Friday, 19 November 2010

Enough said

Tom's run out of puff.

Thank you for joining me these last 40 weeks or so.

From Mrs M and me


Friday, 12 November 2010

Down Time

Welcome home

 Among the many emails awaiting await me on my return to the Bridge, let me share a couple with you.

Hi Tom. Just heard about 'change of plan': they don’t want me to start fieldwork on Mon as I'd hoped. Pity...I'm exhausted here!! Baby not sleeping, and boys having terrible troubles with homework.

I offered heartfelt sympathy. I am having terrible troubles working the grill, after two months of the international cuisine provided by Oasis Camps by the Nile. I managed not to burn M3’s potato waffles this morning, which is more than I can say for what the grill rack did to my foot.

Tom. Did I tell you about the tourist who breezed into town this week? He announced that he hadn't actually read your report yet but that he didn't agree with it. Then he looked at his watch, announced he had to get to the airport, and breezed out again.

In this context, I need to explain that a “tourist” is a consultant, official or politician who stays for an even shorter time in the field than a freelancer. In the old days, tourists conducted a “windshield survey” from the four-wheel drive, or even indulged in "over-fly research". Nowadays, the smart virtual tourist needs a memory stick at most. The tourist who actually lands and exchanges words with the local earthlings, or even with a freelancer, is to be applauded. And properly rewarded with a decent per diem.

I’m sure he’s quite right about my report. The trouble with us freelancers, you see, is methodology. We just don’t get it.There is a panoply of -ologies out there, of which the tourist is master. But with a freelancer, you're lucky to get any method at all, just a lifetime of experience of getting it wrong.

* * *

"What shall I do about supper?"asks my fragrant lady.

Perhaps either of my readers may be able to enlighten me on the methodology of rhetoric employed by Mrs M when I return from my travels. She sits bolt-upright several minutes before the alarm is due to go off, starts reciting lists, and continues this process while executing a neat sub-routine that involves selecting some of the animals for waking, and others for shooing out of the back door. Before I have had a chance to turn on Radio 4, she has delivered to my bedside tea from the blessed Teasmaid, may its name be praised.

She returns to bed long enough to take a sip from her own. "It'll have to be bangers and mash, I suppose... I'd better go and see if M3's shoes are dry." I hear her tripping daintily downstairs for the second or third time.

Friday Tex-Mex night at Oasis. The home-made nacho chips are much praised. And there's guacamole and sour cream to go with the fresh tortillas if you get to the trough before the Russians.

I manage to be-stir myself to take a large slurp from my cooling tea, before collapsing again onto the pocket-sprung mattress. May the name of John Lewis live for ever. My mind is completely blank about what I might offer instead of bangers and mash.

The L word may have risen momentarily to consciousness before I banished it.

There is just so much not to do during down-time. Currently I am enjoying one of these rare but happy occasions when there is another outing booked in the weeks ahead. This means that I can bask in the prospect of another cheque.

For a start, there is the condition of the garden. The Mandallay estate normally rivals the Augean Stables on my return, despite Mrs M's best efforts. (Ever since a particularly tricky moment when the children were as small as the puppy, she has sent me a series of bulletins about the achievements of various animals, starting the week before my return.) Also, the boys' lacrosse sticks need attention, and the boiler is bleating. The hoover's hose leaks, and the outside lights are, always, always, on the blink.

Yes, it all takes a lot of time not to attend to. Instead, I shall spend most of the morning, I am sure, trawling the internet, and consdisering the options for updating my lance. It's so twelfth century. They do them in alloys and even carbon fibre nowadays, collapsible, self-cleaning, even with a guidance GPS.

"Lasagne," I capitulate.

"I expect they'll be going out, but that would be perfect tomorrow."

I'll have to think of something else.

Saturday at Oasis. Barbecue night. The roasted goat is surprisingly good.

Friday, 5 November 2010

Six Hours in Java

Wrong time, wrong place: Clock, Salvador Dali 1945

Nairobi Airport. Again.

The plastic lions at Jomo Kenyatta International are very lazy this afternoon. I’m spending a long layover in the Java Bar and Lounge. I’ve legged up and down the departure lounge enough times to know that the Java is the only place with padded seats to sit out six hours of waiting.

