Monday, 27 July 2009

Espionage On Sea

It’s been a curious, and mostly fairly enjoyable, couple of days of pseudo-espionage, and as the boat chugs back into the Ghanaian port city of Takoradi it looks like it’s coming to an end. Which is fine, because a boat trip is always a nice excursion, but when there’s no beer, no internet, and no ladies, a couple of days is quite enough really.

The reason myself and my colleague, Psycho, had to endure the hanging around in Ivory Coast, the leerings of Dark Eels, and the worst ever hassle either of us has ever suffered in an airport was all for this: the boat trip in Ghana. We set sail on Friday, on the somewhat plush Pacific Aurora, the nicest and newest supply vessel I’ve been on before, and with great food.

My job, and often life, is spent on rigs, screwing big bits of metal together and crying quietly in corners, so this job has been a pleasing diversion. Instead of the chunky metal and weeks and weeks cast away from civilisation, this was a short mission involving sonar devices, GPS locators, satellite phone uploads, and a race against the clock. In short, we had to locate two spots in the ocean (the Atlantic, which is large-ish), throw our sonar device overboard, and with inconceivable technology, communicate with another sonar 1.4km away on the seabed, which in turn would wake and communicate with sleeping electronics a further 2.7km underground, entirely by acoustic signals. Pacing up and down the offices and hallways of Aberdeen and Houston were impatient gentlemen waiting on our results, our only means of communication by Iridium satellite phone and a data transfer by laptop, dependent on the whims of passing satellites in slow decay since the 1980s. We had 24 hours. Or the game was up.

Fortunately, we only needed 14 hours, in what turned out to be a fairly smooth operation. Psycho and I hurled sonars into the ocean, and thrashed buttons on our laptops, as we adjusted dials and processed data into graphs that transpired, to my great surprise, not to be a bunch of straight lines. Throwing a magnetic aerial onto the top of the supply vessel and connecting it to the satellite phone, we hunched over a laptop and uploaded data files, and felt a little like spies, albeit ones in slow motion and lacking a mighty-thighed lady to stroke/defeat in combat.

And basically, from an operational perspective, it went pretty well. Data retrieved, client satisfied, boat not delayed, and finished by bedtime. I slept fitfully, and have spent the day meandering about onboard, and hope to be on dry land just after dark. Thus catching a morning plane to Accra and then, if the plan truly comes together, returning to Aberdeen, home, and greeting my waster sister returning back from a year’s travels from around the world.

Of course, if the plan doesn’t come together, then I’ll probably be returning into the clutches of Dark Eels. But that’s no fitting end to any tale of espionage.

Friday, 24 July 2009

Disaster Maniels/Slimey Eels

Here I am in Ghana, at 4am and as sick as a dog. But that's not Ghana's fault, which so far has seemed lovely. Mind you, all I've really seen is a luxury hotel. But they had tarmac on the roads and white lines down the middle, and the traffic queued orderly, so it's a good start. I arrived here about 12 hours ago, waving goodbye to the Ivory Coast for the time being. But don't worry, I left the country on a high.

Hmm, perhaps not. My last day there turned out to be a day of considerable hassles, broken into two parts: fat white man and lanky black man. We'll start with fat white man, whom the observant among you may correctly guess to be our blustering friend, Dark Eels. Myself and my colleague arrived as normal in the morning, and for an hour remained undisturbed as we waited for our equipment. Then Eels appeared, and barely suppressing the glee on his piggy face asked me to come into the office with him. In there were two other senior people from his service company.

"We've had talks and we've realised we have no option but to kick you out," he said, with almost ecstatic joy.


"With immediate effect," he said, staring hard for a reaction. React! he seemed to cry. "You have to leave right now!"

"Ok," I said, and left the room and informed my colleague it was time to go.

Before we could even begin to pack up, Eels was in the room, his lifetime bubble of smugness only slightly dented by my failure to cry, wail or argue. He launched into yet another monologue - he wouldn't be interrupted, "I have to say all this, let me finish" - about all the reasons we had to leave, which weren't just financial (they were) but because of compliance and liability and... oh, I stopped listening. As he neared the end of his spiel, he wiped the sweaty joy from his forehead and told me he could very generously offer me a lifeline if I could phone my boss and pass this information on so a quick resolution could me made.

