Wednesday, 25 June 2014

On writing, phone hacking and the Al Jazeera Three

I’ve been writing things, on and off, for most of my life.  It’s something I enjoy doing, and without blowing my own trumpet I thinks it’s something I do quite well.  This blog is just the latest manifestation of something that, while not really an obsession, is very important to me.  In all that time I’ve only had one item published (if you disregard Around the World…., which essentially I’m self-publishing courtesy the Mighty WWW).  It was a short story I entered into a competition run by the Surrey Mirror newspaper, way back in the mid-60s for its festive issue.  It was called something like “Hitch-hiking Home for Christmas” and was I think 500 words long, and described how I (first person narrative, of course) thumbed various rides home from a logging camp in British Columbia to spend Christmas with my family in Kent…..  I was about 11 or 12 I think, and won a postal order for thirty bob (that’s £1-50 in new money) for my trouble.  My mum and dad were immensely proud, and told anyone who would listen that one day I would earn my living from my pen.

It gave me a bit of a spur, I suppose, and throughout my school days I fiddled about with my exercise book and mandatory Osmiroid fountain pen.  I know I started and never finished dozens of now forgotten stories, but did fill one book, when I was maybe 15, with poetry.  One I remember to this day, inspired by Erich von Daniken’s then best seller “Chariots of the Gods?” (postulating that ancient Mayan and Egyptian civilizations were kick-started by visiting aliens) and a book by someone else, I forget who, that suggested that Christianity – and religious belief in general - was a direct result of early hallucinogenic experimentation, went:

                                Was God an Astronaut? Von Daniken said,
                                He must be crazy in the head!
                                Everyone knows the one to whom
                                He refers is but a Sacred Mushroom.

Ah, adolescence!  I thought I had lost the book at school but it turned up 20 years later, after my mum died (she seems to have hoarded it somewhere in her stuff, God bless her) so I took it home, but alas I’ve managed to lose it again somewhere along the way.  Ah, well, c’est la vie.

Later on, when I left school, I had less time to write, as I was working for a living or else playing football or cricket, or getting drunk……all the usual teenage stuff.  I was also devouring sci-fi by the crate load – Clarke, Heinlein, Asimov, Andersen – all the Golden Age legends, and newer writers then like Larry Niven and Piers Anthony.  So naturally enough, when I hit my twenties and got my second wind so to speak I started writing sci-fi too.  It’s all lost now, perhaps fortunately: a lot of it was excruciatingly bad and derivative and eminently forgettable, but I can still remember the odd yarn.  There was a fairly short one about the return to Earth of the first starship several thousand years after it had started its journey, during which the crew had only aged about 10 years (relatively speaking….), and finding a world that had gone through an ecological disaster that had seen the seas all but disappear and all life too.  They landed in a long dry valley between the Australian Gold Coast and the Great Barrier Reef, I remember plotting, and failing to recognise where it actually was.  I think they killed themselves in despair.  Then there was another one, very derivative of Isaac Asimov, about a bloke who invented a time machine but something went wrong and he ended up being projected back about 5 minutes every time he tried it out, and just repeating the same thing over and over again (“a tape loop in time”, I described it…..almost poetic, that).

There was also a series of three or four stories about a bloke called Jay Soon – very Larry Niven-ish, they were, and all basically extended puns.  In one our hero went hunting for a huge yellow insect (it was called Jay Soon and the Golden Fleas), another where he goes out and collects the Voyager 1 space probe to sell to a tv company to use as an advert, and a third where he goes to some planet or other to toboggan down an eighty mile high mountain but finds someone else has already done it (here the pun was again in a character’s name)……  I still have them somewhere at home.  They’re not bad, when I think about how pissed I usually was when I wrote them, and what turmoil my life was in.  This was the early to mid-1970’s, a fun decade.

Then I stopped again, because I got married and had kids, and had far too many important things to do than waste my time scribbling in exercise books.  I was trying (not altogether successfully) to nurture a career too.   I was working in a succession of banks, in pretty much pre-computerized (or at best limited main-frame, punch-card, pre-PC days) offices where a lot of work was manual and involved not quite quill pens and ledgers but not far short.  So I was indeed earning my living through my pen (a ball Pentel or Biro this time, fountain pens are such old hat….), just not in the way mum and dad had meant, nor indeed how I wanted to (deep down).   But my first priority was paying the mortgage and buying clothes and food, and booking school trips and all those things – things I could only do working, and with no obvious way of making any dosh writing I let it go.  To be honest, I lacked inspiration too – I still read copiously, all kinds of stuff (my tastes remain eclectic and wide ranging to this day: I always have at least one book on the go and often more), but I could never get an idea clear enough in my mind to get anywhere.   I guess all the influences I was soaking up in my subconscious confused me.

