Saturday, 25 December 2010

Christmas Nomad

Merry Christmas... from the North Sea.

Yes, alas, this year instead of spending the festive period surrounded by the laughter and joy of loved ones, with a roaring log fire and the mess of shiny wrapping paper torn open with excitement, I am adrift in the bitter North Sea, covered in sticky tar-like oil like the excrement flung by a debased Santa’s elf.

I am aboard the Oc. Nomad, a couple of hours helicopter journey from Aberdeen (although due to snow I intended up taking the scenic route: flight to Bergen then chopper from there), somewhere between the Shetland Islands and Norway. I arrived a mere four days ago, just to wrap up a two-month long job that was in its very final stages, replacing my old childhood friend and neighbour and current work colleague but now SWORN ENEMY Burness, who has been able to escape home to his family’s embrace, and joining my long suffering colleague, The Mountie, a very familiar face this year after months of our souls fading together into the ennui of twilight that was the Novotel in Nigeria.

In almost five years as a burly oil-giver, this is my first actual Christmas Day offshore. I’ve spent a couple of New Year’s Days offshore before, but always had luckier breaks for Christmas itself. As you might imagine, a rig in the North Sea in the winter isn’t the traditional image associated with a season that otherwise surrounds itself with reindeers, pine trees and baby saviours of mankind. However, despite being a mechanical hell devoid of the qualities that normal human beings would regard as desirable, the 25th December still exists out here, and Christmas is still, in its own way, celebrated. So I’ll quickly take you through a Christmas Day offshore.

I woke around 8.30am, a splendid lie-in after a tough day previous (more on that later). The Mountie appeared and wished me Merry Christmas, and I rose and showered. Then it was present time. I’d taken three presents with me from normal life, and opened them in front of the Mountie, who had none. I received a “Return of the Jedi” DVD and 50ml of “Allure Homme Sport Chanel” from my girlfriend, and a £30 cheque from my grandfather; I think I’ll spend it on a prostitute, or drugs. I went through to check my email – I received no Christmas wishes or, in fact, any emails whatsoever – then watched Soccer AM with the Mounty until lunch at 11.20am.

Lunch was a special treat. Laid with tablecloths, and with crackers, Shloer and a paper menu. Unlike the buffet style service that exists on rigs, for the first ever time in my years eating on rigs, there was table service by kitchen staff – ladies, no less. There was a good selection of three different courses, and I opted for vension with raspberry sauces, turkey with all the other stuff, and Christmas pudding. From my cracker I got a small yellow comb; a history of Tom Smith, the apparent inventor of the Christmas cracker, and a paper crown. I didn’t wear the crown, it didn’t seem right.

After lunch, I wrote an email – to my boss – and spent £20 playing Deal or No Deal online. I thought I had a system. I didn’t. I phoned home to listen to the sounds of family enjoying themselves, and phoned my girlfriend who was very full of the cold and so wasn’t enjoying herself quite as much. Then myself and the Mountie settled in for an afternoon watching “Return of the Jedi” on my laptop. Observation made: Princess Leia murders quite frequently; as well as shooting dead a number of faceless Empire troops without flinching or moral reflection, she sets a bomb that kills hundreds – bad guys, slaves, musicians, employees, AI robots – in Jabba the Hutt’s palace (and that’s after murdering Jabba by hand, effectively). Her body count is second only to Lando Carlrissian, who by blowing up the Death Star kills several millions surely.

Dinner – chilli con carne – was fine and normal, and it was back to the internet after. My boss had replied, wishing me Merry Christmas. Myself and the Mounty then went through the football fixtures and placed two £10 accumulator bets on the Boxing Day games. Tomorrow has the football, which is very exciting as it means the day passes quickly. I bought some Irn Bru and a Yorkie from the rig bond and enjoyed this daily treat when Top Gear started. It’s now finished and I expect the rest of the evening to pass by smoothly with some internet and mindless Christmas TV.

You may have noticed that at no point during my offshore Christmas extravaganza did I do any work. That’s not because I decided to specially take it easy today, but because there isn’t any work to do – I finished everything yesterday and my container is on the boat. It’s a slight source of frustration: both myself and the Mountie are spending Christmas offshore precisely because it’s Christmas. No helicopters today or tomorrow. There were two yesterday, which our names were on, but we simply couldn’t get everything finished. Christmas Eve was not a fun day. Our equipment appeared at 7am, many hours later than scheduled hence we’d been up all night waiting. It was delayed due to the thick, gloopy, tar-like oil that this oil well has been testing, that clogged everything up. Our tools very much included.

I have never seen anything like this before. Usually when stuff comes out from the deep recesses of the earth, it will be a bit muddy, a bit dirty, a bit oily. This time it was virtually glued together with this evil black tar that immediately transferred itself to my entire body and everything else around me. When handling equipment and moving away, my glove would remain stuck in place as my hand pulled out. New gloves would immediately turn black and sticky. Everything stuck to everything as though dipped in tar, which it kind of had, and made work impossibly slow. Our main piece of equipment is a 30ft length of pipe, inside of which a 20ft pair of tools are placed inside. Usually they slide out with a bit of manpower, this time they were jammed solid. In the end we had to use the rig mechanical tugger in an improvised set up to yank the tools out in bursts. And we had three separate sections of this 30ft pipe to work with.

All this was time consuming. If we’d started at midnight, as scheduled, then we’d have finished on time and made the helicopter, and have been home for Christmas. Or if the oil had just been normal instead of crazy glue from hell we’d have made the chopper. But a 7am start with evil tar was too much, and in the minus temperatures in the North Sea, during bursts of hail, we watched as one, then two, helicopters landed, filled with people destined for home, and then took off again, without us. We then crouched back down, and futilely went back to attempting to scrub tar off metal using diesel and detergent.

So Christmas Eve was very disappointing and not the greatest fun I’ve had, but today was calm, work-free and tinged with a smattering of festivity, as well as the first booze-free Christmas I’ve had in over a decade. And as I’m booked on the Monday chopper, I’m guaranteed a New Year onshore, something I suspect will not be entirely booze free.

Friday, 26 November 2010

Age 32: Let The Hunt Commence

Happy Birthday, Nev! I can now - legally - make union with someone half my age.

Saturday, 30 October 2010

Basil The Bow Wow Does Not Exist

Basil the Bow Wow does not exist.

That is the alarming, childhood-undermining discovery of late. Basil the Bow Wow, a cornerstone of my childhood, does not appear anywhere on the internet. Type in his name, in inverted commas, into Google and a total of zero hits are found (I guess the writing of this entry might change that to a single solitary hit). Zero internet hits = non-existence.

In fairness, up until a few weeks ago, Basil the Bow Wow had slipped down the sides of my memory too. It was during a visit up north, to see my mother in her lovely new home in the countryside, and in evening discussion with my brother that the name was brought up. I took a few seconds before the memories came flooding back.

Basil the Bow Wow was a toy sit-on dog-on-wheels, with a voicebox. A St. Bernards, though in a size suitable for children whose years on earth were in single digits, he could be pushed around by the frame at the rear, or sat on and propelled by eager child feet. Or more likely, in our family, my sister would be made to sit on him while my brother grabbed the frame and careered my distressed sister around at high speed until she inevitably smacked against a wall and cried. But let’s not blame that on Basil the Bow Wow.

Although a mini-St Bernard’s on wheels would have been enough for a successful childhood toy, it was Basil the Bow Wow’s voicebox that elevated him into cult status in our family. Basil the Bow Wow had a string by his neck, which when pulled would allow him to say one of a random selection of friendly quotes. As my brother and I sat around, chuckling at the memory of Basil the Bow Wow’s chummy, lovable, and desperately eager voice, we tried to recall all the quotes he’d come up with. This involved a phonecall to our sister, who added an especially good one.

Pull Basil the Bow Wow’s string, and he would say:

“Hi, my name’s Basil the Bow Wow. What’s your name?”
“Hi, my name’s Basil the Bow Wow. Will you be my friend?”
“Hi, my name’s Basil the Bow Wow. I love children!”
“Hi, my name’s Basil the Bow Wow. Will you play with me?”
and as my sister recalled:
“Hi, my name’s Basil the Bow Wow. AWOOOOOO!!!”

Of course, these days it’s illegal to say such things to children, but in the hazy nostalgia of my youth it was a more innocent world. Basil the Bow Wow would be pushed around the house, his string pulled, and his friendly and enthusiastic words would pour out.

Quite how it happened I don’t know, but it was Basil the Bow Wow’s decline that gave us the biggest laugh that evening. I blame it on my brother, but I’m sure I must have had a hand. Because after much wear and tear, poor Basil the Bow Wow went downhill, and frankly a little senile.

His head, first of all, became limper and bent down at an angle. I can only imagine this was from repeated assaults from my brother, who as a young child was a considerable horror. Once with head held high, now Basil the Bow Wow looked broken down and unhealthy. The worse he looked, the more my brother bullied, blow after blow raining down on Basil the Bow Wow’s broken head. What a horrible child.

And then his voice went. This may have been natural decline, or it may have been heavily exacerbated by the discovery that if we held the string upon pulling it, we could manipulate Basil the Bow Wow’s voice. By holding the string back as it tried to pull back in, his voice became slow and warped, but by sudden release would often go fast and ridiculous. Such a discovery for children is pure gold, and we never grew tired of it (even today I would derive endless amusement), including my sister, gentle back in these days, who usually disliked the torture of our dog-like toy. Yes, even she would laugh at Basil the Bow Wow as his pained, warbled voice groaned out: ““Hhhhhhhiiiiiiii, my name’s Basil the Bow Wow. Aaaaaaaaaaa...... wwwwoooooo.....”

