'We should be students for life', Jan Amos Komensky tells us, and with that in mind I got on a bus to Oxford, not to deliver a lecture but to see an old buddy who lives behind the station, just up from the Said Business School (opened in 1996 with a £25 million donation from Syrian-Saudi billionaire Wafic Said) and opposite Paddy Fields Chinese take-away. The buddy has now got involved in some mad-assed golf business and is off to live with the oil guzzling rednecks in Dallas, Texas.
The bus dropped us at London’s Victoria Station named after the Queen who was not often amused, despite owning the Crown Jewels, an Empire streaked across the globe, plus vast estates, palaces and castles. Not to mention hundreds of pubs named after her. Some people are never happy with what they’ve got.
These days her majesty's station is a dingy wreck of a place, filled with sweaty commuters and sprayed black by the internal combustion engine, invented in her majesty’s day by Robert Stevenson and his Rocket.
Lord Alfred Tennyson was Victoria’s Poet Laureate who used to live just up the road from my Mum. Her husband (Queen Vic’s, not my Mum’s) was a man who took the title 'Prince Albert' and was a German. In modern parlance a Prince Albert refers to a piercing of the male genitalia, ie. dick and bollocks, meat and two veg. Nb. DO NOT click that link if you are of a queasy nature ........
See! You can learn something new every day, just as Komensky said.
There was time for a full English breakfast and a stroll up to Hyde Park and the Royal Albert Hall named after Victoria's spouse and a spot a year earlier where I’d been accosted by a drunken Scot asking if I wanted tickets.
“Tickets for what?” I ventured, quite reasonably.
“For the concert.”
“Don’t you start getting clever with me.”
“Well, I’m not getting clever. I just want to know what concert you are selling tickets for.”
“Do you want tickets or not,” the blithering idiot shouted as I walked away laughing. I bet he voted yes in the referendum, despite living and 'working' in London, and for sure he scares the pants off Japanese tourists.
Another bus, the 90x with wi-fi connection that didn’t connect, took us onto the Westway through Hammersmith and Acton on an elevated highway that would have allowed glimpses into passing homes if it hadn’t been for the grey net curtains and windows sprayed black by the internal combustion engine, invented by Robert Louis Stevenson and his Rocket and then we were in endless suburbia - Brentford, Ealing, Boston Manor, Stoke Poges, West Drayton - when an unfamiliar London sight came into view as a splendid arch, a metalled rainbow spanning Wembley stadium, enlivening the semi-detached horizon and far easier on the eye than the phallic symbols now going up in central London.
The green fields of Oxfordshire somehow shone from the dark, dipping down to the Thames Valley and before long the city of dreaming spires appeared and we were sweeping over the lamp-lit cobbles of St. Clements and Jericho and I got off at The High and headed for The Eagle pub where DNA was discovered by drunken students and on this trip I learned of the 'Oxford comma', which is an optional comma before the word 'and' at the end of a list.
Eg: We sell books, videos, and magazines.
It take's the name from being traditionally used by printers, readers, and editors at Oxford University Press. Not all writers and publishers use it, but it can clarify the meaning of a sentence when the items in a list are not single words
Eg: These items are available in black and white, red and yellow, and blue and green.
The Oxford comma is also known as the 'serial comma'.
So, there you go. Now here's some food for thought ..........
There was a pleasant ending to my September journey to hell and back (see here). If you can’t be bothered to click it then a brief re-cap involved the plane being grounded in Saudi; me getting bumped onto a flight to Dubai five hours later; on to Frankfurt, Germany; a third leg to Amsterdam (very brief Magnificent Journey That Not Many People Know About); and finally home to the UK, four flights and 18 hours later.
