Survivor’s Demise

Two tweets over the last couple of days inspire this post. Here’s the first:

Up until recently, the term survivor was reserved for people who were alive when the odds said they probably ought to be dead. People who stave off cancer, for example, or those who walk away from a plane crash in which most other people were killed. “Survivor” was never used to describe somebody who is still alive after merely being in close proximity to a catastrophic event, or having had their chances of dying increased. Even soldiers who come through a battle or war aren’t described as survivors, except on those rare occasions when a unit is almost obliterated.

But in the past couple of years American liberals, particularly feminists, have started applying the term to any woman who has been raped, sexually assaulted, or – in some instances – had mean things said to her. Now being raped or sexually assaulted is pretty horrific, but they are not, in general, life-threatening. Sure, women do get raped and murdered, and anyone who survives an attempted rape and murder is a survivor; but being raped alone does not merit the term.

I may sound harsh here, but the recent use of the term survivor is a deliberate hijacking of the language for political purposes. The people who use it inappropriately, as Antonova does above, do so because they believe it gives their cause moral authority, granting their side of the argument a gravitas it doesn’t deserve. “I’ve met trafficking victims” would be far more accurate, but doesn’t carry the same force as a word which implies these women are exceptionally lucky to be alive. Yes, trafficked women do get killed. Yes, being trafficked is horrific. But it’s not, in terms of mortality, the same as being in a ferry sinking or a plane crash. Nor is trafficking the same as attempted murder. If victims of campus sexual assaults deserved the term survivor, and these assaults were happening at the rate feminists say they are, the grounds of American colleges would look like the beaches of Iwo Jima.

Over the last few days, the term has been hijacked further – again for political purposes – to describe any teenage left-wing political activist who might have been somewhere in the vicinity of the Parkland school shooting. Now if you were cowering under the desk with bullets flying around you, watching your classmates getting shot, then I’d grant you the right to call yourself a survivor. If you were in the class next door and jumped out the window before the gunman came in and massacred those who remained, perhaps then also. But if you were merely at the school – which covered several acres – and did nothing more than hear the gunshots I’ll concede you’ve been through a very traumatic experience which should not be dismissed out of hand, but you’re not a survivor in any meaningful sense.

But what we’re now seeing is a bunch of teenagers from Parkland school catapulted onto the national stage to argue in favour of progressive political policies and given “survivor” status to justify their new-found fame and to deflect criticism. As one person on Twitter wrote:

When I was at school an Argentinian boy was killed when a tree blew over in storm, crushing a load of those underneath. They were out playing army cadets and had taken shelter under an enormous beech tree. The squall was short but brutal, and blew the thing over. At the time I was a few hundred metres away, also playing army cadets, and I sheltered my squad under a different tree. When I heard screams and saw people racing to the other side of the playing fields I knew something was up, so ran over myself. I found utter carnage, a dozen or so bashed-up schoolboys in army gear lying in a jumbled pile of wood and branches, blood everywhere. The dead lad – Nick Montanaro – caught a branch right on the back of his head, and his face been covered by a combat jacket by the time I got there. I still remember how grey his hands were, though. By some miracle he was the only fatality, but a couple of the other kids were badly smashed up. Once had severe leg injuries, but I think everyone made a full recovery. I’d say the fellows who were under the tree at the time could call themselves survivors, especially the ones who were injured, but the idea that I was a survivor of that incident is preposterous.

It’s another example of a perfectly reasonable and useful term with little ambiguity that has been hijacked by the left and rendered meaningless. My advice is to assume anyone using it inappropriately is flogging an agenda, and shouldn’t be taken seriously.


A helpful response to my post:


First Cars

TechieDude remarks on the subject of parents, kids, and cars:

You never, ever give your kid a car. Especially when they first get their license. I let my kids use mine, if I didn’t need it, back in the day. They wanted a car? Get a job and pay for one. No better lesson can be had than watching your bank account get hoovered out by repairs, gas, and insurance. There’s more to owning a car than just possession.

Wise words indeed. Getting your first car is, or at least used to be, a rite of passage for a young man and it made a big difference if you’d bought it yourself rather than being gifted it. In my case, it was the former.

I didn’t get around to buying my first car until 1999, when I was 22. This is partly explained by my not having passed my test until I was 20: I failed the fucking thing 3 times before I passed on the fourth attempt. To be fair, my tests took place in Chichester (with complicated one way systems and dual carriageways) and Manchester; a lot of my contemporaries passed their tests in sleepy country towns with a single roundabout and no box junctions. When I passed my test I couldn’t afford a car, and nor did I need one. Then I got that job delivering cars for Danny and I didn’t have to buy one of my own.

All that changed when I had to spend the first semester of my fourth year at university doing an industrial placement, and the one I found was in Weaste, a suburb of Greater Manchester between Salford and Eccles. Getting there by public transport from Fallowfield was long, complicated, and probably about as safe as taking a bus through Syria today. So I needed a car. Fortunately my job with Danny involved going to various dodgy garages and repair shops, and one of them had a car outside for sale. To be honest, I can’t remember how I found it or who I paid, and I certainly don’t remember test driving it. What I do remember is paying £300 for a white, 1l Fiat Uno with 3 doors and skinny tyres with moss on the sides. I can’t recall how old it was, but it had been around plenty. It had an MOT for a few months, but no tax disc. That became my first car.

I quickly found out that to get a tax disc you need insurance. I called Direct Line and they were happy to insure me (it wasn’t obscenely expensive, but not cheap either), but it would take a while for a cover letter to reach me. They said the process could be sped up if I came to their office in central Manchester and picked it up in person. But what to do in the meantime? You’re not supposed to drive a car without a tax disc. I ended up putting a hand-written note in the window where the tax disc goes saying “WAITING FOR INSURANCE COVER LETTER”. I have no idea if this would have saved me a fine or not, but I got the letter in a few days, then the tax disc, and I was motoring around legally in my own car for the first time.

As could have been expected for £300, the car was not without problems. It suffered from what’s known as “run-on”, meaning the engine continues to fire long after you’ve turned off the ignition, withdrawn the key, locked the door, and walked off. Somebody said it might have been running too hot, but I don’t know for sure. I then decided to do whatever I could to make it run better, so went to Halfords and bought a new distributor cap, points, and a coil. Back in those days, replacing parts like these was a routine thing to do. I don’t recall it making a blind bit of difference, but the parts were cheap and it couldn’t hurt.

Then I thought I’d take it for a wash, so went to an automatic car wash whose owner I knew. I drove forward, wound down the window, and tried to insert the token. I couldn’t quite reach so opened the door, put it in, then closed the door. Something clunked. I drove forward, and started to wind up the window as the car wash rumbled into life. Only nothing was happening, and the handle seemed rather too easy to turn. I wound a bit faster, but no window appeared. By now the car wash was fired up and water was pissing through the open window. I put it in gear and drove out the other side, getting soaked in the process. The owner came over and asked what was going on. I had no idea, and was rather distressed as well as wet. We looked down the door seal and saw the window mechanism wound fully up but there was no pane of glass. We got a screwdriver, pulled off the inside door panel, and found it lying on the bottom of the car door. The clip holding it to the raising mechanism had broken, and when I slammed the doors shut it had fallen off. We put it back on as best we could, wound it up carefully, and worked out that you could shut the door – but only with the window wound up. If you did it with it down, you’d lose the pane in the door again. That happened a few times over the course of my ownership. The engine also used to flood, and you’d need to be careful with the manual choke. Many a time I found myself stuck, sometimes in traffic, the engine stalled and unable to restart for several minutes.

