Tuesday, 21 December 2010

Season's Greetings

Yo  ho ho.

Well, I've been a bit quiet the past couple of weeks, mainly because I've been busy wrapping everything up in Trinidad and preparing for my return to Europe.  I did start a post about my time there, and was just about finished - the biggest post yet and a very good one, even if I say so myself - when my Fat Fingers got in the way and I managed to delete the whole thing......I was NOT amused.  I'll have to do another one in the New Year.
So in the meantime, Trinidad is all done and dusted and we're all back home.  The journey was quite arduous, especially the eight hours hanging around JFK.....the most unpleasant airport in the world, full of rude and arrogant Yanks who mistakenly believe they rule the world: I absolutely loathe it! - and getting out in the fresh air (-5C) after 6 months of 30+ came as a bit of a shock to the system.  But it's great to get back home and sleep in my own bed, eat decent Polish bread instead of the doughy shite sold in PoS, and be surrounded by the familiar comforts of KEN.

As Sinatra says, it's oh so nice to go travellin, but it's so much nicer to come home.

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Anyway, it's the end of the year, and the Christmas season is upon us again.

So I'll say no more except to wish all of my readers, wherever you are, a very Happy Christmas and a wonderful New Year.  And if you're not Christian, so the season is meaningless to you, then may Your God be with you (as an Irish comedian always used to say).

Until the next time.....

Do zobaczenia.

Friday, 3 December 2010

Congratulations....

Well, that was a bit of a surprise, I suppose.

Not so much that England wasn't awarded the 2018 World Cup, nor the USA that for 2022, but that people remain surprised by that.

FIFA has been considered, shall we say, questionably impartial for a number of years now.  It's common knowledge that what Herr Blatter wants, Herr Blatter gets (or conversely what he doesn't want - like goal line technology - has no chance of success).  Sepp is really desperately keen to be remembered as the FIFA President who took the Beautiful Game to the world, so giving the two tournaments to Russia and Qatar makes perfect sense.  Neither has hosted it before (Qatar has never even been close to qualifying for the Fianls), so after delivering tournaments to (jointly) Japan/South Korea and South Africa - the first Asian and African finals respectively - then adding the first Eastern European and Middle Eastern finals to his list was the obvious move.  It also offsets delivering to tried and trusted hosts Germany and Brazil (2006 and 2014).  A nice mix of the old and the new.

All the shenanigans that has been going on for the last couple of years, with countries like Australia, Holland, Belgium, Spain, Portugal (both of whom, God knows, can't really afford the expense) and all the rest has merely been a sideshow.  A continuous treadmill of photo opportunities of Sepp and his Executive Committee hob-nobbing with Royalty, Presidents and Prime Ministers, and aging football stars in one country after another.....all on expenses of course.   We spent millions in the UK putting together what was according to most accounts the best technical bid (meaning we have some cracking grounds to play on, a transport system than runs more or less to timetable, and a decent selection of hotels) and the best commercial bid (meaning we'll be able to sell lots of replica shirts and sponsors' goods, making huge amounts of wonga for the manufacturers, our government and, most important, FIFA themselves) and only got 1 vote.....knocked out in the first round.   Bit like our team in fact.  Australia did likewise and only got 2 votes....so as we presented between us the best 2 packages that didn't count for a lot, did it?  The only good thing is that the USA, bidding for 2022, didn't do much better.

There are suggestions that there were a number of brown envelopes stuffed with Russian and Qatari oil dollars (or at least the electronic equivalent thereof) floating around and ending up in the pockets of various delegates....a practice which we English would never get involved in.  The Panorama documentary screened a couple of days earlier, accusing specific voting individuals of taking bribes in the past, or selling tickets on the black market for personal gain, whether true  or not, clearly didn't help, and nor did the Sunday Times investigation a couple of weeks earlier, on a similar topic, that led to a further 2 voters being suspended.  You can scream all you like about the Great British Press killing our chances, but they didn't really (since their allegations are almost certainly true) but that wasn't the reason we failed.

Quite simply, Blatter wanted new markets, and has sufficient clout and power to make sure the rest of the Executive Committee did exactly what he wanted and delivered Russia and Qatar.  It was all, I'm sure, decided weeks or even months ago.

Yes, it's corrupt.  But that's the way it goes when there is that many billions at stake.  Sepp sets the rules, and you either play to them or get nowhere.  Russia, being corrupt itself and awash with money and mafia, knows this.  Qatar, a Muslim state awash with money controlled ruthlessly by a single family, also knows this.  We still look for and expect fair play - as did the other "democracies" taking part, and like us losing.

Simple

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Mind you, choosing Russia and Qatar has opened up some entertaining travel opportunities.

Russia for a start is the biggest country in the world, stretching from the Polish border - or at least what used to be, near Kaliningrad - (Europe) all the way to Vladivistok on the western edge of the Pacific - thousands of miles.  Seven time zones.  Extraordinary.  And totally impractical for staging a tournament like the World Cup that relies for a significant part of its income on the sale of TV broadcast rights.   It's where the bulk of the country's wealth and modern infrastructure is located anyway.  Siberia and the Asiatic east will only participate as TV viewers, like the rest of us.  The government has promised to spend billions on improving transport links, upgrading airports, building new hotels and a dozen new stadia, to make the place more attractive to visit and save on 17hours plus journeys between matches.  Putin has promised that entry visas won't be needed if you turn up with a passport and match tickets.  He's also committed to free travel on this brand new transport system.  Good job they've got the mineral wealth to sell and pay for it all.....

As the tournament is in the summer, the weather should be good....they've even selected Sochi, on the Black Sea coast, as one of the venues.....proving that Spain, Portugal and Australia haven't cornered the market on beach resorts with football grounds.    I'm still not sure I'd want to go to Russia though, even for a World Cup.

Qatar?  Apparently it's half the size of Wales.  It's just south of Bahrain and sticks out like a sore thumb into the Persian Gulf from Saudi Arabia.  It has a population of about 600,000 Qataris, and about twice as many ex-pats, many of them Indian, Pakistani and other Asian migrant workers - building labourers, drivers, kitchen maids and the like.  It only has two cities (and several small towns) and isn't known for its sporting traditions - although that has changed over the past 20 years or so.  It's hosted a number of international sporting events like the Asian Games, youth World Cup football, tennis championships, golf tourneys and cricket matches, and has generally been praised for putting on a good show.  It's building a whole bunch of new air-conditioned stadia with retractable roofs to combat the summer heat that can reach 50C .  But like most Gulf or Islamic states, it's dry - no alcohol.  Homosexuality is also liiegal, so if you.you're a gay football fan who likes a beer, then this one is not for you.

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As an English football fan with childhood memories of our win in 1966, I would have enjoyed another English World Cup in my lifetime.  It would have been nice for my son Kuba to have the same experience - in 2018 he will be 13, the same age I was in 1966 - and maybe to go one  better and go to a match or two with his big brothers.  It won't happen now, which is a shame.

But not the end of the world.

I hope sooner or later someone does something to change FIFA and make it more accountable to its members and their football mad populations, rather than the corrupt oligarchy it currently is, but I won't hold my breath.  Nothing will change until Blatter retires or dies, and even then I would be surprised if his successor, whoever that may be, isn't hand picked to carry on in the same way.

I congratulate Russia and Qatar and hope their World Cups are everything they say they will be....and I really hope they are better than the last few tournaments, that have been largely shite.

Subject closed, let's all move on.

Monday, 29 November 2010

The Good Ole U.S. of A.

America.

For as long as I can remember there has been a tendency to look up to the country with something approaching a religious awe.  It's the place everyone wants to go to.  The place where anyone can get off the boat (or airplane) penniless and earn fortunes.  The place that consistently picked up on people's ideas, provided the funding and turned them into a reality denied elsewhere...... The land where anything is possible.

Cowboy films.  Musicals.  Gangsters.  John Wayne movies.....  Inventing the game show and daytime tv.  Inventing blues, jazz, rock and roll.  And the cheeseburger.

Big cars (most of them crap).  Big trains.  Big planes.  Skyscrapers.  Wide open spaces and wide open mouths.

The space race.  Winning it, then losing interest and losing it again.

Arriving late for both the First and Second World Wars.....and then claiming the Allies wouldn't have won without them (and probably rightly too....).  Korea.....a bloody nose.  Vietnam.....a disgrace and a tragedy and another bloody nose.  The two Gulf Wars and Afghanistan......more bloody noses (ok, Saddam was toppled, thank God, but what a shambles the USA has presided over since then).  It's hard not to conclude that, when it comes to Wars, the Americans just aren't very good.

A culture with ingrained racism.  Massacres of Indians (sorry, Native Americans).  The persecution of Negroes in the past (and in some areas still).  Not to mention the poor of any colour and origin.
Arrogant cops.  Even more arrogant airport security people.

