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.

Friday, 22 October 2010

Nightmare on Nile Street

Wagons are everywhere, churning mud between their fat tyres, blasting burning diesel smoke into my face, some trying to reverse over me, some trying to move forward. 

Wagons and wagons full of long-lasting insecticide-treated mosquito nets.  

I didn’t mean to order that many. It was a slip of the decimal point.

I try to flee to the river, knowing it is full of schistoso-something or other, and not having a clue what that is. A visiting Minister of Health is driving a crocodile of trucks ahead of me to the river bank where I saw naked men washing yesterday. He is trying to explain to me about snails, and how the schisto thing gets into bathers and bladders. Now the snails are driving us into the river, one truck over the other, as we try to make a bridge of mosquito nets over the Nile.

A friendly soldier says it’s fine to drive into the Nile but we MUST NOT TAKE PHOTOS. I explain that Mrs M has borrowed the camera to take pictures of Jeanette Winterson. The soldier throws me an orange, and waves happily as we sink, sink into leachy Nile mud, beneath nets tangled in water hyacinth.

When I splutter awake, my heart is pounding again. I’ve managed to turn off the telly and the aircon, but it’s stuffy and airless. At least no mosquitoes.  

“It was only an illustrative budget, Your Excellency. You know, one of those ones that doesn’t really matter. Yes, I did put three hundred million nets on the spreadsheet, but I really meant three million... Yes, Your Excellency, I agree that the long-lasting insecticide-treated net is a tremendous innovation: it really is helping Africa get on the right road with malaria. Three hundred million of them should stretch from Kampala to Khartoum. Or would you prefer the opposite direction?”

(I expect most freelancers have their moments of panic. I have at least one thumper on most expeditions. However, although we more experienced freelancers may be at higher risk of losing a decimal point or two, we have the advantage that we can usually remember a situation worse than the one that is currently jangling the chains. The benchmark for me is a terrible night long ago in the now abandoned Johannesburg Carlton Hotel. It reduced me to my creaking knees, forehead scrunched onto the grimy carpet, shallow-breathing the stale smoke of a twenty-first floor, air-conditioned room with sealed windows. No panic since has come close to my Carlton Moment.)

 The Carlton Moment

The music from the neighbouring camps has stopped, and I hear a cock crow. It must be morning. No rain on the roof. I am glad for the quiet, but somehow it seems wrong. For although our camp is bordered by the silent fat river on one side, there is an ever-growing settlement on the other. I wonder how many hundreds or thousands live there. We drive past them every day, and most days I run past them too. Children and adults join me, shouting and laughing. Today a woman with an old weather-beaten face in a filthy ragged smock and flip-flops kept pace with me for a few hundred yards. We cheer each other on. Indeed, I think we cheer each other up.

I know I’m a bit slow on the uptake, but it takes me a while to register the daily lives of the people around me. The makeshift homes between the Oasis Camp and the Goat Market seemed poor and mean at first, but you get used to it. Also, the children always shout, at every hour of the day, “MORNING!” and “How are YOU?” with great big African vowels and gap-toothed smiles. We smack hands. They are very endearing...

(The children's greetings also make me want to hide behind my visor a hundred times a day when I catch myself saying “Morning,” and “How are you?” without a care for the well-being of the person I am so assaulting.  Perhaps this is a sign that a pith helmet would not be completely inappropriate. It is no wonder that these are the only words of English that the children know.)

... So, it takes me a while to cotton on to the lives around me. Why aren’t you in school? Where do you go to the loo? And where do you go to fill up those water tanks?

My latest observations are that many households seem to have nothing at all to sit or lie on, apart from a dirt floor. I don't know what happens when there's a downpour, which must make everything flood, for there is no drainage. I suppose you stand under the shelter all day in your flip flops. When I come home from my run in the evening, families are sitting bolt upright around cooking fires. Already the settlement is going quiet. There is only the roar from our camp’s generator whose exhausts roar into the waste land that is now our neighbours’ homes.  

I cannot see any newspaper or anything to read, except the markings on the cardboard boxes that some people use for walls. The light has almost gone, and the only glow is from the embers. There are no lamps. Perhaps people just go to sleep, and hope for a better tomorrow.

Few of the shelters seem to have complete walls.  I am on the look-out for the white, pink or green tell-tale of a mosquito net against the mud-brown of everything else. Long-lasting, insecticide-treated, or otherwise.

I'll tell you when I find one.


Friday, 15 October 2010

Plenty o' Horn

 Loch Kishorn Dry Dock in the seventies Stanley Howe

“Welcome to Loch Kishorn”, enthused my driver.  “They say you’ll get no kisses here, but plenty o’ horn.” I was 19 years old, and hitch-hiking my way as far north as I could to escape the fag-end of a long hot Mancunian summer. I nodded and refrained from further questioning. I stared out at the brand new slick of tarmac curving down to the loch. The concrete gullies on either side were full of empty beer cans chucked out, I supposed by oil rig workers.

We were discussing the unlikely prospect of me seeking employment in Loch Kisshorn’s rig fabrication yard. I see now that my Highland excursion that summer, as much as reading Karl Marx on the parental tennis lawn, was an essential element of the freelancer apprenticeship, providing skills in
  • proposing absurd hypotheses (me on an oil rig); 
  • nodding without understanding; 
  • learning at others’ expense; 
  • accepting free rides shamelessly;
  • using bullet points pointlessly.
All of which brings me to the present day.