Such is life driving around in £300 cars. But it served me well enough, at least for a few months of daily use, until I drove it down to London in December. A few miles outside Manchester on the M6 I realised the brakes didn’t work very well and when I pressed the pedal I’d hear a lot of grinding but without much stopping. There wasn’t much I could do, so pressed on. I worked out that if I was careful I could slow down using the gears and pull the handbrake if I had to, once slowed enough. Then the heavens opened, and the road turned into a river. There was I, in my decrepit Fiat Uno, driving down the M1 with no brakes in a cloudburst. Young men are stupid and I was no exception, and looking back I’m surprised by how unconcerned I was by all this. I slotted in behind a lorry doing 55 mph, kept a respectful distance, and followed it most of the way to London. Quite how I survived that trip I’m not sure, but I did and I got a new set of the cheapest set of brakes I could find the next day. The old ones were completely shot through.

I learned a lot about the costs of running and maintaining a car with that Uno. At the end of my industrial placement I sold it, for £300, to my mate who drove it all over the place for a year, loaded down with Royal Marines and military bergens. He burned through the brakes in short order, and complained bitterly to me for installing cheap ones. He eventually sold it to some sucker for £400. By then, I was driving around in a 1973 lightweight Land Rover, which deserves a post all of its own. Nowadays I ride around in something fast and German, but I appreciate it all the more having once being utterly reliant on a £300 banger with no brakes and a window that kept falling out.

What was your first car?


Walking the Line

It’s Friday and I’m off on holiday for a week’s skiing in the Alps. Blogging will be light to non-existent, as time permits. So for now I’ll leave you with this tale of an experience I had in my mid-twenties, back in the days when I still believed a career lay in front of me.

“How the hell am I supposed to do that?” I asked Larry, my fellow engineer.

“Just go and have a look, write down what you see, and submit a report,” he replied. “What’s the worst that can happen?”

“The client doesn’t like it?”

“Yes, but they’ll tell you why they don’t like it, and tell you what they want to see instead. So you go back and do exactly that, re-submit it, and they’ll think it’s great.”

Larry had been around the consulting world a long time. I once asked him how many US states he’d been to, and he said he’d worked in 48 of them. He’d been in Iran when the Revolution happened, Libya when the Americans bombed it, and Syria when sanctions were imposed leaving foreign workers without much to eat. If I were a government official checking Larry through immigration on a work visa, I’d start preparing for either war or regime change. But now he was telling me how I should inspect a pipeline.

Truth is, none of us had a clue. None of us had a clue about any of what we were supposed to do, which put us about the same level as our client, who had no clue either. Several months before, we’d all been mobilised to the Middle East ostensibly to carry out a risk assessment on various facilities scattered around the desert, some of which had been there since the 1960s. The idea was to identify what work would need to be done to make the national oil company work like BP. In hindsight, the answer was obvious: privatise it, fire all the staff, and replace them with competent people. I suspect our client knew this but turkeys don’t vote for Christmas and reverse anti-colonialism is rarely popular even in places where telegraph poles fall over onto people’s heads, so they tasked us to come up with a more technological answer.

To be fair we started enthusiastically enough, but after a few days we realised nobody was turning up to our meetings and workshops any more: the novelty of having a few foreigners around had worn off, and there was idling to be done. Motivation disappeared altogether when I opened a drawer of a long-disused desk in the corner of the office we were shoved in, and discovered a bulky report some five years old with exactly the same title as the study we were currently doing. I thumbed through it and found the authors’ scope was identical to ours, and their conclusions much the same. Whatever the reason was behind us being hired, it wasn’t to tell our client anything they didn’t already know.

But right now I had a pipeline to inspect and I didn’t know how until I asked Larry. The pipeline was a six-inch gas flowline chosen as representative of all the company flowlines, and the idea was I’d ascertain its condition. I first went to the inspection department who showed me an impressive document detailing the inspection regime, but alas they couldn’t tell me when in the line’s thirty year life it had actually been inspected, let alone provide me with results. So they helpfully suggested I make a visual inspection, adding that “it’s only buried in places”.

From what I could tell from the drawings the line ran from a gathering centre a couple of miles away to another facility near where our offices were. I reckoned I could go out one morning before it got too hot and simply walk along the pipeline route and see whatever I could see. Everyone agreed this was a splendid idea, although I doubt anyone truly believed I could determine the pipeline’s condition using this method. They were just glad someone was taking ownership of the task, and that included the client.

The next morning around 7am Larry drove me out to the gathering centre and left me there. I reckoned I could be back by lunchtime, which was around 11am. It was already quite warm and I was wearing a polo-shirt, light jeans, and a pair of trainers. I also had the obligatory cap and sunglasses, and I brought with me a bottle of water. I had no trouble finding the start of the line and following it to where it went underground and beneath the perimeter fence. I also had no trouble picking it up on the other side, and I happily walked alongside it for about a mile thinking this was one of the easier jobs I’d done in my life. Then it went underground and it took me a while to find where it re-emerged. Eventually I did, and I followed it some more. Insofar as its condition was concerned, it looked to be made of metal and cylindrical. I didn’t see any rust which was unsurprising given the place experiences scorching heat and no rain whatsoever for all but a few days per year. This probably explained why they’d not painted it. Sometimes it would go underground to pass under a road or culvert, and they’d protect it from the highly corrosive soil by wrapping it in what looked like bandages soaked in coal tar. This was a common way of protecting buried pipes until they reckoned coal tar was carcinogenic and they quit using it. Half of these wrappings were torn off and lying in shreds, barely connected to the pipe, and so I earnestly noted this important detail on the scrap of paper that would become my integrity report.

Then I lost the pipe again. It simply disappeared underground and never came up, even though the drawing said it should be around there somewhere. It took me about twenty minutes of searching the dusty, gravelly terrain to find it hundreds of metres away, after which I continued my walk alongside it. At some point I came across an odd-looking valve, which had no handle. Instead there was a square spigot onto which you’d fix one, or a wrench of some kind. I thought it was a peculiar design for a gas line, and in a rather strange location. The pipeline route was taking me towards the main road we took across the oilfield each day, which surprised me a bit because the drawing didn’t indicate that. Still, I followed it. Soon I was walking parallel to the road, right alongside. I was still in the middle of nowhere.

A small structure appeared up ahead and as I approached the pipeline suddenly turned skywards, then turned horizontal, then vertically downwards, and came to an abrupt stop. A long canvas sock was hanging from its end, swaying in the hot wind that blew non-stop across the desert. This was no gas line. It was a water line. Somehow I’d lost one and picked up the other. Feeling rather foolish, I looked to the horizon at the gathering centre and briefly considered retracing my steps. Then I decided nobody would know, and wouldn’t care if they did.

I flagged down a car, caught a lift back to our offices, and wrote up the report. I said the line appeared to be in reasonable condition but could use another inspection just to make sure and this should be done within a year. The client commented that my report was “too generic” and lacked specifics, but they were otherwise satisfied with what I’d done.

I was wrong on one thing. I said nobody would know, but I told everyone because I thought it was funny. So did they. The bit I got right was that they didn’t care.


A Murder in Beirut

Back when I lived in Dubai I spent an evening in my flat in the company of three women: an Australian, a Russian, and an Uzbek (who was staying with me at the time). We were sat around my bar drinking tequila when the Russian, who was in her mid-twenties, started telling us about the problems she was having with her boyfriend, a Lebanese chap. Two nights previously she had gone out for a drink with another Russian woman and started receiving text messages from her boyfriend. As the night wore on the messages got increasingly angry and accusatory – a pattern which many women (and men) will know well. By the time she went home, rather distressed, her boyfriend was openly accusing her of going home with another man. She went to bed and heard a pounding on the door. Then she heard glass breaking. She went downstairs to find her boyfriend had put his fist through a window and was shaking with jealous rage. She let him in and he belted her one, but after much sobbing they both calmed down. She told us she didn’t know whether she should stay with him and try to work through his anger issues. At this point I asked how long they’d been together. Two weeks, she said. I reached for another tequila.