I did try though.  I started one semi-autobiographical, hopefully funny book about four guys going on a bachelor vacation in Majorca (as I and some mates had done back in the early 70s).  I called it One Peseta, Two Peseta…., with the vague idea of a follow up set in Benidorm called Three Peseta, Four…., but abandoned it after about page 10.  I’ll never go back to that one, the euro has basically killed the terrible titular pun.

Then I lost my job so I had more time.  I even bought a pretty crappy electronic typewriter and bashed out a story, much more adult, that I even finished.  It was called The Road to Zennor, and featured a bond trader who takes a long weekend at his holiday home in Cornwall, has a brief (and highly descriptive) fling with a girl hitchhiker he picks up on Bodmin Moor who turns out to be the ghost of a missing heiress.  Bit of weird one, but I still have it somewhere at home, and I like it.  I showed it to someone who worked then at a women’s magazine, and she thought it was sellable, but I never got around to doing anything about it.  And finally, I wrote my book, in a constant six week graft during a very very quiet spell at work when I basically had nothing else to do.  It fills two exercise books, runs to maybe 200 pages and is about sex and booze and football (as opposed to sex and drugs and rock ‘n’ roll) – subjects dear to my heart.  That was in about 1985.  Since then, I’ve had about four stabs at re-drafting it into a proper manuscript but never finished it – work always seems to get in the way.  The latest effort is nestling within the bowels of this ThinkPad’s files, 70% completed. But I forgot to pack the bloody original to finish it while I’m here in Hamilton.  I could kick myself!  

One day, I will finish it and I will publish it – on my own if I have to.

But all that is preamble.

What my mum and dad envisaged, fifty years ago now, was not my being an author, a writer churning out fiction for the masses, but being a journalist.  Whether they were thinking local rag or national broadsheet was never clear, and the problem was neither they nor I had the faintest idea how to go about it.  My careers officer at school was, typically, no use whatsoever.  This is the man who advised me not to bother trying to get into university because my parents would never be able to affords the fees and in any case council estate children didn’t go to uni.  (Both points were probably true then, in the late 60s, but hardly aspirational and frankly a dereliction of his duty……careers office my arse.)  So I kind of drifted into consultancy via the London Stock Exchange and investment (sorry, casino) banking over the next forty odd years.

But I often wonder, to this day, whether journalism might not have been a better career choice, and indeed what my life would have been like now had I taken that path.  Conjecture of course, no way of knowing.  I think I would probably have enjoyed myself – at least I could have spent my time doing something I still enjoy – bashing away at a keyboard or scrawling almost illegibly into a notebook, creating sentences and visions and stories for other people’s enjoyment (I hope….).  I’m sure I would have had my fair share of boredom too, sitting around in courtrooms or pubs or wherever, waiting for something interesting to happen that’s worth writing about, or collecting statistics from hospitals of new arrivals and recent departures to fill the Births, Deaths and Marriages column (or as my dad memorably called it the Hatched Matched and Dispatched Page) in some local rag.  Would I ever have made an investigative journalist?  A features editor or columnist? Better yet, a sports (preferably football) reporter or music journalist?  As I say, complete conjecture – but I think I probably would, and a good one too, if only I’d had a shove in the right direction at 16 or 17 when I gave my education up as a bad job and entered the big wide increasingly ugly world of the wage earner.

I’m perhaps using rose tinted spectacles here.  Not about the process of creating, being a wordsmith, but being a journalist.  Because, from what I’ve read in a couple of news stories over the past couple of days it seems to be an increasingly grubby and dangerous profession these days.