The Feelgood Theatre Company has been a stable-mate of the Mandall family for many years, though arguably neither is particularly stable. Feelgood’s plays, or larks, mostly take place in unlikely parts of North West England, including Burtonwood Aerodrome, the Imperial War Museum, and various parks. It's always a worry when you bump into Feelgood's director, Caroline Clegg, because you don’t know whether she will ask you to find her a NATO battle-tank, or enquire whether you have chanced upon a flea circus suitable for an adaptation of the Chorus of the Hebrew Slaves.

The night before my first visit to South Sudan, Mrs M sat me down in front of a TV drama called Slave, about a young girl who is captured in the Nuba Mountains of Sudan, before being enslaved first in Khartoum and then, for many years, in a suburban home in London. Family viewing. We rang Cleggy, because she is doing a play in which the real life slave-girl acts out her story at the Lowry Theatre in Salford.

By the end of the phone call, I had taken orders from Clegg for DVDs of Nuban music, as well as sundry gourds and leg jangles.

Somehow, my commute between our Upstream camp on the Nile and the Ministry in downtown Juba doesn’t take in a lot of markets specialising in local music, gourds or shells on strings. So, on the final day of my last outing to Juba, I confessed my failure in a text message to La Clegg.

I got her reply on the way to the airport. She said that if I could get her a horn, it would be like Christmas and Birthday coming all at once.

A horn for the bird? This was definitely a moment for nodding and staring at the view. In fact there was plenty of time, because we were stalled on the Airport Road behind a demonstration in relation to the forthcoming referendum on South Sudan’s proposed secession from the North.

It was at this moment that my driver unburdened himself to me of his desire.

It was for a camcorder from the duty free shop.

This is not the sort of thing I normally get into. What if I get the wrong one, we fall out over the money, it doesn’t work, or it gets taken by customs?

Then I remembered the horn. Perhaps a small horn would get me off the hook for failing with the gourds and jangles. On the other hand, I mused, if I came up with the horn, there was a risk that she might ask me to provide a Dakota or a ride in Richard Branson’s new spaceship for her next performance.

The traffic started to move. Now or never. "If you get me a horn, I’ll get you a camcorder," I told the driver.

He said he would order it at the market after dropping me at the airport. “Which market”, I asked, puzzled. “You know the one by your camp, with the goats and the cattle,” he explained. To make a cow horn, it seems you first need a cow.

We exchanged our acquisitions shortly after my return to Juba two weeks later. I’d got his camcorder through customs in a corner of my cabin bag, but my horn took up the whole back seat of the Land Cruiser.

Recumbent on the mock calf-skin seat covers of which their owner is so proud, my horn boasted the black red and green of the new South Sudan, tastefully separated by splodgy bits of masking tape. Two foot of stiff plastic pipe led to a rugged mouthpiece.

We had a practice blast outside our happy row of prefab homes that I have come to know as Urinally, due to its proximity to the Gents. Everyone had a go. My neighbour Albert made it sing like a bugle on steroids.

They will hear it in the Nuba Mountains. They will hear it in Yei and Wau. They may even hear it in Khartoum. They will certainly hear it in Salford.

And here we are on youtube

Plenty o' Horn: first attempts in Urinally

Plenty o' Horn: the Master of Urinally

Slave – a Question of Freedom opens at The Lowry, Salford Quays on 23rd November.

Photo by Neil Matthew

Friday, 8 October 2010

Love in Transition

I salute the unflinching courage of Mrs M in offering to witness my first attempt at a Triathlon last Sunday. However, she had been up till 2 am collecting M2 from his restaurant job, and was also fending off reading lists from the University and an attack of the shingles. I suggested that if she really insisted, she could put in a brief attendance at the triathlon “Transition”. She didn’t insist.

The Transition is the technical and spiritual heart of the modern triathlon. These triathlons consist, my patient teachers have explained, of three events: swimming, cycling and running. So the Transition is where you saddle up for your ride after the swim, and where you return to dismount, before tackling the run.

The Tameside Triathlon starts near Stalybridge, just a few miles north of Mandallay, but of course I got lost on the way. Someone had knocked down the former Senior Service cigarette factory at Hyde Mill. People aren’t smoking enough...

... Then the sat nav got lost too, and I found myself looking for a second time at Mottram church, perched high on the moor, behind a curtain of rain.

Strange to say, this is part of old Cheshire, though it really feels more like Derbyshire. Not a mini in sight.

The rain hadn’t stopped since I left home. Even in Mandallay, it was persistent enough to penetrate the ceiling of what only an estate agent might call the Master Bedroom. The Bunker would be a better name, but unfortunately the door is not blast-proof, so is regularly stormed at all hours of the day and night by enraged Ms, who come on raiding parties for money, clothes and toiletries, or just to vent their rage on their parents, for not having done their homework for them, or for being inappropriately attired.

This leads me to one of the main attractions of a triathlon: getting away from home.

Triathlon designers have many ways of causing competitors pain. The best that I can say for the Tameside triathlon is that the swim takes place in an indoor pool, where things don’t generally fall on your head. It would have been more in keeping with the rest of the event, if they had made us swim across one of the chain of black reservoirs coming down the Pennines.

A special feature of the Tameside Triathlon is that they make you run half a mile from the pool up-hill to Transition. The grassy incline to Transition was light mud by 8 am, but there were still a few rocks to hold onto, as I pushed my bike and a plastic box full of helmet, shoes and other essential kit for the event. Mrs M’s decision to stay in bed was, I considered, wise.

“This is bloody stupid, pal,” said the bloke in front in a blue top, as we puffed up the hill. “Bloody stupid.”