An absolute refusal to admit to any mistakes made, anywhere.  Ever. 

What IS it about the place and the people?

America......

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I've spent much of my life working alongside Americans and for American companies.  I've had some good times and some dreadful times.  I've prospered, both professionally and financially, and been close to bankrupted.  Some of the nicest people I've ever worked with were American.  So were some of the biggest arseholes.....  But then, I worked with nice people and arseholes in British companies and German banks as well, so that is not a uniquely American thing. 

In the late 70s and early 80s I worked for a major US bank in London (they're no longer with us: once the biggest in the world, successive senior management fucked them up to such an extent that they were close to bankruptcy in the last financial crisis and bailed out (with tax payer assistance) and swallowed up by another US bank).  Those years were some of the most enjoyable in my career, and I'm still in touch with some of my old colleagues now, 30 years later.  We had a unique team in place then, a mix of people that I've never encountered since.  I can't define what made it so special - partly it was the times, where the world itself was changing, the markets were booming and offering opportunities to everyone to progress if they wanted to.  Maggie was changing the UK for the better, breaking the unions (but tragically destroying whole industries in the process and in the name of free enterprise) and creating a wealthy share-owning democracy by selling off public utilities and privatising national industries - not that it lasted that long.  Her mate Reagan, before Alzheimers kicked in, was busily confronting Russia and its allies and ended up bringing down Communism (with a little help from the Polish Pope and several million peeople who were desperate for change and willing to die for it across Europe and elsewhere).  They were exciting times......and America (and American companies) was, as usual, taking a lead role.

The bank I worked at was very hierarchical.  You started as a Clerk, and sat at a desk in an open plan office with a phone and computer terminal (mainframe, of course - no PCs then).  If you did well, after a few years you'd be promoted to Lead Clerk....and then were entitled to a desk at the end of your block of co-workers and got little notepads with your name on, and became responsible for the day-to-day work your co-workers were doing.  If you still kept your nose clean, after a few more years you might make Supervisor....then things started getting really cool - as well as your personalised notepads, you got business cards and your own office, with a desk, comfortable armchair, a visitors chair and a filing cabinet.....wow.  Depending on the size of your local office or department, you could then progress to Section Manager (personalised notepad, business cards, slightly larger office, 2 visitors chairs and 2 filing cabinets), Department Manager (personalised notepad, business cards, bigger office, 3 visitors chairs and a coffee table, 3 filing cabinets....and a secretary!).  And so on, until you hit Chairman of the Board, where you occupied the entire 57th floor of the HQ buiding on Wall Street, with its own apartments, butler, catering staff and chauffeur driven limousines.  You could even end up as Treasury Secretary for the US government (as my first Chairman did for Reagan).  My rise through the ranks was meteoric.....within three years I had made supervisor, and had a very nice little office overlooking the cells behind the Old Bailey.  I had a visitor one time, from our New York office, who couldn't believe I had got there so quickly....he had been with the firm for 6 years before making Lead Clerk and another 5 before making Supervisor, where he had (at that time) spent the next 12 years....in the same job.  Over 20 years doing the same thing, day in day out, in the same corner of the same floor (the 12th).  Variety is the spice of life, I suppose....

I had two memorable managers in the firm: one a good ole Southern Belle, the other a Canadian guy who looked a bit like a younger Burle Ives (complete with goatee) who considered himself a bit of a comedian but the rest of us considered a bit of a twat.  I worked for him for about 18 months until one of our regular re-shuffles moved him out of London and sent him to somewhere exotic like Boise Idaho, ne'er to be seen again....the reward for screwing up, basically - brought in to build up a particular part of our (enlarged and re-organized) department he instead turned it into a disaster area and laughing stock that needed a team of about a dozen people to be shipped over at extortionate cost from the US (including my long term Supervisor from the 12th Floor) to clean up the mess.  I only worked for the Good Ole Southern Belle for less than a year before taking a chance and leaving to work for an American competitor at better money with (I thought) better prospects.

It wasn't that at all.  Hired on a bunch of promises for the completion of my obligatory 3 month probationary period by an English guy who then left for another (inevitably American) competitor after three weeks, I struggled on for a further 4 months reporting to a guy from Florida who nearly pissed himself laughing when I asked him, at my confirmation interview, for the additional benefits.  The writing was on the wall: 6 weeks later I was fired (sorry, made redundant)....and I was so happy!  That company is the only one I've ever worked for in over 40 years where the corporate phone directory listed both your office telephone and your home telephone numbers, effectively making you "on call" 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.  I lost count of the number of 1 and 2 a.m. calls I get from the New York office as they closed for the day, reminding (or ordering) me to do something when I got to the office....usually something I'd already done anyway.  We of course worked to US Bank Holidays, which meant that Good Friday was a working day.  The fact that the rest of the market was closed, so that London was a ghost town, made no difference.  I drove in (as did all in the Back Office - even though the dealing room was on skeleton staff) and sat reading a book until New York opened.  By this time even the skeleton staff upstairs had left, for home or the pub. I had a call from my equivalent in New York.

"You gotta call Mabon Brokerage now,  Gotta missing instruction on a trade."

"When's settlement, Ronnie?" I said.

"Next Thursday.  But you gotta call 'em now.  Big ticket.  Five million bucks."

I sighed wearily.  "Love to help you, mate, but it's a holiday here.  We're the only peeople working in the entire city of London.  It'll have to wait until Tuesday.  Don't worry, they'll still have a couple of days."

"So phone them at home, for fuck's sake!"  Ronnie was not happy.  "I says you gotta call 'em so you gotta call 'em."

"Ronnie, are you deaf or stupid?"  I was not happy either - I wanted to spend Eastrer with my kids.  "London is closed.  No-one else is working. I may be good, but I don't have the home number of every bond settlements clerk in London.  It will have to wait til Tuesday. Live with it.  Was there anything else that you wanted?"

"Fuck sake," he grumbled.  "That ain't good enough, Bob.  I'm gonna escallate this..." He paused.  "Nicky ain't gonna be happy"  Nicky was his boss, a homicidal maniac Vietnam vet who ruled with an iron fist and everyone in the New York office was terrified of him.  (He was asked to come to London for a meeting and insisted on travelling first class on the QE2, as he was terrified of flying, on the grounds that his last flight had been strapped to the outside of a medevac helicopter out of the Vietnamese jungle.)

"So what?" I said.  "You can escalate it to the Chairman of the Board for all I care.  I still can't help you, Ronnie.  Good talking to you, mate.  I'm going home"

So I went home then, and had three calls ffrom Nicky waiting for me when I got there.  I didn't answer them.  He made a fourth, and started screaming abuse at me.  I cut him off and unplugged the handset for the rest of the Easter weekend.  That was typical of that company.

Another time I went upstairs to see someone about a problem.  We were launching a new issue that day, so it was busy.  The head of the Retail Sales desk was another crazed guy from New Jersey.....when I walked in he was balancing on two computer terminals on his desk, cracking a leather bull-whip over the heads of his team,  and screaming at the top his voice: "Sell, you dumb fiucks, sell!!!   Come on, it's my fucking bonus.....sell!!!!"  His people were all on two lines each, selling......

In the end it didn't do any good.  Long after I left, they were caught up in a price manipulating scandal (basically caught rigging the US Treasury auctions over a period of years).  Their Chairman was kicked out, his licence revoked, and they were banned from that market for 5 years.  They never recovered, their business collapsed and they were eventually absorbed by a competitor (who in turn was swallowed up by Citibank).  I did chuckle....

There was another American guy I worked with, for 18 months or so in my last job, who was a marketting guy.  He was ok, and helped me a lot - we had to go out on the road to potential investors, trying to sell our company and its new business opportunity (not something I'd ever had to do before).  Some years previously I'd had a one day presentation skills training course that I had never used since, so I was nervous about standing up in front of professionals across Europe and trying to persuade them to sign on the dotted line and present us with a cheque for 50 grand or whatever.  Larry helped me lot: both in preparing the slides, in the delivery of the show and, crucially, handling the Q&A afterwards.  We travelled to Paris together for a couple of days, visiting banks there, and shared the presentations (Larry did most of them while I mainly contributed to the Q&A on certain points).  We dined one time in a l ittle restautant close to Notrre Dame, and he had a dish of snails in garlic butter.....I had to wait outside while he ate them.    Our venture failed in the end, and we all lost our jobs, but the stuff Larry helped me with in presentating ideas and running slide shows and handling a possiibly hostile audience, has stood in me good stead in my job now.  I'll always be grateful to the bloke....definitely one of the better Americans.