"Look," I said, and as I've been saying for the last couple of days. "Why don't you phone him? This is stuff I have no idea about and has little to do with me." Remarkably, this time he agreed. I called the Aberdeen office on speakerphone and listened as Eels bellowed loudly for half an hour. Every time he made a point, he looked up at me, grinning, wanting me to reciprocate his smiles, but I didn't look him in the eye and just looked forward, impassively. Honestly, total lack of reaction is the only way to deal with this numbing idiot. The call eventually ended with an agreement that as least bought us a stay of execution for another few days.

The details of the disagreement I can't be bothered going into - contracts and money between companies - but trust me in believing that Eels created an issue and enjoyed days of roaring, meandering monologues to me and my colleague over something that could have been sorted with a few polite emails or calls to Aberdeen. And trust me when I say that I ever catch his name in the paper and find something ghastly has happened to him - disease then death, perhaps - I will punch the air in glee. The man is one of the most disagreeable characters I have witnessed, in any field of my life.

By fortune, as the call has ended, our equipment had arrived, finally, finally, after days of delay. It took us a mere half hour to get what we needed and pack the rest away, and we were ready to escape, and catch our flight to Ghana. Alas, our hassles were far from over... as Abidjan airport was preparing a new world of nightmare for us both...

...which I'll have to leave till later, as I'm supposed to getting up for 5am for a flight at 6am. I'm getting on a boat in the evening, where some work can finally begin.

Wednesday, 22 July 2009

Days In Abidjan

Having been to places such as Nigeria and Angola where humanity, for whatever reason, has managed to concoct an unfortunate misery, it is rather relieving to go somewhere geared up for the misery and instead receive something a bit cheerier. Such is the Ivory Coast. That's not to say this is the place for a family holiday: it's dirty, confusing, fresh from a civil war that still divides the country, and the people speak French; but it is to say that the Ivory Coast isn't the hell I thought it might be. The people are friendly, the service a mix of the helpful and prompt or simply surly I'd expect to see in Aberdeen, and the traffic relatively well behaved and orderly - they even obey red lights.

But perhaps I cast a soft-focussed lens on the nation by suggesting things might be ok. Perhaps, perhaps not. It's difficult to say. I've been here, in Abidjan, the largest city, since Sunday and have had experiences effectively limited to our extremely charming and unusual mudbrick-style hotel complex and the sizeable but quiet yard of the service company we're working with. In between I've seen a money exchange bureau and a couple of shops, and a number of drives along pot-holed roads. Today myself and my colleague visited a nearby Vietnamese restaurant. Really, a very limited sample. But despite a recent war and a potpourri of poverty-inspired problems, there isn't the feeling of total hopelessness one gets from visiting the aforementioned two nations above. Infrastructure isn't way past the point of collapse. And the people seem nice, not beaten down or just plain suspicious.

Far better, I would say, than the non-locals. No doubt some are fine: I've yet to meet them. I can assure you that those at the base are not fine. Unfine, one might say. I hesitate to name names because discretion is a vital implement in my professional drawer of cutlery, but I will spoonerise the by-worst offender as the fat tosser Dark Eels [name further edited at my workplace's request - hope this is sufficient]. Mr Eels, a fat and eminently unlikeable man in his 40s, has been causing a pain in my ears, much as the smell of an offensively oderous dog might cause a pain in my nose. Unlike a dog, I can't kick Mr Eels hard, or even soft, and I certainly can't shoot him and sell him to the Koreans. Alas. He has assumed the role of interrogative policeman, and strolls in nonchalantly and begins firing off a load of questions about our equipment, prices, personal habits, and personal backgrounds. The first day he tried this, he gave us a fair grilling, but by today we'd figured him out quite well. He is getting some large amounts of hassle from superiors for his own carelessnesses, which he blames on our company, and thus like a young boy beaten in his homelife who becomes the school bully, he is trying to pick on us. But the bully is only effective if he's hard: Dark Eels is the school fatboy. And in myself and my colleague he could not have chosen poorer targets, because we don't really care. We don't panic about his threats to kick us out the base and we don't reveal much of significance in his interrogations. We sit back and "hmm" and let him speak about his skateboarding (?! - he lies a lot) accident and drab sporting opinions. Initially, when he stormed in on full force, he was quite troublesome (and he called himself by a fake name - what?) but now he's quickly assumed a position of familiar annoyance. Like that stinky, farty dog.