The start of the triathlon is staggered. The slowest competitors are the first to stagger. We line up at the end of the pool, the long and short, thin and podgy, and, especially, the tattooed, along with the perfectly formed freelancer.

Great attention is given to kit. Some have opted for high triathlon couture. Within seconds of completing their swims, they have slipped their feet beneath the elastic laces of their trainers, and are skipping up the bank to Transition. I lumber out of the pool in Dad’s Embarrassing Speedos, and grope for my spectacles. I spend some minutes jumping up and down trying to persuade a tee-shirt to descend over my wet back.

The next stagger is up the bank through the rain. The last rocks have sunk into the mud. A familiar voice behind me is saying “This is bloody stupid, pal. May as well walk.” He speeds past me.

Transition is the place for the love of kit. Here, the triathlete sheds trainers and claims specialised bike shoes, helmets, gloves, and the bike itself, whose every component is a buttress for the strength and self-belief of the triathlon amateur. I have heard men confess that they buy their bike bits in cash, so that the missus doesn’t know how much they really spent on the latest innocent-looking bit of metal, which is actually a hand-crafted fluid-formed titanium creation of such impossible levity, elegance, strength and ergonomic effectiveness, that replacing the Fiesta offers no contest.

The gender balance of competitors is different from that at running activities. Boys are easily outnumbered, for instance, in the group that I run with at the Stockport Harriers, for which reason we refer to the squad as the Harriets.

But Harriets were in short supply at Tameside Triathlon. One male friend opined that some ladies do not feel the true love for kit with the same intensity that a man does. I look forward to the views of correspondents on the matter.

Of the ride itself, I cannot tell you much. There was a lot of going up: rock, mud, flood, stiles, streams, bog, peat. And rain. There was also a lot of down, if anything more painful than going up. My helmet proved fit for purpose in its encounter with a stone wall, and I probably also remain fit for most purposes after my encounter with the crossbar. I have a vague memory of a bloke in a blue top passing me, saying “this is bloody stupid, pal. Not much of a view is it?”

Then hurray, we slurp back into Transition for another kit change. The inflatable “Finish” arch has collapsed into the bog. We change into running shoes, and most of us ditch our bike helmets too. I can report that one freelancer set off for his final run, still wearing his battered bike helmet.

Yes, throw what you like at a freelancer, but don’t expect him to take off his helmet.

Friday, 1 October 2010

Cheshire Life

Cheshire Cat by John Tenniel
The gestation period for an attack of Cheshiria may be anything up to six weeks. Sometimes, however, the innocent victim may instantly exhibit severe symptoms arising from even a fleeting encounter with a Range Rover emerging from the warm red embrace of a Cheshire farmhouse. One bite is enough.

It is an unfortunate but undeniable fact that the last line on Mandallay’s Post Office address is Cheshire. That County Palatine is surely a lovely place, but we do not live there. Mandallay rests in the Metropolitan Borough of Stockport, and before that was invented, Derbyshire reached West to the River Goyt to include Marple Bridge, all of which apart from the Bridge itself arguably lies on the East bank.

Nevertheless, the contagion of Cheshire has swept up from the lowlands, a soft wind of sweet pastures warmed by dairy herds and Agas, bearing bling and blondes to the Bridge.

Even the briefest contact with Cheshire can bring me out in a rash. I now know that Mandallay goes on full alert some days before my return from a tour of duty. The household has tried many techniques to forestall or mitigate attacks of Cheshiria. Tactics include house-cleaning, laying in dark chocolate, moving furniture to hide evidence of animals, and scattering handfuls of the “Excellent Work” postcards mass-produced by the boys’ Specialist Exaggeration College for teachers to hand out when students arrive in school before the bell.

Years of exposure have made Mrs M, and me too, to some extent, better at managing Cheshiria. Just as a resident of Freetown or Juba immediately recognises the symptoms of malaria, and knows just what to do before they sink into delirium, I know that the only thing to do when Cheshiria strikes is to dive for cover in a darkened room before everyone else catches it.

Even so, I wasn’t expecting an outbreak in John Lewis at Cheadle Royal. I should have known. After all, Cheadle Royal Hospital is well known to the Mandall ancestors as a refuge for the spiritually challenged.

All I was doing was trying to buy a suitcase. Now that Mrs M is a student of Contemporary Literature and Culture at Manchester's greatest seat of learning, I thought she might recognise a post-metrosexual irony in my patronage of the Samsonite brand. She didn’t doubt it. M3 explained to M2 that Samsonite is for five stone weaklings with nothing else to boast about.

The Partners at John Lewis were of course as obliging as ever, but they were out of stock of the particular contraption I sought, and had to summon one up from their online chums. By the time their till had connected to the internet, and the internet had connected to my bank, and my bank had connected to something else that wanted the passcode to the security code to my password to the freelance credit card, and I had connected my phone to Mandallay to find out what said passcode was, I was so late for my next appointment that, well, yes, I snapped. Not quite that bad. Let's say I was a little dyspeptic. I'm not proud of it.

I left in a hail of patent leather handbags amidst the stench of hair lightener. Then I got stuck in the car park because a man in a bad pin-striped suit was having a stand-off with the Scouser who was washing his Jag.

On the A538, a herd of Fresians blocked a squadron of yellow minis emerging from a Garden Centre where their drivers had been lunching.

Once I finally got to The Priory in Hale Barns, I was so very late for my appointment that I took a small risk. Instead of parking off-off-Rappax Road, I charged over the bumps along the long sweeping drive to the car park, knocking a couple more Range Rovers into the roses, and found myself, like Mr Bean, doing a four-wheel drift followed by twenty-nine point turn between a BMW and an Audi to get into the last space.