First, there is the long awaited conclusion to the News of the World phone hacking trial.   The story has been rumbling along for a few years, and the trial itself nearly nine months but the verdicts finally came out today.  Basically, the editors and senior journalists at the paper spent a lot of time and money hacking the mobile phones of literally hundreds of people – celebrities, politicians, and ordinary people including (unforgivably) that of a murdered teenage girl – to get a better (for which read more scurrilous) story for a paper that had once been well respected but had turned into a bit of a kiss-and-tell rag.  Complaints were made,  police investigations and public enquiries set up and a new press code of conduct and self-governance proposed (but so far not implemented).  The paper itself was closed down after nearly 150 years of publishing.  Today, the ex-editor was found guilty on a number of charges and faces jail time.  Four other accused, who pleaded guilty, are also looking at spending time at Her Majesty’s Pleasure.  Another four were today acquitted of all charges but face uncertain futures after their names and journalistic reputations have been dragged through the mud. 

What makes it worse is that Andy Coulson, the editor found guilty today, after leaving the paper was appointed top spin doctor to the Conservative Party – personally interviewed and hired by current Prime Minister David Cameron and Chancellor George Osborne.  They swear they asked him in the interviews if the phone hacking allegations were true and appear to have accepted the “What me, guv? Nah, wouldn’t do a fing like that, guv” answer as gospel without further checking, and hired the bloke to a position giving him access to God know’s how much sensitive material.  Cameron has done the relatively decent thing of apologizing unreservedly for his “honest mistake” in making a decision he “now knows to be wrong” – but is that enough?  Osborne has been curiously silent about his part in the affair, which surprises me not at all – the man’s a weasel.  Typically the Opposition have started pillorying Cameron for a lack of judgement (not for the first time) and demanding his resignation (also not for the first time, nor probably the last).

This follows a couple of days after a story from Poland wherein the offices of a news magazine were raided after publication of a story that involves a further case of phone hacking, this time those of various Polish ministers, one of whom was taped having a conversation with the head of the (supposedly impartial and independent) central bank about what would be the best policies to follow to help the government win the forthcoming general elections.  The situation is boiling away there and could lead to snap elections that could quite possibly end up with the ruling PO being punished at the ballot box and kicked out of office.

The interesting part of this little story, splashed across the Guardian but seemingly ignored elsewhere, is a series of conversations between the Foreign Minister Radek Sikorski (an Oxford colleague of messrs Cameron and Osborne and London Mayor Boris Johnson) in which he roundly and obscenely accuses Cameron in particular and the UK government in general of being complete idiots in regard to EU relationships and “fucking up” big time and being completely out of tune with what the rest of the EU wants and so on and so on.  Nothing new there,  perhaps, but a revealing glimpse of what other nations think of Call Me Dave and his merry band of political lightweights currently running Britain to rack and ruin.

These stories seem to me to shine a clear light on the way today’s press use all kinds of dirty tricks to get the juiciest, most unpleasant information to then splash across the front pages.  It does not seem to matter who the story is about – the more dirt the better.  The more a reputation is tarnished the better (and who cares whether the accusations are true and attacks deserved).  Dirt sell papers.  I seriously cannot remember  the last time I read a genuine feel-good story in praise of something or somebody – there is always, but always, a sting in even the nicest piece.  I’m not suggesting for one minute that politicians and paedophile tv stars and serial killers and dishonest thieving bank executives should not be pursued and brought to justice, of course not.  And I accept too that the press have a huge and often honourable part to play in doing so.  But surely there are limits to public decency and, if you like, fair play that should never be exceeded, and it seems to me the press these days – and not only in the UK but in the US and Germany and Poland and elsewhere – are too keen to exceed those limits. 

And then you have the other side of the coin – the plight of journalists imprisoned across the world for doing their job in an honest and honourable way, reporting the facts and exposing what needs to be exposed – telling it like it is, as our transatlantic cousins might put it.  Putin’s Russia and China, in particular, have large numbers of journalists locked up for simply not toeing the party line, for saying things that the government would rather remain unsaid.

Yesterday, at a court hearing in Cairo, harsh prison terms were confirmed on a trio of Al Jazeera journalists for, amongst other charges, allegedly supporting a terrorist organization (the Muslim Brotherhood).  When they were arrested in December last year the Brotherhood was actually ruling the country (but shortly to be overthrown in a military coup).  The journalists and Al Jazeera have consistently insisted that the men, who include an award winning Australian and ex-BBC journalist Peter Greste, have no links with any terrorist organization and were merely reporting what was happening on the streets of Cairo and Alexandria and elsewhere, but the judicial system has ignored that and locked them up for seven years.  They intend to appeal, of course, but that process in itself could take months – maybe a couple of years – to be completed, given the state of the Egyptian legal system and chaotic state of the country itself. 