A KLM employee at Schipol airport had told me to complain, but having spent a long time working in the tourist industry I’m well-versed in whining travelers and try to cross the street when I see them coming, but when my bag showed up two days after I did, and it was broken, I got tapping online. A week or so later a reply came back from KLM with sincerest apologies and an offer of either an €800 travel voucher or €600 cash. BONUS! When I fly again tomorrow I’d do the trip to hell and back again for that sort of return! I’ll use the voucher on a flight to Yankee Doodle Doo Land next year when I finally get out of the sand. That’s if ISIS don’t get me first.
Hang on … In fact, no, I hope it doesn’t happen again as I’ve just remembered that bloody kid bawling all the way to Dubai at five in the morning.
Dozing in front of the TV with man’s best friend at my feet I was jolted out of forty winks by a newsreader announcing, “And over to Max in Washington.” The camera cut to a reporter in front of the White House. It wasn’t him. Even after 20 years I could see that. For a start, this one was white, and sounded like he knew what was going on. The Max I knew hadn’t had a clue. Yet whenever I hear the word ‘Washington’ I think of Max, the Chinese train we’d met on and the last time I’d seen him entering a police station on the Hong Kong border.
After chuntering out of the filth encrusted capital city of the People’s Republic, the Beijing to Guangzhou Express was soon rolling through rice fields frozen by frost. There was one other westerner in the carriage, an American girl in her 20s, and the common bond of skin colour got us chatting in a common language amid the surly Chinamen, scowling and smoking on bunks, travelling en masse to distant homes for the New Year festival about to begin.
We were joined by another foreigner, an African, I thought. He didn’t say anything, just sat close by, eyes fixated on the good-looker from Maryland sat opposite. Couldn’t blame him for that, the entire carriage was copping sly glances at Selindra’s eye candy.
“What’s your name, mate?” I asked, to break an uncomfortable silence.
“I’m Max. Max Washington,” he answered.
“Nice to meet you Max. Where you from?”
“Oh yeah? DC or state?”
Stumped, Max plumped for DC, though his shamed face gave the true answer.
At dinner in the restaurant car we added an international flavour to the Han slurping their noodles through steamy soup and were interrupted by a fight breaking out in the kitchen. Diners downed chopsticks to crowd the serving hatch - public violence being a spectator sport in China. Two chefs traded insults and machete chops and the inscrutable countenance of the on-board policewoman was shattered as she ushered me away with a look of sheer horror at what she’d just witnessed.
The next morning, Selindra teetered onto the Guangzhou platform hidden by an enormous backpack. I had a shoulder bag while Max carried a pair of gloves.
“Haven’t you got any luggage?”
“My friends are bringing it.”
“Geez, my friends would never do that.”
Africans in China mostly study medicine on educational exchange programmes between quasi-communist states, and out on the vast concourse, where the locals were penned in like cattle, waiting days for their train, all eyes were squarely on Max Washington’s ebony skin. The two white-assed foreign devil big noses barely got a second look.
From there we took a double-decker bus crammed full of gossiping Hong Kong women heading home after a frenzied day’s shopping on the way cheaper mainland. Everybody traipsed off at the still distinct border where, thanks to an expired visa, I was arrested. My “forgot all about it” excuse seemed to work because after making me sweat for an hour the cop released me and my passport with the line, “Today you are lucky.”
Walking out of the office I was convinced the bus wouldn’t have waited and I was wondering how the hell I was going to get down to Kowloon when the driver miraculously appeared outside the police station door shouting “Come on! " and we hurried over to the parking bay under the glare of eighty furious Oriental housewives. I might have survived the cops but I wasn’t too sure about this lot.
“What happened!?” Selindra screeched when I sheepishly climbed on board.
I explained my memory loss and consequent luck.
“But they took him too.”
I hadn’t seen him in there.
The back story unfolded that she’d met Max Washington in a Beijing club, from where he had followed her home and hung around outside the gate for a week or so. His naive infatuation and belief that she would reciprocate falling head over heels and pave his way to the Land of the Free had led him to follow her onto a train all the way to Canton without documents, luggage or a clue.
God knows where he is now – an African without papers in the hands of the Public Security Bureau – but it certainly ain’t DC.
