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".