Of worthier mention is the driver we've been given for the last few days, a 59-year-old father-of-six Ivorian-Ghanaian called Jean. He's been our main representative of the Ivory Coast and has been terrific. My experience of much of Africa has to not expect punctuality, and I am a person who likes things to be on the minute, but Jean has been brilliantly on time, and unassumingly helpful. He has made transportation, so often a huge hassle on jobs, really smooth and easy.

Aside from tolerating cocks and listening to Jean bemoan the state of Abidjan's ripped-up roads, I have been mostly sitting about waiting. Waiting in the yard for equipment yet to arrive. It should have been there Monday - in fact, it should have been there weeks go - but no, and yesterday and today, also no. It's looking very likely, maybe, for tomorrow morning, in which case I'll grab a couple of boxes of stuff and jump on a plane to Ghana. By Saturday I should be on a boat, doing all kinds of fancy stuff.

And that's that. Or c'etait ce, or whatever the French is.

Saturday, 18 July 2009

City Culture: Berlin and London

Well, Aberdeen was simply lovely, and I enjoyed mornings on my roof, reading and thinking of culture. And as my thoughts chased conclusions, it became clear that it would be a good idea to explore culture in some other cities. Aberdeen has its charms, but I know the place well and didn't wish contempt to set in; of importance also: work was quiet and free time was mine on a plate. So conclusions were reached: Berlin and London I would go. Berlin is home of techno and walls, plus young Americans Mary and Carlos, two people not strangers to me. London is home of the Queen and Boris, plus my newlywed cousin and her husband, the latter two also not unknown personally. And thus, without a word to my work (who would probably not like it if I was to disappear to foreign cities when I'm supposed to be available) I snapped up some lovely plane and train tickets and set off on a young man's voyage.

To Edinburgh first, where my flight was. Edinburgh was glowing with heat and sunshine, packed full of jaunty tourists, and I had a splendid afternoon and evening enjoying drinks and looking at girls. My flight was the next morning, but at the sensible time of 11am. To Berlin? No, to Cologne.

I've been to Cologne before, for the 2008 World Cup. While it is true the game I saw there is the now-legendary 0-0 between Switzerland and Ukraine, two nations apparently desperate for dire loss in exactly equal measures, I was also graced with the stupendous Cologne Cathedral. This is an absolute beast of a monument, absolutely dominating the city as though a gigantic dragon nestled in the centre. Completely out of proportion with its surroundings, it isn't just that it is massive, it is that is conveys the very aura of colossal majesty. And yet, size is not its only grace, for it is also a work of art, a gothic masterpiece of astonishing perfection and detail. The following picture is a mere tiny sample.

I love it. Cologne Cathedral is one of the best buildings I have ever seen.

My time there was brief, however. Cologne was merely a three-hour stopover between Edinburgh and Berlin, and much of that time was spent trying to figure out the uncooperative train ticket machine. Thank God for young girls. I say that, on this occasion, because one helped me with the baffling options presented on the machine. If I could have thanked her with a kiss, I would have, but perhaps sensing this she didn't hang about for my gratitude.

Off to Berlin then, my first time there but with a generous portion of good reports to follow. I was met at the airport by young Mary, so it was a good start. Mary is a friend from my days in Korea, and is in now in Berlin doing a mixture of English teaching and internet stuff I can't pretend to understand. With her is her boyfriend Carlos, a fellow American, who also does internet stuff I can't pretend to understand. They seem to get paid for their internet stuff too, something I thought was an urban myth. Making money from the internet?

