Manage the people you have

Underneath yesterday’s post, Bardon wrote the following:

I don’t like Ilya either and think that he should be shown the door. How long has that loser being getting away with it, is all I can say about the useless idiot.

So let me elaborate on the situation on Sakhalin Island in 2007, which will be fairly typical of most non-western countries. There is a thing called Local Content Legislation which makes it a legal requirement on the part of all foreign entities to hire a certain percentage of locals. If the locals are uneducated, unskilled, and untrained it doesn’t matter: it is the foreign company’s responsibility to provide the necessary training to allow them to do the job. If there are no locals around because the site is in the middle of nowhere, you must hire them elsewhere and bring them to site. In the early days, it was possible to employ a whole bunch of locals as drivers or in other lowly positions, but the authorities soon got wind of this and started looking at job categories and average salaries.

Even before 2007 companies in Sakhalin were under enormous legal pressure to hire more locals in more senior positions. At the height of the Sakhalin I and II construction projects (which were running simultaneously), there were tens of thousands of people working on them, both locals and foreigners. The population of Sakhalin is around 500,000 of which about a third live in Yuzhno-Sakhalinsk, the regional capital. To say there were serious labour shortages is an understatement, and thousands of Kazakhs, Turks, Kyrgyz, Uzbeks, Azeris, Brits, Americans, Australians, Nepalese, Dutch, Indonesians, Filipinos and another forty nationalities were brought in to man the projects. Russians were brought from the mainland by the thousand, particularly those from the Krasnodar region who had experience on the Caspian Pipeline Consortium. Kazakhs were also favoured because they spoke Russian and had experience from the Tenghiz and Karachaganak projects.

In short, any Russian under 50 on Sakhalin who was not mental, in jail, or a raving alcoholic was in high demand (so about half the male population, then). Added to that was the problem that foreign companies needed most of their Russians to speak English, which reduced the labour pool even further. This is why all the foreign companies on Sakhalin at that time were stuffed full of teachers: they were the first ones they identified who could speak English, and any technical skill or other competence came further down the list of requirements. Much further.

So while we had some very good Russians working for us, we also had some pretty average ones who you couldn’t do much about because the law didn’t allow a foreigner to do the job and there were no better Russians available. It is in such situations a manager is really tested. Any idiot can fire someone and hire another, but it takes skill to manage a team with a whole range of individuals and understand that these are the people you have to work with. A common mistake a lot of modern managers make is to believe replacing people is a bigger part of their job than effectively managing those they have. When a new manager of Plymouth Argyle football club takes over, he doesn’t sell the whole team and demand the club buys Ronaldo and Messi. Instead he looks at the team he has and tries to get the very best out of them, and he’ll only sell a player once they’ve been shown they can’t fit the team and a better replacement is available. Now I understand some managers have the luxury of being able to fire people and immediately replace them, but let’s not pretend this requires any great talen t.Another way of putting it is you manage the team you have, not the one you wished you had; I was stuck with Ilya and had to work with him. In the main he did a reasonable job, could be relied upon for the most part, and brought in more money than he cost us. Indeed, by the standards of Sakhalin Island in 2007 he was a pretty good employee.

The other thing every manager had to be wary of on Sakhalin was the labour law. The Russian labour code is notoriously strict, and getting rid of people for performance issues required several steps with the involvement of HR, each properly documented. Even then, local employees used to take foreign companies to the local labour courts, who would delight in ruling in favour of their own (this was in stark contrast to when a Russian would take a Russian company to court, and get laughed at). This meant you would only fire an employee as a last resort, when the damage they have wrought is so great you have no choice. Usually, the way of getting rid of a bad employee was to make their job a bit rubbish and, with the labour market being what it was, wait for them to get a better job with another company on more money. The exception was if they were drunk at work, in which case they would always resign rather than have the reason for dismissal entered in their labour book for future employees to see.

In summary, firing Ilya on Sakhalin Island in 2007 wasn’t really an option, even if it were a good idea. Instead I was required to manage him. Imagine.

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Why managers need the respect of their subordinates

In a recent post on management I said this:

If [your subordinates] don’t like you, they won’t mutiny but they can make your life an awful lot harder (which I’ll write about in another post).

So here goes. Back when I worked in Sakhalin, I had a Russian working for me called Ilya who few people liked. However, I’ve found I sometimes get on okay with people who nobody else likes, probably because I approach them a bit differently. One client I had for the best part of a year was absolutely detested by everyone around him, and mainly for good reasons. But he wasn’t that bad, and I realised that by telling him the truth rather than lying to his face as everyone else had done, I saw a side of him I could work with. He appreciated the honesty, and we got along well enough.

Anyway, nobody liked Ilya but he worked for me and I had no complaints, or at least not serious ones. Now at some point we won a piece of work which involved piping insulation. My business unit used to get all its insulation from the main project down at the LNG site, where they kept all the machinery, inventory, and expertise. This was run by a chap named Rick, who I wrote about here. Rick had known Ilya for a long time and didn’t like him, although this manifested itself in the form of mockery and derision rather than acts of spite and nastiness. Ilya, being project manager, had the task of going to see Rick and ordering the insulation materials. He walked into Rick’s office on the site and said:

“Hi Rick. We need eight-hundred metres of foam glass insulation cut to 256mm inside radius.”

Rick looked at him, deadpan. “No, you don’t,”  he said, and went back to whatever he was doing.

“Yes we do,” said llya. “It’s for this new job, we need it.”

“No, you don’t.”

“Oh c’mon Rick, we’ve been through this, you guys need to supply us with insulation materials.”