Such an assault on his voice, and the mechanism that powered it, eventually proved too much for Basil the Bow Wow to bear, and something snapped inside. He still had the power of speech, but now when his string was pulled, he would gasp out his random statement in ultra-rapid fire – one second and he’d said it. It was undoubted comedy – yet undoubted tragedy too. Basil the Bow Wow, with his broken head and broken voice, was dying. Now the only way to understand what he was trying to say was by the very means we’d broken him, by holding onto the string and letting it release slowly, thereby holding back the broken mechanism and preventing the fast release, with the result his statement would be delivered with a reluctant melancholy. Basil the Bow Wow was tired, he didn’t want to speak any more.

It was the end for him. Foul children we were, some other toy or game consumed us and he lay forgotten, and was eventually put into a cupboard and to the very back of our minds. Long after I’d grown up and left home, my sister retrieved him from his hidden spot in the cupboard. Basil the Bow Wow had grown mouldy, his voice didn’t work. He’d loved children, he’d wanted to play with us, and he’d wanted to be our friend – and without a second thought we put him out with the rubbish.

But much time has elapsed since then, and the reminiscence between myself and my brother was fond, as we laughed about all the happy times we’d had with Basil the Bow Wow. And so later, in discussion with my sister, we thought it would be a terrific idea to get hold of a replacement Basil the Bow Wow for my brother, who gets married early next year and will have his first child in around May (making me, incidentally, Uncle Nev. Yikes). Basil the Bow Wow, a commercial toy, might still be available, if not brand new in Argos or wherever, then at least on Ebay.

Which is why we are astonished that absolutely no trace of his existence appears on the internet. We’ve found various other toy sit-on dogs, though without voicebox, but none are Basil the Bow Wow, and his name does not register anywhere. This isn’t some obscure toy from the 1850s, this was a (surely mass-produced) toy from the 1980s. Even if he wasn’t available for sale, I’m surprised that nobody in the history of the internet has ever mentioned his name, or found him in their attic and tried to sell him for £10. Of the many toys that came and went during these halcyon young years, Basil the Bow Wow was once of the most memorable, along with our sledges, my computer chess and a giant cardboard box we spent a whole day playing in. But his memory appears to exist only with my direct family, the rest of the world, as well as discarding him, has fully forgotten he ever was.

So Basil the Bow Wow, to answer your questions after all this time: My name is Nev, yes I’ll be your friend, I love you too and I’ll be delighted to play with you - if only I could find you. And, of course, AWOOOOOO!!!

Thursday, 16 September 2010

Pope Says Hi

Well, I got back home from Nigeria just a handful of days ago. Just in time to meet the Pope.

Yes, the Pope visited Edinburgh today, and though I couldn’t commit to meeting him due to my uncertain work schedule (he’s quite old now so needs lots of prior notice, and I thought I’d still be offshore), he decided to come anyway, and meet the Queen for lunch, some cardinal for a cup of tea, and have a little cruise round Edinburgh in between.

This simple arrangement has put Edinburgh into a bit of a tizzy, and they’ve closed every road and put every policeman onto Princes Street, where they jostle with people selling memorabilia, some collecting for charity, and thousands and thousands of schoolchildren. There was a lone protestor too, handing out leaflets about child abuse, but I give her short shrift as she was missing the spirit of the occasion.

Although I’m not a Catholic, I still share many things in common with the Pope and his many millions of followers, such as neverending guilt, an appreciation of the (now sadly defunct) S Club Juniors, and of course, papal infallibility. Of these, papal infallibility is the most important. A lot of people don’t seem to get this, when they complain about the Pope and some of the beliefs he espouses that they claim are outdated. The guy is infallible. He doesn’t make mistakes. Don’t you get it, guys? You’re the ones that’re wrong. If we can all just stop listening to our inner voices and start listening to the Pope’s voice, then maybe we can start to get things right too.

Today then, after getting out of bed and performing my morning ablutions, or whatever you call them, I thought I’d stroll into town to say hi to the Pope. I live just five minutes from Princes Street so it seemed rude not to. The Pope had originally planned to cruise down the Royal Mile, which would have been far more convenient for me, but it was deemed a security risk and Princes Street chosen instead. By security risk, I think they were referring to the cobbled streets, which no doubt would have been a little uncomfortable a man in his 80s, especially after having had lunch. When you’re the Pope, security in its normal sense doesn’t apply, because any bombs or bullets that come your way are deflected by flashes of glorious light. The former Pope, John Paul II, who was a more kindly Pope would just have the glorious light absorb the bomb or bullet, but the current one, Benedict Sixteen, is bit more badass and would actually deflect the bomb or bullet back at the assailant. For this reason, I guess all the police gathered today were here as much for the protection of the people as they were for the Pope.

My first jaunt down town, about 10am, was a pre-Pope stroll, and duly established that there were lots of people. I’d checked with the BBC news and they said the Pope would be arriving incognito at Holyrood Palace to meet the Queen, so I decided not to hang around just to watch a blacked-out vehicle pass, surrounded by noisy schoolchildren and excited Catholics, and so went and bought a coffee and a sandwich then back to my flat, where I played Football Manager. Football Manager, as ever, was quite engrossing, and I realised it was almost noon, and that the Pope would be doing his Princes Street cruise at half-noon, so I quickly got moving, to the National Gallery where I reckoned would be a good spot to watch the Pope.

...and I almost missed him. The Pope was early! He had explicitly told me he’d be going down Princes Street at half 12, which I naturally took to meaning he’d be starting the journey then. But no. It was 12.25pm, and he was already halfway down! Crafty Pope. If I’d been just thirty second later I would have missed him, but fortunately I arrived just in time to see him majestically swoop by in his rather odd Popemobile, which reminds me of something I’d expect to see old people drive in Florida, perhaps when golfing.

In truth, it was exactly as expected, a bit of an anti-climax. An old man drove by in a car – that’s basically the synopsis of the day. Fair enough, it was an unusual car, and the old man is God’s ambassador on Earth, but I don’t believe in God and aren’t particularly interested in cars, so perhaps it wasn’t the event for me. Besides, after learning that in the last eight years of the Queen Mother’s life, over 80% of her public appearances were, in fact, done by an animatronic puppet, I can’t help but feel sceptical when I see a famous old person in public. Was it really him? His smile was appropriately benign, but his gaze was unfocussed and his wave very fixed.

I’ll leave you to decide. For I managed to get one photo, very quickly taken, of him as he drove by. Look!

There he is, just on the right. To the left of the ice-cream stall. See? No? Honestly, just look a bit harder.

Ok, here’s a zoom in and arrow. What do you think? Pope or puppet?

Thursday, 26 August 2010

Sleeping In A Bed Of Dead Puppies

Sleeping in a bed of dead puppies. That’s how The Mountie described our situation right now. The precise breakdown of the analogy or metaphor I’m not sure of, but I know it instinctively feels right. These puppies have been dead a few days, there’s a fair bit of mush, and God they stink. Sleeping at night is peculiarly comfortable, but certainly not desirable.

We’re now approaching five weeks in Nigeria and from today are officially further behind than when we first arrived. The rig and the job has been plagued with problems. The fatality last month is naturally the most significant, and was all wrapped up with the catastrophic crane failure. But since then, other problems have followed, all of a technical nature but all with the result that we’re still here, still on the rig, and still waiting. Waiting to work, or just waiting to go home and remember that life takes place in an actual vast world and not just on a floating boat in the anonymous Bight of Benin.

It’s of great frustration. We only have a couple of days of work to do really, but operations just cannot seem to get to that point. Our equipment is working well and we’ve successfully demonstrated our system is ticking away nicely, and rig operations were at the brink – a day away! – of being far enough along so that we could wrap everything up, smile, high five each other with a “job done” holla, and go home. But operations have gone into reverse, equipment is returning from the seabed back to the rig, and we’ve got to start it all over again. It’ll take at least a week to properly being again.

I could bore you with rig operation chat, but it’s all just a bunch of acronyms, pieces of yellow-painted metal, gaskets, valves and all of the aforementioned failing in creative ways. For most of the time, The Mountie and I are just innocent bystanders anyway. We’re set up and ready to go, and have been for some weeks, but even when the starting pistol finally went it turned out to be a false start. And so we mooch around in accommodation, stare blankly at walls, and malign the fact that we are grown men sleeping with dead dogs.

The Mountie has hope, however, even if he doesn’t feel too hopeful. His holidays are approaching and he gets swapped out next week. My own hopes have been gathered together, crushed into a small box the size of a little acorn, and put aside in the back of brain for use at a future date. There are murmurs that I may be swapped in a period of time larger than a week, but I know that if this happens then I’ll be punched hard in the face and sent packing to America, for another job. It’s a more appealing prospect, I’ll admit, than continuing in the Groundhog Day that offshore Nigeria seems to have entered, but it’s not quite the same as arriving back at my sun-kissed cottage in the countryside to be met by my beaming wife and my two lovely children – Rufus aged 4 and Mooshella aged just 2 1/2 , and my haven’t they grown? – rushing up to and embracing me, or whatever it is that normal life is (I forget the precise details now).

But let’s not upset ourselves with vague visions of the future, and concentrate on the plus points of the here and now. Such as my nightly helideck walks, on a helideck that rates very high on my comprehensive helideck index. Or the cakes, which have occasionally been quite nice – the Danishes were spectacular (though they’ve been absent for some
time now...). Or the excitement of getting back laundry and wondering what else has gone missing – I’ve only two pairs of socks now, and The Mountie lost 80% of his wardrobe but went on the warpath and got it all back (except the socks). Or the stairway banisters, which have just the right amount of friction to them. I think that’s all.

Yes, that’s all.

Monday, 16 August 2010

My Two Lives

I have two lives and two careers right now: my life offshore in the
oil business, and my intense career as a football manager of a lower
league English club. It testifies to the state my head is in right now
that I’m not sure which one is real and which one isn’t.