I was veering on the peckish side by the time we arrived at their spacious and charming apartment, so to fulfill my every desire we found a little place with seats outside and I had a royal dose of German sausages and beer. This was precisely what I was after. Further beers seemed a good idea, and we began on this path, but the sound of popping and banging piqued our interest: fireworks. We chased the sound, and soon we had sight of the greens, blues and whites, among other mainstream colours, filling the sky. This took us into a park, and alongside the whirring and banging, we could hear some grooving: music. A beat and shuffle, somewhere not too deep in the park, and after manouevring some dark paths (for the fireworks gave us scant light) we found ourselves at an impromptu party. A rave, one would have called it in 1990. There were maybe 100 people, assembled at the nub of a hillock, facing a tent with DJ, which was set in front of the still-distant (and purpose unknown) fireworks. Each time the fireworks exploded, the crowd did likewise in appreciation.

This pleasant scene - which included the capturing of a beer - lasted for perhaps an hour or so, but there were further plans for the night. Tickets to a nightclub had been secured, for a techy-glitch band called Mouse On Mars, very well renowned in knowledgeable circles. Alas, all the walking had done in Mary, and she was an invalid, but like the soldier shot down, she insisted her comrades went without her.

Thus we did. And the club - Club Maria - was most to my taste: dark, intimate (though still sizeable) and with character. I had several beers. After a live band played, the main support, a man called "T Raumschimscieemeherirer" (or something like that), played. Gosh, he was ferocious. Tech-punk-mania, I might describe it. And then Mouse on Mars came on for a while and pressed laptops and made a hell of a noise. Here they are (you'll have to imagine the sound - try gurgling):

By this time all this fandango was over, it was 5am, and I was somewhat tired. But Mary had slept and healed her wounds, and contacted us, and we all decided to go for breakfast. A splendid idea, although when breakfast turned out to be about a 2 hour round trip away I was less sure.

Nonetheless, breakfast was very tasty. I even had caviar; yes, really. I was at the point of passing out though. This photo doesn't lie.

Eventually, at 10am, we got back to the apartment and I got rest. A little. I was on the couch in the living room, which had very big windows but no curtains. It was somewhat light, and warm. I think I managed 90 minutes.

But no matter, for Sunday was a more gentle day. Myself and Mary went to a flea market in a park. This was a terrific flea market with all kinds of curios, and if I lived in Berlin would be here every week, stuffing my home full of remarkable junk.

I didn't buy anything for fear of getting carried away, but Mary bought a quasi-table, a vinyl record warped into a shell, a book about the past and future of Berlin written in the 1970s, and a purse. Here they are, as posed by myself (the beer was a temporary bonus to the display).

In the park, which was boisterous and fun, a man had set up a karaoke machine, a regular occurrence it seems. Quite a crowd had gathered. There was great enthusiasm. At one point, a marching band appeared, played the YMCA, and the crowd erupted.

We went for dinner after that, and enjoyed a naan-pizza hybrid, one I would like to see more widespread in the world. From then it was a quiet night, as I am getting old and need my sleep.
This I got, and the next day was tourist day. So, after a fabulous pizza (authentic Italian, though sadly without stuffed crust), I went to see the Berlin Wall with Mary. You may have heard of this wall, as it once divided Berlin into two halves: free world and Communism. I think it's a terrific idea and would like to see it implemented a lot more, but others disagree with me, and in 1989 they took it down. But some of it still stands. Sadly, the Wall, for all its historical significance, is just a wall, and a scrappy graffiti-covered one at that.

I'm very much in favour of historical preservation, and respect for antiquities, but the Berlin Wall pushes me to the limit. It is ghastly and ugly and without anything to redeem it architecturally. If I was head of Berlin council, I'm afraid I wouldn't be trying to preserve it. But I'm not, and whoever is had decided to repaint it, with "nicer" pictures over the graffiti. Mary was appalled this, believing the graffiti to be of historical worth. I don't know what to think. The graffiti was ugly, the new pictures were mostly average, and the wall doesn't have much going for it. Bulldoze it in the night, I say.

I hope they don't bulldoze the following, though:

Or this either:

Allowing Mary to go and do some work, I visited the Brandenburg Gate and the Reichstag alone. These are good buildings. I would have got a good front-view photo of the Brandenburg, but they had a stage show set up with live music, and lots of people. The Reichstag had lots of people also, with the queue about an hour to get in, so I chose not to, and just enjoyed looking at it. A neo-classical building built, I believe, in the late 19th century, it fairly recently got Norman Foster to rebuild its destroyed central dome. I like Foster's style usually, but I think his glass and metal dome a little incongruous for this grand, stone building. Like making a beautiful woman wear a silver showercap.

