Tuesday, 30 October 2012


Today I will make the final payment to HSBC in Dubai and after five years of worry, stress and bullshit I will be free. Just 9 months ago I was in a police cell in Dubai, wondering how I was ever going to be rid of the horrible debt I'd stupidly and naively got myself into, but I guess it did me a favour ultimately. I had no choice but to accept the new payment terms imposed on me, so I signed the security cheque through the bars and was let out to go on my merry way. As ever, there were dodgy moments when I thought I'd screw things up again, but I kept going and have got myself over that finish line.

Oh, sweet relief! I'm actually lost for words for once. And also very, very tired.

Wednesday, 17 October 2012


A few weeks ago I posted a photo on the Photography For Beginners website as an entry into their Indoor Photography Challenge. It was one of my personal favourites, something I'd taken in a moment of "inspiration" using just a flower, a pink wall in my daughter's bedroom and the pink fairy lights on said wall.

Well today I received an e-mail telling me I'd won the contest! How cool is that?


I'm not sure if it's going to be printed in the magazine, but that would be even cooler, Daddy-o!

Monday, 8 October 2012

Achtung Gadgie - Return to the Divided City

So it was Friday night, I was in the Aussie Bar which is next to the Irish Bar, drinking a rusty nail or two...and I just didn't know what I was going to do with myself for the weekend. I chatted with the barmen about this and that. The South African chap (for some reason I can't remember) mentioned that it was only about a 5 hour drive to Berlin.

Really? Only 5 hours? I didn't think it was that close.

The seed of an idea planted itself in my head. I have lived in Berlin, albeit many, many years ago (late '70s to early '80s), and haven't been back since the wall came down. I have wanted to go back and see it, but have never had the chance or got round to it. So why not now? If I left early enough in the morning, I'd be there by lunchtime and could come back Sunday evening. I did a quick check on a hotel website and found some really good deals. The seed was now a tree, and I was pretty much decided. I was going.

The drive there was horrendous. I had a map and my blackberry with google maps on it, but still got lost around Bremen, and the weather was awful. It rained constantly all the way. It took me more like 7 hours, and I was done in when I got to the hotel at about 4pm. The hotel was situated about 20km south east of the city centre. I decided not to go in that night, instead having a nice meal and a couple of drinks. I would get up early, head into the city and then drive back.

So that's what I did. It was cloudy and cold in the morning, but not raining. I drove in towards Alexanderplatz, which was pretty much a straight-line drive. I passed mile upon mile of communist-era buildings such as apartment blocks and office blocks, all square and uniform. I was in what used to be East Berlin. For me, this was a strange feeling. Back in 1979 or whenever, as a young child/army brat, I'd lived in a part of the city that was effectively an island of West Germany in the East. We were completely surrounded by hostile forces. As a kid I wasn't really aware of the significance of it all, only knowing that my father had to jump out of bed in the dead of night every so often when a military vehicle came past our street with a megaphone-amplified voice shouting something about Rocking Horses or something. When I think about it now, it gives me the creeps.

I finally approached Alexanderplatz along Karl Marx Strasse (I think), noticing the olive-on-a-stick shape of the TV Tower (or Fernsehturm in German) emerging from the clouds. I know it well; my mother has an ornamental block of glass with a miniature version of the tower etched in it. I found an underground car park and was soon on foot, walking towards Unter Den Linte in the general direction of the Brandenburg Gate. I wasn't sure how far it was, having only a small map I'd picked up at the hotel. I wondered if I'd have to take some form of transport at some point. The place was quiet, but coffee shops were open, and I stopped for a coffee and a croissant.

When I came out onto the street again there were more people around. I walked past a couple of souvenir shops and dived into one to buy a few nick-nacks for home, including a fridge magnet with a piece of the wall on (or so it said). A few shops along I spotted the office for a bus tour company. I was starting to think that all the things I wanted to see were miles apart. The price for a tour of all the major tourist sites wasn't too bad, and I could hop on and off as I liked, so I paid the lady and waited for the bus to come (they come every 10 minutes). It was an enclosed double-decker, but I was thankful for the warmth.

The bus moved along the road and over a river, past a series of grand, neo-classical buildings. I spotted the familiar shape of the Brandenburg Gate in the distance, but the bus took a right before the gate and stopped right next to the enormous Reichstag. I hopped off, readied up the camera and set off on a walk. I went back towards the Gate, passing a collection of white crosses on a fence that was near the old line of the wall. All the crosses bore names, obviously of those who died trying to get from the East to the West. Chris Gueffroy was the last person to die trying in February 1989, only a matter of months before the borders were opened and the wall started to fall.