Rick leaned back in his chair. “Ilya, who said you needed eight-hundred metres of foam glass insulation cut to 256mm?”

“I did, I measured it.”

“And are you sure that’s correct?”

“Yes.”

“Well it’s not,” Rick said and adopted his most patronising voice. “We never cut to 256mm inside radius, that wouldn’t fit any pipe I’ve ever heard of. Now what you’ve done is taken the centre radius, which is the sort of mistake f*ckwits who don’t know what they’re doing make.  What I expect you need is an inside diameter of 235mm. Is the pipe 9 inches?”

“Yes.”

“Then that’s what you’ll need. I’ll cut the stuff for you by Friday, but next time don’t walk in here with the I’m-a-big-boss attitude.”

I knew about this because Rick told me the story a few days later. He said he would have been quite happy to have cut Ilya 800m metres of utterly useless foam glass insulation and let him embarrass himself on site, but I got on well with Rick and he knew it would ultimately be bad for me. So he put Ilya straight and did the job properly.

Now Rick wasn’t my subordinate, but he might as well have been in the context of that particular task. If I’d taken the approach that everyone must do as I say because I’m in charge, I’d have ended up explaining to a client why I couldn’t fit the insulation I’d just shipped to their site and explaining to my own boss why we were scrapping a few thousand dollars worth of materials. When I was at university a fellow student asked the lecturer why it was necessary to earn the respect of subordinates and contractors if you are the one in charge. The lecturer told a story very similar to the one I’ve just recounted, a situation where a contractor was under no obligation to help their client out of a serious jam but did so out of mutual respect. I forgot a lot of stuff I was taught at university, but I never forgot that.

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Offshore Clerks

Back in the days when I had a career and was running a team of engineers, a job request landed on my desk regarding the replacement of a valve in the depths of an offshore platform. According to the process, this request was born from a problem identified by the offshore operations and maintenance team, who then discussed it with their onshore counterparts to consider what should be done and with what priority. The offshore team consisted of the Offshore Installation Manager (OIM), the field operations supervisor, the maintenance supervisor, the marine operations manager, plus a whole host of operators, technicians, maintenance personnel, and safety officers. Onshore, the team comprised a production manager, a deputy production manager, a maintenance manager, a safety manager, plus a load of engineers and other support staff. All were involved in the discussions surrounding the problem – the valve was seized – and they decided to replace it. Were it a straight-up replacement it would have been handled by the maintenance team, but because they wanted to move it to a different location nearby, it became an asset modification and needed engineering to get involved. As per the process, every manager and supervisor both onshore and offshore had to sign off on the request for engineering support, and each was given space to append their discipline comments to the form. These managers and supervisors were mainly western expats between 35 and 55 years of age, and considered some of the best the company had to offer. For this reason they were well paid.

So the request lands on my desk, I look at it for a while, then turn it the right way up, then call my lead piping engineer, a grizzled Scotsman who I’ll call Fred. Fred had more brownfield engineering experience than I could hope to acquire in three lifetimes, and I decided early on that he was someone worth listening to. I handed the request to Fred and asked him to take a look, and a few days later we sat down and discussed the job. Fred said the valve was enormous, it was very heavy, and the area it was in very tight and congested. It was therefore going to be a rather difficult job, but not impossible. However, he said he’d know a lot more if he could get out to the platform and take a look for himself.

I usually insist on a site visit by discipline engineers on any brownfield job because the drawings, even if properly updated to as-built status, can never give you the complete picture. 3D scans and PDMS models are very useful, but everything must be verified with a site visit. For all you know, someone’s built a temporary structure right in the area you thought was free; temporary modifications in the offshore oil industry have a terrible habit of remaining in place until the facility is decommissioned. Some managers are only too happy to have engineers visit the site to allow them to discuss the precise problem and proposed solutions with the operators, and some OIM’s insist on such a visit. But often visitors are not welcome offshore due to a lack of bedspace or seats on the helicopter. In this particular case, it was easier to get an audience with the Queen than get a guy offshore as the accommodation was permanently full of essential personnel who couldn’t be spared for a single day. However, I’m a stubborn sod and I refused to move forward with the engineering until Fred had gone offshore and looked at the job in person; I was of the opinion that if the OIM cannot accommodate an engineer for a couple of days, the job can’t be that important. I learned that management don’t like it when you put it like that in meetings.

So eventually Fred got his offshore visit, much to the annoyance of the offshore team. When Fred got there and had undergone the usual safety inductions, he stepped out of the living quarters to find the operations area like the Marie Celeste. He walked around  the whole platform and barely saw a soul, but when he went back to the living quarters and stuck his head in the offices, he found it stuffed to the gills full of people. It stayed like this for the whole two days he was out there. In the company of the most junior operator on the platform Fred descended into the bowels of the platform and found the valve that was seized. It really was huge. He spent an hour or so down there, taking measurements and working out what could be done. He then went back to the living quarters where he was summoned to the meeting room by the OIM and asked to present his findings. Around the table were all the senior people on the platform, who lived there 24/7 for 4 weeks at a time.

Fred began. “I think we need to look at a repair, rather than replacement.”

He was immediately interrupted by the OIM. “No, we have decided it is better to replace it.”

“Replacing it is going to be very difficult,” said Fred. “It’s a huge valve and…”

The maintenance manager cut in. “Yes, it is big but it needs to be replaced.”

“Then that will be a lot of work,” said Fred. “And I’m not sure how you’re going to get a cutting torch down there.”

“A cutting torch?” said someone.

“Yes,”  said Fred. “The valve is too big to fit out the entrance door, even if we dismantle it. The valve body won’t fit.”

“Are you sure?” asked the OIM. “I don’t think so.”