Now I watch Al Jazeera News quite lot, the English version for which Greste worked, and it’s a good station.  It seems to me less slanted than similar networks (for instance CNN International has a huge American bias both in the range of its presenters and in what it considers to be newsworthy, DW-TV has a heavy German slant, France-24 English very French and so on), and covers stories and features that are ignored elsewhere.  I watched their coverage of the situation in Egypt at the end of last year, right up to the day Greste and his colleagues were arrested, as well as the CNN and BBC World coverage, and Al Jazeera were as impartial as anyone else – nothing was said that, in my view, could be considered pro-terrorist or pro-Muslim Brotherhood in any way.

And yet these men now face years in a jail far worse than any that Coulson and his colleagues are ever likely to face in Britain.  And for what?  For doing their job in an honest and honourable way.  As opposed to a grubby, underhanded and illegal way.

Which is the true face of journalism?  

Monday, 16 June 2014

A stroll to the beach

Well, the first week here in sunny Hamilton has passed without  mishap.  It’s a nice little project in a nice little bank, with the usual multi-cultural project team.  The bank folks are also very friendly and helpful, and clearly desperately keen for a successful project – right now their systems and procedures are largely manual and hence 25 years out of date, so essentially anything we deliver will be an improvement.  So it’s been workshop after workshop to go through the usual intelligence gathering and get it all down on paper in the approved manner (even where the approved manner actually doesn’t make a lot of sense).  But we’re getting there and on track to deliver the first milestone on time.  

With all this going on, there’s not been a lot of time to see Hamilton or the greater island, but so far what I’ve seen has been very pleasant.  The town (you can hardly call it a city) is a very pretty and relaxed place, beautifully situated on the Paget Bay inlet.  It’s clearly an affluent place, as befits a global centre of offshore banking and tourism, with a good selection of shops and bars and restaurants along the waterfront.  Back from the shoreline and town centre are the residential areas, along winding and hilly streets filled with palm trees and lilacs and bougainvillea.  The houses are substantial and expensive looking, many of them in good sized and well enclosed gardens for privacy (although I’ve seen no swimming pools apart from the one at the hotel – I guess so close to glorious beaches no-one wants one).

There is a shopping mall between the bank’s location and Front Street that has a good food court where we’ve taken lunch a couple of times, and the meals have been excellent.  One day we took sushi, and the other Chinese, both times from a buffet, and ate in a sunny central atrium in the fresh air.  We also went to another place further up the hill, close to the small cathedral, that did another buffet, and the rice, vegetables and sliced fried beef I had was delicious.  On Friday we went to a Jamaican place behind the mall that offered excellent sliced roast pork, rice and vegetables, as well as ribs and jerk chicken, and a selection of delicious sweets.  So I’ve eaten well and at a reasonable cost – each meal with drinks has come in at around USD20. No complaints.

In the evenings I’ve, as usual, fended for myself.  Sandwiches and concoctions involving rice and beans and corned beef and onions and garlic mostly, washed down with Nescafe and water and Abbott’s Ale (a pleasant surprise to find that in the local supermarket).  The kitchen is pretty well equipped, so when I get round to it I’ll stock up and do some proper meals.  It’s a bank holiday today (Monday) and all the shops are closed so it will have to wait.

The weekend was pleasant enough.  Two free days to explore, so I consulted the map and picked out a reasonably close beach (Hungry Bay on the South Shore, about 2 ½ km from the city centre, an hour’s walk from the hotel according to Google Maps), stuffed my towel, book and swimmers into my rucksack and set off about 9:30 Saturday morning.

I arrived in Front Street just in time to see the annual Queens Day parade start off from the Cabinet Building and War Memorial (it’s an exact – but slightly smaller – copy of the Cenotaph in London’s Whitehall).  The street had been closed from there westward as far as the Ferry Terminal, and there were a handful of tourists scattered around takings pictures, but by and large the locals seemed absent.  About half way along a small enclosure had been set up for local dignitaries (I assume government ministers and the British Consul) to sit in the shade and relative comfort to watch but it was oddly deserted – perhaps they were behind the enclosure having a quick gin and tonic or something.  So I took a few pictures of the small contingent of troops and sailors lined up in the gardens of the Cabinet Building, and the marching band as it struck up when the flags were presented, then moved on. 