By now, my Cheshiria was full-blown. Hives had erupted all over the Fiesta too. I dashed into see the doctor, who was mercifully running late too.

I am happy to report that the shaman appears to have had a very pleasant holiday, and has lost a few pounds, so he’s doing very well. His bill will be along shortly. I always find it good value, because it helps me wave away all doubts whenever I issue my own. In fact, this is one more good reason why a quarterly visit to a consultant psychiatrist is the secret of success, or at least survival, for many modern freelancers.

There are days when I like to delight or bore you with the varied pleasures of home on the Bridge. In truth, there are more days when I find it easier to not to dwell on the people, so I blather on instead about a soft mist on the Goyt, or rainwater blasting rocks out of its course as hurtles down Linnet Clough.

There are also days when I’m grateful to be somewhere else. On days like that I find myself saying I come from Marple, or even Stockport, instead of Marple Bridge or Mellor. Its pretty little hamlets like Moor End and Brookbottom can go hang. On those days, what was once magic and warmth is just mud and mither.

And there are days too, when even grimy old “Stockport” sounds too colourful. As though a bit too much of Lowry got snagged on it, even in black-and-white.

Old Steps, Stockport
 L S Lowry

On those days, I find it best to say I live in Manchester, which is technically true as Stockport is in Greater Manchester. At least it’s somewhere they’ve heard of. And whatever they think of, it won’t be anything to do with me.

I do not, however, live in Cheshire.

This is a work of fiction. No cats, counties or hair products have been harmed in the making of this column.

Friday, 24 September 2010

Losing Consciousness

I lost Consciousness on Monday. As you may imagine, I’m not quite sure how it happened. I think it might have been in the morning, in the gym, which is a lean-to beneath some mangoes, with a view of the Nile through the somewhat grubby plastic awning.

The gym’s got a working exercise bike, with a little fan to wave away the mosquitoes. I’m sure I had it then. Then, the next thing I knew I was in bed, looking for something to send me to sleep. That’s when I found I’d lost it.

I do recommend to you the Oxford series of Very Short Introductions. Last December, M1 was supposed to be doing an essay on the French Revolution. I’d long since lost track of my Pelicans on the subject. For all I know they are even now growing an ever-deeper bloom in the dungeons of Mandallay. Too lazy to search under the record collection and various nick-nacks from afar, I ordered The French Revolution: a Very Short Introduction from Amazon. It was a delight to read, and I was very gratified that the author regarded the texts I was meant to read in the Remove as good “modern” history. Perhaps I’ll dig them out, but probably I’ll take his word for it.

Mrs M barely blinked at my pretentious request for the Very Short Introductions to Linguistics and Consciousness as Christmas presents. Linguistics was a very dry mouthful, but Susan Blackmore’s Consciousness has pictures. It has been quite entertaining. It’s only taken me six months to read the first 20 pages, and there are barely the same to go.

But now I’ve lost it. I left it on the exercise bike I think.

My youngest sister is a Buddhist. She wrote out a short passage, with a coloured-in crayon drawing, for another sister (I have many of them) on the subject of mindful washing-up. It now hangs framed next to the sink. I think it’s all about being in the moment with the washing-up brush and the scouring pad and the bubbles.

Losing Consciousness has not quite made my life flash before me, but it has made me wonder. When, for instance, did I become content to skate so lightly over the world’s surface, when I sally forth as a freelance? I used to want to try everything, to learn languages, to smell wood smoke and sweat on damp clothes, huddle on the back of a truck, chew food on the street.

Well, alright, I’m still partial to a goat.

But by and large, I’ve become a bit of a Holiday Inn-er, riding between the office and the hotel. And nowhere more than here in Juba, a capital city next door to South Sudan, but nothing, they tell me, like it. And the ministry is only next door to Juba.

I once heard tell of a consultant who entertained his colleagues all the way through a two week assignment in Zimbabwe with his concern as to whether the Harare Sheraton would credit his frequent flyer card with Tier Points towards his Platinum Card, or Non-Tier Points.

He is not one of the Bridge’s Happy Band of Mercenaries.

There again, travel is not what it was. I am not against all travel guides. I won’t hear a word against the Latin America Handbook, which gave me many hours of entertainment when the BBC World Service on short wave had filled my head with a surfeit of snap crackle and pop. But the Rough Guide and the Lonely Planet are oxymoronic.  Thanks to them, the planet is no longer quite so rough or lonely as one might like.

No, the road less travelled is surely the washing-up. Or if, as so often happens to the itinerant freelancer, someone is doing it for you, the washer-up may hold a key to the mindfulness of the ministry that is the freelancer's elusive holy grail.

My ministerial pre-fab is cleaned by a lady I know as Elizabeth. When I was given a desk, she came and washed, then dried, the desk-top.


We are getting to know each other. She cleaned the windows one day, and I helped her reach the bit at the top behind the mosquito screen. Then she came in with a tin of sweets to celebrate the fact that her cousin has just got the top job in the ministry.

The kitchen is just the other side of our thin metal wall. When we stop talking and typing, we hear her humming resonate the biscuit tin that is her domain. I am not the only one who comments how happy Elizabeth sounds in her work. Every day, she is the first to arrive, and the last to leave. She brings us hot water and clean Pyrex tea cups, and sometimes I bring her a cake from the hotel.

One day I mentioned to a Sudanese colleague that Elizabeth had gone to fill the flask with hot water for tea. “Who’s Elizabeth?” he said. He knew her by another name.