“Okay,” said Fred. “A show of hands, please. How many people around this table have actually been downstairs and had a look at the valve?” The room fell silent. Everyone looked at each other. No hands went up. “Okay, well I have and I’ve measured the valve, the valve body, and the size of the hatch and there is no way we’re getting that valve out without cutting it up, and that won’t be easy down there. So I recommend we dismantle it and repair it in situ.”

So what’s my point? The situation described in this anecdote might not be typical, but it is certainly not unusual either. It is almost inconceivable that an oil company would pay hundreds of thousands of dollars per month to have people sitting on an oil platform (with all its inherent risks) who limit their interaction with the facility in order to do bureaucratic tasks which could just as easily be done onshore, yet it happens. It is common, especially in big companies, to have an organisation staffed by ostensibly experienced and qualified people who are well paid, but simply decline to do their jobs. Instead, they busy themselves with other activities, often under the direction of a manager who never properly understood what they should be doing in the first place. It’s what happens when an organisation’s processes become divorced from the goals they are supposed to achieve, and managers are rewarded solely for following the process regardless of outcomes.

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Le Façon de Travailler Francais

In September 2000 I walked for the first time through the grounds which surrounded Marconi’s sprawling premises at Edge Lane in Liverpool. Having graduated from university the previous June I was about to start my first proper job, as a project engineer in the telecoms industry. I’d joined Marconi, which would go bust shortly after under the appalling leadership of Lord Simpson, because their graduate training programme looked good and, being a big blue-chip company, they took in lots of engineers.

As I walked along the path I bumped into a young Scottish chap who I’d met on the 2-day assessment centre the previous July. I said hello and we started talking about what to expect on our first day in a big company.

“Oh,” he said. “This isn’t my first job. I graduated in 1999 and spent a year working for Company X in Aberdeen. The French outfit.”

“How come you left?” I asked.

“Hmm. Let’s just say I will never, ever work for a French company again.”

By chance I happened to join that very same company years later, when I’d quit telecoms and via a roundabout route entered the international oil industry. As I returned home from signing the contract, the words of that young Scottish chap came back to me; I guess I was going to find out for myself.

Yesterday I officially finished working for them, 8 years to the day after I joined. I don’t have any regrets about not heeding the Scotsman’s warning, but – how can I put this? – I can see what he meant.

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Italian, but not as we know it

From the comments at Tim Worstall’s:

I think I’ve said this here before, my late missus (pbuh), although Austrian was born in Italy and used to say to me:

“You lot might well poke fun at Mussolini for making the trains run on time, but he did one important thing. He made all Italians learn to speak Italian.”

(she had a very posh Milanese accent, waiters in UK Italian restaurants – who are all southerners – leapt to attention when she spoke )

This reminds me of a story I like to tell occasionally. Around 2001 I was in an Italian restaurant in Warrington at a leaving do for a colleague in the engineering consultancy I was working for at the time. The restaurant was staffed by charismatic dark-skinned chaps dressed in waistcoats who would pay particular attention to any ladies who happened to be dining. There were lots of theatrical arm movements and plenty of mama mias in between strings of Italian phrases, giving the place an authentic feel.

Now we had a colleague, a very bright young woman called Barbara who was about four feet tall if stood on a box, and she happened to be Italian. Her idea of being on time was to turn up about half an hour late, so we were all sat down having placed our orders when she walked in. Cue lots of mama mias and other snippets of Italian as she was shown to our table and handed a menu. She read the selection for a minute or two then turned to the waiter and let loose a full sentence or two of Italian.

There was a pause.

The waiter looked at his colleague, who looked at Barbara and shrugged.

There was another pause.

Finally the waiter leaned forward and whispered in Barbara’s ear: “Sorry, we’re from Turkey.”

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Apartment Hunting, Yuzhno-Sakhalinsk, 2006

A woman with short black hair and a fur coat waited outside the entrance to the building, holding a clipboard. She turned out to be the agent showing us the apartment and after greeting us she punched in a code on a keypad and heaved open a heavy, half-inch thick steel door with a handle made of bent rebar welded to the outside. Leaving Igor with the car, Marina and I followed her inside and up a short flight of concrete steps lit by a weak bare bulb hanging from a wire that jutted out of a bird’s nest of electrical cabling. The place smelled of garbage and urine. We went into a small foyer and the agent pressed a button and a lift clunked into life, then scraped its way down to meet us. It arrived with a bang and the doors slammed open. We squeezed in. The agent peered at the buttons, muttering to herself. Most of them had been melted with a cigarette lighter, reducing them to charred lumps of twisted plastic with the numbers erased. A helpful citizen had taken a marker pen and written the number alongside what remained of each button, but my head blocked the ceiling light, casting everything in gloom. Eventually she hit the number six and the lift jolted, and began to rattle its way upwards. Nobody spoke, and I studied the melted buttons and the hole where the grille for the emergency intercom had been ripped out and stuffed with what looked like newspaper and chewing gum. There were thick black soot marks six inches long above it, and I wondered who would be stupid enough to start a fire in a lift they were travelling in.

We bounced to a halt and spilled out onto a concrete landing in front of another steel door. This one looked as though it came off a warship, and hadn’t been painted since its service on the high seas. The agent rang a buzzer, and after a period of silence shuffling noises came from behind the door. Somebody fiddled with locks for what seemed like an age, and eventually it opened a little and the face of an elderly Asian woman peered out.

“Mrs Kim?” said the agent. “We’re here to see the apartment.”

“To see the apartment? I don’t understand,” the old woman said.

The agent checked the apartment number on the paper attached to the clipboard. “This is number forty-two? Mrs Kim?”

