51st State

Some people think the developing world is like the developed world, just poorer. It isn’t, and if you’ve traveled a little it’s hard to avoid noticing there is a competence gap as well. For example:

Nigeria’s ruling party has been accused of plagiarism after its manifesto declared it was dedicated to “keeping America safe and secure”.

The All Progressive’s Congress (APC), led by President Muhammadu Buhari, featured on its website a section dedicated to energy policy ahead of a general election slated for February.

It was allegedly headlined, “Our first priority is keeping America safe and secure”, and featured rambling copy critics said was likely lifted from other websites.

My guess is the task fell to a family member of the person responsible for getting it done properly, who either couldn’t do it or simply didn’t care. But others beg to differ:

An APC spokesperson, Lanre Issa-Onilu, claimed on Twitter the website had been “hacked” and “unauthorised content” posted on it.

“We won’t allow the desperate people to succeed in their evil plots,” he said.

I’m reminded of when I got annoyed with my maid in Lagos for reeking out my apartment by boiling fish on the landing outside. She first said it wasn’t her, and when I got doubly annoyed at being lied to, she later apologised and said “the devil made her do it”.

(Via Clarissa)


Unforced Errors

This post sort of follows on from this one, and describes much the same problem.

A year or two into my assignment doing weight estimates, we had a big re-organisation which meant I was dealing mainly with offshore facilities and more closely involved with cost estimations (rather than purely weight estimations). One of the principle ways the cost of a facility was estimated is to take various parameters – total liquid processing capacity, oil production rate, gas processing rate, etc. – and use that to work out the topsides weight. This is what they did, and as far as I know they still do.

One day we invited an American chap to visit us from a company which specialises in the design and operation of certain installations. We wanted his feedback on previous work we’d done with him, and his advice for future projects. He was very open, and I found the meeting fascinating. He highlighted the various technical requirements unique to our company which made our installations more expensive than they ought to be, with other clients happy to accept less stringent requirements or use industry standards. He went into detail on this, and in several instances it was the case that technology had moved on and our standards hadn’t yet caught up. For example, if you want to send an intelligent pig down a line you’d have to put 5D bends in (i.e. the bend radius is 5 times the pipe diameter), but nowadays the pigs can generally handle 3D bends. Our standards still required 5D bends, which take up a lot more space in a crowded facility. That was just one example of several, which as an engineer I found very interesting.

Not so my colleagues. After the meeting I raised these points as possible areas in which we could save costs, and the response was:

“Oh, that was all bullsh*t, he was just telling us that to try to get the next contract.”

Not for the first time has an expert in a particular technical field been invited into an oil company to share knowledge and been treated like he’s the dumbest one in the building.

Anyway, one of the things the American chap said was his company had found no relationship between the liquid production rates and the facility topsides weight. There were just too many other variables which affect it, such as the degree to which you want to remove certain contaminants. He even said his company had teamed up with a university to research this relationship, but after a couple of years they’d given up. What this fellow said effectively consigned our entire estimation methodology to the dustbin, because it relied entirely on a perceived association between production rates and topsides weights. This either went straight over the heads of the assembled staff sat in front of him, or they chose to ignore it. Either way, nobody mentioned it again.

Just for fun, once I’d been taught statistical analysis techniques last semester I ran some figures to see whether the methodology we’d been applying back then was mathematically sound. It turned out there was a correlation between equipment weight and topsides weight, but it was a lot weaker than I’d expected. But more importantly, there was no association between production rates and equipment weight, or indeed between any of the parameters we used and weights. So the American was right, then.

Now had I known these techniques when I still worked there, and demonstrated to those in charge of the methodology that we shouldn’t be assuming an association between X and Y when none exists, they’d have said:

“This is the methodology we are using. Your job is to follow it without asking questions.”

In fact, a short while before the reorganisation someone suggested I get involved in cost estimations and apparently one of the managers said:

“Oh, we don’t want him, he’ll just find things wrong with our methodology.”

Major corporations, people. Next time you hear about something like this or this, you’ll know how they happen.


Don’t mention the flaw!

Once upon a time I was posted to a department in an oil company which dealt with the early-stage designs of new installations, much of which was geared towards providing enough information for a cost estimate to be carried out. To a rough order of magnitude, the cost of a new offshore installation (either floating or fixed to the seabed) can be estimated from its weight. Keeping things simple, the weight of an offshore facility comprises Equipment Weight, Piping Weight, Structural Weight, and Others. If you have enough data, it is theoretically possible to work out the total weight of a new offshore installation by taking just the Equipment Weight and applying various ratios from similar, existing facilities. Most large engineering companies do this in order to obtain order-of-magnitude weights and cost estimates, but it is very much a finger-in-the-air approach which, at the early stages of a project, is fine.

