Sunday, July 29, 2007

In Lincoln Inn Fields

Lincoln Inn Fields is a very pleasant London park well hidden from the regular tourist beat, not far from Fleet Street and the British Museum. When I dropped past it was home to a couple of homeless men who were stretched out asleep in the sun, while other "classes" played tennis nearby. The sleepers were in stark contrast to the towers of the Courts of Justice nearby or the residences of Holborn. Typical of any city really.

My English master warned of trying to rip off a few words to invent a poem, especially if you are not the poet laureate. Sound advice if you tried to do just that in an English exam – the first two lines were outstanding, the rest (about 100) pure twaddle. That is probably the case here too but these lines were ripped down while I sat on a stone step in Lincoln Inn Fields this afternoon and thought about where these homeless men had found themselves. With a bit of luck that English master won’t see this blog – the hacked meter would give him a heart attack.

In Lincoln Inn Fields
I will lay me down
Under Holborn’s money towers
My bed a public lawn.

In Lincoln Inn Fields
The thok of happy tennis
Played by “your Honour”
Reaches my ear on the lawn.

Behind Lincoln Inn Fields,
Lawyers wigs for sale.
My head is crowned with grey:
Backpack pillow on a damp lawn.

At Lincoln Inn Fields
I read inscribed in stone
Second Viscount of Hambeldon was
A man unselfish – to the bone.

In Lincoln Inn Fields
I dream that such might be
But Second Viscount anything
No hand stretched out to me.

Ah, in Lincoln Inn Fields
“neath singing maple leaves
My chancery lawn is bed enough
Wrapped in a summer breeze.

But Lincoln Inn Fields
Is a harpy when she’s drawn,
You’ll find my bed has shifted
Come autumn’s chilly dawn.

From Lincoln Inn Fields
I’ll shift, tho not very far,
Sadly not under any tidy roof,
Of Holborn’s slate and tar.

Homeless at Lincoln Inn Field
Pack for pillow, lawn for bed
Holey socks and rubbish bin coat
Bad dreams in this down, grey head.

Play your tennis,
Shout your sporting joy,
Relish your Chancery high houses
Justice cares less for this old boy.

I’ll settle for the thrush and blackbird
The Constable cloud wallpaper
The orchestra of the rustling maple leaf
And, alas, the lawn of the Lincoln Inn Fields.

Kensington Gardens

Every day is a new experience. And full of new things. Of discovery. Even if that discovery is not pioneering and others have been here before you. And even if the names of the places are so very familiar. I step into Kensington Gardens from off Bayswater Road and am confronted by a sprawling acreage that is full of surprises. And discovery. Its size for a start. The open park come farm feel to the place. Stretching into the distance are chestnuts, beech, oaks and elms, sentinels to pathways and mown edges but most commonly ruling over the unruly and the unkept. Knee high, unmown grass covers most of the place. Dogs love it. Little boys with sticks do what little boys with sticks do. Every now and then you spot the raised knees of someone lying on their back, the rest of them hidden by the grass. Every so often you are startled by the prostrate, bleached white body of a Londoner, in nothing but their swimwear, trying to get some Vitamin D. Although the day is pleasant the sky is a John Constable - more cloud and light than sunlight and blue sky, although patches of that appear through the racing, tumbling clouds. Couples meet for lunch. A scarf covered head has leaning on her the swarthy head of her husband. From behind, as you watch them silently communicate, clumped down in this open field with the breeze snapping around them you imagine an immigrant’s tale. Comforting each other in this strange land but in a field that accentuates our basic cravings for peace and light – and each other. And maybe a stupid dog.

The foliage skirts of the oaks and chestnuts, hems flapping in the breeze, soon give way to the Serpentine and its green silted waters, Italian fountains and arched bridge. I walk along a railed fence, past Peter Pan being assaulted by tourists, past thick undergrowth and then ripening elderberry and clawing blackberry, its hard green fruit just starting to hint at purple. I half expect Peter Rabbit to come squeezing through the railings but I settle for a hen thrush instead, which scurries across the path in front of me. Under rustling beech leaves old men remove their shoes and socks and wriggle their toes in the turf. Families break open lunches. Kids play hide and seek. A scotch thistle gives up its crown, and seeds lift away on the breeze which, incidentally, carries to me the turbo-fan whine of the unending stream of aircraft on long finals into Heathrow. These gardens are a plane spotters delight.