“Yes, but -”

“We’re here to see the apartment. It’s for Mr Merrion, he’s from England.” The agent pointed at me. I waved as if she’d not spotted me yet.

A man appeared behind Mrs Kim, a Korean in his forties wearing a shiny black Adidas tracksuit. “Mama! Mama, it’s okay, let them in!” he said, taking his mother’s place at the door as she shuffled back into the apartment, a confused look on her face. “Sorry about that,” he said. “Come in! I’m Boris.” Once I was safely over the threshold he shook my hand, flashing a row of gold teeth as he grinned at me. The agent, Marina, and I elbowed each other as we removed our shoes then, in our socks, followed Boris down a short, dark corridor into a living room.

The largest wall was covered floor to ceiling with wallpaper printed with a photo of a birch forest in autumn, viewed as if you were stood among the trees. A grey couch sat against it with a pink blanket thrown over the back, and in the centre of the room was a small table six-inches high with an Asian tea set on top. A flat-screen Samsung television hung on the opposite wall, looking like alien technology beside a dark brown dresser filled with glassware of the sort that’s won in raffles at British church fetes. The room was hot and stuffy with a strong smell of foreign cooking along with something else I couldn’t place. Set in the far wall was a double window and a door leading onto the balcony, which was enclosed in double glazing. I crossed the room to look outside and jumped when a giant black face popped up to greet me from the other side of the glass.

“What the hell is that?” I said, more to myself than anyone else. The dog was the size of a small horse and hairy as a bear, and took up the entire balcony. Mrs Kim appeared through a door and told me not to worry, rushing to the defence of her pet who now had its paws on the glass and a red, wet tongue the size of a sock lolling from its jaws. Boris opened the door and went onto the balcony, waving at me to join him.

“It’s okay, he’s friendly,” he said, ignoring the possibility I might not understand Russian. I stepped onto a freezing tiled floor, tufts of dog hair sticking to my socks which I was still finding in my boots a month later. The dog nudged my leg with its nose, nearly pushing me over. I wondered how much meat it ate, and at what cost. The view from the balcony was onto a range of heavily forested mountains, closer than those I saw from the plane. The low sun caught the folds of the terrain making a jumbled patchwork of shade, the dark greens and browns broken up by gleaming patches of snow. Behind in the distance were higher peaks, their summits bare and frozen white. The cold, dry air sharpened the view and made everything appear closer, as if I were looking through a telescope.

“Nice, yes?” said Boris, raising a thumb and grinning.

I grinned back. “Yes.” Nice was wholly inadequate to describe a view like that.

We left the balcony and Boris showed us into the bedroom, where a low double bed with no headboard and a suspicious sag in the middle competed for meagre space with a set of drawers and a wardrobe that looked ready to topple over. I gently pulled open one of the doors, enough to see it was full of woman’s clothes, blankets, and junk. Mrs Kim, who had been hovering inside the bedroom door looking increasingly anxious, pulled her son aside and spoke to him in a low, hurried voice. “Is he moving in here? Where will I go?”

“Mama, don’t worry, we’ll find you somewhere.”

“Where?”

“Mama,” said Boris, getting irritated. “I said we’ll find you somewhere!”

I’d seen enough. “Boris, what happens to the dog if I move in here?” I asked in English.

He looked at me, confused, then at Marina and the agent. I waited while Marina translated.

Boris smiled, his gold teeth flashing. “He can stay here with you!”

I laughed at that.

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Going Underground

A few thoughts on the boys trapped in the cave in Thailand.

Firstly, I’m obviously glad they’ve been found alive: after more than a week lost underground, I was surprised. Sure they have enough water so survival ought to be easy enough, but I’d not want to think how well I’d have fared trapped underground for 10 days when I was 13.

Extracting the children looks to be a complicated task, as the only route out is narrow, blocked with debris, and likely to stay flooded for months. Either they bring in enough food, drink, and medical supplies to last until conditions improve or they teach the kids to do some advanced cave diving – while in the cave. I learned to use scuba gear in a swimming pool in Kuwait, and it was difficult enough then: very little of it is intuitive and must be learned, and much depends on getting used to the odd situation. Not only are these kids – some of whom can’t swim – going to have to learn to keep a regulator in their mouths without much practice, but also avoid panicking. According to the linked BBC article, one section is so narrow you can’t go through it with the air tank on. Even with several experienced cave divers per child this is a tough ask. The good thing is their survival is assured; it’s just the next few weeks may be a little rough yet.

The boys’ football coach, a 25-year old man, might opt to stay down there, for I imagine he’s in for one hell of a bollocking. I don’t know how easy it is to wander into this cave system, whether it’s just like strolling through a tunnel when conditions are good, but the reports say it is off-limits to the general public. So it appears this chap who is responsible for the safety and wellbeing of 13 young footballers decided to take them on an unofficial expedition into a restricted cave system prone to flooding without telling anyone (it was only realised they were missing when someone came across their bikes lying outside the entrance). In a lot of countries he’d be facing charges of reckless endangerment, and in a few he’d risk being lynched by the parents.

I did potholing twice with the school cadet force when I was in my late teens. It’s something I’m glad I did, but boy is it a miserable experience when you’re down there. On the second occasion we were somewhere in the Brecon Beacons and our subterranean excursions were led by a lunatic Welshman who’d been in the paras (he was a mate of Steve Gerrard’s, and it was all organised by the unflappable Keith Woodcock). The first thing we were told during the briefing on the surface was that the most dangerous thing we could face was sudden flooding, which is why you always leave a spotter on the surface to come and warn you if it starts raining. The natural fear is that the tunnel will collapse, but these had been intact for a few million years so if that was to change in the two hours we were down there we’d be unlucky indeed.