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I bought a book recently, "A People's History of the United States of America" by a guy called Howard Zinn, an American historian.  I thought it would give me a better understanding about the country and the people - what makes them tick.  It's frankly not a very good book - the prose is turgid, written in American English so the punctuation and spelling is all over the place, and I'm finding it very difficult to get through.  As a catalogue of events (from 1492 up to the present day) it's effective, but there is little explanation as to why those events happened.  It catalogues in great detail a series of attrocities committed by white Americans against both the Native Americans and the Negro slaves, over a period of hundreds of years, but makes no attempt to investigate and explain where this racism comes from.  The demand for more and more land (cited frequently - though not in this book - as the prime reason for annihilating the Native Americans) cannot be the only reason.  There is no clue why white American settlers (and for that matter British and other slave traders) consider themselves so superior to Negroes.  Nor can the land issue explain why weatlhy America (and there are reams of statistics showing how historically a very small minority of Americans have seized the vast majority of its wealth) consistently treat  - or more accurately mistreat - everyone else: keeping women and children employed in factories for countless hours in appalling conditions at starvation wages, forcing them to live in rat infested tenements; brutally surpressing any attempt by workers to extact a better deal.  Railway strikes broken by troops who quite happily shot strikers to death (often in the back as they ran away), strikes in mills and factories and steelworks for better conditions where the "ringleaders" were arrested and hung.   Tenant farmers and smallholders forced off their land as industrial sized farming methods, affordable only to a very few, spread across the midwest - is it me, or is that very close to the collectivisation that Stalin forced in the USSR between the Wars (and for which he was rightly condemned)?

Look at American foreign policy.  At some point in the 19th century, America decided that because of its wealth and production capabilities (a lot of it produced by slave labour and sold at inflated prices - though little of that profit was passed back to the workers), it had to seek overseas markets.  It did this not by honest salesmanship or marketting but by carving out "spheres of influence" - which basically amounted to sending the troops in to take over a country, often overthrowing existing governments.  Mexico, Cuba, the Phillipines, a swathe of Central American countries, Japan, even China, were affected by this gunboat diplomacy.  This has been going on for at least 150 years, and arguably still is (Iraq?  Afghansitan?).  Essentially, American foreign policy cares not about the effect that policy may have on the other country involved, just so long as it makes more money (or more power) for America.  As an American boss I used have would say - "It's my way or the highway".

They do not like criticism.  This week, WikiLeaks has released on the internet a huge number (up to 200,000) cables sent between American Embassies and the US State department over the past 40-odd years.  A lot of it is no more than gossip (is anybody really surprised at Chancellor Merkel being described as "risk averse", or Sarkozy as "vain", or Berlusconi as "a feckless womanizer"?), but there is also stuff there showing that certain Arab leaders have been trying to persude the US to bomb Iran (again, is this really a huge surprise?) and other stuff (Hillary Clinton encouraging her staff to spy on senior UN people, up to and including the Secretary General).  Sure, it's embarrassing for the US, but their claim that it's putting lives at risk?  Just how?  There may be a few less Embassy party invites winging their way to US Ambassadors across the world, I suppose, but I can't see much more than that.   Even the most unstable leader of the lot, Ahmedinajad in Iran, has dismissed it all as a storm in a teacup, propaganda aimed at de-stabilizing his government.  Berlusconi apparently laughed. 

America's reaction?  Well, they're going after WikiLeaks, threatening to close it down and prosecute everyone involved in it (quite how, when it's hosted on a Swedish ISP through servers located all over the world and has no headquarters or permanent staff anywhere, let alone in America, and is run by an Australian, is not clear....).  They're denouncing the organization as terrorists, but making no statement about what they're doing about finding the American employee of the State Department or CIA or whatever who provided WikiLeaks with the material in the first place.  There was another release recently, thousands of documents detailing American atrocities in the Iraq occupation (it's not a war now, really) and they have arrested a guy for that - he's awaiting trial - so clearly he has had nothing to do with this latest bit of mischief.

It's a typical American over-reaction.

And its the sort of over-reaction that over the last several years has caused a massive increase in anti-American feeling across the entire world.

I am not anti-American particularly.  The majority of Americans are I'm sure very pleasant, friendly and helpful people (certainly the vast majority of the - admittedly few- that I have met are like that).  But as a nation, they really need to accept that they are not the centre of the known universe, that other people and countries may have points of view different from their own (and have every right to do so).  This should not be an issue surely: their own Consitution states that "all men are created equal" and have "certain inalienable rights to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness".  All good stuff that surely applies to every person in the world, not just rich Americans - it applies to black, white, brown, yellow, Americans, Africans, Iraqis, Afghans, Israelis, Palestinians, men, women and children.

Doesn't it?

Wednesday, 24 November 2010

Ancient meets Modern: Egypt 2004

2004 was a busy year.  I spent time in London and Mexico, amongst other places, and it represented the final months of my first marriage.  Ania was very busy, too, as usual, so we decided to treat ourselves to a good holiday.  The previous year we had been to Malta for a couple of weeks, and while we were there tried scuba diving.  Due to my total and irrational fear of water more than about 4 foot deep (a legacy from nearly drowning three times in varying circumstances when I was a kid) I flunked the course.....but Ania carried on regardless and qualified for her PADI Open Water licence.  She did brilliantly.

Anyway, this year we decided to go a bit further afield, but somewhere that she could maybe have another crack at diving.  After much debate and number crunching we settled on Egypt, partly because a friend of ours had been there a couple of times and recommended it highly.  Ania has a friend who works for a travel agency, and through her we got a very good deal, a couple of weeks in a resort hotel in Hurghada, on the Red Sea.  I'd never heard of the place, although I'd seen the name on destination boards at a couple of airports and always wondered where it was.  A guy I was at that time working with (in Zurich this time) was a keen diver and gave me more information: he had been there several times and thoroughly recommended it - in his opinion it had some of the best dive sites in the world.  We were taking Ania's mum with us for a week, but for some reason (I can't remember for the life of me what it was) she was travelling down a couple of days after us, so we were settling us in to the best room we could find, and then picking her up from the airport and bringing her with us to the hotel.

So on an overcast early October day we headed off.

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The flight from Warsaw took the best part of 4 hours, on a charter partner of LOT, the national carrier. It was comfortable enough, though lacking in-flight entertainment, so we slept a bit and drunk a bit and read magazines and books, and tried hard not to be too bored.  We crossed the Egyptian coast at Alexandria, and shortly after, following the Nile, passed Cairo and the pilot pointed out the pyramids....try as I might I couldn't make them out at all (I needed new glasses, I supposed).   Shortly after, we came down and landed at Hurghada airport.

Although the town is on the Red Sea coast, it was a very dusty and arid place, on the edge of the desert, and stepping off the plane into the dry heat came as a shock to the system.  We had deliberately not worn thick clothes, although as it was cold in Warsaw when we left we could certainly have done with a fleece or jacket of some kind, but even the tee shirt I wore under a thin sweater, and jeans, were way too hot.  It set the tone for the whole trip - the daytime temperature never fell below 30, and at night it was balmy high 20s.  Very nice....  The airport was pretty grubby and primitive (at least for a popular tourist destination) and its duty free area was actually a bloody great Beduoin style tent outside the main terminal building (though it had a very good selection of products at excellent value prices).   Security was surprisingly lax, considering this was only a few years after 9/11 and the war in Iraq was proceeding not too far away, not to mention the usual Israeli - Arab tensions a hundred kilomteres or so across the Red Sea on the Sinai Peninsula.  Another Egyptian resort, Sharm - el Sheik, was relatively close to the Israeli border and had been targetted more than once in the recent past (and would be again in the near future).  But we weren't too concerned: the sun was shining, we'd had a couple of beers on the flight and wanted to get to the hotel for a few more.

Outside we found our travel company rep, and had the first real surprise of the holiday....our hotel had been changed without notice.  We had booked specifically for a hotel in the centre of Hurghada that our friend had stayed at a couple of times and highly recommended.  I can't remember what it was called then but Google Maps now shows it under the name of the Sand Beach Hotel.  It was central, had a selection of pools and bars and a private beach, and seemed ideal.  We had now been placed in a sister hotel, now shown on Google as the Hotel Sea Star Beau Rivage (when we were there, from memory, it was only called the Sea Star).  It was on the northern edge of town, and the rep assured us it was it was nearly as good - a bit smaller, but with two pools, divided by a bar, and again a private beach.  We had little option but to accept it, but made the point that if it wasn't suitable we expected some compensation or a move......there were a dozen of us in the same predicament.  The bus ride from the airport took an hour, dropping off at other hotels on the way, and our hotel was the last on the route.