I strongly suspect that the oil career may be a figment of my
imagination. According to that, I’m still in Nigeria but haven’t done
anything at all in weeks, which oddly seems to be the case every time
I go to Nigeria. A couple of weeks ago there was the fatality
offshore, resulting from the sudden and catastrophic failure of the
crane. Myself and The Mountie were downmanned and sent back to the
Novotel in Port Harcourt, where we spent a week drinking gin, playing
a Nigerian card game involving Swiss flags, Star of Davids and latent
psychic abilities, and lamenting our Groundhog Day existence that
seems to have been going on since March. I’ve worked out that so far
this year I’ve been away 150 days, which is 67% of the year, but about
110 of these days have been in Nigeria, overwhelmingly hanging around
in the bland Novotel. It occurs to me, at the back of my mind, that I
once lived in Edinburgh, and had friends and family, but that’s dimmed
to a mere dream within a dream.

Fortunately, unlike the darkness of the Novotel in late May, myself
and the Mountie kept ourselves psychologically healthy with the
aforementioned gin and card games, but the Novotel wasn’t to last
long, as last week we returned offshore. We had great hopes that this
would herald the recommencement of operations, which for us are only a
few days worth of work before we’re finished and can go home. But this
was a somewhat foolish hope, as a week has gone by now with absolutely
nothing whatsoever happening.

A couple of years ago, on this same rig, a different crane failed
suddenly, dropping a gigantic piece of equipment on a guy, killing him
instantly. With that and the more recent crane accident, people have
become understandably jittery, so for the last two weeks very
extensive ongoing checks and tests have been undergone on the
remaining three cranes. These are very, very nearly complete and very
soon – so we believe – a decision will be made as to whether we can
carry on.

In the meantime, myself and The Mountie have only had the most minimal
amount of work to do, and otherwise have had a lot of time to kill.
Table tennis has killed a small amount, as has eating Danish pastries.
But there’s still a lot more time in a day.

The last couple of days have seen helideck pacing kill an hour, after
most of the week was rendered non-viable by weather and “random”
incidents. The most concerning of these was a few days ago, at about
9pm, when I’d ventured up onto the quiet helideck on a peaceful, calm
evening. After doing only a few circuits, I was greatly alarmed when a
fire hose – fixed in position and aimed at the centre of the helideck
in the event of a helicopter fire – suddenly spluttered into life and
became spraying foam and water. A few paces more and it would have
sprayed over me. As this was spluttering, the hose at the far end
exploded into life with much more force, ejaculating a forceful blast
of foam across the entire helideck, and only my far distance from it
prevented me getting soaked or even knocked off my feet. The far one
soon stopped, but the close one continued, sluggishly. I left the
scene and returned half an hour later with the hoses again dormant,
but couldn’t get into a rhythm as I was in too much fear the hoses
could go off again at any moment.

They’ve behaved since then, but the helideck only kills at most two
hours a day. Meals maybe another hour. Washing, coffee, meetings, and
checking very slow internet another hour or so. But there’s still a
lot of time in the day. So what do I do?

I have become a Football Manager. My greatest addiction has returned.

As a young lad, many years of my life were lost to a game called
Championship Manager, in which I could take the helm of a football
club and take it to glory or ignominious failure. It was a game that
could suck a day, then a week, and suddenly a year from a life without
you even noticing. All engrossing, I lived many lives as the manager
of teams such as Manchester Utd (I deliberately got them relegated by
playing Ryan Giggs in goals and fining him every week), Italian
minnows Casale, Wycombe Wanderers, AC Milan, Portugal, Ivory Coast and
tiny Kettering. But recognising that I was growing up without social
skills and with the knowledge only of obscure winning tactics in a
fictional universe, I kicked the habit. It was tough, but I kicked it.
And for years I’ve been clean, with a mere tiny relapse a few years
ago when bored in the North Sea.

It struck again. It only took The Mountie to say, “You want a go of
this?” and offer me Football Manager 09/10 (the modern incarnation of
Championship Manager) and suddenly my life has been sucked from this
world and replanted me in another.

In this new – real, it seems – world I am inhabiting, my name is R.
Russell de Russell (I’ll let you guess what the R stands for), born in
1964 from Belgium, and I am the manager of the Blue Square South side
Thurrock, average attendance 200. The year however is now 2017 (with
Cameroon and then – oh no – England winning the World Cups) and after
five years coming 15th every season, I managed to get promoted to the
Blue Square Premier – which, for unfamiliar readers, is just four
leagues below the top division. I have achieved the heights, such as
being voted Blue Square South Manager of the Year and signing 38 year
old Jimmy Bullard, but also seen lows, such as my debt-ridden club
almost being bought by a consortium who threatened to replace me.

It’s tough, being the manager of a poor, barely supported football
team with a yellow home strip and light blue and purple away strip,
trying to motivate a bunch of players being paid about £100 a week,
but I’m thriving on it. Many lower division Belgian clubs have tried
to prize me away from Thurrock but I have remained resolute and stuck
with my little team, who now command crowds of up to 900.

Of course, being a full-time manager is a demanding and full-time job,
and so I am utterly immersed in it, with no time for outside thoughts,
such a friends, family, sleeping or working on an oil rig. Thus I am
dedicated to my profession and my football management lifestyle,
blocking out the distracting world around me as I stare at a laptop
screen that has become my real world. My career has become my life and
everything I am.

Thus, I now have two lives. My real life and my imaginary life. And as
the scenario of sitting in a room on a giant boat in the Atlantic
Ocean south of Nigeria and getting paid to do nothing there is clearly
a nonsense one, I can only conclude that my football management career
is my real life, and lose myself forever in this most immersing of

Wednesday, 4 August 2010

Fatality Offshore

It's been a pretty dark time over the last few days. Myself and The Mountie went offshore with the full expectation that we'd be done in no time, as for once matters were fair cracking on and moving speedily. But things went wrong.

There was a fatality, plus two serious injuries, on board during a crane accident. A crane was load-testing, which basically involves dunking a large bag in the water, and the calculated extra weight tests the crane. Except this time it failed catastrophically. The crane basically snapped and threw three men in the water. Two were saved and flown to Johannesberg for treatment, the other wasn't found.

For myself and The Mountie, it started literally with a jolt. We were in our cabin, on our laptops, when we felt the drillship jerk slightly. I dismissed it rather casually as a large wave, The Mountie thought something large might have been dropped. A few minutes later the rig alarm went off, saying "Man Overboard" and informing us all to muster. This very simply involves going to the lifeboat and standing next to it. A straightforward operation, but the most chaotic muster I've ever been part of, as it took over 45 minutes to get even a remotely accurate headcount. It was only after this period, and after some increasingly plaintive PAs requesting the guy phoned the bridge, that it transpired that there was a man missing. It was thought only two men had gone overboard. In fact, there had been three. Despite boat and helicopter search-and-rescue operations, he hasn't been found, and I presume was dead within minutes of hitting the water.

As far as my own safety went, I was never in any danger, and the work I do offshore doesn't really expose me to too much. Nonetheless, it's very sobering to be on a rig when there's such an accident. I saw the guy who died at the morning meeting, and by the afternoon he was dead. I'm sure he just expected it to be a routine day, just as I had, and just as we all do most days.

The upshot of it all is that operations have been suspended. The crane is hanging off the side of the rig and needs to be recovered before they can recommence. There has to be a full investigation into the entire incident. Also, separate to all this, another piece of equipment needs repaired that could take some time. This means that after a few days offshore, myself and The Mountie are back in the Novotel, waiting indefinitely for things to restart. We are occupying our time with football, Football Manager, gin and chess, cards, anticipation of the "day's special", and occasional dips in the pool. But no table tennis - the table is still broken, and bats missing.

I've deliberately kept all names of the rig, rig operator and oil company out of this blog, as I don't want people accidentally stumbling upon it. Everything I've said here is unofficial, as there were no rig meetings about it, and therefore only rig rumour to go by, but I think it was mostly reliable. From the internet I've found the following:

and also (copy and pasted):

Hay lads

the rig i am on in Nigeria the xxxx xxxx today just had a major disaster i was watching as it happened, they were load testing the port aft crane when the fu..... crane boom snapped!!!!!!! also ripping the crane cab to bits throwing the crane op and the ET around a 100ft to the sea below seen the poor buggers falling they were lucky it wasnt the deck cause it was close............also the lad who was supervising the load testing is missing i.e dead, the ET is in a serious state the crane op is hurt but looks like he will make it. IT TOOK xxxxxxxxxxxx 15 MIN TO LAUNCH THE FRC BOAT THE SMALL CRANE/HOIST WAS SPEWING OIL AND WOULDNT LOWER!!!!!!WTF!!!! AND OVER AN HOUR TO GET A FULL MUSTER....................... be safe lads cause disaster is never far away offshore specialy down here

Wednesday, 28 July 2010

Back Home At The Novotel

Ah, things are back to normal. Yes, I'm back in the Novotel in Port Harcourt!

As I calculate it, the Novotel has been my home for the year more than my actual home in Edinburgh has. It has assumed a grim familiarity, which ranges from my intimate knowledge of every choice from the menu to being greeted by name by most of the staff. The identikit rooms - I must have stayed in about seven different ones by now and the only thing that varies is the number on the door - I could easily navigate blind.

I am here again with The Mountie, and this time we're digging in for the long haul. The majority of March, April and May were spent in the Novotel so we know what to expect, and are now armed with chess, whisky and cards. Of greater concern is the table tennis table, now missing two bats and a net. We have brought this issue up with reception, but if you know the Novotel and you know Nigeria, you can be assured this will not be remedied very soon at all.

With a little luck though, it will be only a handful of weeks here, and I can return to enjoy a little of the festival in Edinburgh, and resumption of a normal life enjoyed for almost a month since I returned from Norway in late June. Having been practically away for almost four months by that point, I was feeling a little jaded but have been suitably refreshed by a pleasnt few weeks that included:

- The World Cup. Not a classic one, in the end, and a rubbish final, but it still overtook my life for the couple of weeks after I returned from Norway.

- Whisky. I have acquired an expensive taste for whisky and boast a respectable little collection. On the plus side, it means I am drinking less beer; on the minus side, it means my alcoholism is getting pricier.

