Monday, 27 September 2010

No.394 Of Rule Britannia and the Royals

I spent a good part of last weekend in Edinburgh. I had forgotten what a great city it is and bathed as it was in glorious sunshine it made for a great two days of relaxation.
On Saturday afternoon I visited the Britannia which was decommissioned as the Royal yacht in 1996..
It's an astonishing vessel and a fine museum to how Royalty did Royalty from the early 1950s up until very recently.
Each visitor is given a handheld guide which tells you all the secrets belonging to each room as you go around. What's worth listening to is the lines in between the lines. For example, it tells you that a double bed didn't make it onto the ship before the honeymoon of Prince Charles and Lady Diana Spencer in the 80s. Then you see the single bedrooms of her Majesty and Prince Philip laid end to end at the back of the ship. It had a shared door where presumably the Prince could steal in at the dead of night and lament on the end of Her Majesty's bed just how ghastly the evening's pudding was.
The main dining room is breathtaking. It took 3 hours to prepare the 120 places with each item of cutlery set down with a ruler to make sure it was placed exactly 3 centimetres from the each of the edge of the table.
Until 1970 the Marines who travelled with the Royals to provide the band music when they arrived at port slept in hammocks but by the early 1990s they were sending as many as 6 shirts a day to the laundry room as they changed from one formal duty to another.
Different world then I thought as I jetted back to Belfast for £50 on my Easyjet flight.

Friday, 24 September 2010

No.393 Of Raised Expectations

I went swimming this morning for the first time in almost two weeks to see the Early Birds for I have missed their "craic" recently. For some reason they weren't there. May be like me getting up at the crack of dawn to make the 7.15a.m. cut is proving increasingly unappealing and difficult.

This evening I'm off to Edinburgh to see a musical written by an old friend of mine Julian Wagstaff called "John Paul Jones". Julian is a buddy from my university days in Glasgow. He was (and most likely still is) one of those very annoying people who could turn his hand to anything and do it well first time and most times do it quite brilliantly. We first met in a beginner's German language class. As I struggled to get my head round the grammar of the language and my tongue round the accent to him the former appeared obvious and the latter was well like he was just remembering the language rather than learning it for the first time. Sehr ärgerlich.

Probably about two years later I went to see him in a play he was in whilst studying in Berlin. It was the first time he had ever acted but you'd never had known it. Later that year he came to a party I had organsied whilst working at the European Parliament in Luxembourg. I asked him to bring his guitar which I had seen him carry about at Uni a few times to play a few songs if the moment seemed right. It didn't but that didn't deter him. He just got up in front of a large crowd of people he didn't really know sang and played a load of rock songs accoustically and raised the roof.

Here's wondering if he manages to raise the roof tonight. I expect so....

Wednesday, 22 September 2010

No.392 Of Tony, Charles and John Prescott

I said I'd read five books this year on leadership. I'm book four at the moment Tony Blair's "A Journey".

There's a beautiful part of the book where he describes his relationship with the lovable rogue and great Northern working class maverick John Prescott. It goes like this :

"I bumped into Prince Charles who told me he had had a meeting with John Prescott recently.
"Ah," I said, how did it go?
"Fine, fine" Prince Charles replied with a somewhat distracted air, "except...."
"Yes?" I said encouragingly, knowing some Johnism was about to emerge.
"Well", he said, looking round to see we were undisturbed, "does he ever do that thing with you?
"What thing"? I said.
"Er, well when he's sitting opposite you, he slides down the seat with his legs apart, his crotch pointing a little menacingly, and balances this teacup and saucer on his tummy. It's very odd."
I've never seen someone do that before. What do you think it means?"
"I don't really think it means anything really, I said
"Hmm. You don't think its a sort of gesture or sign of hostility or class enmity or something?
No" I said "he does that often with me"
"You mean" I interjected "he's making a working-class point against you, upper class and me middle class?"
"Well it could be" he said
"No, I think he just likes drinking his tea that way"
"Yes you're probably right" he said, plainly puzzled and unpersuaded, it's just I've never seen it done before.

Tuesday, 21 September 2010

No.391 Of Men and Their Dogs

I was in pain at 7a.m. this morning. No not stomach ache or nausea but from a stitch. For I had decided to run from the office to Lough Neagh and back at the crack of dawn and wow did it hurt..

Mind you it was a beautiful morning with a blood ride sky looking over the Lough as I "sped" round part of its shoreline on my way back to the office.

