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.


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.”


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.”


“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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.