-Golf. I played a round of golf with my grandfather and my cousin. It was the first time I'd played golf in 18 years, and I was actually not too bad. It was very enjoyable, and I intend to play more, with the ultimate goal of one day getting one hole on par.

-York. I went to York with a brunette. I heartily recommend it.

-Film. I'm supposed to be writing a film with BBC documentary film-maker Mike. It's been slightly hampered by him being in London for weeks and now me being in Nigeria. Despite that, we've still done about a third. It's awfully good.

-Mother House. My mother bought another house. In the country this time. She bought it because it was the only way to combine her solitary cat and her manfriend's five lively Labradors. It appears to be working, but I give it less than a month before the cat gets torn to pieces in a fit of canine enthusiasm.

That's all. I'm going to finish drinking my Old Pulteney 17 Year Old. Myself and the Mountie drank half a bottle of Dalwhinnie 15 Year Old last night and it somewhat hampered our enjoyment of today, but I'm recovered now and as I may be going offshore tomorrow I need to savour what could be a last evening for whisky for up to... a week!

Friday, 18 June 2010

World Cup: Improvements

The Rubbish Trumpet World Cup 2010 is gathering momentum: just when it seemed the entire tournament would lifelessly vanish in a droning blaze of goalless draws and perfectly spherical balls shooting vertically into the high altitude ionosphere, all of a sudden the football playing representatives of the various nations have become reanimated and started to entertain. In today's game featuring Mexico ripping out the wane heart of France there was even the astonishing novelty of hearing the sound of singing: above the sound of a billion bees came the sound of Mexican triumph, victory over the French and trumpet bearers together in the simple yet so relieving sound of celebratory chants from human voices.

The trumpets were also silenced yesterday, when the host nation were soundly thrashed 3-0 by a farming nation smaller than Moldova and condemning them, almost certainly, to being the first host nation to be elimated before the second round. I know I shouldn't take such smirking delight at such a fact, and I have nothing against the badly named country in itself ("South Africa" is a description of a location, not a name, much in the way that the "Central African Republic" is a description of a country and its political system rather than a proper name for a nation. For the record, I would name them "Gun Trumpet" and "Superland" respectively), but for their efforts in reducing all crowd noise from the varied joys of the sound of thirty-two nations' unique support to the constant steady menace of approaching insects I feel they deserve a swift booting from the tournament. Mind you, FIFA deserve a bit of a slap too for standing idly by. I've decided not to call them FIFA anyway, as the acronym is French, and so from now on I'm going with the English version, IFAF (or, for the pedant, IFoAF).

But controversies within a World Cup are part of the fun. I've accepted all remaining games will be soundtracked by a ghastly buzzing and don't really mind, just as long as this unique part of South Africa's apparent culture doesn't stray beyond the tournament; I also clearly enjoying moaning about it as much as possible. I'm enjoying this new football, widely accused of being too round and having a mind of its own, and thus responsible for every bad kick or goalkeeping fluff. I'm mightily impressed by IFAF throwing out thirty pretty girls from a stadium because they were wearing orange and therefore promoting an unoffical brewery - the consequences, of course, being days of news and coverage for the unofficial brewery. And most of all, I'm loving the fact that Maradona is back, as de facto Argentina coach, and looking meaner than ever. Snappily dressed and with a gangster beard, he struts about the touchline, flicks stray balls to players with occasional fancy flourishes, and gives brilliant press conferences where he says stuff like: "[Pele should] go back to the museum", "We all know how the French are", and (after kissing and hugging his payers upon a 4-1 victory) "I still prefer women. I am dating Veronica, who is blonde and 31 years old." Oh, Maradona.

So, things are getting better and I hope I read the signs correctly that indicate a promising World Cup ahead. However, like most things, improvements can always be made. The quality of the football is a matter for the teams and although integral to the enjoyment of the tournament is mostly beyond IFAF's (oh, ok, I'll call them FIFA) control except for tweaking certain rules and introducing comedy joke footballs; however, FIFA can deal with logistical issues and make general tournament-wide innovations that can have a positive impact for the crowds and the TV viewers. So if I was the entire organisation of FIFA, this is what I'd do (in no particular order, except for number one).

1. Ban stupid plastic trumpets. Obviously.

2. Change the way tickets are sold from the second round onwards. This is from personal experience, going to two games in Germany 2006. One was a first round game between Korea and Switzerland and had an amazing atmosphere, perhaps the best I've ever witnessed. Why? Because it was full of Korean and Swiss fans who had bought their ticket in advance, knowing their teams would be playing. But the second game I saw was a second round game between Ukraine and Switzerland. And it was terrible. Not just the dire football, but the total lack of atmosphere. This was because when I - and most others there - had bought the tickets, it had just been a second round match gamble, and most people had calculated either Spain or France being one of the teams. Therefore, the crowd was full of French, Spanish and mostly curious Germans, and had a minority of Swiss or Ukranians. During the day we saw loads of French and Spanish trying to sell their unwanted tickets. So the stadium was full of people who didn't really care - not conducive to an electric game of football. I suspect this is the case, to varying degrees, for most later games. I'm not sure exactly how it could be done, but FIFA need to try and ensure the tickets aren't sold way in advance to random punters (like myself and the curious Germans) but hold back, say, two thirds until they know which teams are playing. If a country can't fill their third, then sell it to the opposition or the host nation fans. Anything that maintains the good atmosphere of the first round onto the later rounds.

3. Don't book players for taking their tops off during celebrations. Come on, FIFA, what's this all about? It's not as if they're revealing their erect ejaculating penises.

4. Ban players retroactively for diving in the box. This isn't my idea, it's derived from an idea by Justin, but video evidence should be used after games and if a player has blatantly dived in the box - whether leading to a penalty or not - they should be banned from the rest of the tournament. I'm not suggesting changing the game's result, just stamping out diving players. Because it's sickening when a game is decided by cheating.

5. Don't ban players from playing in the final just because they've picked up two yellow cards. A red card in the semi-finals, ok, fair enough, if it was something really cynical at least. But the final is meant to be a showcase between the two best footballing nations on the planet, and to have that game minus one, two, three or whatever of the best players in the world, just because of some earlier minor indiscretions, undermines the game.

6. Have the women's World Cup on simultaneously, in the same country. I'm serious. Nobody really gives a damn about the women's World Cup - especially women - but if it was to be held in the same country at the same time, then I believe it would generate a lot more interest. If the games were held in the morning, or at a time not clashing with the men's games, it would attract a lot more passing interest. No doubt some might complain it would be it the men's tournament's shadow, but that's better than being entirely invisible, and being in the midst of the world's biggest sporting spectacle would be excellent exposure for the game, and would provide a nice counterpoint. Even if in women's football, Germany always wins.

7. Declare a month's national holiday everywhere in the world. You know it makes sense.

My situation as a viewer is unchanged: still offshore Norway, still flitting between Norweigan television coverage and all kinds of internet streaming, with zero alcohol beers helping me through the matches (there have been a few where proper alcohol really would have helped). I'm realising my situation, given that I'm offshore, is astonishingly lucky, as the games fall at excellent times (as long as I'm willing to cut my sleep a little short) and the rig action is very quiet right now. Jobwise, there's a thing stuck in a hole - but you don't want to know about that. Happily, I can be here for no longer than one more week, which will see me through to the second round, where (I pray) I can watch the remainder of tournament in a succession of pubs, in a series of incoherent states. And that would be a result.

Tuesday, 15 June 2010

South Africa 2010

It's the World Cup: I love the World Cup.

In this bleak and heartless universe, where life is just a vehicle for the expression of pain and where death is a godless and eternal void, the World Cup is a genuine ray of light and burst of colour. Temporarily, we can put aside the crushing misery of our daily lives, and revel in a festival of football, and glory in the sublime achievement of mankind to organise this global event that overtakes an entire nation and captivates billions of diverse individuals across our spinning heavenly body. For a whole month, magic dances and we are all enchanted by the dazzling spells conjured by the feet of a few hundred supremely blessed athletes. If you - yes, YOU - are not touched by the World Cup in some way, then you are not fit to be a member of our species: please leave mankind immediately.

Truly, there is nothing quite in the same realm. Sure, the Olympics may have more participating countries, but it only takes place in one city rather than across a nation, is far less focussed and has no building storyline or theme (except of "unity"...), and the best sport featured - the 100m - takes place in the first few days meaning the weeks following are all downhill. The World Cup is focussed only on football, with recurring heroes and villains, impossible moments of drama, bitter injustices, outstanding skills, and a rising level of excitement and tension as the tournament draws to its brilliant and ultimate conclusion to crown one team only as the Champions of Earth.

Even those not normally partial to football are touched and stroked by the World Cup. My mother, not known for a close interest in the beautiful game, openly enjoys the tournament, and will include it in her conversations and even watch the occasional match. It is a worldwide event, coming round for only one month every four years (that's one out of every forty-eight months, or 2.1% of time itself) and this rarity of occurrence makes it even more special.

Indeed, as is often regaled during social converse, you can track your life by World Cups. Looking back on each tournament and where and how you watched it, the progress of your life can be observed. The first tournament I can remember is Italia '90. Aged 11, I wasn't really into football then, and didn't watch many games, but I recall being on a school trip to Holland, and hearing the result of the opening game, a massively surprising 1-0 victory for Cameroon over Argentina. I bought a poster of the Holland team while there, and watched most of the later games, back home in Dingwall. Dingwall was the scene also for USA '94. This was certainly when the World Cup came alive for me. My abiding memory is of the (instrumental version) of the Bernstein's West Side Story song "America" being used as the BBC's theme, and my whole family tapping furiously in vague rhythm every time it came on, and eating a grand curry for the final, where poor Roberto Baggio blazed his penalty over the bar to give Brazil the cup. I watched loads of games, mostly on late at night, and that was it: aged 15, I'd fallen in love for the rest of my life.