The only disadvantage to running at such an early hour is that that's the time when most of the dangerous dogs get walked on the basis that few other folks are around for them to attack. So each time I overtook a walker and his dog I did so with a certain amount of trepidation. Were they both going to step aside or would one try and unsuccessfully grab the other while I watched Mutley try and take a tasty lump out of my leg?

Dogs I have decided are much like men. In Glasgow when I worked as a barman I soon learnt that the men to be really wary of were the short ones with a complex and something to prove. This morning the Alsatians were carefully watched. The Jack Russells were given a wide birth.

Friday, 17 September 2010

No.390 Of Beauty Natural & Contrived

Boy nature's looking great at the moment. The huge tree outside my house that seems to get closer every year to my lounge window is just about to turn a glorious golden yellow while the woods nearby was bathed in glorious twilight sunshine on Friday evening.
I just wish I could be so complimentary about my new kitchen and extension for both are putting up quite a fight at the moment as I strive to take them to a state in which they could be said to amount to beauty in the eye of any beholder.
I spent a good part of the weekend painting. For some reason there's one patch on the wall that just doesn't seem to want to take my Magnolia emulsion despite my three goes at it. I'll try another final go late tonight when the wall's not expecting me. Failing that I shall plonk my biggest picture right over the top of it. No point letting it turn personal....

Wednesday, 15 September 2010

No.389 Of Images & Imaginings

There are two images we snapped whilst away on holiday in the Middle East that proved to be really memorable for different reasons..

The first is of a lone man I came across in the desert sands of Syria. He was standing on a rock wearing a beautiful body length Thoub (a long one piece Arab dress for men) which was blowing and fluttering behind him in the strong wind which thankfully was also cooling both him and me down. He was staring intently all around him and scanning as far as the eye could see. Through a bright smile punctuated by the odd golden tooth he asked "Where you from?" "London my friend" I replied trying to keep it simple. "Welcome" he added. He stated with some concern"I have lost my two camels. Have you seen them?". It struck me that if camels bugger off in such open space they can really go some and might not be seen for days for desert heat doesn't seem to bother them at all. He had a problem on his hands. I told him I hadn't but would keep an eye out for them.

The second image is of an Iranian Imam who joined us in a minibus on the journey from Beirut to Damascus. Neither Youngen nor I liked him from the start which wasn't very fair of us for we hardly gave him a chance. Youngen thought he looked like Mr Bean and me the baddie out of... well just about any film you can think of really. He refused to speak English or French to me and at every stop stood outside the bus talking to no-one but somehow appearing to watch each one of us closely. In Damascus we were dumped unceremoniously onto the pavement out of the minibus and left to fend for ourselves but not before Youngen snapped Imam Bean giving me a final good riddance of a farewell stare.

No.388 Of Whom?

I was waiting for my Gate to be called last night at Gatwick airport when a gentleman came and sat next to me. He looked vaguely familiar. After some contemplation I finally clocked him.

I guess you might say he's famous for the women around him. He used to be one woman's FD and is also the father of a well known TV personality.

He was doing rather well at Sudoku but then you'd expect him to be good with figures.

Answers on the modern day equivalent of a postcard please...

Monday, 13 September 2010

No.387 Of Pay Back Time

Boy! As I sat in the car, parked waiting to get into Antrim Forum this morning at 7a.m. looking at the dark clouds and the pouring rain did I realise that I'm back..To boot there's a week of rain forecast too.

But hey loads to do including catching up on hundreds of emails all the office business and developments and an awful lot of paperwork.

Pay back time in big capital letters...

Thursday, 9 September 2010

No.386 Of Muckamore - Antrim

It was our last day today before flying home and what a belter it turned out to be. We toured the ancient ruins in Palmyra which were mightily impressive. We then hopped on a bus and headed back to Damascus and the souq in the old town to spend the remainder of our Syrian money.

I really loved the people of Palmyra. They all ask "where you from?" and when you reply "Muckamore, Antrim" they respond "Welcome". Yesterday's taxi driver invited us to his home to meet his family last night and we sat crossed legged on his lounge floor opposite his lovely wife and three young kids who stared at us intensively like there was something wrong with our mouths as the words came out all funny. Over the long half an hour we sipped sweet Syrian listened to the driver repeat his 5 words of English then sipped more tea.

There's a real warmth about the Syrian people. They're down to earth, very unpretentious and quite natural. My sort of people.