In the event, we were very happy.  The Sea Star was very pleasant, the room comfortable and with a dual aspect pool and beach view, and the beach itself, though small, was reserved for guests only and had plenty of sun loungers under palm-topped sun umbrellas.  There were two pools, a shallow splash pool for kids, that led into a bigger and deeper adult pool, the two separated as promised by a small but cheap bar.  Behind the hotel were a couple of volleyball courts....not that I ever used them.  There was no nightclub or disco on site (no bad thing, frankly) but every night in the main bar area an Egyptian guy played muzack on an electric organ, accompanying his buxom wife who sang like a banshee.  It reminded me of the old Alas Smith and Jones comedy characters (and they weren't much better)......but for all that were quite fun.

When mamcia arrived, we planned our trips.  As she was only with us for a week, we decided to do two day trips - Luxor and the Valley of Kings one day, and Cairo for the Museum of Antiquity and Pyramids on another.  They both meant early starts and late returns, but we were happy with that, on the basis that travelling to Egypt and not seeing those wonders of the ancient world would be criminal.  For the second week, Ania and I booked a half day Quad Bike Desert Safari that looked like fun, and as we had chosen three expensive options the tour operator threw in a freebie as a reward - a half day diving trip in the Red Sea. All in all we were happy with our expeditions, and they left plenty of beach time as well.  It looked like it would be good holiday.

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To take the easy bit first: the beach was excellent.  It was small, powdery sand, and as I've already said well furnished with loungers and unbrellas, grouped a sensible distance apart and right down to the water's edge.  There was of course a bit of a battle to get the best pitch every day, and we didn't always win (as there were Germans staying in the hotel too) but by and large we always managed to get a decent pitch.  The sea itself was fantastic: it was flat calm all the time, with hardly a hint of a tide, crystal clear and so warm it was like stepping into a bath.  It shelved very gently so that I could happily wade a hundred yards offshore and still only be waist deep - it suited me down to the ground.  Even at this depth and proximity to the shore there was a fabulous array of the most beautiful and colourful fish I've ever seen, inside or outside of an aquarium.  They were unafraid of humans, and we often swam or snorkelled through shoals of them.  One day someone told us we could feed them, so we took some bread down with us and stood in the water holding it out under the surface....within seconds we were in the middle of a huge whirling cloud of multi-coloured creatures who were squabbling to get first bite.... quite literally: they were swimming up to the bread and tearing chunks of  it out of our hands.  It was brilliant, and we did it most days after that.

The pools were pretty good too, although we rarely used them: both of us prefer the sea to a chlorine filled pool.  A couple of times a day there was a water gymnastics session that we joined in once, just for fun: we had met a honeymoon couple, and the wife had the hots for the guy who ran the class (I have no idea whether her new husband realized this or not....).  Frankly I felt a bit of an idiot doing stride jumps and running on the spot in 4 feet of water, and I don't think it was doing me any good in any case.  I gave it up after I inadvertantly took part in a swimming race.....  Now I'm a weak swimmer (my fears stop me going to a pool more than a couple of times a year) so entering a race was the last thing on my mind as I stood with everyone else on the edge of the pool while the coach explained there would be a race, first one across to the other side wins a free beer and burger at the bar (or some such crap prize).  He started the ready steady go bit and I tried to turn to slip away but there were too many people behind me.  I have no idea who it was but someone gave me a shove in the back and I found myself diving headlong into about 6 foot of water.... I swam like mad, basically desperate to get across to the nearest pool edge to grab hold of something solid before I drowned....and to my complete and utter surprise found myself coming second in the race (beaten by the new husband).

I didn't use the pool after that.

                                                             *          *          *

So that was the Modern.  The hotel was very much a product of the late 20th century tourist boom, all modern conveniences, good food and drink at reasonable prices.  So to the Ancient.

Luxor was our first trip.  The coach picked us up at the frankly unGodly hour (at least for vacation time) of 6 a.m. and we drove to a car park a couple of miles out of town where we joined a convoy of maybe twenty other coaches and a police escort.  I had heard some years previously that this is normal practice in Egypt: one armed jeep at the front and another at the rear of the column, full speed ahead and stop for no-one.  A colleague of mine had been part of a similar excursion once a few years before, and passing through a village somewhere the lead jeep had knocked someone off a motor cycle: the entire column had ploughed on and left him for dead in the middle of the road.  This is being security conscious, Egyptian style.

The drive to Luxor was maybe 4 1/2 hours (nearly 300 kms), through a featureless desert.  It was tedious in the extreme.  We slept fitfully, and stared out at the occasional tatty and unkown village, typically sitting beside an oasis or nearly dried up river, its occupants struggling to make ends meet with still primitive agriculture.  Tourism clearly hadn't reached these parts yet.   But Luxor was different: a tourist resort on the banks of the Nile, still tatty looking (like everywhere in the Middle East it seems, most of the buildings look as though they're half finished or in need of repair) but clearly more prosperous looking.  At its centre, on the banks of the Nile, is the Temple of Karnak.  It's part of complex of ruined temples, chapels and other buildings dating from around 1300 BC, and is quite spectacular.  We wandered around for an hour two, as part of a guided tour (it was in Polish, so Ania provided a commentary), taking loads of photos.  At one point was a single pillar, maybe 20 feet tall, surrounded by people walking around in both directions.  Ania had a brief conversation with the tour guide, then dragged me into the throng.  We walked around the pillar seven times clockwise, then turned and did seven laps anti-clockwise, then left the parade.  Then Ania explained to me: tradition states that couples who complete this procession will have their fertility guaranteed by the gods, and have healthy children.  I didn't really believe it, but within three months of getting back to Warsaw Ania fell pregnant with Kuba......after a couple of years unsuccesful.  Coincidence?  Probably.....but you never know.

After that, we went back to the coach, trying to avoid the crowds of kids and street traders trying to sell us crappy souvenirs (or in many cases just demanding money) and headed off to the Valley of Kings.  This is a few miles from Luxor and on the opposite (eastern) bank of the Nile from Karnak.  It is a long narrow valley between two hills (that are now basically massive sand dunes, free of all vegetation) that houses a dozen or so tombs, the most famous being that of King Tutenkhamoun, the richest ever discovered in Egypt so far.  Our excursion tickets gave us entrance to these, ecxept for King Tut's.....that was an extra 100 Egyptian pounds (in today's money about GBP11) each, and there was a long queue for it already.  Now the Valley is incredibly hot, apparently one of the hottest spots in the entire country, and on this day the temperature was a good 40, maybe more....way too much to contemplate standing in line for an hour or so, so we decided to give Tut a miss and look at some of the others.  In the end we looked at three of the smaller tombs, and they were fascinating: hieroglyphs covered the walls of the burial chambers, still clearly visible after these thousands of years, and there were many artifacts - pots, coins, gold bracelets and other jewellery, chariots - on display, all sealed behind glass screens for security and well lit.  And they were so cool, after the furnace heat of the valley.  We overstayed our visit, and had to run to catch the little diesel road train that ferried us back to the coach park, and were the last to board our coach for the return trip.

We had one more stop on the way back, a couple of miles up the road.  Here was a small workshop and store making and selling various souvenirs of the area, including some beautifully carved ebony pharoh heads and similar ornaments.  We bought a lovely carving of Cleopatra (apparently) that now adorns one of the shelves at home and gathers dust.

So Luxor was a good trip.  Although a long, hot and tiring day, it was well worthwhile and gave a great impression of what an extraordinary civilization Egypt was, thousands of years ago, before the land became a desert.

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We had a couple of days to ourselves, spent chilling out on the beach, swimming and working on our tans, and then took our second trip, to Cairo and the Pyramids.  Now that is a long haul.....around 450km and over 6 hours.  As usual we were part of a convoy, and it was another early start, nearer 5 a.m., and the drive even more tedious than to Luxor.   It was uneventful, and we only had something to see when we hit Cairo.

From the outskirts of the city into the centre, where is situated the Museum of Antiquities, was one long traffic jam, and our journey slowed to a snail's pace.  The Museum itself is housed in a big and rambling colonial style building, set in well maintained gardens.  We had a relatively short time allowed to explore it, because we still had to cross the city to Giza where the Pyramids are, and then travel all the way back again, and it was really sufficient only to give us a flavour for what is there.  We felt a bit rushed as we went from gallery to gallery, and after a while I found the exhibits, impressive as they undoubtedly are, merging into one continuous stream of old stuff with nothing to really set one display apart from the others.  I'm sure, had we spent longer there it would have been much more enjoyable, and we would have appreciated it all a lot more.
But the Pyramids were calling, so off we went again......