When I lived in Dubai I heard a lot of stories about women, particularly British and Russians, getting involved with Arabic men and things getting ugly. I know a Russian woman who unwisely entered into a relationship with an Egyptian waiter who regularly beat the shit out of her in a jealous rage; she at least had the sense and courage to eventually leave him. Just as Anglo-Saxon men go funny in the head around Asian women, and Frenchmen lose their senses in Africa, European women often get all giddy over swarthy Middle Easterners. (There’s a theory that this explains why white, liberal women vote to allow more refugees and migrants in, and there is probably some truth in it – stories like this certainly lend weight to the theory, anyway.)

I remember taking an English girl out on a date in Dubai and the first thing she did when she got into my car was turn off the bluegrass, switch to the radio, and retune the damned thing! She entered some station called Habibi (love, in Arabic) and explained the songs alternate between English and Arabic and she and her Lebanese ex used to listen to it. Bear in mind we’d barely left the car park at this point. She breathlessly went on about how charming the Lebanese are, and how romantic they can be, but he was shagging anything that moved and she dumped him (or him her, I wasn’t paying much attention). I’ll leave you to guess how the rest of the date went. I also met up with a Ukrainian girl who within minutes handed me a photo album four inches thick. I flicked through pictures of what looked like a group of gangsters in tracksuits stood beside a murky river a mile wide (this was her family on holiday) and found myself wading through a hundred photos of some dodgy looking Lebanese stood beside a pimped-out Camaro. She then rabbited on about how this guy was the love of her life, and very charming, and bought her flowers, and…you get the picture. Only he was “crazy”.

Now I actually got to know some of the Lebanese men in Dubai, one of whom became a good mate of mine (I stayed with him and his family in Beirut in 2010). He told me two things. Firstly, Lebanese men are only interested in serious relationships with Lebanese women, ones who their family will approve of. There are a few exceptions, but it’s a general rule that Lebanese men intend to marry a Lebanese woman (preferably a virgin) at some point, but until then they want to shag as many loose women as they can, regardless of quality. The Lebanese are descended from Phoenicians, and are first and foremost traders. The thing they like selling most of all is themselves, and Lebanese men are particularly gifted at telling gullible western women exactly what they want to hear in order to get them into bed. British men, when viewed alongside, seem plodding and unromantic. Secondly, my friend said a lot of the Lebanese men you encounter are rather low-class, hailing from farms in the mountains rather than universities in Beirut.

There’s something I observed, and learned the hard way myself, in my travels around the world. Working out the class background of somebody is extremely difficult if you’re not from their culture. I can pick out a British chav in seconds simply by the clothes, habits, and vocabulary. I’ve learned to do it with Russians too, but that took some time. Otherwise, if I’m honest, I have no idea who’s who when I first encounter them. This poses a problem for men turning up in Thailand, for example. They have no idea that the girl they met in the bar is actually a peasant from the jungle on the Cambodian border who grew up in hut and has four years of schooling. Middle-class Thai women exist, but they don’t mingle with foreigners on holidays and sure as hell don’t dance on tables in bars in Pattaya and go home with some fat fuck on the back of a scooter. A lot of the guys who turned up in Sakhalin didn’t realise the pretty, seemingly-classy women they fell in love with spoke a rough version of Russian littered with profanity and grammatical errors – something which would mark them out as lower-class in Moscow and Saint Petersburg.

When I was in Lagos I had a colleague who was British-Nigerian, and he’d married a British-Nigerian woman. She came out to visit for a while and joined us at the pool in the Eko Hotel. There’s a bar area next to it which is a favourite spot for the local prostitutes to pick up expats, and my colleague’s wife saw this and her eyes went wide. What stunned her was that these western men were talking and canoodling with absolute, low-grade peasant women, the types ordinary Nigerians stay well clear of. Being a middle-class Nigerian she could see what class of women they were, but the expat men couldn’t. She was still talking about how shocked she was when she came to leave two weeks later. Similarly, my well-educated and middle-class Turkish friend is absolutely astounded by the willingness of British and Russian women to sleep with Turkish barmen, waiters, and boatmen who come from remote villages in the country’s east and can barely read, write, and hold cutlery. These women would never in a million years be interested in some villager from their own countries, but faced with a swarthy foreigner they can’t pick his class and are blinded by the exoticism. The same was true for the girls who dated Lebanese men in Dubai.

This is all a very long-winded prelude to my comments on this story:

Police in Lebanon investigating the murder of a British woman who worked at the UK embassy in Beirut have arrested a man, a source has said.

Ms Dykes, who is believed to have been in her early 30s, had been working in Beirut as the programme and policy manager for the Department for International Development since January 2017.

It is thought Ms Dykes had spent Friday evening at a going-away party for a colleague in the popular Gemmayzeh district of Beirut, the BBC’s Middle East correspondent Martin Patience said.

After leaving the bar at about midnight it appears she was abducted. Her body was found close to a motorway on the outskirts of the city.

What I’m about to say is complete speculation, and I may be completely wrong. It may well be that Ms Dykes was jumped by a complete stranger when alone outside a nightclub in Beirut and murdered, that is indeed possible. But I’ve been to Beirut and it’s not really that kind of place, especially where expats hang out. There is terrorism there, and political violence and kidnappings, but it’s never been known as a place that’s unsafe for foreign women. Your average Lebanese is a pretty decent sort and if a western woman has been abducted and murdered fresh off the street it is a very unusual occurence.

Which makes me think she knew the guy who killed her. Whereas I can’t imagine a Lebanese guy deciding to abduct a stranger, I can well believe a Lebanese guy could fly into a rage and murder his western girlfriend. Let’s do some more speculation, the kind of which her family wouldn’t want to read. She’s around 30 and there’s no mention of a husband or kids, so we can assume she was single. She works for the Department of International Development so she’s probably a bit of a lefty, maybe a do-gooder type. Lefty, do-gooder women in their 30s often have this bizarre belief that the greatest danger to their well-being is from old, white men and foreign thugs won’t hurt them. Indeed, I’d hazard a guess that any sexual harassment training women get in the Department of International Development – even in the embassy in Beirut – talks more about white men making lewd remarks than foreign thugs who view western women as nothing more than sluts.

So here’s my guess. She arrived in Lebanon in January and started frequenting the expat bars and nightclubs. At some point she’s got into a relationship with a local (or perhaps someone from a nearby country) without having any idea what the guy was like, or his history. She’d have been blinded by the initial charm and exoticism, and assumed he was the same as the educated Lebanese she’d met at work. The embassy would – like everyone else – have heard plenty of horror stories about western women who get entangled with the wrong sort of local men, but don’t want to actually warn their staff about it as that would deviate from the approved narrative. The result is a dead employee.

We probably won’t ever hear the truth about this case and I might be completely wrong anyway, but I reckon the smart money is on the killer being someone she was (or had been) romantically involved with and he won’t have a university degree.


The Rights of EU Citizens

When I first moved to France I did so as an EU citizen, as you probably guessed. Under EU law, the non-EU spouses of EU citizens residing in an EU country other than their own are entitled to receive a residency card within 3 months of application. In practice, this means the non-EU spouse gets an entry visa in their home country and arrives in the EU country to join their partner: he or she is entitled to stay as long as they like, even once the initial visa expires, and is entitled to work because their rights are statutory and not dependent on receiving a residency card. However, for all practical purposes such as opening a bank account or leaving then re-entering the country, they will need a residency visa.