The souq is great fun. Youngen is clearly getting annoyed with me wanting to bargain for everything. He says things like "I can't believe you spent the last half an hour haggling over $2" but that's half the fun. Later this evening we're off to the souq again to a bar which features a well known Damascus storyteller. Apparently he's the last of a dying breed of Arabian storytellers. Folks turn up from all around (including tonight Muckamore, Antrim) to hear him recount traditional stories. Here's hoping tonight will be The Arabian Nights in English but somehow I doubt it.

Wednesday, 8 September 2010

No.385 Of Journeys Long and Eventful

Finally, I managed to get a tour last night of the Hezbollah area of Beirut where Terry Waite was held hostage for five years. Previously, two (presumably Christian) taxi drivers had refused to take me there on grounds of their own personal security. It actually looked a lot better than some parts of Beirut and certainly better than I was expecting. After the Israelis bombed the district 6 years ago much of the housing has been rebuilt or redeveloped. I couldn't help but draw parallels with the IRA's bombing of Manchester which actually led to substantial redevelopment and improvement of the town centre.

This morning we arrived to Beirut bus station at 7.30a.m. to start our journey back to Syria. The day did not go well. The bus we were waiting on broke down so we transferred to a mini bus. This dropped us in an unknown part of Damascus and not the bus station we were hoping for. We then took a local bus which we were assured would terminate in the bus station. It didn't. It terminated half way there after it pranged a pickup. Picture if you will a bunch of Arabs in the midday sun gesticulating and blaming one another for what has just happened while passengers wait to see whether they're getting a bus journey after all or a long walk on foot.

We then took a taxi to the bus station only to be told that there were no seats available on the bus today to where we wanted to go due to the Ramadam festival when everyone wants to travel to be with their family.

We then chartered a taxi for 5,000 Syrain pounds (about 50 quid) to take us to Palmyran. This is in Eastern Syria about 100 kilometers from Iraq and features some of the oldest buildings in the world dating back two millenium.

Last full day tomorrow before heading back to Damascus and then London.

Tuesday, 7 September 2010

No.384 Of The Lebanese Shimmey

We spent much of today at the coast soaking up as much of the sunshine and relaxation to be had before beginning our journey back to Syria tomorrow and then the UK after that. There are beautiful cafes and restaurants dotted along the Beirut coast line with terrific views as the sun sets over the Med and we managed to bless three of them with our presence at various points today.

I love this country and I have just two complaints about Lebanon. The first is the service which is not great. Locals tell me that this is because the Lebanese tend to tip better than foreigners so the former get the best of the attention while the latter get whatever is left. The other complaint is the driving. It's just a highway free for all. I don't think I've ever seen anyone here use an indicator and there are so few roads with lines anywhere to be seen. Few too seem to observe traffic lights (where there are any). You just drive, you toot and you shimmy for position. Bonkers but a whole load of fun...

No.383 Of Hubble Bubble and an Awful lot of Trouble

I went to dinner last night at a restaurant overlooking the Med. I have to confess that I was led astray by a Lebanese woman who proved to be a bad influence on me. She had me break a twenty year abstinence from fish by ordering shrimps and then another by ordering some "hubble bubble". This is the Arabian pipe that they smoke a lot here. It sounds and looks innocuous enough but some health expert has just reported that a session of hubble bubble is the equivalent of 100 fags. The flavour of the smoke was grape. Maraijuana flavour wasn't available apparently.
The shrimps tasted just as I remembered them all those years ago rather rubbery as I washed them down with some great local wine hoping there were no Veggie police in the locality ready to get me into an awful lot of trouble.
All I can taste now is the guilt.


Sunday, 5 September 2010

No.382 Of Beirut & Party time

We tried attempt No.2 last night to get in THE nightclub in Beirut. This time it worked. The doorman remembered me and apologised for knocking me back the night before for wearing shorts (and Crocs at a guess) and he explained in very good English that he was just doing his job. I explained I had my trousers shipped in specially from the UK to make sure we got in this time and he very politely smiled in response to such a rotten attempt at humour.
In my 20s I used to hate nightclubs but always pretended that I liked them and was having a good time. By my 30s I didn't bother with the latter bit and as I headed toward my 40s would even make a point of being miserable in the hope that my company would know not to invite me again. But last night something strange happended. I actually had a really good time. The nightclub had five live bands on stand playing anything from Reggae to Spanish and Arabian to Cuban music. In between the re-setting of the stage they played some of the best 80s music going. And golly was my dancing the best? Probably not come to think of it.