Giza is a western suburb of Cairo, and is no longer a separate town or village: it merges into the city itself.  And that was my first disappointment.  In "Indiana Jones - Raiders of the Lost Ark", there is an action sequence situated at the Great Pyramid, and it appears as though the site is in open desert (with enough space for Nazi freighter planes to land and take off with their plundered Egyptian treasures).  It may well have been like that in the 1940s, when the film is set, but now......well, let's put it this way.  Imagine Cairo is London.  Giza is Wimbledon and the Pyramids the All England Tennis Club.  In other words, these marvellous and ancient buildings, for all their splendour and quite wonderful construction, are in the suburbs of a modern city.  Where I had expected desert, at the foot of the Great Pyramid of Cheops, is now a massive tarmaced coach and car park.  At the entrance to this car park, literally in the shadow of the Pyramids,  are apartment blocks and shopping arcades - buy your coffee and bread and washing up liquid here, and look at these four thousand year old wonders while you pay.  Walk a quarter of a mile or so, down a nicely fenced off path, and you get to the Sphinx......across the road from which is a nice selection of cafes and coffee shops, souvenir shops and grocery stores. 

As you take your pictures (which of course you can't help doing, because despite their new surroundings the Pyramids and the Sphinx are quite extraordinary) you have to be very careful in your framing to avoid getting an unwanted washing line or coach or neon Sony sign in the background.   We took our pictures, carefully of course, especially the obligatory trick one where you can stand in a particular place and pucker up and it looks for all the world as if you're giving the Sphinx a kiss, and avoided going for a camel ride around the site (good fun I'm sure, but ridiculously expensive), and marvelled at the Pyramids and tried to figure out just how they had been built with the tools then available (stone axes and hammers, rollers not wheels, and undoubtedly thousands upon thousands of workers - were they slaves or volunteers?).  And then we got back on the coach for the long journey home.

And you know what?  Six years later, I still feel totally disappointed by the Pyramids.  Not the buildings themselves, but the situation.......it just isn't how you imagine it.  A car park and apartment blocks and coffee shops just destroys the magic that should be there....for me at least.

But I'm glad I went all the same.

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A couple of days later, Ania's mum went home, so we were left to our own devices. 

So our third excursion was a half day Quad Bike Safari, and it was undoubtedly the highlight of the entire vacation.  It started with the obligatory bus ride to an out of town location, the usual car park in the middle of nowhere, but this time we didn't join a convoy of similar vehicles with a police excort.  Instead, together with another 30 or so other folk, we were all kitted out in Arafat scarves to cover our faces (especially nose and mouth) and where necessary sunglasses for the eyes.  We were then given a brief lesson in how to handle a quad bike - basically very simple: the machines had been adapted with an automatic gearbox that had 2 settings, forward and reverse, and a twist-grip throttle like a motorbike.  Then off we went, in a long snaking line out into the open desert, two people to a machine.  We spent about an hour roaring away at maybe 40kph, accompanied by three or four guides, one of whom doubled up as a cameraman so we got a dvd of the trip and it was terrific fun.  This was desert track, with no markings that I could see, so it was a completely unfinished surface, spraying up thick clouds of dust and sand and gravel (we were glad of the terrorist scarves and shades!), and the occasional larger stone that had Ania, who was driving with me on the pillion, swerving hurriedly. 

Eventually we came to a Beduoin village somewhere in the desert, and there we stopped for refreshments.  There were fruit juices, bottles of water, beer and a local drink that looked like wine but tasted like vinegar, and a good selection of local pastries, both sweet and savoury, rice and fresh fruit.  We ate sprawled out on the ground in a big tent, cool after the ride in the hot afternoon sunshine: no-one was wearing shorts or t-shirts as we had been advised when we booked to wear jeans, long sleeved shirts and strong footwear.  After the madcap ride to the encampment we could see why!  After the meal we were treated to some  traditional songs and music and dance by the villagers (we were told their sole source of income was their assistance and participation in these daily shows), in which we too participated - it was great fun.  Then we were led on foot out of the village and climbed a rocky escarpment, about 150 feet high, up a winding and slippery path.  At the top we could see across a small valley that may once have been a riverbed, and opposite was a similar hill that was topped like a saddle, with two peaks either side of a small flat space.  We settled down there for maybe an hour and watched the most spectacular desert sunset, as the sun sank down between those two peaks.  It's one of the most beautiful things I've ever seen, and we all sat in silence for perhaps 10 minutes after darkness fell.

Then we slid down to the village, mounted up, this time with me driving and Ania clinging on for dear life behind, and headed off in a headlighted procession into the pitch dark desert.  We took it slower, but not by much, and in the black night it was an even more exhilerating journey than the outbound one had been.  About half way we had a mishap: the guy in front of me went a little too close to the side of the track and kicked up a mass of sand and gravel, as well as a couple of bigger stones that rolled down onto the track right under my wheels.  I couldn't avoid it: my front left wheel kicked one of them up, there was an almighty clang, and my engine stopped dead.  We were close to the end of the column fortunately, and the couple of bikes behind us avoided collision easily enough, but disappeared into the darkness while we sat helplessly watching them.  But the last bike was that of the cameraman, and he swung back to see what our problem was.....as well he did: neither of us fancied a night alone in the desert miles from anywhere.  We were unable to re-start the bike, so we left it there on the trail, both piled on the back of his quad and headed off at speed after the rest of the column.  I assume the bike was recovered and repaired the next day - the guy told us not to worry, it was something that happened regularly and added to the adventure.

All in all, it was a terrific trip, and one that I'd love to repeat sometime....only without the crash!

                                                             *          *          *

And so the freebie - our dive boat trip. 

We left from one of the many quays in the centre of Hurghada, and were part of a party of about thirty.  It was another scorching day, and we headed off into the Red Sea for about twenty or so minutes.  The sea was a little choppy that day, and I'd had a few beers the night before and felt decidedly rough.  Ania was also a little under the weather and in the event didn't join the dive.  When we hove too on the open sea, for the only time in my life I was seasick.  We were standing at the rail, watching as our fellower travellers hit the water, and the boat was pitching and rolling with the motions of both the seaswell and the divers jumping off board, and it was hot......I felt dizzy, and weak, clutched the rail, leaned over and deposited the contents of my stomach in the water, again and again.....  Within seconds, a multitide of fish converged on the cloud of puke and began feeding off it.  The divers and photographers thought this was quite wonderful, and appealed to me for a repeat performance....I was happy to oblige.

I spent the rest of the trip sitting in whatever shade I could find, feeling as bad as I've ever felt in my life and fighting the whole time to keep what was left of the bile in my stomach down.  On the way back, I needed the toilet, and while taking a leak, farted.....and followed through.  God, what a day this was turning out to be!!!  We docked, and I spent the next half an hour in a hot taxi back to the hotel, stinking and woozy.  When we got back I spent the rest of the day sitting on the toilet......  To this day, I have no idea what brought it on: I had eaten the same as everyone else the night before and had been the only one ill, but I'm sure it must have been some kind of stomach bug rather than a simple case of too much heat and seasickness.

So our freebie, that we had been so looking forward to, was a total disaster.

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We didn't see a huge amount of Hurghada, as the hotel was on the northern edge of town a decent walk from the centre where all the clubs and shopping were.  We ventured in a few times, though, usually in the evenings when the sun was down and the temperature had dropped off a few degrees to make walking less of a chore.  It was an interesting place.  All along the seafront was a collection of hotels and guest houses to suit all tastes and budgets, from big rambling affairs like ours, with multple bars, pools, private beaches and imposing entrances, to small back street establishments clearly catering for the back packers.  In the evenings there many coffee shops and bars open where we could relax and have a go at the aromatic hubble-bubble pipes.  Somewhere I have a lovely picture of me puffing away, my head wreathed in clouds of smoke, looking for all the world like the Caterpillar from Alice in Wonderland.

We went shopping one evening in a bazaar, to get some t-shirts to take home for our nephews and Ania's brothers.  There was a good selection and we spent a half hour going through them and selected maybe 10 shirts, along with a couple of beach towels and some other odds and sods.  Then Ania decided to try her negotiating skills, as our friend who had recommended the place to us had said all the shopkeepers loved to haggle.  We were there for a further hour, the shopkeeper even gave us coffee and pastries, but Ania (and probably the shopkeeper too) had a wonderful time arguing back and forth. 

"I can't accept that," he said once, "I have 2 wives and 6 children to support." 

Another time, after nearly an hour had passed, Ania looked at the guy innocently and said "Please, my husband is getting angry, he will beat me if I pay more than that...."..

I joined in the fun then, glared angrily at both of them and told them loudly to sort it out now or we'd be leaving without buying anything, I was fed up wasting my evening, etc etc..... 

"You see?" she said, and opened her eyes innocently and imploringly wide.  That did it.....five minutes later we were on the street with two bags full of shopping that Ania had managed to secure a 60% discount on (and I really don't think they had been that overpriced in the first place!).

The taxis were a nightmare.  They were invariably Toyota mimibuses, cruising around the streets with one guy driving and sounding the horn constantly, and his mate leaning out of the passenger door window shouting for trade. 