The briefing over we began looking for something resembling a cave entrance. Instead we saw a pair of boot soles disappearing into a hole right at our feet we’d not even noticed. We wriggled and squirmed our way in, bumping our helmets and catching our battery packs on seemingly every outcrop. We gathered in a small cavern containing a large tree trunk. Our guide told us you see these things miles into the system, giving you an idea of how strong the floodwaters can be. The next step was to get us used to the water, so we waded into a freezing pool that was chest deep. From that point on we were cold and wet so getting colder and wetter didn’t make any difference. This was also the point at which I wished we’d done something else that morning.

Each time we came to a new cavern our guide would tell us something, and I’d wonder if this was the end of the road, so to speak. But each time he’d disappear headfirst between two rocks and we’d continue on our way. At various times we were on our bellies, crawling forward like snakes. We got to one section called the Smartie Tube, and it soon became clear why. Lying flat on the floor the roof was so low you couldn’t raise your head fully before your helmet struck it. You could only really look down at the loose gravel and rock of the floor three or four inches below your nose, and all you could see up ahead was the soles of the boots of the person in front of you. It was claustrophobic in the extreme and someone up ahead started panicking so we all came to a halt. Our guide had told us when you panic you take up more space, and doing the old rugby league move is the worst thing you can do. He assured us he would not take us anywhere we could get stuck, if we kept calm. It was all about controlling your breathing and being sensible: if your battery pack got caught on a rock, just back up a few inches. Don’t start flailing around wildly, but it sounds a lot easier on the surface than it does in a dark, wet tunnel.

We eventually got to the end of the Smartie Tube which was one of the worst things I’ve done. It was horrible. We assembled in the cavern at the end and the guide gave us another little talk, and then said “Guess what the bad news is?” We guessed: there was only one way out of there, and it was the way we came in. I reckon this tiny tunnel must have been about five or ten metres long, but it felt like you were in there forever. All you wanted to do was scream and smash your way to the surface, and it took some effort to suppress those urges. You began to appreciate space and sunlight in ways you never did before. After that we crawled over a nasty outcrop aptly named Castration Rock, positioned in such a way you had no choice as to how you crawled over it. Then we turned all our lights out, plunging us into an absolute blackness which is hard to recreate anywhere on the surface. Quite literally you could see absolutely nothing, yet we made our way along a few passages in the dark using voice commands. We pulled ourselves through flooded tunnels using ropes fixed to the wall, and at one point had to submerge completely for a second or two. That wasn’t very nice either.

After a couple of hours of this we popped out of a hole into the sunshine; the look of relief on everyone’s face was palpable. Everyone completed it, including two girls. Nobody freaked out completely or refused to go any further, and I think in hindsight everyone enjoyed it. Or at least, they were glad they’d done it. I don’t think anyone was too keen to do it again, but some would have and, as I said before, that was my second time doing speleology, or potholing as it’s sometimes called. I’d do it again if I had to, but I’m sure I’d not enjoy it. What’s interesting is I know people who have done all sorts of crazy, cool, and dangerous stuff especially the guys in the military, but very few who’ve done potholing. It’s also the one thing a lot of these daredevils say they don’t want to do, and they’re not sure if they even could. I’ve never done a parachute jump and I’ve found it handy when someone is talking about skydiving to ask if they’ve done potholing. They normally coil away in horror.

Whenever these kids get out of this cave in Thailand, they’ll have a story they can tell the rest of their lives.

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When Cultures Clash

Take a look at this video of a Muslim athlete’s reaction to a scantily-clad woman:

This reminded me of something I witnessed back in 2005 when I was in Korea. I’d been sent out there with a Venezuelan colleague called Juan working with a Kuwaiti client and a Korean engineering team. The Kuwaiti delegation was made up of about 6 or 7 men, one of whom was a little Pakistani whose name I’ve forgotten so I’ll call Wasim. He had a long pointy beard, huge ears, a big nose, and sharp eyes which always seemed to be accusing you of something. He wore his trousers a few inches too short exposing the ankles, and after seeing this a few times around the Middle East someone told me that, when Muslims die, Allah will pick them up by the ankles and lift them to heaven; wearing your pants at half-mast makes his job a little easier.

Wasim was a pain in the arse to work with because he saw it as his job to contest every last point and extract every single concession possible from the Korean engineers. Not five minutes would go by without him raising a finger and with a thick Pakistani accent say: “Ah, wait a minute, my friend. What if…” and spend the next hour arguing over something utterly trivial. His colleagues, young Kuwaiti men, also thought he was a pain in the arse. They told me the Kuwaitis were quite relaxed about religion: those who wanted to be devout could be, and those who weren’t could do as much as they pleased without pressure to do more. But the Pakistani immigrant workers changed that: they turned up and, eager to ingratiate themselves with their new masters, started banging the Islam drum around the offices, demanding to know why Kuwaitis were not taking things as seriously as they were. Wasim was a leader in such rabble-rousing, meaning Kuwaitis could no longer eat at their desks during Ramadan without risking a bollocking from their hierarchy (who’d much rather have just let it slide). Muslim solidarity prevented them openly criticising him, but they’d roll their eyes whenever he went off on one.