I eventually give in and make like a Londoner, find my own patch of wilderness field and disappear into the undergrowth. As I do so I discover I am checking were I put my feet in case there are any snakes – we are products of our places too. Thrips leap to the white page of the journal and scurry about. A spider runs up the spine and grass seeds are startled by my movement and rain across the pages. In the end the thing most synonymous with this country (OK, apart from the Queen, the Tower and Beckham) moves me on – the ground is damp and the stained patches on my pants had better be dried off before I hit the streets. Only a bleached Londoner could lie in this damp stuff in only his Speedos and figure he was onto a good thing. Perhaps he actually is. Some things are just beyond figuring out.

The British Museum

This museum is a zoo! A human zoo. Summer in London and its school holidays and they are here from all corners of the earth looking at all corners of the earth. Fancy a quiet afternoon wandering a whisper quiet, hushed monument? Best go somewhere else. Here a heaving, chattering throng, charging through ancient Egypt, classical Greece and Imperial Rome. School kids from Korea shout into their mobile phones and attempt to answer a written quiz on Celtic England. Their mystification is complete. Tour groups of Chinese throttle along through broken faced Greek statues as they manoeuvre to the next talking point behind a guide holding a little flag up high. Japanese tourists look on in disdain Рsuch travel and guide methodologies are so pass̩! But they still happily snap away like their parents and grandparents did and cannot resist posing in front of anything standing still Рwhich is course just what they have in spades here. But they snap without too much discernment I suspect. I wonder what Grandma will think of the pose in front of a broken penised Greek god. The marble testicles will show up quite nicely beside her left ear though.

Eastern Europeans outnumber us all. In and out of the museum it seems. They are in a rush to catch up methinks, and they crowd in solemn assembly around Assyrian bull gods, admire Islamic glassware and linger over the mummies of Egypt. I am plagued by a precocious loud mouthed twelve year old from Michigan who is embarrassing his siblings and parents with his know-it-all commentary. We even got the atomic weight of gold as we admired ancient Chinese coins. Despite a crowd of ten thousand he found me in Napoleonic Europe, North European prehistory, Korean prints and even in the book shop where I think his parents were trying to escape him (His older brother had taken a couple of swipes at him in the bookshop which did not connect, and my uncharitable self fancied I should hold him still while brother took another swing at him). I can thank him though for saving me some money – I fled his lecture on the rules of chess in Anglo Saxon times before I could spend anything in that shop.

July 2007

Thursday, July 26, 2007

A Grand Piano in McDonalds - Now I Have Seen Everything!

It might be raining in the rest of England but London is strangely unaffected. The Thames has a boiling roil of water heading down it and the broken banks visible as you tun to land at Heathrow suggest things are not as the should be. But except for the perfectly inane 24 hour coverage on Sky News you would not know this place had been washed out. It is a mild day, sunny on occasions and High Street in Kensington is as you would expect it to be, with its flower baskets, shoppers, children on holidays and all nationalities mixed up in this cosmopolitan hub. I have to confess to being a cultural Philistine by eating at McDonalds the morning I arrived. As I sat in the window I was amused to watch the two Chinese drivers of a DHL delivery van get booked in the 4.8 seconds they were away from their vehicle by a couple of African giraffes, who if any taller would have been bumping the flower baskets as they casually sauntered along the pavement in that peculiarly rolling African way, issuing their tickets. But the incongruous cultural highlight this morning comes not from the crowds outside, but from inside McDonalds. Tucked into a corner is a grand piano – electronic, so of course it is tinkling away by itself. A grand piano in McDonalds?! I am not sure if that is a marketing misstep by McDonalds or whether someone feels a Kensington fast food joint should look and feel a bit more upmarket. I cannot think why.