"Taxi! Taxi! You want taxi....very cheap....we take you!  Hey mister!" 

We used them a few times, as they were indeed very cheap, and it was always a bit of an adventure....in theory the ride from downtown to the hotel should be no more than about 10 minutes, but we never once went the direct route, nor the same route twice.  We stopped constantly to pick up more passengers, or drop people off at their hotels, so the journey always took a minimum of half an hour and often longer.   The quality of driving was questionable at best, bloody awful at worst.   The guys always drove, traffic permitting, too fast, and always with no headlights, even in pitch dark in the early hours.  I asked one guy (who clearly imagined he was Micahel Schumacher or someone) to please turn the lights on.  Turning round in his seat, with a huge grin on his face (still driving madly down a darkened road), he said::  "Don't worry......Allah is with us!" 

"He might be with you," I thought, "but is he with the rest of us?"

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All in all, it was a really good vacation, one of the best I've ever had, and as of now the last one without children.  I love our kids deeply and with a passion, and wouldn't change them for the world, but there is no getting away from it - you have more freedom on holiday as a couple.  Our excursions to Luxor and Cairo, and our brilliant Quad Bike Safari would have been impossible with them, so as I will be going on for 70 before they are old enough to join in and appreciate stuff like that, for me it was like a last hurrah.....and my memories of it are probably better and clearer for that.

In two weeks you can never see enough of any place to get more than a flavour, and this was true of Egypt, a land of contrasts between the Ancient and Modern that is perhaps more noticeable there than anywhere else.  We saw wealth side by side with grinding poverty,  sparkling new and luxurious hotel complexes close to breeze-block and corrugated tin shanties, luxury Mercedes passing ox-drawn carts.  It was a fascinating place, with so much to do and see, and we loved it. 

One day I'm sure we'll go back for another look.

Tuesday, 9 November 2010

My Home Town

I saw a piece of news on Yahoo (plus the Daily Mail website) that amused me last week.  The centrepiece at this year's Guy Fawkes celebrations in my old home town was a 40 foot, firework filled effigy of Wayne Rooney, in Man U kit, carrying in one hand a signed contract and in the other a bag of cash...a nice little skit on the recent story where the money grabbing Scouse scally announced he was leaving the club because he wasn't convinced they matched his ambitions (cue accusations of him saying that his team mates were crap) only to change his mind within a few days and sign a new contract for double the wages.  Probably all down to his agent, who is on something like 15% (rather than the more normal 10) of all earnings - which on a deal this size (depending which story you believe anything from a hundred and fifty to two hundred grand a WEEK, plus image rights) is a fair bit of wedge, over a 5 year contract.  But anyway, Shrek is now injured and away from Manchester to recover, first on a family vacation in Dubai (wish I could take a vacation when I'm not fit for work, instead of having to get a sick note and stay at home chained to my laptop!) and now in the US for rehab (what????).  All of which hopefully means the dust will settle before he has to apologise to his team mates for shooting his mouth off about them, and his manager for messing him around, the rest of his employers for rubbishing them in such a public and undignified way, and perhaps most importantly set about winning back the supporters who ultimately pay his scandalous wages.  I hope the celebrations went off ok last weekend, and the rest of Wazza's career doesn't go up in smoke like the dummy undoubtedly did.

But the story made me think about my home town.....something I haven't really done for a good few years really.  It's always there in the background, but like your big toe or your nose or some other part of your body, it's part of your life and you take it for granted.  But that shouldn't be the case, because for most people - maybe everybody - your home town can shape who you are in a way that nowhere else can.  I've been to many places over the years, for a few hours or days or weeks, but with the possible exception of Warsaw, where I live now, nowhere means as much to me as there.

                                                               *          *          *

Edenbridge is a small town on the Kent - Sussex - Surrey borders, about 30 miles from London.  It's a quiet little place where very little actually happens, and it's been that way for hundreds of years.  Its name apparently comes from the Old English "Edhelm's Brigge" - though whether Edhelm was a person (local landowner, baron, war-lord or whatever) or just the old time spelling of Eden, the river over which the bridge was built, is not clear.  The earliest mention of the place, historically, is in the Domesday Book (completed in 1086), the chronicle commisioned by William the Conquerer to find out exactly what he'd got himself into after winning the Battle of Hastings twenty years earlier and also (probably) to figure out how best to tax the living daylights out of everyone to pay for the invasion in the first place.  It's likely the place had been around for a while before then, though, as it's built on an ancient Roman road that apparently ran from Lewes in Sussex to London (what the Romans were doing in Lewes is anybody's guess, it's not even on the coast!).  The main road (built directly over the old Roman one) runs straight through the middle of the town, for about a mile and half either side, and to the south the Roman one continues as an unpaved farm track called, with great imagination, Roman Road.   There are built a number of farm cottages and a quite impressive old manor house that used to be owned, when I was a youth, by the playwrite John Osborne ("Angry Young Man") and his wife, the actress Jill Bennett.  In those days, the late 60s early 70s, it was widely rumoured that their place was the venue for some fairly liberal nude bathing parties that my mum insisted on calling sex orggies.  Good luck to them, I say.....

That. incidentally, is probably as close to scandal as Edenbridge has ever come, at least to my knowledge.  No murderer or terrorist or gangland figure has ever come from the town (or at least the town doesn't admit to it), although the Kray twins' sister Dolly lived there for a while in the 70s, when a couple of new housing estates were built by the Greater London Council and populated exclusively by families moved out from (primarily) the East End of London.  But more of that later.

When I was a boy, in the 50s and 60s, it was a small country town - maybe even a village - surrounded by the lovely Kent countryside.  It was a sleepy place where it was quite possible for us kids, even at 7 or 8 years old, to go off and play in the fields or go fishing or whatever, on the long summer days until darkness fell, without our parents panicking about us.  Accidents happened, but I don't remember any fatal ones.....I fell in the river a few times but it was then only a few inches deep so all I got was wet and a spanking from my mum when I returned, dripping, home.  I also had a propensity, when playing football or cricket (as we did virtually every day in the appropriate season, in the fields behind my mate Tony's house), for diving or sliding through cow pats.....going home covered in shit drove my mum to despair and earned me more whacks - though they were never hard enough to do me any lasting harm.  There was a gang of about 8 of us, all the same age give or take a year, who grew up and went to school together, and got drunk together, and  eventually went to each others' weddings.  We had a wonderful time, and I haven't seen any of them for very nearly forty years.....I'm not even sure they are all still alive.  I hope they are, and I hope they are all happy and in good health.

It was an idyllic time then.  I was playing darts for one of the pubs in the town at 14, and getting pissed during the matches, and although the landlord and the other old guys in the team knew I was underage (as did invariably our opponents) and hence illegal, no-one was bothered.   I was not the only one....half the team were at school and under 18....but as we were quite good and won the odd game the pub welcomed us.  I was also playing football for one of the two clubs in the town, that formed a junior section when I was about 13.  Of course, our little gang all signed up straight away - a few us were decent footballers and got better as we grew older, but without ever looking likely to play at more than local league level.  I was fortunate enough to graduate to the senior reserve team (men not boys) at 15 and play well enough to stay there for a season.  I remember one game, one of my better performances (even got a headline in the local paper for it...."Keeper Saves Rout"), where our veteran centre forward, 48 years young, flattened the opposition goalkeeper.  Their centre half remonstrated with him: "Careful, he's only 17."  To which Stan replied, "So what? Our goalie's only 15."  Happy days......

                                                                *          *          *

But by the late 60s the town's character was changing.

At first there was a bit of a boom.  A factory estate opened on the northern edge of town that rapidly became the biggest employer, and available work moved from mainly agricultural labour to light manufacturing .  There was a wide variety of industry there, from paper mills to a factory making bottles and another specialising in industrial sized air conditioning and central heating ducts.  John Surtees, the racing driver, formed a Formula 1 team and sited his factory there too, which brought a rare bit of glamour to the town.  More houses were built, including the two GLC estates I referred to above.   As the population grew the shopping choices grew too, and the little corner grocery stores, butchers, fishmongers and the like, that I had grown up with, after an initial boom were reduced to bit players or closed completely as the supermarkets moved in. 

Then it all went pear-shaped, as it did throughout the country, as a recession came in, successive Labour and Conservative governments buggered things up and seemed to spend most of their time repealing each others' laws designed to solve the various crises, and thus making things much worse.  Factories closed, farms went out of business, unemployment rose and Edenbridge, like so many other small towns and villages the length and breadth of Britian, lost its innocence.  Like everywhere else, the changes have become permanent. 