Fast forward then to me at 19, and an Aberdeen University student, studying (rather improbably) biochemistry. Of course, by the start of France '98, the university year was over and the vast holidays of the undergraduate had begun. The majority of the games that tournament were watched at home, in my conservatory, shared with the likes of Green and M. Fraser, on what was considered a rather swanky TV back in that past millennium. The opening game was Scotland vs Brazil, obviously a big event, and made even more memorable by the tremendously misjudged gesture by my deviant friend, H, who appeared wearing a Brazil top. This did not go down at all well, and H has never really lived this down. I may have had a short-lived diddy evening job at an off-licence that summer, but can't remember if it interfered with the football - I have a feeling I may have missed a few games because of it. Regardless, the final took place at the same time as "T in the Park", and with a large crowd of bohemian youths/neds, I watched France beat Brazil 3-0 on a big screen, to the surprising delight of the masses.

My favourite World Cup was next: Korea/Japan 2002, aged 23. As well as being a brilliant tournament, full of surprises and upsets, it also was the premise of a self-set challenge to watch every single game of the tournament, but without compromising my lifestyle. My job then was evening work washing dishes at Estaminet, which was my post-university career for a couple of years. My lifestyle then was basically that of a total waster. I would finish washing dishes - or rather "washing dishes" might be more accurate - at 10pm, and then go out almost every single night and get myself into a state of absolute intoxication. As the games took place, in UK time, between 6am and 2pm, some nights I couldn't even go to sleep as the football would be starting. Even when I did sleep, it would only be for a few hours, as every day for almost three weeks I would have to be up by 6 or 7am to watch the first game of the day. Hours of football then followed, and then I'd have to go to work. And then further intoxocation. It is no understatement when I say this was all very bad for my health. After three weeks there was a blessed two day break from football, but by this time I was visibily gaunt. I had barely slept in that time. The World Cup final was an interesting twist. It took place at noon on Sunday - and, astoundingly, my work decided to put me on an entirely unprecedented ten hour shift, 12-10pm. I thought they were surely joking, as I only ever worked evenings, 6-10pm, but they were gravely serious and said I'd be fired if I didn't turn up. As it transpired, they had brought in a few TVs for the final, to show in the bar, and were expecting a few people and thus extra dishes to be washed (they were wrong). Anyway, I got around this by smuggling a TV into the kitchen, propping it up on a sink, and very slowly grating a large block of cheese for two hours while watching Ronaldo score two goals against Germany. This successfully completed my mission of watching every single game that tournament (although I was barely conscious or coherent for much of it).

Aged 27, I had just returned from two years living in Korea by the time of Germany 2006, and had just started a new job - the job I'm doing to this day. My intention was again to watch every game, and I almost succeeded. What failed me? The World Cup itself, as I went over to Germany for a week to watch two games - South Korea 0-2 Swiss, and Swiss 0-0 Ukraine (Ukraine won 3-0 on penalties). While there, I watched loads of games on big screens, in Cologne and Hanover, but it was the actual transit between UK and Germany, via Holland, that took place during the games that resulted in missing a few. The rest of the games were either watched at Justin's, or at work. Still very new, I was on base every day for training. Except training in these days came in the form of using your own initiative, as it was termed, or "speak to someone else" as it might be put in plain English. This suited me very well, as after speaking to people in the morning, and perhaps actually doing some real training, in the afternoon I would hide myself in an obscure unit, set up an elaborate "test" with some electronics and let it run while I watched the football via BBC or ITV internet streaming. I watched the final at a friend's parents' house in the country, after being invited for a weekend-long barbecue. This barbecue/party invite was entirely independent of the football, as that group of friends had no real interest in the most important sport and tournament in human history, so I had to watch the thrid-place match alone, but we all watched the final together and thoroughly enjoyed Zidane's glorious finale. I believe this barbecue has since become an annual event; however, as I behaved quite badly I've not been invited back since.

And so we arrive to the present day, aged 31, mature and wise. I was deeply worried before this tournament as I'd not booked any holidays and there was a real fear that if I was sent away on a job, depending on the nature of the job I might miss a considerable amount of football. Although sometimes I spend vast swathes of time on rigs or in hotels just to hang around, I also sometimes have quite a lot to do. In the case of the latter, sitting down for two hours of football three times a day would simply be unthinkable.

Happily, I appear to have got lucky, and my current stint in Norway is extremely accommodating for watching the World Cup. I'm on night-shift, 7pm to 7am, which means that the first two games of the day (1.30pm and 4pm, Norweigan time) can be watched before I start work. It does mean I'm only getting about five hours sleep a night (8am to 1pm) but I can live with this. The evening game (8.30pm) is marginally trickier as I'm on shift, but fortunately the bulk of my time is currently spent monitoring data in a remote unit where I'm little disturbed. The internet here is utterly fantastic - the fastest I've ever seen in my life - and so this means I've been able to stream the matches.

Yes, streaming matches online has very much become a flavour of this current World Cup. Although I have the option to go to the rig's "Blue Room", a cinema-like set-up that shows the games, I've mostly been eschewing that to watch them either on my own room's TV or on my laptop. This is because for the first game of the day, I'm still so knackered I can't get out of bed, and because online I can get English commentary. Sometimes. Streaming games online is becoming somewhat of an art, a juggling act, because it's all so unreliable. Most of the sites I try simply don't work or require dubious downloads, and some manage to show only seconds of footage before freezing. Happily, I've hit upon a few winners. The improbable is a gem, and shows a mixture of BBC, ITV and Australian TV commentary, and I watched part of yesterday's Italian game via it, with Italian commentary. I've discovered another site with loads of links, mostly useless, but I've managed to watch ESPN coverage from it once, and it handily links to There's, a new discovery, and - Justin, you'll love this -, which promises more than it delivers, but did help me to watch the England-USA game hours after it had actually happened. The England-USA game is the only one I missed live, as things were incredibly busy then while dealing with a minor crisis and so two hours of football was definitely out, but I managed to see the highlights plus the second half, hours later.

Of course, the quality of internet streaming is awful, though better than nothing obviously, but this adds to the flavour of the whole tournament for me. Sometimes it freezes or stops and I can't really make out the individual features of the players, but I can still see clearly what's going on and every day is a challenge as there's never any guarantee as to which website will be working, and Norweigan TV (on this rig) only seems to show certain games. But that's half the fun of it, desperately trying multiple websites just before kick-off, and then having to switch after half an hour when the chosen one gives up.

I think I'll probably have another week of this before heading back onshore where, one would imagine, it would be much easier to watch games, especially as the volume of games decreases. With luck, if I'm not whisked away to yet another job, I might get to watch the second half of the tournament in Edinburgh, in pubs, drinking, as opposed to watching it alone drinking the alcohol-free beer supplied on the rig (which I'm quite getting into, if truth be told). As long as I get to see all the games though, I really don't care where I am, or how little sleep I'm getting.

A word, finally, on this year's World Cup itself. Isn't it rubbish? The quality of football has been pretty dire, and the games dull to watch. I think it'll improve, as things warm up, but watching a series of 0-0s and 1-0s is not entertainment. No, and especially when soundtracked by that damn stupid trumpet. If you're going to let a few hundred (? thousand?) people blow some bloody atonal one-note trumpet for the whole game, almost entirely drowning out the natural ebb and flow of the crowd, why not just rig up the stadium speakers and blast out the bee-like buzz at full volume and save everyone the effort? This awful trumpet is becoming an absolute blight to this World Cup, making the games unpleasant to have to listen to, and making it impossible for the viewer - and, I'm sure, the actual crowd - to get into the feel of the game. Football (as well as many other sports) is very much driven by crowd atmosphere and so to drown out cheering, booing, singing and chanting by some blasted ugly horn that drones incessantly for the entire duration of the match creates a weird feeling for the game that affects both fan reaction and I have no doubt the football quality itself. The trumpets are continuous and aren't "played" in reaction to the game's events, rather just blown for the sake of making a racket, oblivious to the action.

These trumpets are obviously the bane of South Africa 2010 and in addition to the half-empty stadiums (seemingly caused by terrible infrastructure and traffic gridlock rather than poor sales) and propensity for the crowd to Mexican wave at every opportunity, I do fear that this may end up being the poorest World Cup in my experience. I hope I'm wrong. And I especially hope that God reveals Himself and cuts off the mouth of every person playing these trumpets.

Regardless of my trumpet-hatred and the poor football so far, my love of the World Cup is totally unshaken and each night shift I look forward to going to bed just so I can wake up the next morning, ready for hours of football. Tomorrow (well, today technically) is New Zealand vs Slovakia, The Coat of Ivory vs Portugal and Brazil vs North Korea. Now, just look at these three ties and wonder in awe at the majesty of this tournament.

Thursday, 10 June 2010

The West Phoenix

So, Norway it is.

Norway has a reputation for being the swanky one in town when it comes to oil. The rigs especially. Unlike places such as Brazil and Mexico, who appear to believe that economy and efficiency is all about having the cheapest, oldest rigs possible and cramming the rig workers in like cattle, Norway takes the other approach and has lovely, modern rigs where they treat the workers well, and allow them a degree of comfort. I daresay that both approaches have their merits when taken from the bigger picture of overall cost per oil well; but from the perspective from an individual who has to spend weeks or months of my life – a one-shot deal of finite duration, you will be aware – there is no doubt where I’d rather be.

In fact, where I’d rather be is Edinburgh, in my flat, drinking whisky – but let’s not get into that.

So I’m happy to report that the rig I’ve been on since Friday, the West Phoenix, is without any doubt the best I’ve ever been on.

Let’s qualify that statement a little. Although I’m certainly still a fresh face in comparison to some of the haggard geriatrics that make up the offshore business, I’ve been to quite a few rigs in quite a few countries in my four years in my job. Many offshore workers can spend years or even decades shuttling to and from the same rig, and even many service company personnel – who work on a job-to-job basis rather than rotation on the same rig – will be based in one area as opposed to being sent around the world. But one of the highlights of my job in a small company that don’t, by and large, have international employees dedicated to one region, is that I get to go round the world. That may mean highlights such as Malaysia or lowlights like Nigeria or Angola, and with lots of quirky spots like Mauritania, Trinidad and Ghana in between.