When I tried to apply for my wife’s in France, I was told there was a 6-week wait before they could accept her application. We waited 6 weeks and the bureaucrat at the prefecture said our paperwork was not in order and the application was rejected. I hired a lawyer who pointed out to the prefecture by law they were not allowed to reject the application for that reason, and the head bureaucrat shrugged and said “So what?”. They made us wait another 6-weeks in contravention of their own laws, so 12 weeks passed before we finally got the application in. EU law says the residency card must be issued within no more than 3 months, but 3 months passed and no card. The bureaucrats at the prefecture shrugged and said “So what?” I called the EU ombudsman to intervene, and they were very helpful, but they couldn’t get the bureaucrats at the prefecture to cooperate. Eventually the ombudsman called the French ministry of the interior and got someone to kick some ass in the prefecture, and we got a notice saying the card was ready for collection: this was some 5 months after the application, and 8 months after we’d first walked into the prefecture. When we went to collect the card they demanded 300 euros, but EU law says it must be issued for free. I called the ombudsman who called the French Interior Minister who called the prefecture who told them to give it to me for free. When the guy handed it over he said “Sorry, but we don’t know any of the EU laws. They don’t give us any training here.”

The whole episode taught me that the rights of EU citizens are enjoyed only at the discretion of the bureaucrat sat in front of you. If they refuse to recognise them, then they’re not really rights at all. Disgracefully, the prefecture insures itself against legal action by capping any compensation lower than what it would cost to hire a lawyer even for a day. I raised this with the ombudsman and warned her that there is a strong sentiment among the British that costs of membership of the EU simply aren’t worth it because the supposed rights we enjoy often don’t materialise in practice, and I had now joined their ranks. This was back in early 2015, so before the Brexit vote. I contacted UKIP to see if they’d be interested in my experience, and they directed me towards some eurosceptic MEPs in Brussels. They asked me for details, I provided them, and never heard a thing back afterwards. For my wife’s part, the experience put her off living in France completely and she skedaddled the day after she got her card and never returned in any meaningful sense.

Although living in France I undoubtedly benefit from my rights as an EU citizen, it is undeniable that these are still subject to the whims of the local bureaucrats. In other words, they’re not rights at all. When I hear everyone wailing about how British citizens might lose their rights in EU countries when the UK leaves, I shrug and recall how we had to stand in line for hours with several hundred Africans on a dozen separate occasions, plus shell out over a thousand wasted euros, in order to exercise those rights. My non-EU colleagues, who weren’t labouring under the illusion of getting any rights recognised by a French prefecture, simply fell in line and went through the normal process. When we compared notes, I couldn’t for the life of me see how their experience was any different from ours.

I get the impression a lot of people who claim to be worried about their rights in the EU after Brexit have never actually tried exercising them. I’m happy to take my chances in whatever regime follows.


How to Pet a Cow

Several years back I visited Thailand at the same time some friends were staying in a villa nearby. They had their 18-month old daughter with them, as well as the grandparents from both sides making it a jolly family affair. I got on well with the kid and she used to clamber all over me, perhaps mistaking me for a climbing frame, but at the beginning of their trip she objected to being picked up by her grandmother. It didn’t take me long to figure out why: although I know little about small children, I know a fair bit about cows.

If you want to stroke a cow in a field it is quite easy to do so, but you have to go about it the right way. Cattle are easily startled so if you approach them they’ll run off. If you walk up to them slowly, they’ll run off again. If you keep this up you’ll be chasing them around the field all day. What you have to do is walk into the middle of them and stay very still. Cows are incredibly curious creatures and once their initial timidness wears off they’ll build up the courage to approach you, very slowly and in a herd. If you stay still, avoiding sudden movements, they will form a circle around you and close in incrementally. One will step forward gingerly and then leap back, but another – seeing nothing bad happened – will move into its place, bringing the rest along. This will repeat until they’re in touching distance. Then you hold out your hand. They’ll look at it with enormous black eyes, their ears twitching comically, and eventually one will stretch its neck forward to sniff it. It will recoil as if you stink, but it’ll come back for more within half a minute. Soon it will lick your hand with a giant tongue that feels like sandpaper. A cow’s tongue is very thick and rough, which is necessary because they eat by wrapping it around long blades of grass and pulling it into their mouths. This is why cows need proper pasture whereas sheep, which eat by nibbling with their teeth, can get by on much shorter grass, e.g. fields which cows have already grazed.

Anyway, you’ll notice once it starts licking you that its tongue is very rough. You’ll also have seen by now that a cow’s tongue can reach a good two-inches into either nostril which contains a veritable reservoir of snot. Pretty soon the cow will be licking your sleeve, coat, and everything else covering you in a white slobber and by that stage you can stroke its head and do pretty much whatever you want. The rest will join in and, unless you move, they might push you over. Not out of meanness, they just don’t realise you’re not there to be leaned on. It can be quite disconcerting sometimes, surrounded by cows, and especially so when you’re walking through a field and they start chasing you. If this happens, simply stop and walk towards them and they’ll leave you alone for a bit. This works with heifers, bullocks, and cows. If there’s a bull in the field, don’t go in there at all, and don’t even think about trying to stroke it by standing very still. How can you tell it’s a bull? Don’t worry, he’ll let you know. Every farm occasionally gets an ultra-friendly cow that walks straight up and starts slobbering all over you within thirty seconds. I remember trying to spread straw in a cowshed one winter and had a bullock licking my jacket the whole time with its giant, rasping tongue. By the end I was soaked, but it’s actually quite fun.

I thought of this, well over 15 years after I’d last set foot on a farm, when I was in Thailand. My friends’ toddler would play with me because I sat there and let her come to me. By contrast, her grandmother would approach her and try to pick her up, which she didn’t like. Looking at it, there’s a lot you can learn about toddlers by dealing with cows. The snot levels are approximately similar, for example.

The reason I wrote this post is because this morning I came across this video of a beaver leading cows around a pasture in Canada.

The important thing to realise is that this doesn’t have much to do with the beaver being a beaver, but rather an intriguing object that is moving around and doesn’t startle the animals. You could get the same effect with a football on a piece of string, or a remote-controlled car. Like I said, cows are extraordinarily curious creatures. A lot like toddlers, in fact.


The Strange World of Hotels

Several people have asked the question as to how the lunatic who carried out the massacre in Las Vegas was able to stockpile so many guns in his room without staff at the Mandalay Bay hotel noticing. Well, that’s an easy question to answer: hotel staff are conditioned not to see stuff.

Even the finest hotels can be the venues for quite dodgy goings-on. Consumers of amateur porn might have noticed that an awful lot of it takes place in hotel rooms (which must be nice for the next guest), and if Hollywood films are any guide so do most major drug deals. The splendid book Hotel Babylon, an inside view into life in a upscale London hotel, gives several examples of strange things which happen in hotel rooms with alarming regularity. The author explains that people often go to hotels to commit suicide: it saves the family having to find the body and clear up the mess afterwards.

When I worked in a fancy hotel in Manchester (there’s your contradiction in terms for the day) we used to share stories of what we’d seen during our shifts. A receptionist told us she’d checked in the same middle-aged couple regularly for a number of years when one day the man turned up with a new woman in tow. A mistress, perhaps? No, the new woman was his wife. One of the shift managers said he’d brought breakfast to a rather respectable middle-aged woman only to find her in bed with another, equally respectable-looking woman, who’d checked in separately into a different room. Neither batted an eyelid and, more importantly, nor did he. Hotel guests expect discretion from the staff, and they usually get it.