Tuesday, July 24, 2007

An Earls Court Lunch

The service is unclear, hesitant and slow. Fish and chips are de rigueur in this part of the world are they not? So let’s order that. I sit on a high-stool 3 metres from a staring bank of faces captured by a double decker bus, which is leaning towards me as it tilts at rest on the camber of the road. A rat tailed Rastafarian looking Caribbean dude is plunking coins into a slot machine which makes mechanical noises back at him for a while then goes silent. It’s the conversation of a tyrannical mistress – stony silence and folded arms, toe tapping even, and bright luminous look . So he makes more conversational noise as he feeds her what she wants. She wins of course. They always do.A fifty something woman sits on her high chair under Sky News describing floods in Tewkesbury. A blond ten year old brat of a boy glares at her from the other side of the menu and demands his meal now! Her shabby clothes, ruddy cheeks, bulging midriff, and thin black eyebrows (why do they do that?) tell their own battling story.
At the bar a sixty something fellow with an open face, goofy smile and the startled look of someone who has had too much cosmetic surgery leans on the bar attempting to look suave. His badly done, patchy, kitchen sink hair dye undoes all the work his flashing cuff links and gums are doing to impress a blond in high heels. Initial impression is “sad case” but as lunch wears on and I hear his polite patter, and especially after she leaves with him that turns (slightly) to admiration. He is working jolly hard. But I hope he has invested in plenty of Viagra - the amount of sherry he toasts her with then sculls means he won’t be getting it up on his own for at least 24 hours. But maybe that is why she is putting up with all this attention, knowing she is under no threat of anything except a free lunch of bangers and mash and some inane toasts to her perfect cleavage.

Saturday, July 21, 2007

The Qat, the Jambiya and the Nokia

There has to be a profound story in a heading like that. Sadly not here though. Qat, referred to below, is chewed by most. Even our government employed guide and escort (I am being polite - read "guard") admitted to being hooked on the stuff and the only reason we did not see his cheeks bulging with qat was that he took it out when he was driving us around. When in meetings he snuck it back in for a quick buzz. But he was under strict instructions not to offend our sensibilities. Here a young man selling jewellery displays the ubiquitous chipmunk cheeks that betray the qat chewer. He was also very proud of his two symbols of manhood and of him having "made it" - interestingly a piece of the very old and a piece of the very new. The Jambiya is the dagger, tucked into his belt, which all men wear with pride but which young teenage boys wear with extra pride and swagger (imagine that next time you see a crowd of them milling around at your local mall! Teenage boys that is). You could buy the Jambiya for cents in the lanes of "Old Sanaa" but they looked like my Grade 6 woodwork projects. Or you could spend thousands - and they were probably someone else's Grade 6 woodwork project! Gorgeous pieces of art at all price levels but the thought of trying to explain myself at various customs checkpoints on the way home deterred me from buying one. And of course he is nothing without his Nokia. These blighters never change the original tone though. How they know which phone belongs to who is beyond me - like a single ewe knowing which bleat is her lamb in all same sounding calls, they seem to know which phone call is for who. It would warm the heart of a Nokia sales rep.

Chewing the Qat on a Sunday Afternoon

Its the Sabbath, prayers are done (for a few hours at least) and the family has an afternoon to kill. In Sanaa, capital of Yemen, there are few leisure options up your sleeve. Many head down to the qat (chat) markets, pick up a few kilos of qat leaves then head for the hill. To do what I hear you ask? To sit and chew the qat. Chewing this stuff apparently gives you a high but one young man told me it took ten to twelve hours of solid chewing to get the effect. And I can tell you from experience this is no lettuce leaf structure - about the size and density of a bay leaf. Or a citrus leaf. And completely tasteless. But it must get them in since all these folk parked here on the escarpment to the west of the city were doing nothing but chew the stuff. it would be humourous if it was not so sad. While Yemen has been known for years as a source of the stuff the country is also famous for its coffee. But coffee growers have ripped out their plants to grow qat - it is a more potent cash crop than the stuff you drink and the buzz is apparently worth the short sightedness.