And it also means a tour of the world’s rigs.

This has taken many forms, with Brazil being the main villain: six-man rooms, porn-obsessed Brazilians, ghastly meat gloop masquerading as food, cockroaches, and a perpetual struggle to be allowed to contact the outside world. Sleeping in the eight-man container next to the helideck on a rig on Mozambique hasn’t yet been forgiven or forgotten, likewise the rusting hulk offshore Oman in which I had to spend days lying in bed because there simply wasn’t anywhere else to go. But usually conditions are a little better, with two-man rooms, edible food, and a modicum of space. But luxury they are not. At a rough count, I think I’ve been on about seventeen rigs in about ten or so countries, and even the good ones could never be mistaken for floating sea hotels.

But the West Phoenix, well, it's something altogether different. It's vast, for a start, a considerable size larger than what I'm used to. There are three TV rooms, at least - as well as flatscreen TVs in every bedroom (never mind that it's predominantly weird Norweigan TV, that's not the point). The internet is ultra high speed, the fastest I've ever encountered in my life whether onshore or offshore, and is in every room. It has all sorts of bonus features, such as bingo nights, sun beds, saunas, lots of board games and even a lift within the accommodation for those who can't summon the energy to walk up three flights of stairs. But best of all are the one-man rooms. Yes, one-man rooms. Oh, what a rare luxury this in on a rig, where usually you're stuffed in some pokey coffin with many other men grunting, sweating, snoring and chattering around you. I've never before had a one-man room on a rig before; I'd grown used to abandoning privacy for weeks at a time upon arriving offshore, but now I've experienced it I don't know if I can go back.

Another minor highlight is the unit I'm in when working, which has a profer hifi system in-built, meaning that I can playing pounding techno at ferocious volumes.

So that is where I find myself now, in the offshore luxury of a Norweigan oil rig. My previous three months were more-or-less spent in Nigeria, doing exceptionally little except vegetate. Oh I wrote a 157 page book too. Nigeria is my excuse for writing so little recently as it's a profoundly demotivating place, and I don't know what's worse: being trapped for interminable weeks in the listless Novotel in Port Harcourt, or actually having to go into Port Harcourt itself and deal with the ferocious and stifling heat, chaos and anger. I've still not really got my head back to normal yet, and only having a handful of days at home before going to Norway means I'm still in a bit of a mental daze.

But never mind, because Norway is of a finite duration - a maximum of two weeks left - and the World Cup starts tomorrow! Hurray!

Wednesday, 19 May 2010

Novotel Ennui

The last 28 days of my life have been spent virtually entirely in the Novotel in Port Harcourt, Nigeria, doing nothing.

It hasn't been very interesting.

Thursday, 15 April 2010


I've been really getting into the Bovril recently.

Saturday, 20 March 2010

Nutcracker Nightmre/Bye Bye Belt/Nigerian Dream

Nutcracker Nightmare

Though it’s easy and tempting to look back upon the innocence and simplicity of childhood, where every day was summer and spent climbing apple trees, with the fuzzy glasses of nostalgia, the reality is that at these unpolished and raw young years life could swing from the greatest of highs to the greatest of lows. The wild euphoria of running around with a ball was only matched by the crashing devastation when a fellow infant reduced you to tears by rudely taking the ball away from you. As years go on, it is easy to forget the extremes of emotion encountered daily, before the severity of adult existence crushed the spirit and reduced living to a finite middle ground of unwavering grey.

Fear is something that is still experienced in adulthood, like a headache ranging from a dull background throb to excruciating and immediate headsplitter. But it usually has some basis in reality, if perhaps not always entirely rational, such as the fear of the unknown (dark, future, death). As a child, though it’s easy to quickly forget, fear of the unknown can come at many different angles, since there is so much that is unknown.

Which is why, perhaps, as a young child I was afraid of a mouse with three heads.

Many years ago, when I was perhaps five or six, I watched some very odd cartoon which featured a mouse with three heads. My memory of a cartoon watched about 25 years ago is obviously pretty vague, though that I remember it at all is testament to its impact, but I seemed to recall it being somewhat of an evil mouse, and it appeared from a hole in the room and did evil stuff. It was magical, as three-headed mice surely are. There was also something about a king in there.

As a child, this three-headed mouse tormented my night-times. I would lie in bed, frozen in a mortal fear, looking at the corner of my room, convinced a three-headed magical mouse would appear at any moment and cause all sorts of horror. It was a particularly pointy-faced three-headed mouse, its cartoon roots making it no less sinister: it was no Mickey or Jerry. For a period of months (though surely not years) this awful mouse cast a bad spell upon the night, threatening to appear from a sudden mousehole at any moment. No wonder I often slept with the light on.

Years on and into adulthood, and no longer afraid of three-headed mice, it has occurred to me at time to wonder what the cartoon I saw actually was. How reliable is a 25-year-old memory? All I knew was there was an evil three-headed mouse, maybe a king, and the cartoon was definitely very weird and so therefore probably Eastern European. And so, what else to turn to but Google?

And there we have it. After a combination of searches for three-headed mice, kings, cartoons, and Eastern European animation, I found it: Schelkunchik, Щелкунчик , or The Nutcracker. With Wikipedia giving a nice little summary of this Russian gem, I found that it was also on Youtube, and so have been able to watch it again for the first time in two-and-a-half decades and relive my old nightmares. Animated to the sound of Tchaicovsky, it has definite shades of Fantasia, but in a freakish way that only Communist cartoons can manage. For those who can’t be bothered with 26-minutes of Soviet animation, here’s a little summary.

It’s Christmas and a fat royal boy gets a present, a nutcracker (in the form of a soldier). He quickly discards it for something else, and then a poor girl starts sweeping the room and dancing with her broom. She notices the Nutcracker. Then the scene is a big royal throne room with king, queen and baby prince, receiving presents in a ceremony. Suddenly, gnawing its way through the floor, a large evil three-headed mouse appears and starts to cause all sorts of trouble. It’s a queen mouse, and has a three-headed baby mouse son under her cloak. The queen mouse is about to kill everyone but the king pours poison on her, she explodes, and her tails lands on the baby prince, turning him into a nutcracker, and turning the rest of the room, people and entire palace into ice.

Then we’re back with the poor girl. The three-headed mouse (the son, grown up) appears from a mousehole in the corner of the room with lots of mice minions and attack the girl. But the nutcracker comes to life, summons all the Christmas tree baubles and they all have a big battle. Just as the three-headed mouse is about to kill the nutcracker, the girl throws her clog and hits the mouse, making him and all his minions explode. Then the nutcracker turns into a somewhat gay-looking prince, the poor girl turns into a beautiful princess, and they dance for ages as the ice kingdom comes back to life.

So there we have it, my childhood nightmare in a nutshell, nutcracked, and with having confronted my fears, my nightmares can fade. And with the Soviet Empire crumbled and our only threat coming from a ragtag bundle of warriors in the mountains of Afghanistan, perhaps all our fears can be eased: the Islamic militants don’t seem to go much in the way of cartoon making.

Bye Bye Belt

Eagle-eyed readers may have noticed in my last entry, about pole-dancing, something extra on the pole aside from erotic dancers. This was in fact my belt.

Just before pole dancing mania began, there was an incident. It had been waiting to happen for the week prior. My belt was on its last legs, as I first noticed when whipping it off for airport security. One of the notches, very worn, had ripped to the outside, thus leaving just a rather sickly, twisted belt in its place. Eventually, it could no longer take the strain, and broke. Bye bye belt.

This was no normal belt, you must be aware. I’ve worn this belt for likely ten years now, maybe more. This belt travelled and was part of my day during every trousered moment of travelling in 2001. It faithfully stuck by me during every respectable moment of two years in Korea. And the last four years, it has jet-setted around the globe in search of oil, and very patiently tolerating my expanding waist. It’s been with me since belt setting “2” all the way to the frightening belt setting “6” (but only after large meals, honestly). But finally, like a faithful old dog, over-service broke it in two. However, I feel that by tying it to a pole-dancing pole, where it has been left, it at least has the chance of a new life.

The sudden lack of belt also means that I am beltless for the remainder of this trip. Fortunately I am not dieting, and so my belly is successfully keeping my trousers in place.

Nigerian Dream

Since I last left you, in the strip club guesthouse, there have been a few changes. Mostly, myself and the Mountie are no longer living in such questionable accommodation. Instead we have been dismissed from the secure compound and banished back to the badlands of Port Harcourt, and to French “Novotel”. No escape from the French, it seems. This, overall, is an unfortunate move, as the compound had a tennis court and many other delights, even that of space to walk, whereas the Novotel has merely a table tennis table and really nothing else to offer. Sure, it has a bar, but the beers cost three times that of the compound, and a whisky costs £7!

The upside, I think, is that for now all work is over. There’s been a bit, but mostly I’m done until going offshore, perhaps next week. For visa reasons, it is easier to keep me in the country until my whole two or three days offshore, even though I’m not doing anything.

The Mountie and I have done our best to keep ourselves entertained. Last Sunday, to celebrate cessation of hard work, we drank champagne and smoked cigars. We felt awfully sophisticated. We tried this again last night, except without the champagne and with some whisky instead. It would have gone fine, but it was a different type of cigar we tried – “Romeo & Juliet” – and the difference was significant. After finishing it, both of us (and the Mountie is a regular smoker), found ourselves in a state of utter weakness. Light-headed and exhausted, and with a good few drinks down us already, we agreed to call it a night. It was 9.30pm. I don’t recommend the Romeo & Juliet.

Table tennis, or “bippy-bap” as we call it, has otherwise occupied us. The table is in a tent in the small Novotel gardens, and as a result is stiflingly warm. After just a few games we are dripping with sweat, and whichever one of us has lost also in a furious huff. Fortunately, I am up in the (best of three) series 6-4.