The temperate climate of autumnal England is the perfect antidote to the stagnant sandy sauna, making a trip home like getting a new pair of lungs.
Soft sun-kissed days cooled by fresh sea breezes, cleansed by the occasional sparkling shower, make September the ideal month to visit and to find Mother on her knees, bent over in the flower beds, trowel in hand, while behind the hedgerows farmers on tractors chug doggedly across God's earth, back and forth, up and down, dawn til dusk, harvesting food for the coming winter, ploughing the soil for next year’s crop, sold on squares of nearby market towns. Nature’s cycle turned by man’s mechanical hand.
There is no better place to unwind and relax than in that remote abode, almost unaffected by infernal traffic, a delicious dinner served up at sundown, some of the world’s best TV on the box, dog permanently primed for a trek up Church Lane and beyond to pure streams meandering below stubbled fields, watery meadows and shaded copse.
When head hits pillow, book is read, lights go out, deep slumber washes away ever more distant sandy thoughts, replaced by pleasant dreams until morning breaks, birds chirp and call, mother’s already back in the garden and the dog awaits another walk, as well as the scraps from a bacon sandwich.
So it goes.
The telephone rang an hour before I was to leave for the airport. It was KLM, the airline, kindly informing me that the 10.30pm flight had been delayed until 1.30am due to technical problems. This meant my eagerly awaited next day's tour on The Magnificent Journey That Not Many People Know About would be shortened. Godammit! Just let me outta here!
As I rang Tubby Taslim the Bangladeshi Taxi Driver another technical problem came my way when the fuse box in the kitchen exploded and the air-con and fridge packed up taking a few electrical sockets with it. No air-con in the desert is seriously bad news and I have absolutely no idea how people survived here before the modern day 'in-window' invention arrived in 1945 created by Robert Sherman of Lynn, Massachusetts. God bless America. Apparently olden day desert dwellers would dampen blankets and lie on them.
Turning up at check-in following an hour's dark desert drive, I was told that the flight had now been cancelled. So after a 6 hour wait in the world's worst airport I was eventually packed off at 4.50am on a makeshift route, hopefully getting me into the UK by 9.30pm that same day, in time for giving my Mum a kiss, a spot of wrestling with the dog, a walk up the lane to the church with the dog before raiding the fridge for pork products of every variety.
As we took our seats, yawns echoing throughout the cabin, an obscenely arrogant local man started snapping his fingers at the Asians and ordered them to move elsewhere so that he could accommodate his family. Needless to say there was no please or thank you, his nationality trumping theirs. They acquiesced meekly.
When the plane did take off - to me we were travelling in a backwards direction to Dubai on a 50 minute flight - the 3 year old daughter of the guy with the enormous and lame ego began to scream and didn't stop until we made our descent into dustbowl central I'd somehow nodded off for about 5 minutes and was jerked awake by yet another screech piercing my eardrums and being grouchy as I should have been landing in Amsterdam at this time, I swung round in my seat, faced the father and bellowed, "That kid should not be on an aircraft. She's in pain."
Used to people obeying him at the snap of two fingers, raw anger burst into his eyes at this insult to his pride but his tongue was tied, giving me time to carry on bellowing, "She's too young to travel on a plane! Look at her, she's in agony!"
He was still speechless and fuming while the surrounding passengers seemed to enjoy this early morning contretemps but I knew he wouldn't lave it at that..
"Didn't your family take you on holiday?" came his eventual reply.
"What's that got to do with anything? Look at her. I've been on planes before and had ear problems for days afterwards."
"So how should we go to Dubai?"
"By car (it's easily reached from Saudi by land) or better still stay at home," this brought a ripple of early morning laughter from the cabin. I wasn't finished, "And DO NOT inflict that noise on other people!"
I turned round and could feel his eyes boring into me and his wife to my immediate left did the same until I looked directly at her through the slit where daggers lay. If this plane had been going in the opposite direction, for sure he would have made problems for me on the ground.