Next day, Elizabeth gave me a sheet of paper with two other names for herself. It reads

                Akongo => it means Alcohol
               Angieh =>   "     "      Cold

She said that her mother died soon after her birth. Her father was a drunk and died two months later. Her aunt gave her these names.

“I do not like these names,” said Elizabeth Akongo Angieh.

Before I could do anything, I was assailed by a large and fictional lady crashing into the office in a small white van. Before I could stop her, Ma Ramotswe herself of The No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency had bounced off the highway from Cape to Cairo to take posession of my soul.

“Then I will call you Blessing,” I heard myself say.

Friday, 17 September 2010

Good Evans

EE Evans-Pritchard, 1935 Pitt Rivers Museum Oxford

 Juba, Southern Sudan

“I’ll tell you the thing about Soo-darn.” The way Doctor Doctor Tremendous pronounces Sudan reminds me of the way some of his North American compatriots used to say “Sarddarm Hoossain”, and, most memorably, “Kowsowvow”. Somehow it conveyed their unshakeable assurance that they knew about the things they were treading on.

Doctor Doctor T has left a fine rhetorical pause, so that all those in the warren of offices at this end of the ministerial pre-fab have the pleasure of awaiting his insight. “It is this.” Another pause. “In traditional tribal society here, they don’t have kings. That’s right!” He is triumphant now. “That’s why social anthropology was invented here!”

Now that Doctor Doctor Tremendous is getting into his flow, I settle my gaze on the plastic strip at the top of my laptop screen where it cuts off the expanse of Tremendous’s white shirt and striped tie. That way, I can feign enough interest to avoid rudeness, without encouraging him to expand further. My good South African friend Paul says such niceties are quite wasted on foreigners: Dr Dr T couldn’t care less.

“That’s right!” he continues, unnecessarily. He is, of course, rarely wrong. “That’s why the British colonial authorities hired Evans-Pritchard. They were failing to subjugate the Sudanese, and that's why he did all his work on the Nuer and all the other tribes of Southern Sudan. No kings, you see. Same as Afghairnistarn. I know a great deal about it actually. I’ve studied this in many countries.”

I have to admit that his theory engages me. Like his namesake, DDT is all-pervasive, indiscriminate, hard to get rid of, but nevertheless useful from time to time. God bless America.

Evans-Pritchard, the Nuer, the Azande... The haze of my student days in the common room of the School of African and Asian Studies seeps back at me. The social anthropology students are sitting on the floor, smoking Indian bidis, or wearing Vibram-soled clompers...

To me, the social anthropology students all appeared either impossibly good-looking, or to be raised some six inches above the singed carpet, or both. Sometimes they enacted anthropological events, of which the most dazzling was a New Guinea pig exchange. Having arranged a day, the students converged on the Common Room to present each other gifts of ever-increasing numbers of Britain’s plastic pigs, as testimony to each other’s, and thereby their own, greatness. Eventually, a hoard of students besieged and ultimately overran the office of Professor David Pocock (who liked to lecture first-year students on the significance of shit in social anthropology) with plastic Gloucester Old Spots in their Hundreds and in their Thousands.

That's all I remember about social anthropology, except a documentary about the Pitt Rivers Museum that Mrs M had a hand in.

Evans-Pritchard with Zande Boys
I wonder what Sir Edward Evan Evans-Pritchard would have to say about our consulting tribes. I expect we behave a little like the tribes of colonial officials and soldiers he met in his travels across the world. Take relations between the Upstreamers and the Downstreamers.

The Downstreamers live in the next plot down the Nile from us, and some Upstreamers don’t think much of them, largely out of jealousy. The Downstreamers’ camp started out, like ours, under canvas, but has now turned into neat permanent dwellings, with patio doors and a gentle curve in the road, like a suburban corner of the homeland. “A little picket fencing,” quipped an Upstream wag, “and they could film Desperate Housewives here.” At the end of its suburban road, is the Downstream shrine: an open bar under a thatched roof with two big screen TVs blaring different sports channels. It’s very pleasant, but it’s a bit, well, Downstream, like a Holiday Inn. Their leaders regard the compound as secure, because there is a guard at the front with a book. Sometimes Downstreamers sign their guests in and out. Their leaders are Americans, and they are passionate about security. They send each other messages warning drivers to vary their route. Above all, however, Downstreamers are experts on everything and everywhere. Like DDT, they have researched, tamed, and transformed hundreds of countries. Some display a dazzling technical knowledge, based on diligent research. For others, it is clear that just by flying over a country, not even invading it, they learn more about it than the miserable natives glean in their entire lives.

Downstreamers visit our Upstream camp. For many, it’s off-limits, security-wise. And those who do visit, generally just come once. Our pre-fabs are overcrowded, the bar is rubbish, and so is the internet connection and the TV. The Upstream management allow cats to wander around the dining area, and no one gives a damn. There are all sorts in the camp, particularly Russian helicopter pilots, and local people, just wandering in, to sit by the Nile. It’s hard to imagine how the Upstreamers stay clean. Evidently, they don’t. (Regrettably, I may be partly responsible for this perception by removing my shoes in meetings at the ministry.) The food takes hours to order and more to arrive - visitors rarely try the excellent and varied Upstream buffet. Worst of all, the Upstreamers are so stand-offish you wouldn’t think you existed. If they have a business card at all, they refuse to put any letters after their names, or their position in the corporation, so you never know who you’re talking to. Their knowledge is a patchwork, sometimes clever, but sometimes out of date and threadbare. And as for their attire, you’d think clothing was still rationed.

Take your choice: Wisteria Lane or Bletchley Park.