After a little searching, I then found the Holocaust Memorial. For those of you clued up on your history, you may recall the Germans were a little naughty for some the 20th Century, although they seem very nice these days. Anyway, I'll moderate my words, because I'm hoping to get my blog published and become one of Oprah's recommended reads, and I don't think she's big on Holocaust humour. And the Memorial was suitably on the heavier side of life too. Resolutely non-flashy, it was simple, very effective, and genuinely disconcerting when wandered into the midst of.

Next, it was Berliner Dom time. This is a big cathedral, and I like big cathedrals. It has a disappointing history though: built in the late 19th century after lots of falling-outs and financial wranglings, what we see is kind of a compromise, and they never went the full hog with the plans. It's still a great building, but it's disappointing when you realise - as you did upon seeing its small museum inside - it could have been so much better.

It had a great crypt, with loads of grand coffins of kings, princes, and that kind of folk. And lots of little baby coffins too. I can make jokes about dead babies, because that's socially acceptable these days. However, on this occasion, I choose not to.

And so, effectively, ended Berlin jaunt. I had a final meal with Mary and Carlos after, and then it was a plane to London the following morning. I flew Ryannair, my first experience with them. Oh dear, they're not very good. Cheap, yes, on time, yes, comfortable, classy, professional, God no. The flight was rampacked, there was no way to sit comfortably, and they sold scratchcards onboard - what? At least the flight attendants seemed to be enjoying themselves (to the exclusion of all else).

In London, I was there to see my cousin and her husband, but first of all, the British Museum. It has a collection of artefacts from all around the world, and I've been keen to see it for some time. It's got little Easter Island men, stuff nicked/saved from the Parthenon, lots of Egypt stuff, the Rosetta Stone, and tons of pottery. And lots more. The British Museum is great.

I met with my cousin upon her finishing work, at 5.30pm, and had several beers with her and her colleagues. Several, oh yes. Her husband joined us, and we had several more beers. Several more, oh yes. The plan for the evening was to see a band called "The Twang". When I asked my cousin what kind of music they were, she said "They're... a band..." and I couldn't get anything further. It turned out they were jangly-indie-ladrock, something I would usually cross a street to avoid, but the combination of the good company, the good venue, the good atmosphere and enthusiastic crowd, and of course the several beers made for a very enjoyable gig. We then went out an had more beers. Details become hazy, but I recall having a genuinely terrific night. I don't recall the following photos, which were two of about fifty taken on the subway back.

I woke up in a lovely big double bed the next morning, after my first full sleep in days, and felt surprisingly healthy. I had a daytime plan: visit the British Museum again, and this I did. Later in the afternoon, I met with two old friends, Burness and Rosie. To give a one-line summary of either character cannot be done, so you must simply assume they are both pleasant individuals. Poor Burness had broken his collarbone in three places in a mountain biking accident, and was in considerable pain. Nonetheless, he was still going to a Nine Inch Nails concert later that evening. I enjoyed a few splendid drinks and banter with them, before meeting again my cousin, her husband, and my aunt and uncle, for a pizza. Drinks followed, but I could see my poor cousin and husband wilting as they had had a full day's work after last night's session, whereas I'd slept fitfully and spent the day savouring world culture.

I left them to catch my sleeper train, departing at just before midnight, but had enough time to catch a pint. There I did a good deed. I got chatting to a gentleman, who it transpired was in the process of emails and phonecalls to various people, including his wife, as he'd just returned from Dubai and all his cards were cancelled. It seemed he needed his cards not just to get money, but to retrieve the train tickets bought. So, my good deed on 2009: I lent him the money, £80. He promised to pay me back. I have no doubt his situation was genuine, so we will see not just if he is honest, but if the world is ultimately a good and just place. If I don't receive the money, I will lose my faith in man, and if I do receive the money I'm going to pour gin over a hooker.

And that is that. My sleeper was fine, though could have done with curtains, but was much more civilised than flying, which is barbaric. I am safe at home, in an especially grey Aberdeen, but not for very long, as at 6am tomorrow I'll be flying away for a short jaunt in the Ivory Coast and Ghana. Just a wild guess, but I think they may be a little different from Berlin and London.