There seems to be some failure of Kenyan self-belief here. When you grow your own coffee, why name your coffee bar after your competitor on another continent? Hakuna matata, as it says on a hundred t-shirts.

I find the only empty booth. It’s by the window. Perhaps the view will inspire my weekly column.

It’s nice and quiet in here. The main noise is the air-conditioning, which is blowing out hot air, happily displaying graphics of blue ice crystals and a temperature of 32 degrees Celsius.

There's not much happening on the apron, so this freelance lowers his mental visor and looks inward for inspiration. He sleeps, of course, instead. An hour passes.

When I wake, the aircon has made my head even fuller of hot air than usual. I peep through my visor at my fellow layabouts. Six hour layovers in Nairobi are the norm for inter-continental travellers. Not many of them look like East Africans to me, but I couldn’t be sure. I have a growing retinue of saw-bones, blacksmiths and head-shrinkers to keep me in the saddle nowadays. When one of them said I didn’t appear to be of Kenyan stock, I thought that was fairly obvious. It turned out he was referring not to skin, teeth or hair, but to my rump which, while perfect in form and proportion,was never going to break the world record at 100 metres.

Apart from other people's physical appearances, the main entertainment is what they are reading.

I took the lady in the straight hair and smock for an American, because she was chewing gum with her mouth open. If I knew about these things, I would say she was trying to look like Rachel out of Friends, but lacked the wherewithal of someone with the royalties off a 20 disc boxed set. (It has been suggested to me that M1's preference for Friends over football is a bit metropolitan for Marple Bridge. Surely not.)

I noted that Rachel was reading a document from GTZ the German development agency, so perhaps it’s Freunden. And I cunningly divined the linguistic persuasion of the lady opposite me reading Les hirondelles de Kaboul, even before she asked: “zer is no wee-fee?” Carry on, Hercule.

A second hour limps past.

Oh dear. The view from the bridge is ... not a lot. What will my three readers think of me? I open my book instead, and doze off. Another sixty minutes.

Get the computer out: the only way to write is to write. Think into ink.

Mrs M says I should keep a stock of Views for Thursdays like this. I could have a catalogue of cook-chilled Views on such terrible topics as the Hash House Harriers, the “Drinkers with a Running Problem” who “tried to get to heaven, but went the other way.”

Anything but the bloody hash. Readers, you know I would never hash you up a cook-chilled View. Though I wouldn't put it past Mrs M to weasel a way around the problem in extremis.

The fourth hour. I have nothing to show for my hour but success in Spider Solitaire. 40% of my battery remains.

Some time after I completed the second suit of clubs, Robert Mugabe’s younger brothers descended onto the bar stools like a flock of glossy starlings, dressed in charcoal suits, thick spectacles and shiny black skin.

There goes the neighbourhood.

Unlike the other Layabouts, these guys are loud. My experience of my contemporaries in the Bridge is that many of us do not have a great deal left to talk about. Every now and again, one comes across a freelancer in his dotage, who has an unstoppable need to share with you his joy in the confluence of the A627, A629 and A625 at Thrapston, but many male freelancers of a certain age prefer to watch the river or the game without comment. They will scrape together a conversation with a female or a foreigner, but it is not long before they cite an urgent match or report that requires them to hasten back to their cell.

These Roberts aren’t like this at all. They shout. They laugh. They have teeth.

When I wake up, a party of middle aged white men has replaced the Mugabes. They could be freelancers, though the intensity of the tan and the vibrancy of the polo shirts suggests golf is more likely than civil engineering. The beers arrive, and with it their voices, which reveal them as Scousers and Scots, sousing and sotting. Mountains of Tuskers and plastic glasses are piling up in front of them, and their laughter has risen to hysterical girlish gigles. These men are contrary to my theory, and shall therefore be ignored.

Nope: nothing whatever.

Time to go through yet another security check. I'll try again next week.