Monday, July 16, 2007

Mama's Bistro, Ballan

Small towns scattered around the goldfields of Victoria offer a certain charm thanks to their architecture, their memorials, Mechanics Institute Halls, old churches, and just all round rural charm. Other towns offer none of that, especially those which have lost their way after freeways have diverted traffic around them. Ballan, squeezed between the railway and the freeway but generally lost to view and mind is one of those bleak places you try and avoid actually. The local cafes offer rubbery sausage rolls, the local pub has paper table clothes, stained from previous meals, and the sub zero chill factor keeps you from wanting to stop too long.

Thankfully we stopped on this bleak day for a quick look at Mama’s Bistro to see if we could get a hot lunch. It turns out Mama came out from Italy after the war (1945) and soon had the locals coming in and ordering “Mama’s pyjamas” (parmigiana). She still cooks there. A sprightly little lady, with a headscarf catching up her hair. Her cackling laugh is infectious and she had us feeling at home straight away. Her daughter helps out. They made us laugh by warning as we placed our orders that “they had not very much of anything”! In the end they served us nine home cooked meals, piping hot and delivered with good humour and a cheeriness in stark contrast to the bleak conditions outside. The human story that we discovered here, along with the hospitality and family table atmosphere Mama created were worth the effort to stop and brave the cold to see what the town offered.

Sunday, July 15, 2007

Bastille Day in Dunolly

The discussion about small towns is entirely appropriate given I have spent the last week visiting a few of them. On Saturday evening I had the good fortune to sit around an open fire in the Cockatoo Cafe in Dunolly. It was near freezing outside so the fire was a good start. Even more rewarding was the warmth of the company, and the sparkling atmosphere created by the trio called Continental Drift - their range of folk and gypsy music from Turkey, Araby (!), Russia, Ireland and any other number of points had our feet tapping. And of course songs from France and some lyrics in French to suit the occasion of the 14th of July. Mix all that with the general din of chat, families connecting, children playing, good food and wine, and reminiscing, without being maudlin, about our good friend, son, brother, partner Jonathan, and it crossed my mind on more than one occasion during the evening that there are things country folk know that city folk never do (apologies Banjo). If we could recreate that family warmth, connection, hospitality, and joy of life found this evening in the Cockatoo Cafe in our cities we would probably never want to leave them!

Friday, July 13, 2007

Why Bother Visiting Country Towns?

Bruce Elder in the Sydney Morning Herald asks this question and asks for suggestions that might help small communities attract more visitors. What do you want to see when you visit these small places?

Given we are visiting a comparatively small town at the moment, and given that we spent a cosy afternoon in a small bistro in an even smaller town today, the answer to me seems pretty straight forward. I grew up in a town of 800 people and even we knew the attempts at museums and revitalised train stations (with no trains in them) were hopeless and pointless and bleak. In visiting the country towns I am visiting this week I am reminded that the things that attract or deter me here are the same things that attract me or deter me in Sydney. Friendly, hospitable staff/hosts. Quality products. Reasonable pricing. Crap tourist nick knacks made in China. Pubs that smell like they were last cleaned in 1974. 1974 decor!

I stop in small towns to find something that is unique to that place. Something of a local flavour. A friendly chat with the local stock and station outlet has its own rewards and is far better than a poorly presented local crafts centre, or dodgy museum that is only looking to rip me off. Small towns should simply try and be themselves, highlight their points of difference (Ballarat's colonial/Victorian architecture is outstanding and worth the visit alone - the Ballarat Train station shown here is a case in point) and offer the same hospitality and friendship we all crave wherever we go. Oh, and at this time of the year an open fire helps as well!!


One of those towns you love to hate, usually based on bad experiences with weather or traffic, school geography project or resident zealot that just suck the inspiration from you. On the other hand it is hard to not admire a town that has managed to retain so much of its heritage as part of its working streets. Three major goldrushes – California, Victoria (centred on Ballarat) and Otago (NZ) all happened at the same time and this town became the centre of some remarkable wealth. And social and community problems as well but less is made of them than the vast volumes of gold hauled out of the ground here. There are many Australian families and businesses that still trace the strength of their balance sheet to mid nineteenth century Ballarat. I recall driving past a rather stately home in Melbourne and my passenger quipped – “Ahh, Ballarat money.” Indeed, large swathes of upmarket Melbourne came into existence from the businesses that grew up as a result of the goldrush. A lot of that influence is still visible in the architecture of this town, which today has a working class feel and whose industry is now primarily agriculture (although modern technologies are opening up the gold seams again).