At the Brandenburg Gate there were hundreds of people milling around taking pictures, and a group of young men dressed in US military uniform posing with some tourists (for a small fee). The gate had some ugly metal fencing near it, making picture-taking a bit of a pain. I think there had been a concert at the other side, having spotted a few scaffold structures being dismantled through the gaps between the columns. I returned to wait for the bus. Once on again, I relaxed and watched Berlin pass me by. We passed all the new government buildings and embassies and the shiny new central railway station. Then we went past part of the enormous tierpark (city centre park) towards the Charlottenburg Area. We turned onto Kurfurstendam and I decided it was time to hop off again. There were a few sites to see here, and I was hungry anyway. I spotted the Hard Rock Cafe a little way along the road and made a beeline for it. I nearly fainted when I saw a Trabbant car in the corner, covered in coloured squares. It was one of the cars used as promotion by U2 for their album Achtung Baby, recorded in Berling's Hansa Studios back in 1990/1. I took a photo, naturally, then ordered some food. It came really quickly, was eaten far too quickly and I was soon back on the streets.

The Blue Church, or Kaiser Wilhelm Memorial Church, is one place I remember seeing from my previous time in Berlin. It was damaged in WW2 and had been added to in the 1960s, with distinctive blue glass on the new belfry. I was a tad gutted when I turned the corner to see it covered in temporary cladding. It's obviously undergoing some repair works. So I waited for the tour bus again and hopped back on. We started heading back towards the central area, and the recorded tour guide told me on my headphones that we were heading for Potsdamerplatz. The square had been essentially the central square of Berlin for years up until WW2, when it was pretty much leveled by bombing (as much of the city had - up to 75%). During the Cold War years it stood in no-man's land, desolate and neglected. When the wall came down it had new life breathed into it and is now a huge glass-covered area, surrounded by new office buildings, shopping malls and cinemas. I do remember climbing up to a public viewing platform and looking over the wall when I was a kid, and the area I saw was probably this very place. I remember how grey and dull the East looked. Now it was unrecognisable.

We drove past the Jewish Museum, the tour guide telling us about the symbolism of the zinc panels and windowless towers, then passed a stretch of the old Berlin wall, but there was no chance to get off (annoyingly), so I had to snap the wall from the bus as we drove past. It is now a museum piece, protected from what the Germans call "wall woodpeckers" who still come to chip off souvenirs from it. Reinforcement bars can be seen here and there, and most of the graffiti on the Western side has gone.

The next stop was Checkpoint Charlie. I hopped off again and went for a look. It obviously wasn't the original structure but a small wooden hut with some replica signs on it. The Checkpoint I remember was a larger, flat-roofed building. There was a McDonalds and a Starbucks right next to it now. The obligatory uniformed men stood in front of the hut, charging for snaps. The more interesting part was a large wooden hoarding just past the checkpoint where a history of the wall had been printed, detailing how the city had been divvied up after the war, then how the wall had been built in 1961 to stop the Eastern German economy losing all its human assets, going on to tell the story of the Cold War and how the communist states started collapsing in late 1989, the wall came down and Germany became one again in 1990.

I gave up on the bus after that. I didn't want to miss anything else. I decided to walk back to Alexanderplatz, and I'm glad I did. I saw some incredible examples of churches, libraries and university buildings, all restored to their former glory. The streets were now alive with tourists and the sun was shining on the autumnal trees. I passed an area of grass near a river bank with some kind of urban artwork in the shape of dozens of giant lollipops stuck into a map that had been painted on the floor.

I eventually got back to my car, walking back past the TV tower which was now shining in the sun. I decided I had time to go back to Charlottenburg, the district where I lived more than 30 years ago. I knew it was till there; I remembered the name of the street (the streets around there were all named after famous authors) and had looked it up on google maps. It took me nearly half an hour to get there, even though it was a straight-line drive most of the way. The city is just huge. I turned a couple of corners and was suddenly back on a street I hadn't been on for over 30 years. It didn't look like it had changed a lot. The primary school I went to was still there as well, just at the end of the street. It is now simply The Berlin British School rather than Charlottenburg Primary, but it didn't look to have changed much. I wonder if they still have the huge metal slide that went down the wooded hill at the back...