As our first week together wore on, we soon realised the Koreans didn’t know much about Islam. We’d be taken to a restaurant in Seoul by our hosts and the Kuwaitis, in broken English, would ask the waiter if the dish contained pork. The waiter couldn’t understand a word that was being said but, in order to save face, would just say yes or no regardless. If the Korean engineers were able to intervene to help out they decided not to, but I suspect they were as confused as the waiters were. It wasn’t just a language problem: I don’t think the Koreans could understand for the life of them why anyone would ask such a question. As such, the Kuwaitis and Wasim found themselves eating pork dishes without knowing. Now this is not a problem from a religious point of view: if a Muslim inadvertently consumes pork he’s still going to be plucked by the ankles and lifted to heaven, assuming his trousers are short enough. But it did make me grin a little watching Wasim dribble a soup full of obvious pig parts into his beard. Actually, that’s a lie: I was laughing like a drain.

At the end of the second week the Koreans decided to bus us all out to some place across town and treat us to a spectacle. We entered into an enormous arena with restaurant-style seating looking down on a central stage. We were ushered to tables piled high with booze; obviously nobody had told the Koreans that Kuwaitis don’t drink either. There was much fuss when Wasim demanded a table which wasn’t littered with bottles of Johnny Walker, but eventually they did enough to make a space which wasn’t haram and all the Kuwaitis and Wasim sat down. Juan and I joined the Koreans and started drinking heavily. The food was served and after the usual pantomime of asking what was in it and the waiters looking confused, we all started eating. Oink oink!

Then the show began. First we had twenty minutes of traditional Korean dancing: lots of drums, ribbons, and colourful costumes. Good, wholesome stuff your granny would like. Then a pair of trapeze artists came out, a Russian man and woman, who did stuff which made me hold my breath. With no harness or safety net these two swung around five metres above tables laden with bottles, glasses, and crockery with supreme coolness. Occasionally the girl – a tiny thing in a spangly leotard – would pretend to slip, and the whole place would gasp. At one point the man – who was topless and looked to be carved from marble – was hanging with his legs out straight while his partner sat on his shins. I don’t think I’ve seen upper-body strength like it.

When they were done, the music got a bit more modern and fifteen or twenty women in loose-fitting costumes came on stage. The first thing I noticed was they were white, some sort of eastern European. They started dancing, showing lots of leg. The Koreans loved it, but poor old Wasim was getting agitated. I looked back to the stage, then at the Koreans, and nudged Juan.

“I think I know what’s gonna happen here,” I said.

As the music reached a crescendo the girls whipped off their tops to reveal a line of perfect young tits the sort of which Wasim only thought he’d see if he martyred himself. He let out a scream which was drowned out by the roars of approval from the Koreans and covered his eyes. Stumbling around in the dark with his hand over his face, he ran for the exit, tripping over feet, trolleys, and table legs. Two Kuwaitis followed close behind him, also covering their faces, and the others left more slowly, one copping a last look as he went through the door. I was laughing so hard I thought I’d die.

But one Kuwaiti stayed behind and, having made sure his colleagues were safely gone, he joined us at our table. He helped himself to a glass of whisky and settled in to join the rest of the show.

“The thing is,” he told us. “Most of the other guys aren’t bothered, but they can’t be seen to be drinking or watching this show, especially in front of Wasim. It’s not about what you do, but who sees you doing it.”

“Are you not worried about being seen?” I asked him.

“No, I don’t care,” he said, and grinned.

It was a good show.

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A Test of One’s Character

Okay, it’s a Friday morning so rather than be a smart-arse about something in the news I’ll instead tell a story.

Back in 2001 or 2002 a friend taught me three chords on a guitar – sufficient for a full career in most genres – and I decided I wanted to learn. To that end I borrowed a classical guitar from my father, then later bought a cheapish Yamaha acoustic, on which I practiced chords. I realised the best way to maintain motivation was to learn one or two songs all the way through and sing along, so that it at least becomes fun. Within a few months I learned two songs – The Carter Family’s Wildwood Flower, and Charlie Feathers’ Man in Love – and played them to death. Gradually I added to what could loosely be called my repertoire, and in August 2003 I moved to Kuwait for the best part of a year where I had very little to do other than surf the internet, read books – and play the guitar. It was during this period I got the hang of the chord shapes, but never really learned to strum, and was mainly playing an approximation of a Carter Scratch style.

In June 2004 I moved to Dubai for 2 years, and for long periods my guitar would turn into an ornament, resting untouched in the corner of my living room. But there were still occasions when I’d practice, and I was still enjoying the odd session of playing and singing when I moved to Sakhalin in September 2006. I played a fair bit there, trying to improve, and learning a lot more songs. By now I was hooked on bluegrass, a genre I’d gotten into in Kuwait after falling in love with the soundtrack to the film Oh Brother, Where Art Thou? which spurned a revival in old-time and bluegrass music worldwide.

My position in Sakhalin was a bit of an awkward one: I was 29 years old and the General Manager of a company which had a thousand men on site an hour’s drive away, a few dozen of whom were grizzled expats, mostly Brits. To say they were not overly impressed with this inexperienced yet noisy young man swanning around in a comfy office in Yuzhno-Sakhalinsk, the regional capital, while they toiled away at useful work in the mud, snow, and ice on site went without saying. I made things worse by, on my first night, unintentionally blanking one of the site supervisors, a man by the name of Rick. Rick was a Londoner in his forties, a proper swaggering cockney who was powerfully built and had a tongue sharper than a surgeon’s scalpel. If there was a derogatory remark to be made, an opportunity to take the piss, or a joke to be cracked, Rick was on it in a flash. Rick came to the swift and early conclusion that I was a bellend, but fortunately I spent so little time on site in the first year it didn’t really matter.