Friday, 29 October 2010

Guns and Butter

 Boda-bodas at sunset

I’ve told you before how people here appear to prize the plastic protective wrapping on things, long after it’s served its usual purpose.  Drivers of boda-bodas – the motorbikes that pass for taxis – like to keep rotting bubble wrap on the mirrors and indicators. It certainly adds to the sense of adventure. I heard a rumour that South Sudan might change from driving on the right to driving on the left, but from current traffic behaviour it wouldn't make much difference. Mrs M will be glad to know that a wise freelance eschews the bravado of the boda-boda for a more robust steed.
The authorities staged a little practice riot the other day. Afterwards the police sloped back to their barracks sweating beneath their riot helmets, and with cling-film dripping from their transparent riot shields.

I don’t remember our constabulary parading cling-film at the Orgreave coking plant as they taunted the miners with truncheon on shield. Although I was not in full sympathy with the boys, and perhaps girls, in blue on that occasion, you won’t find any cling-film on my shield either.

As Juba inches towards voter registration on 14th November for the January referendum on partition, there seems to be a change of mood here. For instance, the camp was overwhelmed last week by large numbers of men, politicians perhaps, supported by almost as many armed minders. The politicos sat around the large umbrellas on our terrace in circles of twelve or more, sometimes staying in extended silence for many hours. Then someone’s phone would ring and he would jump up, shouting angrily into it for some minutes, so loud that the Nile almost stopped in its tracks.

I was told that these were delegates, or perhaps delegates to delegates, to a conference at the Nyakuron Cultural Centre, where various factions of the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement were patching up their differences ahead of the referendum. “Peace is very expensive,” remarked my fellow traveller, “all those hotel bills and per diems.” 

In case you are unfamiliar with the life of the freelance, the per diem or subsistence allowance is, exactly, meat and drink to the freelance. As a rule, my per diem is inadequate, yours is generous, but theirs is an unseemly abuse of public money.

I watched the delegates or the delegates’ delegates from the big comfy chairs by the smooth Nile where I had slumped happily next to a soldier or policeman. He was half looking on, half enjoying the shade of the mango tree like me, and held a large gun easily. It was smaller than an AK47 which is the only one I recognise, but it wasn’t a pea-shooter either. Its metal stock was shiny with wear. No bubble-wrap here: South Sudan has been at war, off and on, for fifty years.

The sad fact is that my ignorance of life in South Sudan has grown many times faster than any pin-prick of insight in my six weeks here. I feel, above all, more thoroughly foreign than in most of my holiday destinations. Apart from anything else, Sudan, even South Sudan, is just so big. A colleague staggered in yesterday after nipping out to the next town, a 100 miles away or so. It was an exhausting ten hour round trip on the worst roads, many flooded, that he had ever encountered. It made my recent triathlon look like a walk in the park, which you may say is the truth of the matter. 

Political conversations with one’s host are always tricky for the freelance. The Juba Times and the Sudan Tribune have news but it’s hard to grasp when you haven’t been there. And being in Juba just doesn’t count as being in South Sudan.

Some of the expatriates I meet don’t express strong opinions about much beyond the pre-fabricated office that contains their ministry or aid chest, perhaps because some don’t get out much more than I do. Those who do go further, sometimes tell me more: at the hash (of which more another day, when I can bear to describe it) I learned of the military build-up at the disputed border in the oil fields, and the steady emigration of those who can get away from it. I listen, dumb. It's hard to explain to a newbie jubie.

Actions speak as loud as words. Christmas seems a good time for many to take an extended holiday till after the referendum. I shall be off next week.

* * *

Meanwhile, perhaps the SPLM is following the example of Louis XIV who kept his courtiers busy and out of the way in the palace and gardens of Versailles.

Versailles: the way forward for Juba? 

The Sun King's design for living must be a serious contender in any challenge to replace the grubby grid of Juba with something more socially and aesthetically desirable. For my money, and fortunately it isn't, I'd say Versailles was a nose ahead of the preposteropolis recently proposed by some of my fellow travellers.

Yes, we are leading the way here. Keeping the delegates afloat with per diems in Juba's finest riverside palace is an excellent way of sustaining jaw-jaw - which is always better, as the man said, than war-war.

Keep buggering on, Clemmie.