I took a quick snap on the phone camera, trying not to look like a snoopy weirdo, then set off for "home". I had a long way to go, but I had to do it. The drive took less time that the previous day, with the weather being better and my paying more attention to maps and directions, and I got back to the flat in Groningen at 10.45pm

I'd driven 700 miles and taken a few pics on the face of things, but it was more than that. Not only did I avoid another weekend of terminal boredom, I revisited a place that has changed incredibly in just 30 years, seeing a place I once knew through older and (I hope wiser) eyes. Berlin is a city of amazing, unparalleled history, and a place that has encapsulated world events for a good deal of the last century. When you think about what has happened there, World War 2 and the Cold War and all, it astounds you that it is now such a vibrant place full of life and wonderful architecture. I'm not going to wait another 30 years to go back...

flickr photos: http://www.flickr.com/photos/cosmicherb70/sets/72157631722518150/

Wednesday, 3 October 2012

Calendar 2013

Picture This

Whitby on a Sunny Day

Instead of whinging like a big girl I've decided to do something constructive. I've been getting more and more joy out of photography of late. I've taken the leap to DSLR with the purchase of a Nikon D3100 in July. I've been learning how to take proper photos without relying on Auto settings. I've got a good editing programme  to add some punch to my pics and now I am reaping the rewards. There are lots of nice comments coming in where I post my photos (mostly Facebook, Flickr (pic above) or 500px), and someone even suggested I make a calendar.

So I'll post the best of my photos on here...and maybe I'll still have a rant once in a while!

Monday, 24 September 2012

The Answer to the Ultimate Question

Of Life, The Universe and Everything.

Anyone who knows anything worthwhile knows that the answer is 42. Today I turned 42. I have to say I feel distinctly underwhelmed. I probably know less than I did yesterday, given that my brain cells are dying off with my increased age. I did get called "Marvin the Paranoid Android" once upon a time, to be fair. Don't expect a cheery posting here, folks...

I woke up to rain and wind rustling in the trees outside my window. I really didn't want to get up. I'd had a few beverages last night and, whilst not hungover, I had stayed up far too late again and just didn't feel like getting up. I always struggle to get up before 7am, and as the nights stretch their dark, autumnal jaws to swallow the daylight hours, it will become more difficult, I'm sure.

I eventually roused myself at 7.16am. I needed to get to work, and was going to be late anyway. I showered, cursing the fluctuations in power and temperature from the lime-crusted shower head. The surrounds are depressing...brown tiles and creaky, old piping. It's like showering in a public toilet in Grimsby. At least the light is working again.

After dressing I take my birthday cards from my laptop bag and open them. They've been waiting in there for a week, ready to celebrate another notch on the ruler that ends somewhere down the line, but ends inevitably nonetheless...


OK. I'll snap out of it, but let me explain my foul mood: I am once again trapped in solitude. I am working in Holland now, near the city of Groningen. I stay in the city itself and drive up and down to the work site every day. It's a pleasant city, with canals, bicycles and lots of students. In my spare time I have had a good look around, taking photos with my new camera (I've got into the DSLR side of things now, and am enjoying it). I probably have too much spare time. A 2-day weekend is not good when you're completely alone. There's no socialising here; I'm just a consultant here, dropping in to do a few months of work, and everyone else has their own life. Some go home every other weekend and I am going to explore that possibility myself, I think. At the end of the day I find myself going to bars and restaurants alone, sitting in the corner watching big groups of people having fun or couples holding hands...

I've said before that this kind of life sucks, and I stick by it. I am so close to home, but so far away. I had a weekend at home last weekend, and it was great. We went to Whitby and had fish and chips and the sun shone all day. Then this weekend, I slobbed about in the 50s-era apartment (it's great location-wise, to be fair) and went out only to get food. I even watched some Forumla 1 racing, and I don't really care for it.

And so today is my birthday and I think that fact is amplifying the loneliness. Well-meaning people have sent me a torrent of texts and facebook messages, wishing that I have a "great day" and so on. I would love to have a great day, but so far it's been pretty shite. When I got to work I was told there is a meeting at 5pm tonight, which will last up to 2 hours. Fantastic. I don't want to be lonely, but then I don't want to be stuck in a meeting that means I won't get back to Groningen until 8pm. I've found an Irish bar near where I'm staying, and fancied a trip there tonight, even if I end up sitting alone at the bar and watching English football...the barman is friendly enough.

I dislike this current situation so much that I've been considereing the Middle East again, even places like Saudi Arabia. At least I'd be part of a team and in the same boat as everyone else there. Of course, this kind of thought is little short of utter insanity. I would find faults there...I'd not get home for 3 months at a time and would soon tire of the Middle East Medieval Mindset again. And then it might kick off in Iran. I'm clinging to the fact that the light is visible at the end of the tunnel. The situation that brought me here (that thing in the Middle East) is nearly resolved, and a large weight will lift from my shoulders within the space of about 5 weeks. It'll just be my luck that the world WILL end in December, just as I'm getting back on an even keel.