                                                          Queen's Day Parade, Hamilton

There is a small container port close to the end of the bay, not much bigger than a jetty with a couple of cranes, and then the last little section is full of small boats and cabin cruisers tied up in the safety of the Inner Bay.  I wandered past into Harbour Road and headed off towards the South Shore.  At that point, although I didn’t realise it until hours later, I was lost.  Blissfully unaware, I ambled along, up the steep and narrow Stowe Hill to join the South Road, where I spotted a sign “South Shore Beaches”.  Fifty metres further on was a junction, with no indication which way to go…..I took a punt and stayed on the main road.  A kilometre further on, past the College, there was still no sign of a beach or even a sign pointing to one, so I asked a guy cutting hedges where to go.  Helpfully, he told me to go back the way I had come and turn right at the church – my unsigned junction.   Back I went, and next to the church ducked into a little store for a bottle of water – thirsty work in the hot sun, this wandering around Bermuda.  I checked my bearings with the check-out girl….who totally contradicted my hedge-cutting friend and sent me back that way again.   She was right.  Not more than 100 metres beyond where the guy had been working was the grandiose entrance to the Elbow Bay Beach resort, and a couple of hundred metres beyond that the little trail that led down to the public section of the beach.

It was worth the effort.  Elbow Bay Beach has the reputation of being one of the best beaches on the island, and I could see why.  From the steps leading down, the powdery white sand stretches clean and, even at 11:30 on a June Saturday afternoon, virtually deserted both east and west.  The sea is astonishingly clear and calm, and a little offshore you can see the small coral reefs that provide for good snorkelling.  At either end are sun beds and umbrellas belonging to the Elbow Bay Beach resort and its neighbouring Coco Reef Hotel, and of course there are signs that mark the limit of the public sector (which stretches for maybe 300 metres or so).  At the eastern end, just before the Elbow Bay Beach Resort section, was a little stand of rocks a couple of metres high that offered some shelter from the hot sun, so I parked myself there, stripped off and went for a swim. 

                                            Elbow Bay Beach, 11:30 a.m. Saturday 14 June

The sea was quite warm – Mediterranean temperature I would say, but it’s still early season and will get warmer yet – and the clearest sea water I have ever seen.  A bowl of tap water would be no clearer.  There was a gentle swell, no massive breakers as I’d experienced four years ago on Trinidad’s Maraccas Beach, nor the sort of rough waves that are more or less constant in the Baltic and English Channel.  It reminded me a lot of Elafonissi Beach on Crete, another favourite place of mine from maybe seven or eight summers ago, and a place I want to re-visit.  So I floundered around happily for half an hour so, cooling down from the six kilometre walk from the hotel (I checked it on Google Maps that evening).

                                                             My rocky place to chill

In all I spent maybe three hours at Elbow Beach, and there were never more than about 30 people along the whole public stretch.  Then some guys from the Elbow Bay Beach resort came along and sneakily I thought moved their boundary sign along about 20 metres – so that I now found myself essentially sprawled on private property.  So I packed up my stuff and headed off, deciding to try and find my original Hungry Bay destination if I could, and if not head for the pub back in Hamilton for a beer or two before football.

Back on the outskirts of Hamilton, I found where I had taken my wrong turning, and plodded off up Trimmingham Road to re-join the South Road – in doing that I had added a good couple of kilometres to my walk.   But eventually I found the road that, on my map, led to Hungry Bay.  On the map, it looks like a very small and enclosed bay not much more than a hundred metres or so across, and when I got there that is indeed accurate.  But what the map fails to convey is that it is a private beach, with entrance limited to the residents of the surrounding neighbourhood.  And very nice that neighbourhood is too – a couple of dozen big secluded mansions, bigger and grander than anything I had seen before, sitting in manicured and landscaped grounds behind high hedges and secure gates, all I would think with superb sea views.   But the only way onto the beach seemed to be through somebody’s back garden, so that was a no-go.  Back to Hamilton I went.