However, the big sloppy chairs under the mango trees take a lot of beating. Unfortunately, the cushions won’t take a lot more before they crumble through the remnants of the cane into the Nile.

This Upstreamer knows better than to brag about anthropology. It’s pretty certain that any of my fellows can make me feel a mug whether I choose ministerial intrigue, sport, or cinema. In this company, therefore, my special subject is silence. And that’s the worst thing about Upstreamers: we’re just as vain as the Downstreamers, just too vain to admit it.

Friday, 10 September 2010

Thinking inside the box

Wednesday 8th September

For reasons which escape me, Sudan bans the use of cameras without an official permit. And even though South Sudan seeks independence from the North next year, the rule still applies. Indeed my team leader tells me that a policeman reprimanded a visitor recently for looking too long at the bridge over the Nile. 

It’s not that I set out to be different, but I’m not very good at copying the way other people do things. Long ago, I went for a job with a consultancy firm. A man in a suit chatted with me in a bar at Victoria, then invited me to an event called an Assessment Centre, where they gave us pastries and orange juice. They talked a lot about thinking outside the box, pushing the envelope, and blue sky thinking. Next day, the chap in the suit rang me to say that perhaps I thought just a little too far out of the box for his clients. Mrs M professed brief indignation at his folly, and went off to work.

This evening I am thinking inside the box.

Like many buildings in Juba, my hotel bedroom is a pre-fab hut.  It is made of grey coated metal panels, linked by galvanised struts. They seem to treasure protective plastic on things here, and it hangs like sunburnt skin from the roof.  Fortunately my room also comes with air-con and a lady called Saaeda who cleans it and washes my socks. And the hotel seems to have recruited from all over the region to cook rather tasty versions of TexMex, Jalfrezi, Irish stew, and Ugandan matoke plantains.

My pre-fab is in CAT Alley, as we call it, as this part of the hotel “camp” is largely populated by freelancers under contract to CATatonix, the celebrated consulting firm. CAT Alley is also home to many cats who remind me of Mandallay’s dear departed Trinny. We had thought her looks to be Egyptian, but these pussies' fine bone structure, ginger blotches on white fur, and ringed tails suggest that Trinny too may have been South Sudanese. Either way, Trinny must have been a lady of the Nile. For the great glory of my hotel is that it is on the west bank of the White Nile, a great conveyor of water, a quarter mile wide, by which we eat our big East African breakfasts and dinners. We also take pastries from the breakfast buffet in paper napkins for lunch.

In the morning, my associates and I leave our tin boxes, and enter a 4X4. We bounce over the dirt till we get to Juba’s small network of paved roads, and then fan out with our papers and pastries, to our various ministries and offices. These are also largely in pre-fabs of grey coated metal panels. We spend much of the day stabbing at our rectangular laptops, to the background of each others’ conversations through thin walls. My boss entertains me by talking about the plays he is writing, and his forthcoming book on Juba Arabic, that he says is a pidgin of classical Arabic. He skypes his brother in Khartoum, and the whole family joins in. Then he shares a bag of hot, fat cassava chips with me. My laptop goes on standby.

In order not to lose my wits entirely, I have to seize the sliver of day between the working box and the sleeping box. So at 5.30 I chivvy my zealous fellows to the 4X4 to jig back to our night-time cuboids, where we can watch the rectangular portable television, or type more rectangular emails, if there is a connection.

Running shoes on. My relaxed team leader says it may not be wise to leave the beaten track. The war has been over for five years, but land mines are still a possibility. He later explains that the landmines in question are deposited by people who lack access to Thomas Crapper's contraption, or even to a pit-latrine.

At last, a brief moment without rectangles. The cars, motorbikes, children and animals criss-cross between the pot holes and obstacles. Many of the tracks are just made by feet and vehicles. All around are hovels of laths, wattle, cardboard, plastic sheeting emblazoned with UNHCR, most homes barely more than shelters, and no taller than me. These seem to be returnees from abroad, or country people in search of work. People sit, wash, cook, eat in the open.

I hear voices, African languages of which I know nothing, then suddenly a few slightly more familiar sounds, perhaps Juba Arabic.

Old men and children cheer me on, and some join me for a few yards. We negotiate a herd of goats being driven towards the market pen, where men holding tethered animals are in earnest debate. A rich goaty aroma rises with the dust. Tall long-horned cattle look over the fencing. Beside a footpath is a rough plot patterned with mounds, perhaps for cassava plants. 

 “Morning!” shout the children at any time of day. Or “How are you?”, and once “Give me one pound.” They carry jerry cans to fetch water, from where I have not discovered. Ours comes from a borehole below the hotel. It is clean, but makes the tea taste of salt and earth. Suddenly I get a biff on the bum, and turn to see a young girl, waving her plastic water can triumphantly, shrieking with laughter with her brother.

The dusty remnant of sunset at my back guides me East over the potholes to the flashing green illuminated palms of the hotel entrance. I sit by the blackening surface of the Nile, and watch ghostly branches bobbing in the water.

If I’m honest, I’m rather disappointed that no one has apparently seen the moon tonight in time to declare Eid, so we could all have a day off. I could take my laptop through the heat down to the trees and easy chairs beside the river. But they haven’t.

Instead I lie on the bed, and two miracles happen. Mrs M hooks my phone up to Skype, despite her professed ignorance of any invention more modern than the Biro.The other miracle is that all three Ms find their tongues to grace me with a version of their lives appropriate to an old man.

Tomorrow is another box. I wonder what’s in the envelope.

Sorry for late posting. T 'internet isn't what it might be here.