The Arabs I learnt are even more precious about the space around them and how you should not encroach upon it than the English. As soon as they as much as touch you lightly on the dance floor they come up to you apologising and offering something which I'm supposing is like "Allah be with you" and they expect the same back (or English equivalent) if the same happens in reverse.

We left about 2.30a.m. when others were still arriving. Boy, can Beirut party.

Saturday, 4 September 2010

No.381 Of Barry on Byblos

We were in Byblos last night which lays claim to being the oldest continually inhabited town in the world. It was also the playground of the rich and famous in the 60s before the civil war and you can see why. It has an idyllic harbour, gorgeous restaurants over looking the Med and some of the most beautiful old cobbled streets and markets you're ever likely to see. At night it comes alive and the place just buzzes. It reminded me of some parts of Ibiza but without the Brits or the drunks. I wonder if the two are at all connected?

After Byblos we headed back into Beirut to try a local Lebanese nightclub. We were knocked back on grounds of my shorts. I guess I should have known better having been refused entry to the Beirut Mosque for the same reason earlier that day. I feigned disappointment being glad to get back to the hotel as energy levels were plummeting. We plan another attempt this evening assuming Youngen has recovered from his own dose of the Trots. He's confined to the hotel bedroom room at the moment or put another way confined to the vacinity of within 50 metres of a loo.

Thursday, 2 September 2010

No.380 Of Taxi No Bus

Golly I was grumpy today. But I was allowed to be. I think. You see the day started with a dose of the Inca Trot which had me going back and forth to the loo for much of the early hours. When I finally got to sleep and awoke at 6a.m. I found the hotel was clean out of water which meant no more loo, no shower and no brushing my teeth before heading north to the Syrian border and onto Lebanon.

The taxi driver was having none of the idea that we would want to take a bus from Damascus to Beirut rather than a taxi straight from the border. "Take Taxi" he said. "No we prefer bus" I replied. "No taxi". "No bus" "No taxi" "No bus" it continued for far too long. For three hundred kilometres he coughed over me, smoked over me and played that blooming awful Syrian monotonal music at full belt. Why would anyone not want to sit in a nice air conditioned coach in preference to this I thought?

Soon we were sitting in said air conditioned coach and over the two borders we got on and off a full 8 times as they first checked passports then visas then demanded you paid an exit or entry tax. Each time you're working in a different currency, watching your bags, your wallet, your passport. I'm learning Arabic quick because it seems to be a constant fight to keep those at bay who are trying to make some money out of you. I don't blame them. I'd do the same. It's just hard work being on the end of it.

Anyway, we're now in Beirut and a friend of ours is about to give us a tour of the city. I must try a bit of Anthony Robbins "reframing" and see if I can snap out of this "mal humor" of mine. Afterall, we're in a hotel with a loo, a shower and water and best of all no Syrian music. What more could a traveller ask for?

Beach tomorrow and the day after and the day after that too.

Wednesday, 1 September 2010

No 379 Of Petra, Shirley and Johnny

Wow! A full day in Petra and did we do some walking today or what?. As I write it's 6p.m. and youngen sleeps in our room upstairs exhausted from the many kilometres and hundreds of steps we ascented trying to see the most of Petra in 8 hours and the scorching heat.

Think of the Cheddar Gorge and Caves, the Grand Canyon and the Indianna Jones film set mix them all up and you get something like the astonishing place that is Petra. In fact, at times it was all so spectacular and there was so much of it that by lunch time I was sick of seeing it - or at least seeing sights that you knew you would have to explore because you'd likely never get a chance again.

The climax to Petra is a visit to the Monastary set some 800 steps up in the hill side which you can either walk to or get to on a donkey. We walked which is why I'm aching and plan a swim and a massage and youngen is dead beat upstairs. "We'll think it the right decision in a few days time" he declared as we clocked the exit gate earlier and trudged wearily to where our guide was to pick us up this afternoon. The donkey ride salesman wasn't so convinced however. In the half a mile it took him to accept that we really weren't going to hire any of his donkeys he told me that he was a Bedouin and that Bedouin were "very popular with the ladies". He told me his current girlfriend is 42, from Switzerland and 12 years older than he was. He'd found his own Shirley Valentine on a donkey in Petra.

The Jordian Bedouin it has to be said are handsome folk. The females have lovely smiles backed up by beautiful white teeth. The guys with deepset dark eyes shaded by scarves all resembled Johnny Depp to me. The more I looked around the more I saw Johnny Depp lookalikes flying by on camels or whipping the hell out of uncooperative donkeys. At least I think I did or may be it was the heat...