There are some countries that immediately cast suspicion on anyone staying in a hotel. You must show your passport in the UAE for example, and I was rather surprised to find that the Belgian police require hotels to collect a copy of the ID of each guest. Unless things have changed since I stayed in American hotels, there is no such requirement stateside. You can be sure the Mandalay Bay had every inch of the hotel monitored by camera – it is a casino after all – and had anyone banned from the gaming floor been found wandering around they’d have been ejected within minutes. But nobody is going to pay attention to a white bloke in his fifties going in and out with a lot of luggage (I’m going to assume he dismantled his guns and put them in a holdall or suitcase, and didn’t just stroll in through the front door with a heavy machine gun and a thousand rounds of link over his shoulder, even if the cretinous European media would believe you could do this and nobody would notice). That said, if anyone from housekeeping or room service entered his room and found weapons lying everywhere, they’d tell their manager straight away and they’d keep an eye on him. My guess is he hung the “Do Not Disturb” sign on his door and left it there, and the staff paid him no attention.

That’s not to say hotel staff aren’t observant, though. Several years back I was on a business trip to Paris and stayed in the Sofitel in La Defense: this was in the days of $100+ oil, nowadays we’d be given a horse-blanket and told to cuddle up to a tramp beneath a railway bridge. Anyway, by coincidence a friend arrived in town from London on the same morning and we met up in the afternoon. In a moment of quite spectacular dimness she’d come to Paris to stay with a friend without actually telling them in advance; when she arrived and tried to call, their phone was switched off. As the afternoon wore on it became increasingly clear her friend was out of town and she had nowhere to stay. Generous chap that I am I let her stay in the Sofitel with me: the beds are the size of tennis courts and the room is set up for two anyway. The next morning we went down for breakfast and the female maître d’hôtel sat us in a corner. She was a tall, dark woman with a long pointed nose, perhaps half-Arabic and extremely efficient and professional. I’d seen her every time on my previous business trips, so she was long-term employed and I dare say she’s still there. Anyway, we had breakfast and my friend got her act together and went back to London.

The next morning, a Monday, I come down for breakfast and the maître d’ leads me to a particular spot. With a slight grin she says:

“Zere you go, sir. Ze same place as wiz madame yesterday.”

If the Las Vegas police want to know about the movements of this headcase in and out of their premises, they probably just need to find the equivalent of this woman. Every hotel has one.


Des: Oil & Gas Contractor

I’m at a seminar and away from a keyboard until Thursday evening, so in the meantime I’ll leave you with this tale I wrote in 2010 about a bloke I worked with in the Middle East. Enjoy!

I first met Desmond – let’s call him Des – on the first night I ever spent in Abu Dhabi, 12th June 2003.  I remember the date because it was the day I emigrated from the UK (even if I didn’t know it at the time), and you remember dates like that.  Des was the offspring of an English father and Swedish mother, and thanks to the latter sported a head of perfectly bleach-blonde hair with not a speck of grey, despite being in his late forties.  It was because of this hair that his colleagues nicknamed him Billy Idol.

Des, me, and a South African called Phil had come to the Middle East to join a consultancy carrying out risk and safety analysis work on various projects in the UAE and Oman.  I had transferred from the consultancy’s UK operations, whereas the other two were outside contractors.  As it happened, we all arrived in Abu Dhabi on the same day.  My flight got in late and by the time I’d checked into the hotel it was already dark, although still stiflingly hot.  It was a heat that I would quickly have to get used to.  I met up with another engineeer from the UK who had been to Abu Dhabi before, and we both went to a bar called 49ers where one of the Australian engineers was enjoying his stag do along with the rest of my new colleagues.  The 49ers bar in Abu Dhabi is one not to be forgotten.  It is situated way up in the upper floors of a skyscraper, I forget which floor, but plenty high enough and out of reach of any ladders.  The bar is accessed via a tiny, underpowered lift which can hold a maximum of 6 people.  The bar itself is decked out in a wild west theme complete with wood panelling, and features an open flame grill.  The place was packed with over 200 people when I arrived, jammed in cheek and jowl and barely able to move.  The lift was the only means of egress.  There was no fire escape.  This visit to 49ers was my first and only.

I met up with the others and enjoyed a round of handshaking quickly followed by a round of beers.  It was way too noisy to speak to anybody and, feeling a bit homesick, I was quite glad when after a while somebody decided on behalf of us all that we should go to a nightclub across the roundabout, behind – indeed part of – the Le Meridien hotel.  It took all of us about twenty minutes to get out via the tiny lift and congregate on the pavement outside, leaving me to shudder at the thought of a fire in the place.  I found myself with the others in a smart club filled with people who were anything but.  Dozens of low-class Chinese and Central Asian hookers lined the bars and the dancefloors, perfectly matched by the generally fat, sleazing expatriates and few locals for whom they were the sole reason for being there.  I remember being seriously tired and wanting to leave, but having no local money on me and no idea where the hotel was, or even what it was called.  It was a miserable experience, but I do remember meeting Des in the Foyer, shaking his hand, and him being very pleased to tell me we’d be going to Oman together on the Saturday (today was a Thursday, hence a weekend in the Muslim lands).

I didn’t know Des then, but by golly I knew his CV.  He was recruited on the basis that his CV was probably one of the finest anyone had ever seen in the oil and gas business, and I’d read it when I was still back in the UK.  I still have a copy of it, and it is in front of me now.  Des was fluent in three languages: English, Swedish, and German.  This much was true.  Des held 5 higher education qualifications (including 2 bachelors and 1 masters) in no less than 4 disciplines.  He was a chartered engineer twice over, a member of an additional 5 professional bodies, and had another 15 professional certificates to his name.  He had been the safety manager for all of Shell’s offshore facilities in the Dutch sector and a senior safety specialist for Sakhalin Energy, which caught my attention even back then.  He’d held senior positions with Fluor Daniel, Kvaerner, Occidental, Statoil, and Mobil.  And his overseas experience covered the UK, Holland, Sweden, Norway, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Qatar, Iran, and Pakistan.  On the basis of his CV, you’d be stupid not to hire him.  On the basis of his CV, you’d be equally stupid not to do some rudimentary verification of even a fraction of it.

On his first night with his new colleagues, none of whom he knew, Des borrowed the equivalent of $120 from the Australian stag and left the club in the company of a ropey Chinese prostitute.  I hitched a lift back to the hotel with the engineer from the UK, thankful he knew where he was going.

Des and I caught a Gulf Air flight from Abu Dhabi to Muscat the following Saturday, arriving mid-morning in heat equally as oppressive as that which we left behind.  We found our way to the apartment which would be our home for the next two months, buying some basic groceries on the way, and after a few more hours of getting ourselves kitted out with safety gear and other admin tasks we drove to the Mina Al-Fahal refinery situated on the coast just outside of Muscat.  Our job, as I remember it, was to carry out a risk and safety assessment of the refinery, most of which needed to be done at the facility itself.  The project schedule allowed two months for this phase of the work, so I was somewhat surprised when Des confidentally told me it would only take a couple of weeks.  However, Des was the lead engineer and I was his junior, so I trusted he knew what he was doing.

Now at the time I was delighted to be on this project with Des.  Here was me at 26 years of age, finally abroad and visiting a proper facility in a hands-on role with a chap whose experience was so impressive that I could not fail to learn from him.  And even though I was a bit homesick in those first few days and weeks, I did enjoy the experience.  It was roasting hot outside, and anyone sensible or not unlucky enough to be incarnated this time around as an Indian labourer stayed well indoors.  But Des and I had a job to do, so we walked down every pipe and vessel and piece of equipment in that refinery, crawling over hot pipes in an already oven-like temperature, me writing down every hazard that Des pointed out.  As a method of getting an up-close look at a refinery it was a good one, and it was even better at making you appreciate the Middle Eastern climate and the wonders of air conditioning.  As a means of doing the job we were contracted to do, it was almost worthless.  But this I didn’t know at the time, and we went on our merry way for the rest of the week.