Friday, 3 September 2010

There be Rhinos

1st September 2010

I was some way from Marple Bridge, when I received the call to Southern Sudan. The entire Mandall family was strolling to the jetty for a day-trip from Puerto Pollenca in Mallorca, when I had to deal with the embarrassment of having the phone in one hand and suntan lotion in the other. Ten days later I find myself en route to Juba.

Amsterdam is Tulips: Schiphol Airport has boxes and boxes of them, all frills and colours, all wire and paper, standing to attention next to the travelators. There are bargain buckets of bulbs outside the gift shops, and fibre-glass tulips four foot high too for children to play among.

Nairobi is Elephants: arriving passengers at Jomo Kenyatta are heralded by great plastic heads, crowned “DUTY FREE”, and stationed at intervals along the curved mall.  I settle in the soft seats (it’s 6 hours till my flight to Juba) at the Savanna Self-service, cheek by jowl  with the Java Bar and Lounge. It must be continental drift. There’s plenty of time to sample the tea at both. It’s made with frothy milk from an Espresso machine. At last, here is something authentic and slightly dangerous. Like the tea on Kenya Airlines, this treat is a stout liquor of tang and tannin, nothing like the usual lazy Lipton, lolling in its own tepid mess. It can even shake a trunk at Mrs M's Red Label. Half way through my first brew, I’m ready to charge despite three hours sleep.

Juba, I learned from Mandallay’s daily, is to be Rhinos: at least this is the vision of some consultants. Here’s the blueprint: build a city in the shape of a rhino 10 km away from the current site, and move everyone in. Raze the old town and anyone who happens to be left. It will cost £6.5 billion, a snip at 5 times Southern Sudan’s annual budget. Somehow, I don’t think the consultants will be living at the dung end. Still, I suppose they could put the military in the horn, and perhaps they could co-locate the red light district.

Yes, we consultants like to keep things simple

In which case, here's something I knocked up earlier, a blueprint for the redesign of Nairobi.

The advantage of my layout, as you will see, is that there is considerably more scope for peri-urban sprawl, once the elephant is full up.

My bill’s in the post.

* **

I've no idea whether there are rhinos, mythical beasts if ever there were, anywhere near Juba, though I have heard there is a huge area of open country in Southern Sudan surprisingly undisturbed by the war, and full of wildlife.

Sitting here in Nairobi airport, Juba feels a very long way away still, almost as far as Nairobi from Marple Bridge. Southern Sudan, of which Juba is the capital, seems to be a place known more by rumour than experience. One freelance companion claims to have visited the place, but that was passing through in 1979. I downloaded The Lonely Planet Guide, but it only covers the top half of Sudan.  It stops at the Nuba Mountains.

Beyond is Southern Sudan, a nation-in-waiting that hopes to become independent after a referendum next year. The same article says it’s dubbed the world’s first “pre-failed state”, but that sounds to me about as full of myth as the rhino: let’s wait and see.


* * *
Marple Bridge is Brambles, but hardly unique for that. Perhaps the Apple Lady, as we know her, has left a box of cookers beside her garden gate, with a sign saying “help yourself”.

I see Cheshire Life is running a feature on Marple Bridge this month.

Marple Bridge celebrates the modern northern kitchen. This fine recipe for Lambrini Apples was given to me by local author, Tom Mandall.

“Take 6 baking apples, or else buy them at the Co-op.  I found my brambles in the public car park by the Gardeners Arms in Offerton, avoiding the lower brambles for obvious reasons. I picked enough brambles to fill up the little box between the seats in the Fiesta.

“Core the apples, making sure you remove all the toe-nails. (The boys probably won’t eat them anyway, but Never Give Up Hope.) Score them round the equator, so that they puff up nicely, unless you think they will provide more entertainment if they explode all over the Aga. [This recipe is for Cheshire Life, after all.]

"Wash the brambles too as a concession to hygiene. Stir into them about two tablespoons of unrefined sugar. (This may be difficult to find locally, as we are not terribly refined ourselves.) Stuff the apples, and put them all in a baking dish.

"Search the fridge for something to stop this drying out. I found a tail-end of Lambrini from M2’s Results Day bash. Sweet, vaguely grapey and alcoholic. It must have been for the girls.

"Feel your home fill with the autumn warmth of brambles, apples and industrial ethanol. Goes well with cream, but the boys prefer the yellow stuff.”

Thursday, 29 July 2010

Dog Days

Yes: it's summer time, and the Mandalls are off to Mallorca. We Ms like journeys to all the safe places, saying which should ensure that something goes terribly, terribly wrong.

If I knew where to look, and if the heavens weren't so murky here in the Bridge, I expect the dog star would be telling me that we are deep in the silly season. What with the Leeds - Liverpool canal drying out, and Mr Cameron on safari, the signs are there.

T'internet really should be closed for the summer, but only the most confident freelancer strays far from his or her iLance.

We can't stop the world entirely, but I hope a few other amateur Bloggers will follow my lead: blogger off to Benidorm and leave the blathering to the blasted professional scribblers. It's what we pay them for.

Thank you for all the lovely things you have had to say about my column since my first View from the Bridge in December. I see that it was about Holiday Time. Well, well.

I seem to have raised one or two smiles, the children haven't entirely disowned me, and Mrs M is hastening home from the salt mines as I write, to celebrate the remnant of her birthday. 

That's quite enough for me.

I'll be back in September.


PS If you're stuck for something to do on another drizzly summer evening in the Bridge, apart from watching Toy Story 3 at a proper cinema like the Regent, you could go and see if the kids laugh at Olly Gomm playing Charley's Aunt  at The Royal Exchange.