And 6-4 it will end, for as I speak The Mountie is on his way back to the UK, back to cold weather, and back to freedom, for he has holidays booked. I am left to fend for myself in the Novotel. Until tomorrow, when another colleague, “The Yellow Bunny” makes an appearance. I don’t know if the Yellow Bunny smokes cigars, but I know he doesn’t drink much, so I sincerely hope his bippy-bap skills are honed.

Thursday, 11 March 2010

Lunch Hour At The Strip Joint

You join us during our 4 hour lunch break at the strip joint.

In fact, this takes place in our - myself and the Mountie's -own accommodation, which oddly has a strip bar pole right in the middle of it. The only explanation I can think of for this is that a lot of French people appear to use this staffhouse.

It's only temporary accommodation anyway, as later today we're going back to our pleasant one-man mini-flats. Our work here is just about done: the last few days were pretty busy, assembling and fitting stuff onto big bits of pipe, in up to 37C heat. Lots of photos taken, lots of Frenchmen consulted, all good so far.

So, job done, go home? It appears not. Offshore is due in a couple of weeks (only for a couple of days) so until then we get to pretty much kick back in the Onne compound, the weirdly, blandly, charmlessly pleasant fake village set up to safely house lots of fat oil workers so they never have to interact with a real African (except hookers and cleaners). In this compound, with guards stationed all around and rolls of barbed wire lining the walls, we are pretty much safe from rampaging kidnappers.

So, two weeks of waiting. What can we do to occupy our time?

Saturday, 6 March 2010

The Chicken Republic

The Chicken Republic has no chicken. Welcome back to Nigeria.

“Could I have a chicken burger and a chicken-cheeseburger, please?”
“Sorry sir, we have no chicken-cheeseburgers any more.”
“Oh, well, could I have two chicken burgers please?”
“Sorry sir, we have no chicken burgers.”
“Oh... um, do you have any chicken?”
“Hmm, well what food do you have?”
“We have ice-cream and salad.”

Yes, after almost a three year break, I've found myself back in the mean streets of Port Harcourt, Nigeria, where the pock-marked streets fill with unceasing, desperate traffic, where black-clad police with rusty guns swagger and shout (and guard us), where mounds of rubbish decay and slide into streams, where our hotel has two levels of security before we can enter, where goats ride on the back of motorcycles or hang dead from the back of trucks, where archaic vehicles defy all-known mechanical laws in the pursuit of impossible motion, where every morning invites a new day of humidity and sweat, and where – and I would have it no other way – the Chicken Republic has no chicken.

It has been three years since I last visited Nigeria, and in that time the days and weeks of frustrated fury that it bred in me have mellowed to a grim amusement bordering on fondness. Oh Nigeria, you naughty, cheeky boy, who throws tomatoes at the neighbours' windows. Oh Nigeria, you little rascal, who puts a potato deep into the exhaust of the headteacher's Volkswagen. Oh Nigeria, you awful rogue, who pesters the minister's daughter with obscene “sextexts”. Oh Nigeria, you scourge of my life, who sets fire to the local dog. Oh Nigeria, you brutal criminal, who deserves your life imprisonment for a series of violent attacks on old ladies. What I mean is that Nigeria, a vast country of 150 million people, is a mixed bag that invites multiple interpretations, but that these interpretations will invariably range from “cheeky” to “utterly evil”. It's not a country for the faint-hearted, or for minister's daughters; but approached from the right aspect it has a certain spirit that isn't entirely unappealing: approached from the wrong aspect and you might just wish your armed escort would lift up his battered gun and quickly end your misery.

That in Port Harcourt the local political rebels MEND have recently ended their ceasefire and have openly resumed hostilities and a policy of kidnapping foreigners is only the dainty cherry on a lovely pie.

Myself and my fellow beardy colleague, “The Mountie”, arrived here on Thursday, after an overnight in Paris (to puncture the bubble of glamour, our evening was spent at a Charles de Gaulle airport hotel; gosh, how I hate that airport). Our bags were lost in transit because they offloaded our bags in Lagos, but to our minor surprise they appeared 24 hours later, much to the relief of anyone with a sense of smell. Our first few days were spent in Port Harcourt, checking equipment, trying to buy chicken, and being very glad that the astonishing prices charged by the Novotel weren't billed to us. Previously, three years ago, I'd been under the wing of Halliburton, and stayed in the faded, jaded Presidential Hotel (now out of favour since stormed by armed rebels), and with this brought security in the form of an armed vehicle escort and lots of police with guns. Now we've gone solo, almost, and security comes in the form of Ezra, a tough but cuddly policeman, who sits in our car and smiles, and plays with his phone. He's far too nice to shoot, so I'm hoping the rebels will bypass us out of common courtesy.

For now though, our days of Ezra, the Novotel, chickenless chicken restaurants and Port Harcourt mania in general are over, as we today arrived at the sanitised freezone of Onne, just south of Port Harcourt, and where oil companies and fat old foreigners can rest safely and securely without having to indulge too much in local culture – except, of course, when it takes the form of a young and attractive female allowing a deeply unappealing and usually married man to have sex with her in exchange for money. Ah Port Harcourt, ah oil business, ah human civilisation for thousands of years.

The secure compound we're staying in, generally though, is decent, if anonymous in style, and certainly feels a lot more relaxed than the last compound I stayed in, in Malongo in Angola, which had every appearance of an army camp, had no bar, and a shop which forbade you to buy more than four small beers. Things here are clean, the accommodation is very comfortable and spacious, internet is easily accessible, and there's a bar without apparent alcohol limitations. Instead of Americans, the dominant species is French: I still have not decided my opinion on this. On the downside, the distance between accommodation and the work yard is large, and requires a driver, which causes logistical hassles and less daily freedom.

How long myself and The Mountie will be here is uncertain. Our immediate duties are to fit some stuff on some other stuff and makes sure it fits – a highly precise and technical operation, you can be sure. After that, we expected to dally a little before going offshore, but speaking to a French gentleman named Marco it seems that offshore could be many weeks away, in which case it's unlikely we'd be hanging around here until then. So we'll see.

Marco, I should quickly and quietly mention, and copy directly from an email sent to my boss, is a Frenchman who epitomises all that is bad about France. He's so high powered as to virtually be able to fly unassisted, but quite frankly is the rudest man I have ever met. When The Mountie shook his hand, Marco barely even registered his existence. He only registered mine because I'd been pestering him with phonecalls all day. Perhaps I should send sextexts. A nasal Gallic-nosed Frenchard with rigid, curly locks, in his 50s and without a smile, his deeply ill manners and total lack of help had myself and my good-hearted colleague firmly agree on one descriptive word: prick. Yes, Marco, if you read this, we think you are a prick. If I could press a button that would kill you, yes you Marco, after a week of pain, then I would press that button while staring into your piggy little eyes. Marco, I hate you.

With these sentiments I should probably leave you. But just be glad that after four days in Nigeria the nation I have now grown to resent most is not Nigerian, no not at all, but is French. Worryingly, it is the French I will be mostly dealing with in the next few days. Chicken Republic – you rumbustious imp - all is forgiven.

Wednesday, 3 March 2010


I am surrounded by bohemians right now. Mike is just putting the final touches to his BBC documentary, and lives a lifetyle of decadence, housecoats and whisky. Last night I was at Simon's book signing in Blackwell's, just round the corner from me. He spoke and read out parts from the book, and I have to say it was very enjoyable. Especially the parts about me. As I was buying his signed copy, I noticed a CD by the counter, by a girl called Julie Fowlis, who I used to go to school with. I purchased it, only to later realise the CD itself was missing. No matter, I will claim it today. It's all in Gaelic and Mike is interested in hearing it, as it might go well with his documentary, which takes place in Lewis. In a wider orbit, there are relatives with books out, or a sister's friend displaying art in Edinburgh's National Gallery.

I'm getting sucked into this bohemian creative mania too. I try my best to be a stoic, blunt, pragmatic oil-based luddite, but it now seems as though Mike and I will write a film together in a few weeks. He's got an idea which, rarely, I think is good, and with his exquisitive film knowhow and my... hmm... we think we can make something possibly quite good. In the meantime, I've got my own book out. It's called The Sponsor's Parade, and there is one copy in existence. I don't recommend it.

Fortunately, all this bohemian awfulness is to be shaked and shot out of me very soo, as tomorrow I go to Nigeria. In Nigeria, there is no room for the bohemian. Gracious, no. If I had more intelligence, I'd be deeply scared, but the bohemian in me thinks it may be "interesting".

Monday, 22 February 2010

Back From Ghana (a couple of weeks ago)

Crivens, you must be thinking, it’s been a while. About a month, in fact, since I last sat down at my sturdy laptop and pondered the latest events to strike my life – that’s longer than some people have been alive. When others like Varwell and even The Swish Fish update with a degree of regularity, what excuse do I have for my sudden silence? The answer: alcohol. I have been drinking lots of alcohol.

To catch up on all the wild dramas of the first sixth of ZOLO, I am going to employ an old favourite: headings on bold. So grab hold of your chair, or the nearest person, or whatever, and cling on tight – we’re on for a rough ride.


I ended up spending three weeks in Ghana, and overall it was a very pleasing experience. Work was done, make no mistake, but it never heavily interfered with the more important activities of eating, drinking, swimming in the pool, or lying around in my pleasant hotel room watching football. Among the viper’s nest that is West Africa, Ghana is a benign grass snake, that is, it’s non-poisonous and could even be kept as a lovely pet. The country is poor, no doubt, but also safe and friendly, and untroubled by the civil war/civil strife/totalitarianism/kidnappings that preoccupy its neighbours. As a result, going out at night was not a gamble with one’s life, and was actually fun. Myself and my colleague, Bigboy, frequented a number of establishments of varying reputes, and spent many a Saturday and Sunday daytime in a state of physical distress as a result.