I broke off for some food in Flanagan’s Irish pub, and sat on the balcony upstairs overlooking Front Street and the Ferry Terminal.  It’s a typical themed Irish boozer, but very good for all that.  The Kilkenny ale was cold and went down a treat, and the Shepherd’s pie with a side order of fries was very tasty.  Actually, it wasn’t a Shepherd’s pie as it wasn’t made with lamb – the minced beef technically made it a Cottage pie – but I hadn’t the appetite to point out to the staff that they needed to change the menu, on the basis that the majority of visitors would probably be American cruise ship passengers (judging by the accents surrounding me that’s a good bet) who would neither know nor care about the finer points of British cuisine.  And it’s their loss, frankly.  Anyway, after that I trudged wearily back to the hotel for a cooling shower and an evening of World Cup watching.

Hamilton Harbour from Flanagan's Irish pub

And what a fine World Cup this is turning out to be!  I can’t remember the last time I watched so many exciting and entertaining games in the group stages.  Up to last night, in 11 games there had been over 30 goals, which is ridiculous really, and of 22 halves of play only one had been goal-less.  There have been some unbelievable results as well – I don’t think anyone saw Holland’s 5-1 drubbing of reigning champions Spain coming, least of all the Spanish squad, and no-one gave Costa Rica a chance against Uruguay, but they still ran out victorious.  Perhaps predictably, England lost to Italy, but I thought a bit unluckily, and they showed some very good play too – quite unlike England in fact.    And it took a moment of inspiration from Lionel Messi to put away debutants Bosnia – Argentina are a good side and I fancy them to win it, but at times they had looked ordinary.  There’s a long way to go yet, but I really hope the tournament carries on like this.  After all the publicity about the problems Brazil were having getting the stadia and infrastructure – roads, airports, hotels and so on – ready for the off, I had predicted (along with many others) a disaster, but so far it’s been anything but that.  Long may it continue!

So there you go.  Week one was fine, as was the weather – hot and sunny every day.  Today, typical for bank holidays everywhere it seems (at least when I’m resident), it’s a good deal cooler, and quite overcast.   There could be rain later I think.  Most of the team fly home tomorrow night (they’ve already been here a few weeks) but I stay until early July, so plenty of time for more exploring yet.

And I guess some work too…… 

Thursday, 12 June 2014

Bermuda for beginners

Well, here I am, in sunny Hamilton, Bermuda.  I’ve been here a couple of days, so it’s time for some first impressions, I think.

First of all, contrary to popular belief, Bermuda is not in the Caribbean.  In fact it’s about a thousand miles north-east of the nearest recognizable Caribbean island, and actually lies some 450 miles due east of Cape Hatteras in North Carolina.  So it’s a pretty isolated speck of land.  And speck is not an exaggeration: the island (in fact, group of islands) measures a mere 21 square miles in area, and since from its most easterly point to its most westerly is just 20 miles (according to Arthur, my local cabbie who picked me up at the airport), it’s rarely more than a mile across.  In many places, the distance is mere yards, and the Atlantic is clearly visible on both sides.  Viewed from the air or Google Maps, the island has a roughly fish-hook shape, with a scattering of islets around the perimeter and a larger one settled in the main bay area (so in the curve of the fish-hook).

Yet despite its miniscule size, there are about 400 miles of roads – by which I’m referring to proper, honest-to-God tarmacked roads, not unpaved tracks.  Most of them, even in the capital Hamilton, are very narrow and winding and undulating – it’s a surprisingly hilly place – and there seem to be few footpaths alongside.  My hotel is a ten minute walk from the office, on the edge of town, and at least a third of the distance is walking along the side of the road, hugging boundary fences and hedgerows to avoid being mown down.  It reminds me of some of the lovely Cornish lanes I used to drive on vacations many years ago.

This little rock also houses a population of around 65,000.  Again, refer to Google Maps, and this time view in satellite mode.  The entire island appears to be covered in white dots, as if God has flicked a celestial paintbrush overhead and scattered droplets of emulsion over the place.  Zoom in and you will see that these dots are in fact buildings – houses, hotels, warehouses, offices and so on.  Apart from the beach areas, a handful of parks and sports grounds, and a golf course or two, there is precious little free land area at all.  So there is very limited agriculture, no orchards, no potato crops, nothing.  There is a small dairy farm and that’s about it.  Everything has to be imported – and so everything is expensive.