In Dubai at 6am (the Saudi followed me for a while, trying to look tough. I ignored and soon lost him) there were 25 minutes before the next leg direct to Frankfurt and I did manage to squeeze time in for a quick smoke (God bless airport smoking rooms!) before crashing out on an almost empty Emirates Airbus which had a flight of stairs on it for the toffs in the upper classes.
The stewardesses were all lookers (apparently Emirates is one of the best payers) and one such beauty woke me after a few hours asking if I wanted breakfast. The answer was no, not really, but I couldn't refuse her and scoffed it all down in a matter of minutes before another kid started bawling, a boy this time but not as high-pitched as the last one. More of an excited wimper. So I snoozed until Germany, having tried and failed to watch American Hustle for the 3rd time, then went on a 2 mile walk to the next departure gate where I smoked and with a wry grin observed the 'It's All About the Journey' sign on a nicotine stained wall. I gawped too at the vast array of females on show; a bonanza of entertainment after those barren, zero eye-candy weeks in the desert.
We flew an hour to Amsterdam, which seemed like 10 minutes, arriving 11 hours late at 4.45pm, and so my Magnificent Journey became the fastest on record as I zipped into the city on a 15 minute train ride, walked the walk to Prix d'Ami where I went in and out in a matter of minutes, paused at a canal for 30 minutes, admired the views, enjoyed the cool air and back to Schipol airport for a 7.25pm final leg to the UK. We were there in a hop and a skip and a jump and as I touched down on English tarmac, soft drizzle enveloped us and so I stood there for a while longer, relishing the raindrops cooling my overheated body.
The next morning a familiar friend, as if a prize, awaited on the kitchen table. It was Mr Bacon Sandwich, the most delicious meal known to man or woman or screeching airplane kid.
Mmmm .... hmmmm! Godamn that tastes good.
Wow! Sensational breaking news coming out of Saudi, the country with the world's highest number of deaths from driving. What next? Camels eat grass! Fish found swimming in the sea! Planet earth revolves around sun!
Last year in the town where I live a young guy driving an SUV at 200km/h lost control, ploughed through the barrier in the central reservation, smashed into an oncoming minibus filled with children on their way to school and killed them all. He got out of his vehicle with only cuts and bruises. Later, his father (a wealthy mall owner) turned up at the hospital and took him away to Bahrain where the cops couldn't question the mass killer. When the fuss had died down, the families of the dead kids had been paid off, the son came back and no doubt, entirely without remorse, continues to terrorise the streets, no charges made.
Now that is a news story that never made it anywhere near the media.
Something woke me at 6.50am on Saturday the 18th of September. I peered through bleary eyes at the clock, thought about turning over to stack more zeds but then sat bolt upright and switched on the 7am BBC news headlines. I cheered when I saw that the Jocks hadn't abandoned us even though 45% would clearly have liked to.
My mother is a full-blooded McLaren and that's our tartan on the right, next to the Haggis, tatties and neeps, and the flag of Saint Andrew, on the left, battered and torn after the referendum which was ripping the United Kingdom apart at its seams. There was only one way to go ...
... down the path to see The Famous Grouse and browse through the adventures of Oor Wullie and The Broons sent to me and my sister every Christmas, until she copped it, by Aunty Jenny up in permanently windswept Auchterarder currently hosting the Ryder Cup at Gleneagles Golf Club where the Europeans have just smashed the Yanks.
The referendum was a superb example of democracy in action and, other than the nutters on meths, it was non-violent and civilised, and it split me -
YES: it was an amazing opportunity to build a new state from the ground up and show what the Scots can do.
NO: the UK as a whole is kind of cool and whenever I meet a Jock or a Taff or a Mick there is an unspoken camaraderie that can lead to an instant bond. But shorn of the men in kilts, the UK would look like this bit of chicken found in the Daily Mail and many other places ...
