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.