Mrs M had to give M to M resuscitation. It's on till 7th August. After that you're on your own till Dr Faustus in September. Can't wait.

Friday, 23 July 2010

Nightmare on Town Street

 Quaker. By Pepsico.

My eighty-two year old uncle bounced into the kitchen at one minute to eight.

“Where’s my breakfast?” he demands with the innocent and radiant beam of one who has already been up for an hour contemplating the latest volume of his guru’s teachings.

“And what would you like for breakfast, Lance?” Mrs M and the boys all have excellent hearing, nurtured in the tranquility of Mandallay. However, as they are all elsewhere in their temples of service or pleasure, I am free to unleash my diaphragm so that Uncle Lance gets the full 80 decibels.

Lance lives alone. He likes solitude. Sometimes, when he feels quite alone, he works on a very big landscape painting. Every year he sends his family a card with a miniature of a recent picture on it. Mrs M’s late mother kept them all in a shoe box.

Living alone, he has little use for his howling, banging, hearing aid, so he left it behind. “Accidentally,” he says. “Accidentally on purpose,” I shout back. “No, just porridge please,” he grins, exposing an impressively preserved mouthful of tombstones, gaily painted by half a century of tobacco and wine, both of which he now eschews.

“Water please, not milk. If it’s not too much trouble.” I remind myself that I am delighted to offer this small hospitality to Uncle L, for he has given me gentle refuge since I was 16. After all, even I can make porridge, provided we have oats in the cupboard.


“We seem to have run out. I’ll just nip to the shop.”
In the words of the ditty adopted by la famille Mandall on a particularly challenging summer holiday to Foreign Parts:

I spin backwards out of Mandallay, avoiding both the Harrytown School Bus and another round of “if it’s not too much trouble."

I know too well how it goes from there.

If it’s not too much trouble” ... “I could have toast perhaps” ... “I’m not sure about that”... 

“I always have porridge at home” ...

and finally

“I think that porridge would be best really” ...


Then [da capo] (what's that, asks M3? Take it from the top. Or, if you prefer, chop his head off.)

“If it’s not too much trouble” ...

Oats? So Simple. Then I remembered that Mrs M had said something about Town Street Stores being closed, and conjectured whether that was for refurbishment, or perhaps for selling too much C2H5OH to the younger members of the Mandall family. I really must pay attention.

Perhaps for old times' sake, they haven’t taken down the signs offering Red Stripe and Barcadi, but behind them is now a neatly fitted layer of newspaper. I was delighted to see a small notice for a meeting of MESS, which stands for the Marple, Marple Bridge and Mellor Energy Saving Scheme or similar, on or around June 18th. Would that be 2009? I had the impression that the planet is somewhat "last year", but I promise to look further into this MESS, when the opportunity arises.

Losing the Spar, as we still refer to Town Bridge Stores, is a bit like discovering that the Bridge has lost a tooth. You don’t know what you’ve got till it’s gone. They paved paradise and put up a parking lot. The old lays are the best, as we knights say. Mind you, a few more parking spaces in Marple Bridge might have given Town Street Stores a better chance.

The new Post Mistress has been quick to find the pulse of the Bridge. She has pushed aside a whole row of Jiffy Bags and geometry sets to make room for eggs, instant coffee and Fruit’n’Fibre. But, alas, there are no Oats  on offer. Still, they manage to give me today’s Guardian for Uncle L, and I order one for tomorrow, for delivery with our Beano. Tomorrow’s Guardian is just about the only other thing that the Post Office doesn't stock.

I finally get home by 8.45 with Lance’s Quaker Oats - “oh, Quaker, my favourite!” - and a bogof of biscuits from the Cooperative (Good with Hoob Noobs) which I shall hide from the boys and from myself. Fortunately Mrs M usually guesses where to find them for us.

* * *

By nine o’clock Uncle Lance is in deep contemplation with the Vedas, and the porridge has landed heavily where my diaphragm was before.

I steel myself for an ordinary day in Daddy's Study. Visor down. Still, I'll get out and shake a leg, when the Quaker allows.There's not much to report from the Bridge, or up in the wilds of Mellor today.

Except for a dancer in a pink tutu on that garden gate? I turn around but he’s gone. I’m imagining it. Maybe they cut some Shakers into the Quakers.


Take it easy now, Tom. This isn’t what we're used to on Longhurst Lane. I shouldn't have changed the pills.

I'm not sure I like the way she’s looking at me either. Doesn’t she normally do Vestry Group with that old rocker chap?

That's him! One should not demean people just because they are old, especially in a place like the Bridge, especially when one's own kit is running low on 3-in-1. A gentleman of advanced years may still strum his lute pleasingly...

... but I can't help thinking that this trio means trouble, even without their vuvuzelas.

Perhaps they were downgraded on the way back from Joburg.

Is that why they closed Town Street Stores? It must be the Oats!

Dangling feet tend to make a freelance uneasy, particularly in black and white.


Oh My Three Letter Acronym

How long has he been hanging on?

They didn’t need to do that to her.

Soft! What beating wing or cape
Delights my thrumming ear?

Is it a crow? Can it be?


He went that-a-way!

No this-a-way! 


"I may be a confused stereotype but you badly need the diversity."

* * *

Anyone for tennis?

The Mellor Show is at Mellor Primary School on Saturday 24th July.  

There's even a hop and skip over the hills to Smithy Lane Farm for any freelancers with a flickering residue of the competitive flame. 12 noon: three quid on the day at Mellor Sports Club.