... that is to say it will look crap, like a sad and sorry old man, bent over on his haunches, begging on the streets, with one rotting leg. That's also how PM Cameron looked when he went up to Stenhousemuir, or wherever it was, and started pleading with the Scots not to leave him, like a lame-assed, about-to-be jilted boyfriend. No wonder the YES camp got a massive surge in support when that mincing Hooray Henry windbag turned up on the doorstep, in his school uniform, uninvited, and blubbed for matron to make it all go away.
It was Catch 22 where a YES vote would have destroyed Dopey Dave as Prime Minister (thumbs up) but also enormously aid the Tories in wiping out the large numbers of Labour Party MPs elected to Westminster from north of the border (thumbs down, boo). Effectively this would put the Labour Party out of business in England (boooooo).
So, NO won the day, mainly due to the canny Highlanders who weighed up the financial peril that a brave, re-born, insecure Scotland would face, as well as being fans of Queen Elizabeth.
There was dark irony in the Royal Bank of Scotland announcing that it would uproot to London if the Scots went it alone ... and besides, a job lot of Sassenachs come north on holiday year in year out and spend a stack of cash, shoot birds and deer, get rat-arsed and we can be rude to them and they apologise. Scotch sales are booming and another Catch 22 appeared on results morning with half the nation drowning their sorrows while the other half celebrated. The streets of Glasgow will be even dodgier from now on. In fact the dour, damp, urban despondency found in Dundee and Glasgow provided the YES campaign with most of its support.
Give it another 20 years with a plausible plan to nation-build allied to financial security and the Bonnie Scots will no doubt leave the Union and that would be sad. Besides, what would the British army do without the Black Watch, its skirt wearing, oatmeal munching, caber tossing 3rd Battalion of the Royal Scottish Regiment and the most fearsome enemy a soldier will meet. This is them and their tartan, banned from every bar in Hong Kong's Wan Chai district .... Slange var Scotland!
Back in the day, the world’s most perfect pub was situated on Krakovska Street in Prague. Its official title was The Independent Reggae Bar and to me and many others was easily the best joint in town. It was an off the record, under the counter coffee shop based on the Dutch model, without the refinement, yet being Czech it did sell booze alongside the waccy-baccy and you had to be introduced to The Man by The Man-in-the-Know to get your hands on the green stuff in a little storeroom at the back, behind the table football.
A Jamaican flag flew above the entrance which led down to a basement bar and into a fug of ganja smoke that only dispersed when the weather was good and the door was left open. During summer months you could smell the place 50 metres before you got there, opposite the Bulgarian embassy, en route passing one of the city’s biggest police stations, cops walking in and out, guns in holsters, on the hip, and, if you overshot and reached the end of the road, you could always drop in for a thirst quencher at Major Zeman’s pub, an old school hostelry populated by beer soaked veterans of Bohemian renown. Major Zeman himself was a communist era TV cop along the lines of 'Who loves ya baby?' Kojak or the dirty raincoat of Columbo.
Reggae, as we referred to it, attracted a diverse crowd - from student to wide boy to suit and punk; from hippy to tourist to housewife to displaced African and Arab - and on one particularly memorable occasion a foxy, uniformed policewoman showed up, gun in holster, on slinky hip, whose dyed blonde hair beneath her cap and scarlet lips momentarily silenced the raucous, irreverent rabble of spliffheads. Not even Tom the French Dog, who usually sniffed around every female to cross the threshold, tried to chat her up. She casually drank a small beer from a lady’s glass, nodded as if to say ‘nothing untoward here’, then left. We never saw her again, although we wanted to, but she most certainly became enshrined in Reggae’s legend and during lulls in conversation someone always brought up that heart-warming episode.
Watching the news the other day I was reminded of The Independent Reggae Bar (like all good things it came to an end and Prague has never been the same since) during a TV report on ISIS, the latest blood-crazed spawn of religious fanaticism to afflict the world. The connection was made by a gang of Arabs who always congregated at an isolated table in Reggae and who spoke to no-one else.