The problem with my new department was they did the equivalent of dividing 11.3 by 3.4 and writing the answer as 3.32352941. Any GCSE science or maths teacher will tell you the answer to any calculation cannot be more accurate than the initial input data. But when we did estimates using data with an accuracy of ± 30%, we’d make comparisons of estimates that were within 10% of each other and propose weight savings of 5%. If you think it’s just journalists who are innumerate, be aware there are engineers with the same affliction working in large oil companies.

Then things got a whole lot worse. Weight ratios apply to offshore facilities because they are designed as a single unit relatively unaffected by their location (I’m talking topsides or floaters here, not the jackets or other support structures). I’m simplifying massively, but the point is that the weights of floating and other offshore facilities are not primarily driven by where they are installed. By contrast, the cost and complexity of onshore installations is enormously impacted by topography and geotechnical conditions under the soil. As you can imagine, building a facility on flat, firm ground is a bit easier than doing so on the side of a granite mountain or in a marsh. Civil engineering accounts for approximately 30-40% of the cost of constructing an onshore oil and gas installation, mainly grading the site, bringing in aggregate and compacting, and building the vast underground networks of pipes and cables needed to run the thing. This is why the first things you do when you’re thinking about building an onshore plant is the topographical and geotechnical survey; it’s sort of hard to do anything without it.

But I worked with very clever people, and they came up with a way of estimating the costs of an onshore facility regardless of where it was located. Insofar as topography went we could just assume it was flat, and soil conditions could be ignored or data from a project on another continent used instead. That soil conditions can vary dramatically across a hundred metres didn’t seem to matter. Furthermore, we could use ratios to work out the weights like we did offshore. Now I spied a problem with this. Offshore, on a global basis, there is probably a relationship between Total Equipment Weight and Total Structural Weight; all equipment on such facilities is supported by structural steel, after all. But onshore equipment is generally placed on a concrete plinth sunk into the ground, the size of which is driven by the soil conditions and equipment weight. The structural steel supports some equipment and a lot of piping and cables, but it does a very different job to that on offshore facilities. In many instances, the structural steel around a piece of onshore equipment is negligible. In short, on an onshore plant there is no ratio from other facilities which can be used to estimate structural weight using equipment weight. But here were were, applying the same methodology as if it could.

Having some experience on onshore sites, I began to use my noggin a little. In one estimate, I ascertained that a vessel had no structural steel at all: it rested on its own legs and there was no maintainable valve on top which would need an access platform. But two managers queried this: they asked how the structural steel weight could be zero. I said it was because there is no structure associated with this vessel. They said this must be wrong, and I should apply a ratio of 30% vessel weight. So I asked them what structure they thought I was missing. They couldn’t say, but they told me to add the weight in, which came to several tonnes.

A little later, they got an intern with no post-graduate engineering experience to create a formal procedure for estimating the weights of onshore facilities, convinced that from such data the costs could be derived. They then passed it around all the engineers for comments. I noticed that it did not consider many components of the underground networks, which as I said comprises a huge portion of the costs. The most glaring omission was the firewater ring main, which is big, expensive, and common to all onshore oil and gas facilities. The reason this wasn’t included was because it would be designed “later”, which I found actually meant “nobody here knows anything about firewater ring mains so it’s best to pretend they don’t exist”.

I’d only been in the department a few weeks and I naively thought I’d be being helpful by pointing out, as I have done above, why this new methodology drawn up by the intern was fatally flawed. I drafted a comprehensive email with examples and explanations and sent it to my boss and the head of department, whose brainchild this new methodology was. A few days later I was called into an office where both of them were waiting and told to close the door. Their talk with me can be summarised as follows:

“We have read your email, but the decision has been made to adopt this methodology going forward. Your job is to follow it without asking questions.”

This was probably the first time it dawned on me that in many corporate departments results are meaningless, and all that matters is people obediently follow the process. I fought it for about a year, then just got with the program and pumped out absolute garbage which got wrapped up in more garbage and presented to senior management right up to the CEO. It didn’t take me long to work out whatever rubbish we were generating was not the basis on which decisions were getting made – the company wouldn’t be in business if that were the case – and the entire process, which cost millions of dollars, was merely to keep people employed. I once remarked in the wake of the oil price crash that if the company wanted to cut costs they could get rid of our entire department and employ a child to roll dice every time senior management wanted figures. That went down about as well as my critique of the estimation methodology.

The experience left me wondering how much of this sort of thing goes on in major corporations with names you’ve heard of. Quite a bit, would be my guess.


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.


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?”


“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?”


“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.


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.


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.