport.  If I lived in London, I wouldn’t bother with a car.  But I do not want to live in London.  I want to live in a semi-rural environment close to a good school.  If I want to go house hunting in the sticks, I need my own transport so why not buy a nice car, one that would be accepted in any environment, one that is attractive and enjoyable to drive and one that, if looked after, would not depreciate as fast as a new car?  House hunting can be pretty soul destroying so at least the travelling should be a pleasure.  I am fifty five years old with a dicky heart and a gammy leg, I don’t want a hot snot sports car and neither do I want a cramped soulless Eurobox.  I need the ‘something for the weekend, Sir?’ type of car and I think the Stag, often cruelly described as a hairdresser’s car fits the bill nicely.  Besides, if I am hard enough to get away with wearing pink trousers, I can carry it off in a Stag.  With it, I would be just as comfortable stopping at a greasy spoon for a Full English as I would be parking it in the Kurhaus Tiefgarage in Baden-Baden after a leisurely lope through France.

The Stag, beautiful as Michelotti penned it, did have its problems which was why, even though it was designed with the North American market in mind (in right hand drive the weight of the petrol tank, the driver and the heavy battery are all on the same side so it is impossible to balance the corner weights) it only lasted a couple or three years before collapsing sales figures and warranty claims persuaded Triumph USA to can it.  Its Achilles heel was the fragility of its V8 engine which, distressingly for owners of Stags, tended to self-destruct.  Nowadays, the engine can be sorted with a few modifications and proper, though not onerous maintenance.  Bugger all, though, could cure its sometimes wayward handling principal of which was the notorious ‘Stag Twitch’ which has propelled many a bewildered Stag pilot sideways through the pearly gates.  Nothing, that is, until a very clever bloke in true English ‘Garagista’ form noted that a 3 series BMW rear suspension set up could with only the tiniest modification bolt straight up to a Stag rear end.  This not only cured the handling issues and gave you an unburstable differential, it also endowed the car with the novelty of efficient brakes, disks all round.  I have driven a Stag all the way to up to the restaurant on the side of Gossglockner, the highest peak in Austria and the superb Alpine cuisine and fantastic view off the restaurant balcony perched high above the Paterze Glacier was only marred by the thought of driving back down the Hochalpenstrasse with the ever attendant risk of Stag Twitch twitching me off it and thousands of feet down to an icy death on the glacier below, or boiling brakes effecting the same.  It took me ages to wipe the seat clean after I got home.

Bringing the fish home.
It's alright for him, he's on a bike, I have to push the barrow.

Charles’s Stag has not only been restored, it has been fitted with these highly desirable modifications and I am very keen to learn more about them.  I know that they aren’t cheap.  Bigger BMW brake calipers mean bigger wheels with an unusual offset to ensure the wheels are central in the arches.  Image is a company in UK that sells these wheels and they are £1200 a set not including the rubber with which to clothe them.  Charles’s Stag has been painted a rather, shall we say, breathtaking though not unattractive blue.  There is another very pretty fully restored Stag available in a more subdued hue for four grand less, a difference that would go a long way toward funding the desired modifications.  It all boils down to us talking together, something we aren’t doing yet because I have yet to prove that I am me and not some black hearted Langa in wrap round sunglasses, pointy shoes and trousers too short to conceal white nylon socks.

Some people who are in no doubt whatsoever I am what I am are the family.  After a long spell of to them culinary indifference, I am back in the kitchen again.  Last night I made Chelsea buns.  Any fool can whip up something passing for a sponge cake and that’s all you can get here.  Birthday cakes are big sponge cakes covered in a tooth decaying sticky sweet concoction that crumble to staleness as soon as they are sliced and differ from equally disappointing wedding cakes only in that they lack a plastic bride and groom on the top but they are covered with an A4 sized piece of rice paper bearing the dissolving bright green image of Ben 10 or other popular cartoon character printed, no doubt, on a desk top printer using normal highly toxic ink jet cartridges.

Baking with yeast is a wonderfully satisfying experience.  It requires patience but this is rewarded with the smell and the evidence of a risen dough.  Alex had delightfully moist Chelsea buns for breakfast this morning accompanied by hot chocolate.  I have had no joy finding strong flour to make bread so if anyone reading this in Angola has any ideas, please let me know, I struck out at Shoprite which was the only place I could think of that might stock it.

Doggie was run over and killed the other day (no messages of commiseration please, she was so wild and ill-disciplined she would only have needed to bite one more child and I’d have shot her) so now Charlie gets the undivided attention of his master.  I have no reason to doubt Marcia when she says the dogs were simply not eating while I was away and not being starved through lack of care as I first assumed.  Thinking about it, Alex was a bit scrawny as well, apparently he had been off his food too so I got to it and started rattling the pans again.  Local cuisine is all well and good but you can’t beat the old meat and two veg so it was regular roasts, meat pies, rich stews, sizzling steaks, full English breakfasts the bacon having been sliced off a whole side.  Now Marcia is worried that Alex is getting fat.  I'm worried that she is getting fat but am too scared to say anything.

So that Charlie bulks up quickly, I arranged a treat for him, pork ribs.  I can buy a ten kilo box for ten dollars, that’s five quid in real money and the box fits nicely on the bottom shelf of the fridge.  All I have to do is throw a bunch of them onto a baking tray and roast them in the oven.  At that price the dog, I thought, can have as much as he wants in addition to his normal food.  Except that it isn’t the dog that gets to tuck in, it is the family, and any visitors because they all have opposing thumbs and can open the oven door to nick the ribs, the dog hasn’t so he can’t.  Spare ribs, honestly, they are the secret to familial bliss. 

Oh God, I have just realized the gentleman with whom I am so keen to discuss the Stag has the same name I have given my dog.  I hope he understands it really is just a coincidence.  Perhaps it will serve to reassure him that I really am who I say I am, after all, you couldn’t make this stuff up.

"Just one tray of spare ribs today, ladies?"

Back to the ribs.  With something as inexpensive and evidently popular as a box of spare ribs, it would be selfish in the extreme not to share them.  The arrival of a new consignment of spare ribs cannot be concealed from the local youngsters all of whom lug free drinking water from my well twice a day as it is, so the ever patient Charlie has to watch me dole out a few plastic bags full of his treats all the time slavering like a Nile crocodile.  The odd thing is, I can’t stand spare ribs, which is probably why they weren’t on the menu before; I only bought them to feed the dog.
There you have it.  One restored Stag with the desirable modifications.
Yours for £13,500  (Verifiable I.D. required for purchase).
This one is four grand cheaper but without the desirable modifications
A Stag or a second hand Eurobox for the same money?  Let me think...
Charles may have come to a conclusion about me but I have come to some about him and his car.  He clearly is not desperate enough to throw his natural caution to the wind which leads me to suspect that he is not in a hurry to sell the car.  This means that it will be harder for me to knock his price down, something all buyers are duty bound to try on.  It also could mean that the car is every bit as good as he describes and that the photographs really don't do it justice.
At one point today, I was looking for excuses to fly back to UK and arrange an appointment to see the car myself but then I remembered that my visa has less than a month to run so if I leave the country now, I will have to stay out of the country until my visa is renewed and that could take three months.  Besides, the return flight would cost me a third of the price of the car.
Charles was worried he might have upset me.  He hasn't, of course.  He has just reminded me of how bloody difficult everything is here and reinforced my resolve to get back to UK, lousy weather, unbearable taxation and all.