Now Des liked to talk, and he especially liked to talk about himself, and most of all he liked to talk about how damned good he was.  At first, I quite liked his tales of the various jobs he’d been on and countries he’d visited.  I’m a gullible fool even now and generally believe what I’m told until proven otherwise, and I reckon it’s made me more friends than it’s got me into trouble so I’ll stick with it for now.  Des had been there and done it, and here was I on a job with him.  Yeah, this is all right, I thought.  We even talked about the next project coming up, the big one in Kuwait which would go on for a year, and we’d go together.  But as the week wore on, Des talked less about where he’d worked (tales which were suspiciously devoid of details, I saw in hindsight) and more about how great he was in other walks of life, especially his prowess with women.  Des was on his (if I recall correctly) fourth wife, the second of which had run away with his best friend and business partner, the two of them clearing him out completely and disappearing into the night.  The third wife was an Iranian whom he married for a joke, or convenience, or something.  He had a son by either the first or second wife.  And his fourth wife, who was a coloured South African, was living in his house in Holland with her two children (neither of whom were his own).  Describing his various marriages took up an entire evening, and his conquests with several dozen other women two or three more.  Then came the stories of when he was in the army and he was the best at shooting, driving, camouflage, escape and evasion, and every other aspect of soldiering which I can think of.  Next it was how he was almost shot to death in Pakistan, and how he saw a man executed in front of his eyes for some misdemeanour, and by that point I think even I’d stopped listening.  I used to scurry into my room, which unfortunately I shared with Des (who used to smoke in bed!), leaving a colleague assigned to another project but living with us, a chap called Chris, to make his own escape if and when he could whilst I lied and said I had to make a phone call to the UK.

By the end of the week, this had all got pretty tiresome, and so I was glad when Des told me we’d be going back to Abu Dhabi for the weekend for R&R.  I have no idea how we got the tickets, but when we got back the regional boss, whose villa we were now for some reason all living in, was somewhat surprised to see us.  He thought we were supposed to be down in Oman on the refinery tomorrow.  I looked bewildered and said I was following Des, who was supposed to be in charge.  It was all very confusing so Des, me, and another Brit called Steve who was also living in the villa set off to a bar somewhere in Abu Dhabi.  Within a remarkably short time we all found ourselves in the infamous Al-Ain Palace, or the Ally Pally, a low-down dive of a place known only for its abundance of cheap, third-rate Chinese hookers.  To cut a short story even shorter, the three of us ended up going back to the villa in a taxi with a huge Chinese prostitute with a smashed front tooth whom Des had picked up.  Steve and I weren’t interested in doing likewise, which seemed to annoy Des, which he showed by pretending the girl was actually with one of us even when she stopped at a McDonalds and came out with an armful of burgers which she presented to him as some sort of weird tribute.  I remember the four of us sitting in the villa around the nice, pine breakfast bar table (which, incidentally, I later took ownership of and it saw action in two of my apartments in Sakhalin, before I gave it away to a friend a week before my demobilisation in return for – ironically – a Chinese meal) with Steve, Des, and a huge Chinese girl with a smashed tooth who wouldn’t shut up or stop eating burgers.  Des had the bright idea of them going for a swim (in what was a family compound where hookers, much less nightswimming ones, were frowned upon).  She leaped from the stool, whipped up her dress to show a pair of large, sweaty, polyester granny pants and told us that she didn’t have a swimming costume.  However, she told us loudly in a comical Chinese accent, she could “go down for five minutes, no need come up for air”.  I have never laughed so hard.

Until, that is, Des thought the better of watching her perform strokes in the communal pool and took her to his bedroom, albeit for much the same purpose.  Within a few minutes Steve and I were stood outside the door listening to a Chinese girl screaming blue murder, an English-Swedish halfbreed grunting like a boar, and bedroom furniture testing the very limits for which it was manufactured.  This went on for about twenty minutes with all the subtely and finesse of a rock through a window, before the villa fell silent, Steve and I stopped laughing, and we went to bed.  The next morning, the Chinese girl safely paid off and sent packing before sunrise, Des denied having sex at all and insisted they were “just talking”.  Believing anything Des said after that was nigh-on impossible.

Once again Des and I took the Gulf Air flight down to Muscat to continue our work in the refinery.  The stories continued in the same manner as before, with each one of his exploits being better and more impressive than the last.  It was getting embarassing.  Before he’d even start recounting how he and a whole group of people had to do some very difficult test, Chris or I used to pipe up “Let me guess: you were the only one that passed?” in the vain hope of saving half an hour by cutting directly to the inevitable conclusion.  By this time his previous wives, girlfriends, and lovers seemed to have caught up with him because the apartment phone started going and he’d sit at all hours of the night talking and smoking.  Then, to my complete surprise, my UK mobile rang with some woman asking for Des.  Assuming it was important, I passed him the phone and he giggled like a schoolboy and launched into a twenty minute chit-chat with some ex-lover of his.  My UK phone was on roaming at a cost of over a pound a minute, and I was seriously unimpressed.  The cheeky sod had given her my number because he was too damned tight fisted to buy his own SIM card, and was now busy running up my UK bill whilst he relived one of his affairs.  Eventually I got the phone back from him, but he couldn’t see the problem.  He’d pay me back, he promised.

And that was another problem with Des.  He was a tight-fisted old sod, refusing to pay for anything and expecting the company – or failing that, his colleagues – to pick up the bill for everything.  He didn’t see why he should have to pay for his food even when on a per diem; when everyone in the villa went to the supermarket and chipped in, he’d be nowhere to be seen until he was spotted guzzling the beers we’d all just bought; and he certainly wasn’t going to pay a few dollars for a SIM card so his tarts could call him in Oman, not whilst he had my number to dish out!  And he was pulling the classic contractor’s trick of claiming destitution on arrival and needing an advance on his salary, which the boss gave him out of his own pocket.  Despite all this, Des would boast that back in Holland he owned a huge house, a yacht, and a Merecedes SUV.  Once I got the phone back from him, it stayed in my pocket and I’d told him the credit had run out.

Then halfway through the week he probably wished he’d not picked up a phone.  He had called his wife back in Holland on her mobile and from the music in the background it had sounded as if she was in a bar or nightclub, but she had told him she was at home.  I think there was a man’s voice in the background as well, I can’t remember, but Des got very agitated.  He called her at home (all of this using the extortionately expensive apartment phone) but there was no answer.  He called her again on her mobile, but she didn’t pick up, and nor did she answer her phone for the rest of the night.  Des was beside himself, confessing to me almost in tears that he thought his wife was having an affair.  By that point I’d lost all respect for the man, and just sloped off to bed leaving him to brood by himself (until he went to bed and smoked his way through five or six cigarettes on the other side of the room).

It wasn’t just the personal stuff that was going wrong with Des, the work itself was fast falling to pieces as well.  After a week on the site, and consulting the programme of work, it became clear that Des had not the faintest idea what he was doing.  He barely consulted the scope of work or project execution plan, and breezily dismissed my concerns that we should be doing certain tasks in a certain way with a wave of a cigarette-filled hand.  As it happened, the regional boss didn’t have much of a clue either (and if you want to extrapolate that across the entire company feel free, I’ll not stop you), so things just carried on the way they were for another week, with me doing what I was told and getting more confused and disillusioned by the day, until we were summoned back to Abu Dhabi.