Until 1948 or thereabouts, there were only a handful of cars on the island, and most of those were owned and run by the government - police force, ambulances and so forth.  There was a small railway line running around both north and south coasts, linking Hamilton with the more remote (if that’s the right word) areas, but hardly any private cars.  But as the population grew, and its offshore banking and tourism industries expanded with post-war American affluence, the government changed things around a little.  The railway was closed down (today the tracks form a jogging and cycling path around some of the most beautiful parts of Bermuda), roads were built, and private citizens were allowed to buy cars.  But strict limits were imposed that stand to this day – only one vehicle per household and a 25kph speed limit island-wide.  Given the nature of the roads, this is no bad thing.  Motor scooters are very popular too, and seem to outnumber cars around the city, and so are bicycles.  Helmets are mandatory for both, including for passengers on the scooters, and using seatbelts in cars and taxis is likewise a must.  There are no hire cars on the island, which is just as well, so if you want to get around under your own steam you need to hire a scooter or a bike, or use the bus and taxi networks.  I plan to rent a bike at the weekend and explore a bit….which could be fun.

The people are very friendly indeed.  Walking around town, between hotel and bank, or around the shops, complete strangers flash you a broad smile and a jaunty “Good morning, how are you today?”  It all makes a change from surly London commuters barging past you on the steps of Bank station, or crazy Warsaw drivers cutting you up on the school-run.  Even the beggars here are friendly and polite: “Lovely day today, sir.  Can you spare me a dollar for a coffee please?”  Well, a buck certainly won’t buy a coffee, but I’d rather be asked politely like that than some of the confrontations I’ve had over the years, in cities everywhere.  I was actually surprised to find homeless people and street beggars here, given how wealthy Bermuda is, but they exist as they do everywhere – and if that’s not a sad indictment of 21st Century Planet Earth I don’t know what is.

Bermuda is a Crown Territory, and its Britishness is evident everywhere.  You drive (albeit s-l-o-w-l-y) on the correct side of the road.  The road markings and traffic lights and pedestrian crossings are British style.  The buses are the same as the ones in Oxford and Edinburgh and Gravesend – no bendy buses here (the roads couldn’t take them).  Among the normal international brand stores like adidas and Benetton there is a Marks & Spencer, a shop called The English Sports Shop, a Red Lion pub (and of course the inevitable Flanagan’s Irish Sports Bar).  In the food court at the mall close to the office you can buy delicious looking chicken and mushroom or steak and vegetable pies – and of course pizza and pasta and sushi and oodles of fresh fish dishes.  There is Weetabix and Colman’s Mustard in the supermarket.  All very homely, apart from the weather which is much better.

The island lies in the Gulf Stream, so the sea is warm as is the year-round climate – blue skies and fluffy white clouds and plenty of sun.  But it’s not excessively Caribbean hot – so far this week around the mid-20s: very comfortable and pleasant.  It’s also on the edge of the hurricane belt, and sometimes catches storms of Biblical proportions (although rarely a direct hit). That said it will be just my luck to be here for the first hurricane in years……now that WOULD be something to write about!

What else?  Oh, yes – dress code.  Shorts are de riguer here – the world famous Bermuda shorts.  Everyone wears them, and very natty they are too.  They are perfectly acceptable at work, provided they are a single colour (no lairy patterns or loud flowery designs here) – the most popular colour is pink, which is the national colour.  They are worn with dark knee-length socks, black business shoes and a normal shirt and tie (and sometimes a jacket or blazer for important meetings).  Many people at the bank wear them, and I have to say it actually looks very smart in an English sort of way.  One guy there is French, so of course he has to be different: khaki shorts, a check shirt, no tie, and sailing shoes with no socks.  My colleagues and I have agreed that in a couple of weeks we too will join in the fun  - they are leaving for home visits next week so will bring suitable gear with them on their return.  I may well invest before then……  A couple of weeks ago I wrote and published a piece on LinkedIn (advice for new consultants – how to survive life on the road) and one  of the key points is to blend in with the locals.  So shorts it is – I can hardly not follow my own advice!

So there we go.  My initial thought is this a cool place and I’ll enjoy my time here.  There is the obvious caveat that so far all I’ve seen is a surprisingly shabby airport, the road into Hamilton, my hotel and the office, and a couple of shops.  I’ve not visited a beach yet – I’m told they are stunning and the best in the world - , nor a pub; I’ve not hired a bike or caught a bus.  All that is to come, starting this weekend. 

Watch this space….