Friday, 30 April 2010

People Like Us

I can’t say that I shared the outrage of our nation’s press when our Prime Minister referred to Mrs Gillian Duffy from Rochdale as “some sort of bigoted woman”.

It is not something I would say of Mrs M. And, as far as I am aware, none of the forms of the word bigot is in the approved lexicon of the boys’ Specialist Language College; nor of the various associations of youth to which they belong or aspire.

I always try to distinguish politics from bigotry, but I find the task gets harder. So I can’t be quite clear where Mr B felt that Mrs D crossed the line from political insight to bigotry. She was reported as saying “you can’t say anything about the immigrants because you’re saying that you’re ... but all these Eastern Europeans what are coming in, where are they flocking from?”

(“So, what am I missing here?” interjects Mrs M. Don’t they flock from Eastern Europe?”)

If the Duffy family and the Mandall family have different ranges of views on this topic, it is perhaps less a reflection of bigotry than of geography. I don’t think I’ve ever been to Rochdale.

Here in the Bridge, we had a fine batch of immigrant au pairs from the Slavic region a few years back. I didn’t hear too many complaints in the Devvy. Nor when the Oak opened a Thai restaurant. But perhaps it feels different a few miles down the road in Hyde, which boasts a thriving Bangladeshi population, a huge pork sausage factory, an impressive portfolio of boxers and serial killers, and lots of restaurants.

The more I think about it, the more I am astonished by the number of things I don’t know about being foreign in Britain. For instance, if the Queen married Philip today, would he be British? Would he have to pass a test about which side of the road to drive a cricket bat, or how many gills there are in a pint of brown trout? And what would happen to him if we decided to deport him?

As it happens, M3 was born offshore, so to speak, while I was freelancing on behalf of our European friends. We were advised that our son would be British-By-Descent, which means that his heirs would not have a Right-of-Abode if they were also born abroad.

Now, for all that I love Foreign Parts, I also love our own Little Sod. So I was less-than-impressed that a Mandall might not be welcome here.

I thought of writing to my MP about it. But I don’t like to bother him if I can help it. He works so hard, and looks as though he’s been wearing the same wool-rich sports jacket and polyester trousers since the election before last. I may be in a small minority here, but I’m not aware that MPs have taken a vow of misery. Just give them a decent wage, or at least a few John Lewis vouchers.

MPs Andrew Stunell and Mark Hunter in action

It all turned out OK for M3. This particular extended trip was generously financed by the European Community. The British High Commission kindly gave us a pamphlet which explained that, the European Commission being merely an adjunct of Her Britannic Majesty’s Government, M3 is British-Other-Than-By-Descent. And his seed for ever.

At least, until they change the law, which no doubt they will soon enough. One man’s bigotry is another man’s vote.

Friday, 23 April 2010

Gin-less in Greeneland

Still in Freetown, Sierra Leone

They ran out of gin at the Hotel Barmoi the other night. Perhaps gin and tonic is less of a staple today of than it was in the colonial days Graham Greene wrote about.

I did think of nipping outside the hotel to replenish supplies: our road has a row of hawkers selling sachets of Pegler Gin for about 15p a tot, but then I thought better of it.

So here we all are, waiting for the plane to take us home. I hope that Mrs M and the boys won’t take it amiss, but really I’m not very bothered about the delay. Yesterday the manager, Miss Newlands, moved me to a new room with a Plasma Gold air-conditioning device. Also, if I poke my nose out onto the balcony for a minute, I can glimpse, through the tangle of water tanks and palm trees, a rocky cove with small surf breaking over it and the Atlantic beyond. That, and the gentle whoosh of the Plasma Gold, certainly beats fighting the boys for the computer in the cupboard we laughingly call Daddy’s Study.

We certainly have interesting company here at the Barmoi. Quite a lot of the guests are foreign and white. There are the modest ones in sensible shoes, who pull their own wheelie bags, and are wonderfully polite to the staff. I met one at the ministry the other day, and she turned out to be impossibly clever and well-read. Then there are the chaps who do something up-country and quietly spend their days off watching football and drinking beer. To the despair of my boys, the beautiful game does very little for me.

Our visitors include local colleagues and dignitaries who join us by the pool. The hotel also receives a number of young ladies, who come and join a few of the gentlemen for drinks of an evening. I saw some of them in the village outside the hotel, where I popped in to buy a packet of dried Peak Milk for my tea, and stayed for a chat at the bar. They’re so friendly here. A very nice lady gave me her coffee-coloured little boy to hold.

I do wish you could get a good cup of tea here. Fortunately Mrs M allowed me to bring some Cooperative tea bags, even though these aren’t normally allowed in number 72, where the naked leaf prevails, as does proper butter.

A lot of the talk is whether or not it’s worth trying to get out by Accra Nairobi and Cairo to Frankfurt, or just waiting for things to change. Most of us are making the best of it. The other night, I managed to separate a young man from his Blackberry where he was constantly looking up the latest ash forecast, by persuading him to order a lobster, on the grounds that it would be slightly cheaper than a club sandwich and chips. The restaurant served up four grilled lobsters without blinking, but not before the waitress had popped out to apologise that the kitchen had run out of rice. Would we mind chips instead?