However, at some point I started interacting more with the site team and, because I respected them and was prepared to listen and ask nicely for things, they were never openly hostile and within a short time actually quite liked me (although I don’t think they ever changed their opinion that I was an office-based loafer). Rick used to take the piss mercilessly, but having been at boarding school, served as an army cadet, hung around Royal Marines, worked on a Manchester building site, and grown up the youngest of four siblings this was like water off a duck’s back. In truth I found it amusing, and it’s better than being ignored.

Around Christmas 2007 some of the attractive young Sakhalin Energy employees decided they were going to recreate Calendar Girls by making a calendar of 12 of them semi-naked. The middle-aged working class blokes in my outfit decided they’d do the same thing, with echoes of The Full Monty. To this end they asked that I take the photos (they knew I had a decent camera) so we all met on a snowy hill overlooking the construction site. Each bloke stripped naked and struck a silly pose, covering their meat and two veg with some object or other. What it lacked in elegance and eroticism it more than made up for in terms of team-bonding, and the entire process was absolutely hilarious. When all 12 men had been photographed, one of them said: “Oy Tim, now it’s your turn. Get yer kit off and stand over there, we’ve all done it.” I’d get naked for fun on the Underground at rush-hour (did I mention I’d hung out with Royal Marines?) so I did what was asked and joined in the fun. I can’t remember who took the photo, but Rick thought it would be highly amusing to lock my clothes in his car. There I was, in minus twelve, bollock naked except for a hat, with my clothes locked in the car and Rick and the others rolling in the snow laughing. Unfortunately for Rick, he’d left his work gloves on the bonnet: lovely, new, fur-lined calfskin work gloves his wife had given him as a present. Seeking shelter for my important parts, I stuffed them into one of Ricks’s gloves and proceeded to strut around. This had two effects: it made everyone laugh even louder, and Rick to unlock the car door. I think he threw the gloves away.

Anyway, by the next summer I’d become pretty good friends with Rick, who was by then living in a company-built house on the edge of town. One Sunday afternoon I was round his place when I saw he had a guitar, so I picked it up and started playing whatever I knew. Rick had just started learning and was happy to find someone else who played, and suggested the next Saturday I bring my guitar around and we could jam together. He suggested he invite a couple of the Filipinos from site, who were wonderful musicians, order some pizzas, and make an evening of it. I liked the sound of this, so agreed. But the following Wednesday I got a call from Rick.

“Tim my old son, things are getting out of hand,” he said. “I’m having to turn people away.”

“Turn people away?” I said. “From what?”

“Timmy Unplugged, of course! Don’t tell me you’ve forgotten! So many people want to hear your concert I’m running out of space. I might have to start selling tickets!”

Rick had stitched me up like a kipper, and told the entire site team that I would be putting on a guitar show for them at his house. Now by this stage I knew a few songs, but the downside was they were as obscure as they come and nobody would know them. This might help mask a poor peformance, but nobody would be able to sing along and help me out. I’d be on my own. The other, much greater, problem was that I was absolute shite. Despite the amount I’d played I could not strum or pick very well, nor sing. I had no natural talent whatsoever and what meagre progress I’d made was a result of sheer bloody-mindedness. Believe me when I tell you I sounded absolutely awful, cringeingly-so, like something you’d see at a junior school talent contest where participation was obligatory. Now everyone on site knew this because Rick had told them, which is precisely why they wanted to come. This would be a chance to see someone make an utter fool of himself. Bear in mind all but three of these guys lived in huts on site in the middle of nowhere, so any opportunity to come into town, drink, and have fun was seized upon.

I thought about pulling out, but decided I couldn’t, something to do with pride and tackling a problem head-on. I turned up at Rick’s house on the Saturday evening to find it absolutely packed, basically the whole site team from supervisor upwards. All the expats from the office in town were there as well, basically everyone in the company who knew me. As I walked in an almighty roar went up, and everyone started slapping me on the back. I put my guitar in an upstairs bedroom and spent the next hour drinking in the kitchen and living room with everyone else. As time went by I hoped maybe everyone would forget about my playing and just enjoy the party, but before too long one of the supervisors said “C’mon Tim, time to get the show started, don’t you think?” Everyone within earshot roared their approval, and I trudged up the stairs to fetch my guitar. I sat on one of the beds, shaking with nerves, trying to remember what I would play and how. Within a minute a loud, synchronised thumping came from below, followed by chanting: “Timmy! Timmy! Timmy!” Then I heard Rick below out: “He’s getting into his stage clothes!” followed by a gale of laughter.

I grabbed my guitar and went downstairs, greeted by a deafening roar. Everyone was packed into the kitchen cheek by jowl, leaving a tiny space at the foot of the stairs in which sat a single, solitary, empty chair. I sat down, and the place fell absolutely silent. And I started to play.

And boy, it was awful. Charlie Feathers’ Man in Love, picked with shaking fingers, sung in a flat voice while looking at the guitar strings. But when I finished, everyone cheered so hard the roof threatened to come off. “More!” they cried. I did six songs in total, each with missed notes, buzzing strings, trembling voice, and forgotten lyrics. Nobody cared, they loved it. This was real entertainment! After each song they cheered, and after the final number someone thrust a drink into my hand, and the party continued as before. Throughout the night a steady stream of people came up to me individually and whispered words to the effect of:

“Well done Tim, I can’t believe you actually did that. You didn’t let Rick get the better of you, good on you. I couldn’t have done something like that, no way.”

I never did become a true part of the site team, but after that night they always made me feel welcome. Looking back, it was one of my proudest moments.

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Old Friends

Following on from yesterday’s post on friendships and politics, let me jump back in time to September 1996. That month, 3 people joined about 120 others in starting a course in Mechanical Engineering at the University of Manchester: me, a chap from Worcester called Simon, and a Northern Irishman from Strabane I’ll refer to simply as G.