Upon arrival, for no reason which I can remember, a decision was made that the work on site had been completed, I was to go to Dubai to prepare for the Kuwait project, and Des was to stay in Abu Dhabi to do the desk work associated with the refinery job.  Within minutes of Des having sat down in the office, a huge problem arose like a mushroom cloud.  Des’ bags had gone missing on the flight from Muscat to Abu Dhabi.  One or two of the old hands in the office swung into action, made a few calls, and told him not to sweat.  Happens all the time, they said, they’ll show up in a day or so.  But Des was beside himself.  He demanded to be driven to the airport and a search for his bags begun immediately.  The boss told him not to worry, he could buy some clothes in the M&S over the road, toiletries he had spare in the villa, and it would only be a couple of days.  Des refused to calm down, and would not do any work until something was done.  Smelling something a little fishy, the boss asked what exactly was in his missing bags.  Des flew into a rage during which we learned that in the bags he had checked into the hold of a Middle Eastern airline were the keys to his house, the keys to his car, the keys to his boat, the ownership documents for his house, boat, and car, his birth certificate, his bank documents, and seemingly every essential document a man will possess.

“Why the hell are you carrying all that about with you, Des?”, asked the boss, reasonably.

It turned out that Des did not trust his wife and had to carry all his worldly documents around with him to stop her from selling up and absconding in the same manner as his second wife.

“Why the hell did you put all that into checked baggage, Des?”, asked the boss, again reasonably.

Des didn’t know.  Nor did we.  But we did wonder if Des was half as well travelled as he, and his CV, said he was.

Des’ bags turned up a couple of days later.  But the problems didn’t stop there.  I was the youngest person in the regional office by about 20 years and most of the expat employees were middle aged with a wife and family somewhere, so the degree of compassion offered at that time was probably greater than you’d find in most companies, and certainly greater than that displayed a few months later (but that’s another post).  In short, Des wanted to see his wife and step-children, presumably to make sure the former was still around and not still in a nightclub somewhere with her phone switched off.  It is not easy to get a visa to the UAE for South African nationals (which is what his family was), it is more time consuming and requires more documentation than for, say Brits, who just turn up and walk in.  Rather than being grateful for the efforts the company was going to, Des was raging against the company for taking so long and not having enough power or connections to just get them all in.  Eventually, enough paperwork was collected to submit an application, but the immigration authorities returned a rather surprising decision:  Des’ wife and younger step-daughter were allowed a visa, but the older step-daughter, who was 12, was not.  The reason: the elder girl did not appear to be anything to do with Des, hence she could not be admitted as his family.  The boss asked a few basic questions, which Des, poor chap, did his best to answer.  It transpired that Des and his wife had sensibly decided some years ago for Des to formally adopt her children as his own.  The adoption of the younger girl went well enough, but at the 11th hour the elder girl – who had a mental age of 7 and a whole heap of behavioural problems and learning difficulties – decided she wanted to be with her biological father, who was some sort of bum or criminal or loser down in South Africa, who was long separated from the mother.  The adoption couldn’t proceed without her consent, and so she was never formally adopted by Des, even though she reversed her decision mere days later and came to live with the rest of them in Holland.  The result was that the company couldn’t get a visa for his elder daughter.  Des went bananas, bellowing that the company was useless and had no power or influence.  The boss’ exasperated reply is immortal:

“Des!  It’s not the company’s fault that you didn’t adopt your daughter!”

It was agreed that his wife and younger daughter would come over anyway, and so Des awaited their arrival.  In the meantime, he continued to demonstrate incompetence of impressive proportions as he burned through the remaining manhours allocated to the project.  Nothing that was supposed to have been done was being done, and sitting at my desk in the Dubai office I received several phone calls from the boss asking what the hell had happened down in Oman.  What I told you was happening, I replied.  The guy doesn’t know what the hell he’s doing.  Chris, a good mate of the boss, backed me up and I was in the clear.

Things also got a little complicated for Des when he was asked to provide his degree certificate in order to get his work visa.  Des replied that he didn’t have it, even though on his CV it says, as I have pointed out, he has five such qualifications which would suffice.  The story Des told was that the University of Gothenburg had moved and the records never moved with it.  Later the story changed to the records having all been lost in a fire.  Either way, he could not possibly get his hands on a degree certificate.  None of us was convinced, except possibly Des himself who was turning out to be a pathological liar.  Meanwhile, they decided to get Des working on something else until they could figure out what to do, and asked him to help write the method statements for some proposals they were putting together.  Des refused point blank, said it wasn’t his job, and put his feet up on the desk until his wife and daughter arrived.

Which in due course they did, and the company – in a rare display of generosity – put them up in a nice hotel with a beach in Abu Dhabi.  Des seemed to perk up when his family were around him, and although I wasn’t there I heard that they all went out for some nice meals in the evening and enjoyed themselves.  That is, until the Dutch embassy called the office with the news that Des’ neighbours had alerted the authorities because a 12 year old girl had been left home alone whilst her mother had cleared off to Abu Dhabi with her other daughter.  The daughter was now in the care of the authorities, and the mother really should get herself home pronto.  At this point, Des’ colleagues just shook their heads and wondered whether to laugh or cry.

The boss wasn’t sure what to do with Des.  He was lined up for the project manager’s role for the big job in Kuwait, but he had proven himself useless, unreliable, and uncooperative both in work and in every other way we could think of.  But we were short of people, and mobilising expats on short notice is not easy, and the boss was considering keeping him on.  Fortunately, Des made the decision for us.  His colleagues in the villa woke one morning with Des saying he was sick and would stay in bed.  By the time they came home after work, he had disappeared along with all his bags.  He never paid the Australian the $120 from his first night, I never saw the money from my phone bill, he owed the boss a few hundred dollars and the company even more.  He just upped and left.

We heard from Des a few months later.  The boss received an email from him saying he was working in Iran, the job was terrible, and could he have his old job back.  The email went unanswered, but it gave us a laugh.


Working for Toys R Us

I see one of my former employers has filed for bankruptcy:

Toys ‘R’ Us has filed for bankruptcy protection in the US and Canada as it attempts to restructure its debts.

I don’t know if this will affect their UK stores, particularly the one on Great Ancoats Street in Manchester in which I worked through Christmas 1996. I know the store still exists because it’s in the background of this video from last July of a man carrying a crossbow and a knife being tasered by police:

That ought to tell you what sort of area we’re talking about.

I took the job out of necessity having failed to grasp the concept of budgeting in my first term in university. I secured it within five minutes of walking into a manpower agency; this was early December and Toys R Us was ramping up for the busy Christmas period. I turned up and was issued with a blue blazer with a yellow collar and a round badge of Jeffrey Giraffe, a garment I kept for several years after I left for fancy dress parties. My job was that of Product Adviser, the lowest position in the store which involved standing around trying to help customers.

There were a few of us, some of whom were brand new, others who’d worked there years. My manager was a Manc woman in her late twenties whose boyfriend ran the warehouse or something. From what I remember they were both nice people, and I had no problems with her or any of the other managers. It is worth mentioning that was probably the only job I’ve had where I can say this.

My fellow grunts varied. Two of the area supervisors were students, a little older than me, and good lads. The guy I was put to work with was called Greg, a youngster from Openshawe who was as thick as mince but a really nice guy. Nearby was a 16 year old Asian girl from Longsight, possibly of Iranian extraction, who was very attractive but way too innocent to be working around us. She was also very pleasant. Then there was some nasty piece of work whose name I forget, a man in his mid-twenties with a pierced eyebrow and a greasy ponytail down to his arse. On my first day he immediately told me students are useless and don’t know shit, and he seemed to resent me being there. He told me I was inferior because he had five years’ experience and I had none. Yet there we were doing exactly the same job. I soon figured out he was desperate to be invited onto the management training programme, but his being thick, nasty, and unpresentable prevented it.