The entire three weeks was spent onshore, in a state of mild readiness to have to go offshore for what would likely have been a dinky little straightforward job, but the job continued to be delayed and pushed more and more into the future. Thus it was finally realised by the oil company in charge – who seemed to barely care that they were paying for two guys to have a Ghanaian holiday – that it was foolish to keep us in country any longer, and back home we were sent.


Back home, to Edinburgh, where I have been for the last two weeks, enjoying the fine quality of ale, the fine quantity of ale, and the enchanting company of friends and family. The snow having lifted during my African jaunt, Edinburgh is now enjoying a bright and crisp late winter, and I am enjoying its charming streets and historic buildings, packed with charm and variety, and lots of tourists of course. It’s still a novelty to me, after so many years in Aberdeen, to live in a city that isn’t so utterly dominated by a vast shadow of grey from some overbearing and otherworldly and very grey North Sea entity that has its wings ominously spread across the city. The difference is a little like going the cinema and seeing a colour film for the same time. Or waking one morning to a beautiful lady after being married to the same dour and dowdy wife for thirty years.


Still lurking in my Edinburgh residence, like a tick on a dog’s back or, more flatteringly, a beautiful orchid where I thought only tulips grew, is Mike. Or film director Day, as he should be correctly titled. Just as doctors can be called Dr and farmers called Farmer (Fr?) and judges called Judy, we both agree that all people should have career titles. Thus I would be Engineer (Er) Christie and Mike would be BBCFD Day. He is putting the final touches to a documentary that has already been bought by the BBC and the trailer (I think) can be seen at I’ve not yet seen it, as I don’t have particular interest in the film world and especially the unfinished film world, but Mike is giving me a nearly-finished copy to view either later today or tomorrow, to get a layman’s opinion. Having seen the trailer, and little bits and pieces that he’s shown me, I expect it should be quite good. But don’t tell him I said that, his ego’s vast enough.


To continue the trend of creative bohemian friends, my good friend Varwell, still blushing from his recent marriage, has a book out. Most readers here will know about it I’m sure, but for those unacquainted it is about the first part of his quest to visit every single place in the world with the name “mullet” in it. The book was released in the last few weeks, and I of course have bought a copy, and even read it. Most excitingly, the first five chapters feature me quite a lot, so you may have no doubt that I enjoyed this terribly. It’s a great novelty to walk into a major bookstore, buy a book by a friend, and then start reading about yourself. But even after chapter five, when I start to get mentioned a lot less, the book continued to be enjoyable. Having known Simon for some time, and reading his blog regularly, I knew the book would be very readable, enjoyable, splattered with Varwellian jokes and with some healthy reflection upon the absurdity of his quest. And so I’m happy to say it did not disappoint. Simon’s writing style is light without ever being flimsy, clear and without ego. Although his quest has an air of the whimsical, the story has its share of very sober moments, especially in the country-that-Europe-forgot, Albania, where the quest begins.

Overall, the book is as much travel book as it is mullet book, and so I invite all dear readers to invest £7 in a copy. “Up The Creek Without A Mullet” by Simon Varwell, available in all good bookstores near you (depending where you live) or a mere mouse shuffle away on Amazon. Alternatively, I’ll sell you my copy for £6.


Despite my mattress being lumpy and my bed barely long enough for me to lie down straight in, I am sleeping inordinately well. Truly, each morning I am so comfy I can barely find the powers to arise, and when I do so it’s considered an early start to be alive by 10.30am. Life is a pleasant beast when each morning is greeted with such warmth and toastiness, and thus I blame my inexplicably comfortable bed as much as my rampant alcoholism for my lack of constructive discourse of late.


Scurrilous rumour has it that I’ve been seen interacting socially with a girl. I hope she doesn’t ruin my reputation.

Bathroom Shelves

I really don’t want to talk about these.

Other stuff

I’ve done other stuff too, but it probably wasn’t very interesting.

Friday, 22 January 2010

An African Pub Quiz Holidays

Pub quizzes... oh, how I love them. An event that incorporates a keen testing of one's knowledge of the greater world in friendly competition with a diverse range of characters, all the while enjoying a continued healthy hydration with a selection of splendid ale concoctions. Indeed, perhaps the only thing better than participating in a pub quiz, is the joyous celebration of winning one - and winning one well. Which is what myself and my worryingly pseudonymed colleague "Bigboy" did last night, in Ghana.

We'll venture onto that delightful tale in a moment, but first I'd like to dwell a little on the nature of pub quizzes. Pub quizzes, for those who know me well or who have studied the pages of my blog (two Michigan students are currently involved in a critical analysis for their PhDs, they've found all kinds of underlying meanings), will know that I am rather partial to dipping my dirty toe into the murky underworld of pub quizzes. For years, so I enjoy regaling, I regularly took part in the pub quiz in Aberdeen's student union and racked up a whole catalogue of victories - which included prizes of expense-paid holidays to New York and return flights to Cairo. These glory days may never quite be repeated, but unlike the insatiable cravings of those who have tasted fame, I am content to revel in the echoes of past glories and the twinkling sunset of distant days triumphant.

Thus while the epic, twisting, derring-do sagas of these early Aberdeen quizzes cannot and should not be copied, it gives me great and continued pleasure to savour a little quiz now and again. The old team may have dispersed (and even got married to a real girl in one shocking case) and the old student union pub no longer extant, but the inexorable march of pub quizzes go on. Thus over the years I've made sporadic appearances at a few, most notably at Dingwall's Mallard Bar, a quizzing haunt of many controversies that I'll spare my dear reader the tales of, for fear of derailing my chugging train of thought from my planned destination.

Most recently then, it has been Edinburgh that has hosted a return to pub quiz days. My sister, a keen if as-yet unaccomplished participant, agreed that it would be pleasant to enjoy a regular Monday evening quiz in our new adopted city. Edinburgh, with its 5000 year history, has a depth and quality of pub that holds great potential for a sublime quiz. And so, with her vast amount of free time as she dwells in everlasting unemployment, she did some research and drew up a shortlist of Monday pubs hosting quizzes. And so the review process could begin.

The first pub was called Shakespeare's, an overly well-lit bar, with a very unusual quiz set-up, which barely went for the standard question-answer format and instead had various music rounds, picture rounds, and other quirks. As only myself and my sister were able to attend, it was a very time-intensive quiz, barely leaving us time to buys drinks or visit the toilet, but it was a very friendly quiz with a nice range of clientele. There were many merits to the unusual format, but ultimately I'm a pub quiz traditionalist, and enjoy a pause for breath between rounds.

The next was a bar called Cumberlands, and had a greater attendance with my cousin Malcolm, his lady Karen, and my sister's flatmate Sarah bolstering the numbers. It held to the traditional question-answer format, and with the added plus of the quizmaster himself marking the papers (instead of opposing teams, a system I'm not fond of). The quizmaster was the main attraction of the quiz, presenting it very informally as if he was rambling an oft-told story, and simply stood up in the entrance of the particular room in the pub and spoke, without microphone. This made for a cosy, homely feel to the quiz, which had well-judged questions mostly, and featured lots of geography (which I like). Every quiz, one of the answers is "Belgium": this kind of idiosyncracy is what makes a pub quiz stand out. The pub too was good, and our team were leading till the very last round, where a stumble saw us fall to about 3rd place. This is a quiz I can see ourselves revisiting.

Alas, the most recent Monday quiz I had to miss, because I was landing in Accra at about the time it began; but my sister and the other associated companions attended another one, at a pub called the Canon Gait, but gave it a fairly low score, based on being generic, an over-polished look to the bar, and lots of annoying students.

Yes, I have found myself in Ghana, not unexpectedly, but sooner than expected. For work, I should note, not for pub quizzes. I was supposed to come down here for a rather large job involving lots of bits of metal and tons of sweating, but it was cancelled, so I'm instead here to appear thoughtful and sip beers each evening. As twists of fate would have it, another job in Ghana has sprung up while myself and the aforementioned Bigboy are here, the timing of which means it might be worth our time to stay here until it kicks off. As the job may still be two weeks away, and as our hotel has a lovely pool and my room has a lovely balcony, fates have been worse. Ghana too is lovely: poor and stinky, but relaxed and friendly. Nobody yet has taken a machete to me.

And by happy chance, the bar right next door to our hotel happened to have a quiz on last night. Bigboy also considering himself an aficionado of such events, we thought it only correct to go along. If only to raise the profile of our small company in the eyes of the oil bigwigs.

We absolutely trounced the opposition. Scoring 42.5/60, we were a clear ten points ahead of second place, and our team of two was considerably smaller than some of the conglomerates clustered. From the very off, it was clear we would coast to victory, as questions seemed to fall into our laps, and even our wild guesses seemed to work out. Plus, during the mutual appraisal of our intelligence, Bigboy and I reflected that our careers and interests have only recently included the rape of Mother Earth for oil but prior to this was more diverse than that niche field, whereas much of the oil crowd there might be able to identify a big bit of pipe by mere scent but haven't stepped in different walks of life and don't know that the biggest four-letter nation in the world is Iran or that the US state featured in the Robert Redford film "The Horse Whisperer" was Montana. Or possibly they were just all stupid.

It was a fun and well-judged quiz, with a couple of bonus rounds, one of which we won to get a couple of tequila shots. Our overall prize was a drink voucher to the tune of about £20, which goes quite far here, but we made sure we went further, and enjoyed a highly discounted evening of the local Star beer.

The next quiz is next Thursday, which if we are still floating around here we will certainly attend. Though there's certainly work to be done here, it's panning out to be well spaced out, and affords just enough time to enjoy a cheerful sunny lifestyle. Our pub quiz team name may in fact reveal our true motives for this Ghanaian work visit: "Nev" and "Bigboy's" African Holiday. I'll leave you with a multiple choice question:

Q. What is the correct drink to enjoy by the poolside?
1. Star beer
2. Gin-and-tonic
3. A refreshing orange juice (before 11am)
4. All of the above, often