At first, as they came in, traditional Arab greetings were enacted – kisses on both (facial) cheeks, lengthy embraces and hello-how-are-you-my-friend repeated ad nausea. After about five minutes this chummy man-love, apparently united by common spiritual belief, had completely evaporated to be replaced by the entire group leaping to their feet, eyes bulging, mouths screaming and fingers jabbing at one another, violence a hair’s breadth away until Tonda, the bar’s shaven-headed heavy, an ex-con, tattoos home-made, told them to shut the fuck up or get out. They were disturbing the peaceful one-world ambiance adhered to by the majority of punters and in doing so destroying any claim they made to brotherhood. The group would reluctantly sit down, chairs scraping, rage still bristling, eyes daggers, insults moderated but still exchanged like potshots after the battle has subsided until they could control themselves no longer and another verbal onslaught erupted and it dawned on me as I watched a black flag being paraded through yet another war-ravaged Syrian/Iraqi town (they all look the same) that that table in The Independent Reggae Bar was in fact a microcosm of the Middle East and North Africa today – pent up hatred, fury and faux solidarity – and what that region really needs is a strongman like Tonda the heavy and a foxy policewoman to do what they do and kick the ... asses out into the street, opposite the Bulgarian embassy.
So the world is in a mess: Yet another relentless war of religion has exploded not far from here and may possibly come here; further north, mad-assed megalomaniac Putin baits NATO (he clearly enjoys this – it’s in the dead eyes) and props up mad-assed Assad’s Syria; an undeclared civil war of race festers in the USA; more religious nutters open a branch of evil intent in India; lunatics with long knives run around railway stations in China, slashing and stabbing the innocent; the conflict between nature and pollution gets worse by the day; and on top of all this a little known diplomatic cold war simmers between the British and Indian governments regarding visas to their respective countries.
Because many Indian visitors to the UK don’t go home at the end of their holiday, the British are now insisting on a £3000 deposit to be put down by Indian passport holders entering the country, the money returned when they do. In retaliation, the Indians are making it difficult for UK citizens to visit India and therefore hampering my plans to spend a winter holiday in Bombay and Goa.
Godamn war! Can’t we all just live in peace?
On the subject of India, the town where I live is split into two – the northern, American designed residential area (deliberately located upwind of the petrochemical plants) described by some as pseudo-California (TGI Fridays and Starbucks are recent arrivals on the palm lined sea-front, not a bikini in sight) while to the south is the old town, known as Little India (deliberately located downwind of the petrochemical plants) where the lowly Asian labourers/slaves live. These are the guys - from India, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Bangladesh, the Philippines and Sri Lanka - who make the nation tick and just about survive on $100/$200 a month. It’s run-down, cheap and not at all cheerful, teeming with subjugated humanity, and I’m sure if a satellite heat-seeking device was passed over it a shimmering, creeping mass of cockroaches would show up. I was once browsing in a Levi’s store and a roach the size of a toy car scuttled out from under a pair of jeans. I passed on the sales assistant’s offer to try them on.
It might be filthy but it does have atmosphere and vitality, in stark contrast to the languid shopping for spending money’s sake and junk food gluttony of the swanky northern area where the better-off pass their evenings. The old town ghetto is reality for the mass majority of foreign workers in the sand, living on a diet of flat breads baked in huge kilns and eaten with fool, lines of men snaking out into the street after a 12 hour shift under a blazing sun on construction sites or garbage trucks or road gangs. They live in cramped rooms alongside the ubiquitous cockroaches and a dozen or so other men with a shower and toilet between them, allowed home every five years if they’re lucky, dependent on the contractor handing over their passports. So I can’t really feel sorry for myself because India won’t give me a visa when a lot of these guys come from there or thereabouts and are deliberately prevented from going home while I just want a holiday to escape from the sand.