Friday, 16 April 2010

8 minutes to Aberdeen or Eternity

Freetown, Sierra Leone

Things aren’t what they were. They’ve put seats in the helicopter that ferries us from Lungi Airport over the Sierra Leone River to Aberdeen. And Aberdeen links Cape Sierra to the capital Freetown.

The way things were (thanks to roystonford)

In the old days, we squeezed around a mountain of luggage in the middle of the fuselage, and sat on a bank of ragged foam cushions against the sides. If we were lucky, the washing line strung across the tail carried a few grubby pairs of ear defenders. And sometimes we even received a security briefing from a young man in a singlet. “Don’t worry”, he'd say, “about the vibration as we come into land: these guys [the Russian pilots] are experts.”

It’s the same Soviet-era helicopter, and feels as though it has been recycled with a job-lot of old hardware from a former satellite republic. Neither the battered gunmetal door nor the safety record inspires confidence, but then neither does the hovercraft (it tends to sink), the ferry (bow doors stuck open) nor the road (5 hours in dry weather).

At least the helicopter flight is brief: eight minutes to Aberdeen or Eternity. And now we can go to the Maker in a proper seat facing a flat-screen video presentation of Sierra Leone’s gorgeous beaches.

There are even real windows to look out of, though it’s mostly blackness beyond Lungi airport perimeter, for Lungi village only has kerosene and candles. But as we draw closer to Freetown, the marvel of electricity illuminates a little more of Aberdeen than it did the last time a freelance contract wafted me this way.

Yes, anyone would think that things are looking up here in Sierra Leone, despite all that global misery that our would-be leaders can’t quite handle back in Blighty.

Aberdeen, Grafton, Murray Town, Regent Road. Mrs M will feel quite at home, if ever I earn enough airmiles to get her here. From Kissy in the East to Lumley in the West (I think), Freetown is a sort of crazy Monopoly board invented by a mad hatter. Its roads and settlements are scrawled over hillsides, ravines, swamps, riverbeds and bays, and as often than not the name of each has more than a hint of the old Mother Country.

I hear that IMATT, the International Military Assistance and Training Team, has continued the tradition of applying British names to this corner of Africa. The hub of their staff accommodation is called Leicester Square (£560 rent with a hotel if you land on it). Perhaps if you can’t pay, they send you to Coventry Street (£28 rent with no house).

Well, it’s fine by me, because everyone says that the British Army and IMATT have done a great job in helping bring about and hold onto a delicate peace here for nearly a decade. If things are looking up, or at least not looking as dreadful as they might, it must be, in most part, thanks to the maintenance of that peace.

It’s hard for a soft old freelancer not to get a bit emotional, and feel a tiny bit proud of our boys and girls.

Still we like not to overplay the fact that we are the old colonial power. So we leave the coat of arms at home, and work far too hard at everything till our short sleeved shirts and M&S chinos are drenched in sweat. This is a source of great amusement to our African counterparts who wear good quality suits or tailored Africana and shiny brogues in well air-conditioned offices.

There’s plenty to talk about after so long out of town. Who is in, who’s out, who’s been sacked for corruption, or got a job at the Bank? What’s happened to Macaulay? What of Gloucester? It’s enough to bring on a small rash of Shakespeare. The Thane of Fife had a wife. Where is she now?

As I write, the date of my return to Marple Bridge and Mrs M at Mandall Mansions is a little uncertain, thanks to an Icelandic volcano.

Friday, 9 April 2010

An alien world on our planet

“Beeping’s never good.” Professor Brian Cox is sitting inside a rather tatty submarine called Alvin, and is descending into what he calls the “deepest depths of the ocean”. It is the only time I’ve seen Brian worried.

I can’t quite get used to young Brian being a prof. He looks more an M-Nought, big brother to our M1, M2 and M3. I have to check to see if he is wearing long trousers.

Still, once he gets onto his Wonders of the Solar System, Professor Brian Cox is unstoppable. One moment he stands inches from the edge of the Grand Canyon, hands in pockets. The next, he's flying us through rocks of ice that make up the rings of Saturn, or he’s driving a Rover across Mars. And we all thought Rover had gone bust.

It’s all a bit like No 72 on a Thursday evening. Here am I, innocently trying to write my column, when asteroids start slamming around the kitchen. M1’s iPod is bust. He’s convinced it’s M2’s fault, so he’s just taken it out on a toasted sandwich that just happened to be M3’s, not M2’s.

My phone beeps. It’s Mrs M. How did we manage to communicate before Mrs M could send me 50 texts a day? “Micro wave smoking” the text reads. I am tempted to reply “too young”, but it’s usually better to draw a few deep breaths, and wait for the next text or two to announce their arrival. Then I can safely anwer "OK" or "yes" without either of us knowing which text I am replying to.