Monday, 13 July 2009

Odd Shape

Berlin is doing strange things to me.

Wednesday, 8 July 2009

Summer So Far

Life, as they say, is a mighty fandragon, and so no greater joy can there be than the fresh release from captivity. Thus has been my state for the last two weeks. But it's not been a doubleweek of roaring and stomping and devastating villages and virgins, rather my fortnight has been spent quietly smouldering, huffing and puffing patiently, surveying my land. In bold-encrusted headings, therefore, here are some of my surveyings.


I've flirted many times with alcoholism in the past, desperately trying to fully addict myself, but I have resigned myself to failing. Since my return, I have been drinking steadily, but never heavily, and never before teatime. Uusually, I'm restricted to a few Peronis in the evening: this is not the sign of an alcoholic. Rather shockingly, I don't think I've been properly drunk even once in the last two weeks.


I have fully embraced the world of insomnia. At the best of times, I find it difficult to quickly adjust back to a normal pattern after weeks of nightshift, but this time, after having effectively being doing a nightshift since March, my bodyclock refused to play ball and I started getting up at 3am each morning. Eventually, after negotiation with the gods, I had this shifted to 5am, and now I'm nearing something like 8am, which is quite desirable. It meant, for the first week certainly, I was suffering from chronic lack of sleep, and passing out for inconvenient spells in the afternoon.


With Chef Green, I have been playing many games of the classic Playstation Uno game FIFA 2001. This is a sincerely fiercely fought computer game that we take very seriously, seriously enough to log the results in a book, into which I also compile a list of statistics. Loss of temper is frequent, as are raging huffs, and Green has been most displeased that I have won the first two "pages". I am most displeased that he has the best result to date, beating me 6-1 with Derby County. Derby! I have known Green for around 17 or 18 years, and I firmly believe that if our friendship is to end it will be because of this 9 year old computer game.


My mother is doing all sorts of wild things. Honestly, at her age she should just be baking, but instead she has quit her job and retired early, sold the family home and bought a small detached house next to the railway. As well as this, she has a manfriend! This manfriend is trying to convince her to live on a barge with him. Both my mother and the manfriend appear to rather like each other, but have encountered a massive stumbling block with regard to pets: she has one quiet cat, he has five boisterous and non-little dogs. Nobody knows how this can be resolved.


Gosh, hasn't the weather been lovely. I've spent mornings and afternoons on my roof, celebrating our planet's increasing warmth. Long may it continue. However, this sentiment I do not extend to my neighbours, who also utilise the roof. Straggly students, who enjoy loud music and smoking "reefers", their presence on the roof is to my ongoing chagrin. What a mess these imbeciles make - broken bottles, glasses, scrappy blankets, a wooden sword, a mangled disposable barbecue, the remnants of illegal drugs (as you know, I am appalled by all illegal drugs). I am not impressed by my student neighbours and am trying to come up with some kind of subtle revenge.


My good, indeed beloved, friend Varwell got engaged many months ago, as previously reported. Shockingly, he remains engaged still. It's beginning to look like he may actually get married.


I, however, remain unengaged, and uninfluenced by the intoxifying effects of love.

Berlin and London

On Saturday, I'm taking a little jaunt to Berlin, to see the delightful duo of Mary and Carlos. Berlin, as you know, is the capital of Germany, the most populous nation in Europe, unless you count Russia. When in Berlin, I intend to look at buildings, walk about, and go to a thumping warehouse techno club. Immediately following Berlin will be London, where I'll be meeting my cousin and her husband. Is a cousin's husband a cousin-in-law, or does such a term not exist? When in London I intend to visit the British Museum, to furnish my vast mind with even more decoration.


Perhaps the biggest event of the summer has been the purchase of some blackout blinds for my attic bedroom Velux windows. Previously, light would stream in at ungody hours and gracelessly wake me and my lucky companion(s) from our slumbers; now I can't even tell whether it's day or night. I heartily recommend blackout blinds.

Other stuff

I'm almost certain there's other stuff worth recording, but I can't remember right now, and really should go and pay my council tax after months of stalling.