In my childhood the majority of people living in Edenbridge had been born there, spent their lives there, and generally died there.  That changed with the 60s expansion as people moved in, whether they wanted to or not, from London and (to a lesser extent) elsewhere, and there became a bit of them-and-us attitude.  I can remember my dear old mum, as placid a woman as ever walked this earth, and Edenbridge born and bred, raging angrily about "those bloody Londoners" after one particularly difficult day at work (she served in a tobacconists) fending off shoplifters and just generally rude people (and I'm sure not all of them were from the new estates!).  I can also remember the kids from those estates taking the piss out of us local kids because of our Kentish accents - and because there were more of them, and they came in the main from tough areas of East London and were consequently streetwise in a way my country generation never would be - there was precious little we could do about it.  Unless we fancied a punch up somewhere....and that started happening on a regular basis too.

Society was changing across the whole world, and our quiet little corner of Kent was not immune to those changes.  People no longer were content to stay in Edenbridge all their lives, and began moving away, to seek work and make their lives elsewhere.  In fairness, the bloody Londoners gradually integrated into their new society, and became in their turn Edenbridgers (if you can call us that).  This I think accelerated when Maggie introduced legislation that made home ownership more popular and widespread, and people were able and encouraged to buy their previously council owned properties (often at bargain prices) and become part of the new home owning entrepreneurial democracy the Conservatives were working so hard to introduce (and that exists to this day).  My mum bought her council house (this was after my dad died) where she had lived since the early 1940s for I think about 7grand.....a good price for a well maintained three bed end-of-terrace with a big garden, within walking distance of the town centre and all local schools and amenities (to lapse into estate agent speak if I may).  Even the little Church Street society I lived and grew up in changed as a result of that....with half the houses now privately owned some of the more colourful characters were moved out by the council, and replaced with new tennants more likely to want to buy (and hence boost council coffers and reduce council expenses).  Among the families to go were the Miles' and Jenners, who lived next door to each other at the end of the road, gardens backing on to the railway, who were both reckoned (probably mistakenly) to be of gypsy origin and had over 30 (yes thirty) kids between them.

The scenery was indelibly changed too.  Behind my house, during my childhood, was a row of about 30 prefabs of wartime origin - little flat roofed, two bedroom bungalows made of asbestos.  In the early 70s the residents were moved out and rehoused by the council, the bungalows demolished.  Behind them had been an extensive area of allotments, then open fields across to the railway and behind the town station, and across the railway, more fields. But the allotments were also sold off, and the majority of the fields (that had been a wonderful playground during my childhood) too, and very soon the entire area became another housing estate: not council this time but typical suburban professional detached and semi-detached modern houses, with gardens half the size of our ex-council one.  So as young people moved out of town, seeking work and a future elsewhere, other families, mostly young professionals, moved in to these new estates to replace them, and the town's transformation from a country village to a suburban town continued and gathered pace - a new boom.  More chain stores opened to replace the old shops, new car dealerships opened their doors, as the population grew and demanded more consumer goods.

We still had our little entertainments.....the darts matches, the cricket club, now three football clubs, joined in an expended and modernized recreation ground by a rugby club and a hockey club.  We had a festival in the mid 70s to celebrate our Domesday Book appearance that consisted of a number of concerts and organ recitals in our lovely old church (parts of which apparently date from Norman times....), film shows in the school halls (our cinema closed in the 60s, its building used by a succession of supermarkets and now an antique shop), a five a side football tournament that my team won (I have one of only 6 medals in existance somewhere), and on Festival Day itself the High Street was closed for a massive town-wide street party featuring an ox roasted over an open fire, old fashioned beers served out of traditional oak barrels, dancing, fancy dress competitions and a medieval football match that involved the two main town clubs battling to push a massive ball (about six feet across) from one side of the town bridge to the other - one team north to south, the other south to north - and of course both teams and the ball ended up in the river: we called it a nil-all draw.  But it was great fun, and everyone got totally pissed afterwards.

Every year - and this brings us round full cirlce to my opening paragraph here - we celebrated Guy Fawkes Day with a big bonfire and fireworks party, preceded by a parade of the Guy (there was always only one) from one end of the town to the other, then back again and to the bonfire field.  There were marching bands, groups of "pioneers" illuminating the procession with flaming torches, and various clubs and organisations entered floats into the competition.  These were generally on the back of open lorries, and of course everyone was in fancy dress - both the walkers and those on floats  - and were based on popular TV shows or fairy stories (for the kids), movie characters: all kinds of stuff.  My football club always had a float, and we always had crates of beer on board so we got pissed before we got anywhere near the bonfire.  We also were placed at the end of the procession as we always had a water fight with the town Fire Brigade - we threw water bombs and buckets of water at them (one year we managed to hide a generator and pump on the truck so gave them a good soaking with hoses) and then on the return pass they would turn the high pressure hoses from their fire engines on us....and since the Fire Station was right next to the river they had an unlimited supply of water.....and basically wash us away.  It was all good fun, and always drew an appreciative crowd,  It all stopped after one year in the mid 70s when things got completely out of hand.  Some idiots threw a couple of fireworks onto our truck, set fire to the decorations (that year we were doing Up Pompeii, so we were dressed as Romans with tunics, bare feet and sandals.....bloody freezing in November!) and our right back had a foot burned.  Some of us piled of the truck to try and catch the arseholes, but they disappeared into the crowds, while the rest of used some of our water supply to put out the fire.  The crowd found it hilarious.....  Then, after we'd given the Fire Brigade their annual dousing, on the return leg the local Youth Club float ....full of bloody Londoners.....positioned about three places ahead of us, thought they would join in the fun and showered the Fire Brigade and their equipment with flour bombs.  In so doing, they did several hundred pounds worth of damage to uniforms and pumps.  They also refused to contribute towards to cost of the damages, leaving us to stump it all up out of meagre club funds.. We decided after that to drop out of the parade....all the fun had gone out of it somehow.

Another annual event was the Edenbridge and Oxted Agricultural Show.  In my childhood this was a huge affair, the biggest in the south of England and one of the biggest anywhere.  It took place every August Bank Holiday Monday, and started off as an opportunity for local farmers to have a good time and compete with each other to show off the best cow, or pig or sheep or whatever, but over the years it grew and grew.  Not only livestock was on display but flowers, fruit and vegetables, agricultural goods and clothes, Land Rovers, tractors, you name it.....  There was a show jumping competition which featured some of the best competitors in the world at that time - peeople like Harvey Smith and David Broome.  And thousands of people from all over the country used to visit for it.   It was a goldmine for local clubs and organizations who used to run produce stalls, or tombola or bottle stalls....many a club (our football club included) wouldn't have survived without the annual windfall the Agro Show brought in.   But again, over time as society changed and Edenbridge became less countrified, its popularity waned and the show moved out of town to another site a few miles away.

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In 1978 I married and we moved out of Edenbridge, to a bigger town about 20 miles away, where at that time I was working.  We came back regularly as both our families lived (and in my ex-wife's case still live) there.  Most weekends we would go back, initially by train but eventually (once I'd passed my driving test - at the fourth attempt) by car, so that the kids could see their grandparents and so on.  We saw changes to the town, but it seemed a gradual change, nothing really spectacular.  Then my mum died, and my sister sold the house and with her husband retired and moved to Norfolk, and our kids grew up and we went back less often - and when we did, not always into the town itself as my in-laws lived a mile or so outside.  My marriage broke up and I moved to Poland, as my life changed, and for many years I didn't go near Edenbridge, or even think too much about it.

There was a gap of maybe 6 years.  And then a couple of years ago, I went back.  I had taken my youngest son Kuba, then 2 1/2, for weeks' trip to visit family.  We hired a car, drove to Norfolk to visit my sister, back down to Kent to visit my other sister and her family, and of course my older sons, and on the way back to the airport I decided to route through Edenbridge to lay flowers on my parents' grave and tell Kuba a bit about them (not sure he understood a word of it but still....it's the thought that counts, I suppose).  And I almost didn't recognise the place.  There was a new ring road for a start, that came out onto the High Street where the old Fire Station had been, by the river.  The High Street hadn't changed that much, but at the top of the town, as I found when we headed off to Heathrow, was the other end of the ring road and a set of traffic lights.....now there was an innovation!  Where previously there had been a bit of parkland, by the original GLC estate, there were now more houses.  The old Ennia insurance building, where my sister had worked for many years, at the junction of Station Road and the High Street had been replaced by flats.  All the way up the road, under the two railway bridges northward, there were new buildings going up, or coming down; the factory estate looked different, less busy somehow; the Albion pub, beyond the most northerly railway bridge (an old watering hole of mine) had also been closed and turned into maisonettes.