Thursday, July 12, 2007

Puckapunyal - another Hume Memory

Travelling down the Hume Highway invokes all sorts of memories, building a thirty year tableau of images. The previous two blogs refer. Once upon a time the highway took you though Seymour but now days the freeway blasts you past and you can't see the town at all. Nearby is the Army training area of Puckapunyal which you could never see from the road and for which I am always mildly thankful. I spent a few frozen weeks there during school holidays as school Army Cadet and the memories are not altogether positive for Puckapunyal. As I know it is not for a lot of the troops who trained here before going to Vietnam. But finding Gary asleep on the fireside log, covered in frost, and where we left him the night before, anaesthetised by a full bottle of smuggled Southern Comfort remains a highlight. So too my first sighting of a Kookaburra. Two in fact who laughed as we stood shivering in the foggy predawn light under tepid, dribbling bush showers. And the appalled faces of my Toorak school buddies - the prospect of eating bits of rabbit slow cooked in tinned butter off a rusty piece of steel plate was too much for them (I had taken three rabbit traps with me - the NCOs checked my gear the next year to ensure there was no repeat culinary horror).

Puckapunyal is the home to the Australian Armoured Corps and I am intrigued to see the M1Abrams there now. That high technology piece of equipment is about as far away from my cadet experience of Puckapunyal as you can get. And a rabbit caught by any of them would not be worth the eating. Unless you had sculled a bottle of Southern Comfort first.

Monday, July 09, 2007

Graf Spee and the Battle of the River Plate

The storyteller was my class teacher who also was the school headmaster. Once each day he would perch on the edge of his desk and regale us with stories. Sometimes read, a chapter at a time. Sometimes told, also a chapter at a time. I was thoroughly enthralled by one story, of little guys ganging up on the big guy. It was a story that was dragged out over weeks and I couldn’t wait for each day to get the next instalment. There was nothing in the local library which gave me any insight into how the tale turned out. (And the internet was thirty years away!)

In this case the little guys were some outgunned ships that took on the Graf Spee, a beautifully designed and executed pocket battleship that ran amok, for a brief period, among allied shipping in 1939. HMS Exeter was one of the hunters. So too Ajax and Achilles. Achilles was a New Zealand ship and that was part of the appeal of the story. The Captain of the Graf Spee thought he was trapped in the place to which he had run to hide (the River Plate, hence the Battle of the River Plate) and scuttled his vessel rather than run the risk of an embarrassing defeat. Chances are he would have gotten away with a run to the South Atlantic since the forces lined up on him had been bashed up somewhat – Exeter had been withdrawn severely damaged.

Every time I drive past the sign pointing to the little town of Exeter I am ten again and listening to that story. And am transported to the mouth of the River Plate. South America was about the most exotic place of which I had ever heard, and hearing “Montevideo” was the time it was first impressed on me that the sound of a word can be sensuous. I practised it for months.

Hume Highway

Stretches of asphalt and/or bitumen are not supposed to be evocative (unless they are runways!) but this stretch of road which links Sydney and Melbourne is 880km of highway that invokes a lot of memories when I travel it. Oddly enough it is quite provocative in other ways as well. The foremost memory I have of the Hume is that of joining the highway at Yass at 1 o'clock in the morning and driving to Melbourne. Over the course of the next six hours more than 380 18 wheelers passed me traveling in the opposite direction and I spent the entire trip with one pasted right on my tail while I stared at another only a few metres in front of me. Fortunately on those days many sections of the road were narrow and steep so they moved fairly slowly. I quickly discovered that slipping past one every now and then only reinserted me in between another pair of giants. Tonight the trip, heading in the general direction to Melbourne, was almost all on freeway and the rigs thunder past in a blur of light and sound. Rarely do you ever get caught behind them.

And what on the highway is provocative? A sign pointing to the small town of Exeter took me to primary school and South America (next blog). A section of the highway is a living tribute to Australian Victoria Cross winners. And I can never drive past Gundagai without that confounded song entering my head – and staying for another hundred kilometres or so. And that submarine embedded in the earth is always a quick distraction as you drive through Holbrook.