We were kept busy. The lead-up to Christmas in a Toys R Us is mental, and on the last Saturday before the 25th we took £150k on the tills (this was in 1996). The most sought-after toy was a Buzz Lightyear from Toy Story which had recently been in British cinemas. Unfortunately the product people vastly underestimated demand and they were sold out worldwide. Customers would come running up to me and say:


The girls manning the phones would get calls that went:


We never had one in the shop the whole time, and we turned away a lot of disappointed parents who would have paid a hundred quid or more for one. The Toy Story sequel even made reference to this shortage:

The work itself was rather tedious, standing on a shop floor for eight hours per day, but the worst aspect was the Christmas musak. They played the same ten or twelve Christmas tracks over and over again to the point I still can’t go in a shop in the festive season and not think of my time in Toys R Us. I would have thought it would have been banned on human rights grounds (along with my children’s clothes) by now, but apparently such tortures are still permitted.

I only worked there a few weeks, then my new semester started and the store laid off the additional hires they’d taken on for Christmas. On my last day I was asked to go and see my manager and, instead of a bollocking of the type I’d have to get used to in my career proper, she asked if I’d be interested in joining the management training programme. I politely declined and said I was heading back to class, and she laughed and said they’d expected I’d say that, but they thought they’d ask anyway. I liked that.

I left her office and went straight up to the dickhead with the ponytail and said I’d been offered after a month what he’d been striving for his whole adult life, yet I’d turned it down. I’d worked with plenty of stupid people before on farms, but most were harmless enough and some were very pleasant. Toys R Us was the first of many jobs where I’d work with people who were both stupid and nasty.

Several years later I’d graduated, and was sitting in the McDonald’s in Fallowfield with a bunch of friends when I thought I recognised the Johnny-No-Stars who was sweeping the floor. Sure enough he was one of the Product Advisers I’d worked with at Toys R Us, a right horrible little shit with a big mouth. When he saw me he made the mistake of opening it again with a smartarse remark, and spent the next twenty minutes ducking pieces of burger and French fries my friends and I were hurling at him.

“I see you’ve moved up in the world,” I said to him as we were leaving. I pointed to the plastic yellow man who stands over wet spots on the floor. “He’ll be promoted faster than you. Now get sweeping!”

I hope the nice ones did all right.


Clothes, Parenting, and Vanity

A while back I bought a negative scanner (this one) to transfer old film photos to digital format. It does a reasonable job, not exactly professional standard and the scanning process is rather repetitive, but it’s good enough for home use if you have time on your hands. Anyway, last weekend I started scanning the negatives of all the family photos we had from when I grew up in Wales, most of which are from the late ’70s through the ’80s.

Oh boy. Oh boy, oh boy. What would my siblings pay me to ensure they never see the light of day? Something which stands out straight away is the clothes we’re all decked out in (there are four of us, three boys and a girl). I have no idea where my parents got these clothes but they have surely since been banned by the UN on human rights grounds. Was purple really so popular back then? Dear Lord. Alas, my parents appeared to be dressed in whatever they found in a job-lot of clothes gathered from the fields after Woodstock. I’m being unfair, of course. When the photos include other children and their parents, their own sartorial selections were no less hideous. But there are reasons for this.

Firstly, economics. Back in the 1970s there was no clothing industry in China churning out hundreds of millions of garments dirt cheap. I have no idea where children’s clothes were made back then, but they weren’t being knocked out at the volume and price they are now. Like everything else, clothes have got cheaper. The number of hours a breadwinner had to work to clothe his kids in the ’70s was a lot more than today. Kids therefore were expected to wear whatever the parents could lay their hands on, and if you had more than one boy economies of scale would kick in. I don’t know how old I was before I got my first pair of trousers that weren’t hand-me-downs (I was the youngest) but I was pushing six-feet tall. As far as school clothes went, the first thing my brother used to do at the start of a new term was tell everyone my trousers used to be his. Thanks a bunch.

Secondly, availability. Not only was China not pumping out cheap clothes, shops in west Wales in that era were not selling them. The shops were absolutely abysmal, and remained so well into the ’90s. Buying school clothes entailed a trip to Swansea or even Cardiff, which was a fair hike in a VW Beetle with four kids. Even if Gap Kids existed in those days, they’d have been as unobtainable as Rolex watch for anyone living in Pembroke. A lot of people forget how appalling retail used to be.

But something else has changed too, which I alluded to in this post about how parenting has changed. There’s a vanity associated with children now that didn’t exist when I was a kid, or at least I was unaware of it. Frankly, back in the ’70s and ’80s parents didn’t care how their kids looked provided they were washed, their hair cut, and clothes clean. Whether they looked cool or their outfit wasn’t some hideous purple jumper over a paisley shirt didn’t matter a jot. Economics and availability played a role for sure, but practicality was the main driver. As my mother used to say, what’s the point in buying nice clothes for children when 1) they’ll get wrecked, and 2) you’ll outgrow them in weeks. She had a point. Living in a rural area my clothes were usually covered in mud and/or cow crap, and my trousers always had patches on the knees because I sort of lived on the floor. And I was one of those kids who you could watch growing in real-time. Being practical folk raised in the era of post-war shortages, my parents’ generation just kitted out their kids in anything that was practical and didn’t worry too much about what it looked like.

The only “cool” piece of clothing I remember from infant and junior school was the Arsenal strip, a red and white nylon t-shirt with the gun and cannon balls logo. One or two kids had one, and they were cool. I wanted one, but my mother said no (she’d not have had the foggiest idea what I was on about). Instead I did PE in the same green polo-neck that my older brothers had worn, thus consigning each of us in turn to playing in goal every time we had football. This was the ’80s, after all. Our football socks were also shared among us, knitted from wool by great-auntie Jessie. Little wonder the First Division scouts didn’t linger too long at our PE sessions.

Something changed in the 1990s, probably at the time China boomed and globalisation made us all richer. When I was growing up there were adults’ clothes and children’s clothes. Nowadays children’s clothes are often adult’s clothes but in a small size. Gap Kids and the others use the same or similar designs as their adult ranges. It now became possible to make your kid look cool, and boy did some mothers take it seriously. You started seeing toddlers wearing Lacoste and Ralph Lauren clothing which wasn’t much cheaper than the adult stuff. Parents would still use hand-me-downs but no longer would except sacks of clothes from cousins, neighbours, or friends of the family whose children had grown up. In fact, many would be offended if it were offered, but when I was a child it was gratefully received. There was nothing wrong with the clothes, other than they were absolutely hideous and they had someone else’s name sewn in them. And of course, they were a decade out of fashion: the clothes I wore in the ’80s dated from the ’70s.

I don’t know what came first, the availability of nice clothes or the vanity of the parents, but nowadays many mothers (and occasionally fathers) see their children as fashion accessories, objects which makes a statement about them in terms of wealth and taste (ha!). I’ve seen 5 or 6 year old kids walking around in Canada Goose jackets. For whose benefit are they being worn, do you think? It’s a subsection of the molly-coddling that I mentioned in my earlier post. If a mother thinks her boy needs to look super-cool in the latest designer clothes, you can be sure she’s pandering to him in other ways and her priority is not raising him to be a functional adult.

The same is true for those mothers who style their child’s hair, making it spiky or dyeing it. Ditto for those who give them mirrored shades. If they go on to post pictures of their kid thus adorned on Facebook, it’s a near-certainty the kid is a little shit. Ask any teacher what impression they’d form of a six year old who turned up in class with his hair shaved at the back and sides and spiked on top, as if he were a Premier League footballer. Equally bad is those mothers who refuse to cut their kid’s hair, saying “Oh I couldn’t, he looks so beautiful.” Here’s some advice: if your kid is under ten and has long hair that you refuse to cut because you “love it so much”, he’ll still be living with you when he’s thirty. Or he’ll be living in a one-bed flat with a guy called Ralph.

So looking back, perhaps my folks had the right idea after all. As my dad would say: “It never did you any harm!” Quite right.