G had grown up in a staunchly nationalist part of Northern Ireland in a Catholic family, and to say he was brainwashed when he came to Manchester is an understatement. He was 19 years of age and all he’d known was the Troubles: they dominated his life, they defined who he was, and they constituted the bulk of any conversation you’d have with him. Of course, being from Strabane, nobody had the first clue what he was saying (including other Irishmen). Most people thought he was some weird foreigner who couldn’t speak English, which I suppose he was. He left Northern Ireland an insecure, angry young man, appalled at what he saw were gross injustices committed by Britain in the province and pre-independence Eire. He was an avid supporter of the IRA and Sinn Fein, and we learned later he’d come very close to joining the IRA in person.

His two best friends at university, who he met almost immediately, were me – a loudmouth from Wales as insecure as he was – and Simon, a big, blonde, grinning mountain of a man who was very good at rugby and not in the slightest bit insecure. Simon and G had little in common, whereas I had things in common with the both of them, but they got along famously. In those early months, G used to bombard us with lengthy harangues on Northern Ireland much to the bemusement of Simon who barely knew where it was, let alone what all the fuss was about. I knew a bit more and used to argue back, or take the piss. Mostly it was taking the piss. Then in February 1997 Simon, acting on a whim, joined the Royal Marine Reserves. He threw himself completely into the Marines, largely abandoning his studies, and within 9 months or so passed the Commando tests and got his green beret. From then on, he was 100% a military man.

Now this was a time when the Royal Marines were still being deployed to Northern Ireland. Their reputation wasn’t as bad as the Parachute Regiment’s, but it wasn’t good either. Simon’s new hobby put G in a bit of a quandry; he was supposed to go around blowing up British soldiers, not be best friends with them. He tried bringing it up with Simon, but couldn’t get him to take him seriously:

“Simon, what if you get sent to Northern Ireland. Could you shoot me if you were told to?”

“Mate, I’d shoot you even if I wasn’t!”

“Seriously Simon, could you do it?”

“Of course I could! I’ll shoot you now if you like!”

At some point in that first year we all went home to study for exams. G needed me to send him some course notes and gave me his address in Strabane. I sent them, but included a load of UVF propaganda, some signing on forms, a picture of King William of Orange, and a red hand of Ulster.

“What the fock is all this shite you’ve sent me, you daft focker?”

was the phone call I got shortly after. And this was the thing: the Northern Ireland troubles were G’s entire world, but he found to his dismay that almost nobody in Manchester knew anything about them, much less cared. He would launch into a diatribe about black and tans or some other obscure nationalist sore point, and nobody would have the faintest idea what he was on about. When he’d explain these supposedly gross injustices, everyone would just shrug and agree with him, even to the point of saying Britain should give up their presence in Northern Ireland if that’s what G wanted. For someone who’d grown up in a place where this was a life and death matter, he couldn’t understand it. How could nobody care? Some time later he played us a tape of IRA music, and we just laughed at how bad the recording was. I went even further and took the piss out of the lyrics. It dawned on G that this was a bit of an embarrassment.

Within a year the rhetoric had halved. He accepted Simon being in the military because he realised he was a good bloke and wasn’t the enemy, and he found much more important things to occupy his mind, such as his studies, the welfare of his siblings, and his precarious financial situation. There was a chap on our course from Belfast called William – I’ll let you guess which side of the sectarian divide he was from – and G got on with him just fine. When it came down to it, G was a sensible chap. He’d got himself out of Northern Ireland to better himself, not to remain stuck where he was.

By the time the next year was out, G barely mentioned Northern Irish politics and they only came up when Simon or I wanted to take the piss. He’d embedded himself firmly in Manchester, got his head down into the books, got himself an English girlfriend and moved in with her. One of his siblings was now studying in Glasgow, and he was looking out for her. His world had opened up and totally changed his outlook; more importantly, he’d grown up. He’d worked out what was important in life and abandoned the nonsense that was dragging him down. Any time later when the subject came up he’d say:

“Fock that shite, I can’t be arsed with it.”

I don’t think I’ve ever seen such a positive turnaround in anyone in such a short space of time. We all changed, of course; the period between ages 19 and 23 were huge for me in terms of laying the base of who I’d become, and both G and Simon played a major role in that (usually by keeping me on the straight and narrow when there was a danger of me wandering off it). Simon changed less, mainly because he was a confident, successful young man by age 19 anyway. But the change in G’s mindset was remarkable.

After university we each went our separate ways. Simon immediately joined the Royal Marines as an officer (still saying he was looking forward to shooting G), G went first to Dublin then back to Manchester, and I stayed in Manchester before emigrating. But we stayed best friends; I was Simon’s best man at his wedding in 2005, and we both went to G’s wedding in 2014 where we got hammered and made idiots of ourselves. Even though we’d stayed in regular contact, G’s wedding was the first time the three of us had been together in a long time, and only the second time in almost a decade. Sadly, it was also the last time: Simon got diagnosed with a particularly nasty form of cancer and died in July 2016 aged 38, still serving in the Royal Marines having attained the rank of lieutenant-colonel; G and I blubbered together at his graveside. We returned to his grave last December, and drank beers in what we believed was his presence.

My point in all this? Politics isn’t everything and, when it comes to friendships, shouldn’t be anything at all. If G can get over his brainwashing and become best friends with a Royal Marine, anything’s possible. I still take the piss out of G for his attitude back then, and I still mock the lyrics of that daft IRA song he made us listen to, and watch him go red and swear at me. Simon would too, if he was still around. Good times, great friends.

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