Taxi Story - The Iranian Sunni

An eclectic series comprising conversations with Taxi drivers, initially composed when Sydney papers were complaining about the service provided by cab drivers. In most cases I am happy to say "forget the service, listen to the story." In this town, at least, most taxi drivers are foreigners and all seem to have a personal story that is rich and enlightening. Click on Taxi Story in the column on the right hand side to see the complete collection.

I never really liked the Shah but I made lots of noise about the Ayatollah. I did not want him running the country but to be honest I was not expecting him to come into power. Suddenly I found myself having to leave Iran for safety reasons. I think we actually say, for political reasons. I have some family in Iran even today so I have to be careful about what I say. Still. Sadly I don’t think I can ever travel back to Iran. It is hard to leave your roots and even though I have been here more than ten years now I would like to touch the ground where I was born. But I have my wife and children here and we are free to say what we think and worship how we want. I love that Shia, Sunni, Jew and Christian can live in one place and not fight. Even a follower of Isa (Jesus) can live next to a follower of the Prophet and not feel that they have to fight. Indeed, I am a Sunni and we can all live together in peace as God instructed us all to do. It’s just a shame that I had to come to the other side of the world to actually do that. I would prefer that I could do that in the land I was born.

Thursday, July 05, 2007

The Run (11)

Previous Chapter

In 2005 David Paton, good friend, mentor, example, and inspiration died after experiencing an aggressive cancer. I flew to New Zealand to attend his funeral. On the flight back I started writing some notes that were intended to capture something of what David meant to me. Taking a deep breath I thought I would share them more widely here on this blog. They are less coherent than I would like but they tell a story of what a difference one life, honestly lived, can make to those around them. These notes are offered up in 15 chapters which I will post out over the next few weeks. And in order that you can put a face to a name, here he is, on the Stewart Island ferry, catching some "zeds". Or "zees" depending on what part of the world you hail from.

The Run was a wild place. Probably still is. Country like it has become well known around the world thanks to The Lord of the Rings trilogy. Despite what I recount above, my most precarious driving experiences were up on that place with David edging his truck over steep edges with no view over the bonnet of the descent or the destination. Here were wild horses which we occasionally went up to shoot for “dog tucker”. David’s favourite rifle was a .22Hornet – a .22 on steroids. I watched him one day, truck still rolling, open the door, and with rifle poised, vehicle moving, fire a round over a distance of about 50 yards at a running horse. To bring a horse down with a .22 is quite something and only a shot that reaches the brain will do it.
The round entered the head just below and behind the ear and I watched with amazement as the animal slowly folded up and collapsed to the ground. David had put the round where he wanted, and expected to and was matter of fact and businesslike in his response to our applause. His dogs were another matter. They leapt off the back in a cacophony of barks and yelps and raced to the horse, know that that quartering and butchering was going to yield titbits. And so it did although an enduring image of that poor animal was to discover how riddled with parasites it was. We pulled open intestines to observe closely packed worms and carefully examined its stomach to discover other parasites clinging to the stomach walls. David was always intrigued with the internal workings of an animal, and offal seemed to have special fascination. Not morbid but forensic. We dissected and poked and probed and found all sorts of interesting things in a kill.

Up on “The Run” – scoping with the Hornet for pigs. I was always intrigued by the dogs which always knew to look in the direction David pointed his rifle.