We drove through, and on to the airport and caught our flight, and all the way I was trying to absorb what I had seen.  The signs said "Edenbridge", but it wasn't the town I remembered.  I've been back since, and drove round to the house I was born in and grew up in, and my mum lived in until only 10 days before she died at 79, and it was different.  The front garden, her pride and joy, had been part paved to provide a parking space for two cars.  Where in childhood the road had been my first football pitch or cricket wicket, it was now an extensive parking lot - there was hardly room to turn around: my three point turn ended up an eight point turn.  The river has now been dredged and is cleaner and deeper now, but I saw no evidence of local kids playing in the surrounding fields (my mate Tony's) or fishing.....probably all indoors on X-Box or watching TV I guess.

I found it sad, really.  Edenbridge is still my home town, it's where I lived the first 25 years of my life, and had some great times (and some shite ones too)....but in another sense it's changed so much, almost beyond recognition in fact, that I find it hard to think of it as that.

But I guess that's the price of progress.  And growing old.

Monday, 1 November 2010

A word from Our Sponsors

Corporate entertainment......now there is a growth industry for you. 

When I first went into the banking/broking business it didn't really exist.  The odd event would draw support, usually local, from a generous company - my first employer, a blue-blood stockbroker if ever there was one, used to sponsor a beer tent at Tunbridge Wells cricket week (Kent vs Sussex and Surrey).  But it was solely for partners to entertain customers, and ordinary staff never got a look in.  Over the last 30 years though, since probably the early 80s, the Big Bang that opened the once clositered City to all comers (principally hot shot Yanks, Japs and Germans) has ushered in a hugely lucrative business of finding and selling corporate sponsorship.

It happens at every level.  Some years ago, I used to coach an under 15s football team, and I managed to tap a mate of mine (who had his own business) for the cost of a complete team strip for a squad of 16 plus "Manager's Coats" for me and my mate who helped with the boys.  We didn't win many matches that year, but we looked the dogs.  Two years later, still wearing the kit, the lads won their first championship.....but by then I'd been forced to pack up the coaching and the sponsor's business had been discontinued.

Higher up the ladder, pretty much every football or rugby stadium, or cricket ground....any sporting venue in fact that charges admission...has its corporate facilities.  It may be just a simple beer tent a la Grieveson Grant, or it may be very plush private boxes, complete with big screen TVs to watch the match on if you don't fancy getting cold and wet, and as much free food and booze as you can neck in a couple of hours.

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I've been on a few corporate jollies over the years, and invariably had a great time.

The first, when I was working for a very aggressive American investment bank - they were swallowed up during the last financial crisis - was to Wembley for the second American Bowl exhibition match, as a guest of Barclays.  I was doing a little bit of forex trading, and Barclays Cable Desk invited me, probably on the basis that working for a Yank bank I must like American football.  In fact I knew bugger all about it, but my boss was happy to let me go...."provided you can get them to shave their rates, they're crap".    Yeah, right....there's me, basically a back office guy who does about a dozen spot cable trades a week to cover balances (at that time we didn't have a forex desk in London) expected to sit in a box at Wembley and berate a bunch of highly profitable traders for ripping us off (they weren't) and demand a better spread.  Anyway, I went to Wembley and had a great time.  The box was on the half way line, the food and drink was great, the conversation rarely strayed on to business matters, and a guy there who was a grid-iron fanatic explained the action to me.  It was the San Francisco 49ers against the Washington Redskins, I remember, a pre-season exhibition match, so the top players didn't take part.   The biggest applause of the night was for the legendary 49ers quarterback Joe Montana, when he strolled out in jeans and t-shirt for a pitch side interview.  I can't remember the score, but the Redskins won from an overtime field goal from 40 yards.  Oh, and the half time entertainment featured a guy called the Balloon Man, who basically inflated a huge 6foot balloon then proceeded to attempt to climb inside.  It burst, he was knocked out cold and stretchered off by the St Johns Ambulance to a standing ovation.  And I never mentioned rates at all.....told my boss they were thinking about it.  He seemed happy enough.

Next up, a couple of years (and one job change) later was cricket.  Not the biggest games - no Test match or one dayer - but entertaining nevertheless.  Middlesex vs Surrey at Lords, guest of a software house whose system we used for derivatives business (not my business area, but the Derivatives Back Office manager couldn't make it).  Box hosted by the great (and very old) Denis Compton.  A good days cricket, highlight of which was a wonderful double century by Middlesex batsman Mark Ramprakash, who the previous day had been dropped for the following week's Test match against (I think) Australia.  Great response I thought.   I actually got into big trouble over that one, because the guy whose place I had taken neglected to tell our manager, and I got an almighty bollocking and verbal warning for "gross professional misconduct".  I was not a happy chappy.  The following summer I got another cricket match - and my manager approved it (different bloke, the old fart I had upset had been moved sideways), so off I went to the Oval for a B&H Cup match between Surrey and Holland.  Surrey won, and I can't remember another thing about it.  I must have been pissed.

Then, two months later, came the highlight, courtesy of Citibank: a day driving at Silverstone.  That was a cracker.  There were about thirty of us there, I think, and we met in the British Racing Drivers Club in the middle of the circuit, where we were fed bacon rolls and divided into teams, each named for one of the F1 teams and led by a professional racing driver.  I was in Jordan and my driver was Barbara Armstrong, at that time a leading rally cross driver.  We were given a set of black Silverstone racing overalls that I kept and used for decorating at home for the next 5 years.  Over the day, we had go-kart racing, single-seat Formula Fords on a reduced central track, a skid pan lesson in a heavily doctored Peugeot 405 saloon, some stunt driving in a Caterham 7 sports car (God, I'd love one of those!) and several laps of the full Grand Prix circuit in race tuned Peugeot 305 hatchbacks.  It was a fantastic day, it improved my driving skills (though my wife doesn't believe that at all) and I'd love to do it again sometime - but probably never will.

The following year (and one more job change later) I had my last jolly.  Again it was paid for by a software supplier, this time one who was touting for my business (I was responsible for choosing a system for the new company I was then working for) and was to a marquee at the Royal Artillery Sports Ground in the City of London  (off Moorgate) to watch the England - Argentina World Cup quarter final 1998.  I wish it had been a happier occasion.  The food and drink and, particlualrly, the atmosphere there was excellent, but the result.....oh, dear.  Any football fan will remember it.  18 year old Michael Owen (two months older than my son) scored one of the best World Cup goals ever, then David Beckham got sent off for an inocuous but stupid kick on Diego Simeone (for which he was pilloried throughout the next season) and we ended up losing on penalties.  Terrible.....  At the end of the game the place was like a morgue, where 90 minutes before we had sung and shouted ourselves hoarse for Owen's goal, and we all just drunk up, and walked silently to the nearest Tube station to go home. The following day, an American guy I worked with pissed me off big time with the following comment when calling a potential customer:

"My name is Shearer, S-H-E-A-R-E-R....like the footballer.  Good job it's not Becken-ham...heh-heh-heh".  And they wonder why British football fans just don't take them seriously......

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I do wonder, though, how companies quantify their spend on corporate entertainment.

In the cases mentioned above, there was no real issue.  The two cricket matches were cheap, and the companies already had our business secured, so it was an easy thanks guys for them.  Similarly with the American Bowl game: Barclays had our business already, and were making enough of a spread on the few trades we did to justify the again minimal spend.  Silverstone?  More expensive, I'm sure, probably a couple of thousand......but we subsequently signed up to their services (securing which was the whole point of the invitation) and I'm sure they covered it many times over in fees during the first six months.  They didn't need to do it anyway, we'd already decided to go their way, but I didn't tell them that for a week after the event.

But my kids football team?  How did my mate justify dipping his hand in his pocket for maybe a grand to spend on that....and did he really reap any benefit from it?  My guess is he offset the cost against that years' tax bill and covered it that way, because I can't imagine any business came his way as a result.

And again how do companies decide what is a good investment and what isn't?  I'm sure companies who spend millions sponsoring major football teams like Arsenal, or Real Madrid, or Man Utd do benefit from the increased publicity (as those clubs are on TV pretty much every week, so the sponsor's name is on TV every week, often in close up).  But the club I support are sponsored by Eurostar, not for a vast amount admittedly (as they're in the fifth tier of the national game) but do Eurostar really sell many more tickets as a result of their name being seen on the front of a football shirt by maybe 800 people a week?  Where is their return on investment?

Speaking of which, my company used to sponsor the Sauber F1 team.  I don't know how much for, but our name was prominent on the front wing of a car participating in a sport that has a truly global interest and is on TV world-wide throughout the season.  As a tech company sponsoring a participant in probably the most highly technical sport in the world, it was a good match - as our marketting guys never stopped telling us.  Then a few years ago we dropped Sauber and instead started sponsoring......a Swiss solo sailor who competes in transatlantic and round the world yacht races (that he never seems to finish).  We've basically paid for two new boats now, in return for which the sail is in our corporate colour scheme and bears our company name.  But how many people watch these races as compared to F1?  What is our ROI for this deal?

Makes no sense to me, I'm afraid!