Then the electricity conks out. I make my way downstairs, which is in darkness apart from a beep which sounds as though it is coming from one of the piles of shoes and sports kit. The tomb of the unknown beeper.

As Brian says, beeping’s never good.

M3 is our expert at re-setting the circuit-breaker thingey. The answering machine is the first to break into life: my mother re-reminds me that we haven’t spoken for Some Time. Then it’s the dishwasher, and the digital radio that always starts up at full volume after a power cut. Finally, the microwave buzzes into life – its fan roars – it gives two beeps – and the lights go out all over again.

On board Das Boot

One kilometre down inside the Puerto Rico trench, Professor Brian Cox has overcome his nerves and is admiring tube worms and fish, all quite unconcerned that they are living in an atmospheric pressure a hundred times that at sea level.

From upstairs, the faint bleep of an uninterruptible computer power supply turns into a continuous wail, then dies, along, I fear, with my script. I sit in the dark, illuminated only by the phone of M2 who is holding its glowing screen in the direction of the fuse box.

Stop engines. 1000 metres beneath the surface of the River Goyt, I listen to the plates of my submarine creak, feel the water dripping off overhead pipes onto my neck. The propellor of the plucky Royal Navy corvette above is silent. Its Asdic pings off my hull.

I wait for the next depth charge from my dear family.

“This has got to be the closest thing on earth to going into space,” says Brian. I suppose he's right.

Next week’s column will be coming from further afield than usual, contract permitting. The column – or, come to think of it, the contract – may be late, but I’m sure both will be worth waiting for. I’ll keep you posted.

Friday, 2 April 2010

Saga lout?

Getting old is nothing to be ashamed of, as Mrs M regularly re-assures me.

It has many advantages. We get regular invitations to take out insurance with Age Concern and there are some marvellous medical devices available nowadays.

Roger Ramsden at Saga sent us a letter today. It promised “Traditional, personal service”! I wondered whether this meant something in Shepherd’s Market for a conservative politician on expenses. I glanced down Roger’s letter. One of the features of his traditional, personal service is that, I quote: “we do not use automated press-button telephone menus”. I should hope not! It would quite put one off one’s game.

Ah. Here’s the thing. “All our insurance advisers are based in the UK.” I see: we’re talking about traditional personal service in tele-sales.

Roger, Roger.

This modern thing with tradition makes me a bit queasy, especially when I think of “Ye Olde Estate Agent” in Marple Bridge, which opened some time last year. I’ve been wanting to tell you about him for a while. He has opened his shop in the spot which once had a traditional butcher. Thank goodness that when the traditional chemist next door was taken over by the Co-op, the only thing they changed was the name: from Town Street Chemist to Coop Pharmacy. It must have been a few years ago, because it’s already been re-styled as “The Cooperative Pharmacy”. Good with Drugs, I expect.

Where was I?

Ah yes. “All our insurance advisers are based in the UK.” I’m not quite with you here, Roger. Are you saying: “it’s alright, Tom. Our call centre is just outside Glasgow. So, though you may not understand a word we’re saying, you’ll have the re-assurance of knowing that British jobs are not going to foreigners. Scotland’s still part of the UK.”

I beg your pardon, Roger Dearest! I’d love to speak to Priti in Mumbai today. Or Mohammed in Mitchell's Plain in the Western Cape, or even Marlene in some dreary town in the Ruhr. Well, maybe. And I also like some of the local call centres whose operatives I can’t understand. My favourite call centre is in the Hebrides, but that’s all I’m telling you.

Only last week, “Ronnie” from Dell rang me to check I had received his email about my new computer. I was delighted to see that according to his email his real name was Rohit. He even had a surname! He was very kind about my attempts to pronounce both. I asked him what the time was over there in Bangalore. It was tricky to persuade him to forget that his boss requires "Ronnie" to work in British Summer Time, but it turned out Bangalore was four and a half hours ahead of us. I suppose that's Indian Summer And A Half Time. 53 years after Indian Independence.

Some of you may have noticed that this column is not called a View of the Bridge, but a View from the Bridge.

Don’t get me wrong: I love my little corner of this muddy isle. But we freelancers don’t always get out as much as we’d like. So the view of the bridge can get a bit, well, samey. I know my neighbours like to to get out a bit too - to take the Squeezyjet of the Mind a little further than a Premier League game at a beach bar in Corfu or Bali.

I have been checking out the Office of National Statistics’ View of the Bridge. But our local area is so tiny, that, like a true consultant, I felt I had to look at a bigger picture, our charmingly entitled lower level super output area. This approximates to Mellor and Marple Bridge - there is a range of views where one ends and the other begins, and on the size of the overlap.

The last time they measured us, we comprised 1,461 persons, 1,420 of whom were white British. We had 1,006 cars and vans. 1,101 of us stated we were Christians, but thankfully we had 3 Buddhists and 4 Muslims to cheer us up.

Nine of us even worked in agriculture, hunting and fishing. Not bad for such a rural area. The rest were mostly in education, teaching sheep I expect.

I wonder how Marlene is getting on. Frohe Ostern, Marlene!