One memorable kill was my first slaughtering of a sheep. Two in fact. Appropriately it happened at David’s. Although I had seen countless numbers killed and dressed for our table I had a lot of theory and no practise. David took Steve, his brother Ken, and I down to the woolshed where he had three rams held in a pen. Standing there quietly in the dim, dusty light of the place, backing up together against the far wall and watching us warily. We had no idea what was coming next. But I always reckon the sheep knew what was coming - there is another truth in the words “As a sheep stands before its slaughterer is dumb”. They stand there in silence but they know what is up. David pulled a knife from somewhere, handed it to me and declared that he wanted these things not simply killed but dressed and it all to be done by the time he got back from town. Then he walked out. We talked about the theory for maybe fifteen minutes or so – the best way to cut, the need to break the neck at the same time, and so on. All along plucking up the courage to do the deed. Eventually I entered the pen, drafted one of the rams into a neighbouring pen, tucked him between my knees and started sawing. Steve did the same. Poor Ken, he started but at the first spray of blood, dropped the knife and said he could not go through with it. If you have ever seen this sort of thing done you will understand the dramatic and copious expression of blood that comes from the jugular. With a nicked artery, blood was spraying all over the place and I had to jump in and finish the throat cutting as quickly as possible. Dressed and hanging, David’s only quip when he saw our efforts was that it was a shame one of them was hamstrung!! But that was always David’s teaching style - that he would show us once, or understand that we had seen how a thing was to be done, perhaps seen somewhere else, so he would trust us with the job without any further instruction. We did not always get the task right but there is real potency in that trust. He was a clever trainer and sharp psychologist in that regard.

Next Chapter

Monday, July 02, 2007

Brunei Customs Officials Get Their Own Back

The first law of travel is “Never irritate the person in uniform who lets you in or out of a country.” There are some very sensible reasons for that. They are not paid very much. In a country’s defence and security they often are the first in line but the last to know. They work horrible hours. In many countries they are not empowered to make a decision on the spot. Often these officials are caught up in a very bureaucratic milieu. And, they usually love their uniform, are proud of their country and just want to do their job well. OK, in places like Zimbabwe they want some extra dollars as well.

omar ali saifuddien mosque 13 , bandar seri begawan - brunei
A different law, but far more immutable goes something like this - that young Air Force Officers (boys actually), but especially pilots and aircrew, have a swagger gene, closely linked to the “I’m indestructible gene.” These are in the same strand of DNA which contains the “I know everything gene.” Wrap that genetic make-up in crew suits, put squadron badges on them and they think they can walk anywhere, go anywhere, do anything.

In 1991 when visiting Brunei, I watched an Air Force C130 crew arrive in Brunei. They expected to be able to swan into the country through an airport that was being rebuilt and not endure the required checks, stamps, visas and other paperwork. Immutable law clashes with first law of travel. First law of travel wins out. The aircrew, after “misbehaving,” arrive in the Sheraton (no less) and encamp for the night. They drink late and party as much as is possible in BSB (the capital) – which is actually pretty restrained. Unbeknown to them the hotel staff had placed them in rooms facing this mosque – only 600 metres away. Calls to prayer were broadcast at 90db (that is, loud to very loud) at 5am the following morning, only a few hours after they retired. Directly into their windows. Worse, a sermon or similar dialogue had started at 3am.

I had the blessed good fortune the next day to watch a grinning team of customs and immigration officers smiling at the sorry lot of aircrew working on their aircraft, complaining of disrupted or complete lack of sleep. I was not convinced the boys understood the connection. It was a nice touch and should have been expected in this very small, close knit town.

(Click on the photo to be taken to a terrific collection of photos by "geertsonck" )

Sunday, July 01, 2007


It is 0430 in the morning. In this part of the world the sky is light and on this particular morning surprisingly clear. Frank has roused me from bed with the promise of a farmer’s breakfast . He won’t tell me where. “Just get going boy, we need to beat the crowds.” Crowds lining up for a farmer’s breakfast in England?! I have to see this. He grinned as he went out to warm up the Antichrist, the nickname for his treasured VW Combi. We drove into a clear day, clattering down lanes and between hedgerows wide enough only for the AntiChrist. In some places so narrow the oaks and hawthorns gave us a firm brushing clean. Pity help us if anyone was coming the other way. But at this time of the morning no one was about. Which was Frank’s point all along – there were no crowds at Stonehenge. Only the two of us. No traffic humming past. No ignorant commentary around us. Just the silence, a clear sky, a couple of unseen larks, and a warm sun. And none to see us jump the fence (access is normally via a steep fee and through a tunnel under the road from a car park a few hundred metres away) in order to get a decent photo. Then off to that breakfast. Well earned by the time we got there. And no crowds in the diner either.
May 1995