Hey ho. Chins up...there will be some wine drunk at some time today.

Tuesday, 7 August 2012


I do apologise...the free period for OYIW starts today, Tuesday 7th August. I've been travelling hither and thither and got a bit mixed up with my days.


Sunday, 5 August 2012

Going FREE!

I have finally got round to updating my Dubai book, "One Year In Wonderland". It has been thoroughly overhauled, with some professional editing and a new cover, and includes a new chapter detailing an unexpected and rather unwelcome return to Dubai. To mark the release of the new version, I have signed it up to the KDP Select program, making it exclusive to Amazon in e-book format, and allowing me to run a FREE promotion for five days. The free period starts on Monday 7th August.

One Year In Wonderland: Updated and Extended

Sunday, 24 June 2012

Pants on fire?

So I'm currently working in the Shetland Islands and am enjoying some stunning scenery and nature. I have taken hundreds of photos (see flickr). In the first few weeks I stayed at the Shetland Hotel in Lerwick. It's a bit of an eyesore and I had a few problems sleeping as I kept hearing noise from adjacent rooms, from the corridors and from above. I posted a review on tripadvisor and made a few points (forgetting about the terrible wi-fi coverage in there) whilst saying the staff were good and the restaurant was OK. The management have replied to my review saying that the walls are 1 foot thick and there was never any noise when they had a listen themselves (did they actually have someone in the next room, I wonder?) So either I am lying or hallucinating, according to them. I am disgusted and have no means of editing my review or replying to their reply. I can post another review in 3 months' time.

Needless to say, I have moved to another hotel in a place called Hillswick. It is more of a guest house, to be honest, but it much more welcoming and MUCH QUIETER.

Wednesday, 29 February 2012

Carling Cup Final 2004 Memories

On the occasion of the "2nd" anniversary of that wonderful day in Cardiff (it was 29th February 2004), I thought I'd share an extract from my book "You Are My Boro: The Unlikely Adventures of a Small Town in Europe".

From Chapter 11 - 2003/4 - We DID Overcome.

And so it was upon us: The League Cup, or, to give it its sponsor’s name, the Carling Cup Final. Could it happen this time? Could 128 years of hurt finally come to an end? The portents were good, not least in the fact that we would be playing at the Millennium Stadium in Cardiff rather than Wembley, which was still undergoing complete and very expensive reconstruction. There was also the date of the game: the leap year extra day of 29th February. It was a rare date, and maybe something rare would happen.

I managed to get myself a ticket, having made the prudent decision to buy a season ticket halfway through the season and thus improve my chances if we’d got there. There was a decent allocation for real fans at League Cup finals in Cardiff. I think both sets of fans were allocated nearly 30,000 tickets, so a good number got to go to the match. I’m sure there were those who were unlucky or who just couldn’t make it at all, and I believe Bolton had some problems with their allocations. Such is life with cup finals. They are logistical challenges given the short time scales that are often at play; there’s no doubt of that.

In the weeks leading up to the game I had been asked if I wanted to go to a BBC Radio 5 Live fans’ forum being held on a midweek night at a pub in Bolton, so I joined about a dozen other people who ran, contributed to or posted on FMTTM’s messageboard, including the likes of Rob Nichols and the legend they call Uncle Harry. We made our way over the Pennines with a “pies and peace” offering of some local pork products and found the venue. It was a large, modern pub with a cavernous open area. A group of tables was set up at one end of the room where the presenter, Jonathan Pearce, took up his central hosting position between Mark Lawrenson, Craig Hignett, Stan Collymore and Bolton legend, John McGinlay. In front of them were several rows of chairs seating Bolton fans. The small Boro contingent was ushered upstairs to a mezzanine area overlooking the main floor.

The show was lively and the banter was good-spirited. There was a roving reporter called Clem (himself a Teessider) who mingled with the fans when prompted, asking various questions and wandering around with the obligatory large microphone and headphones worn on one ear. During one such walkabout, Clem came towards me and thrust the microphone under my mouth, asking who I most feared from Bolton. My first, instinctive answer of “Peter Kay” raised a laugh in the crowd, although Mr. Pearce didn’t look too impressed down on the main floor, but I soon gave a real answer and named Kevin Davies as someone who would definitely cause us problems in the game. He had been a thorn in our sides before, and I knew he was the kind of player defenders hate to face: a big, bustling nuisance who doesn’t know the meaning of a lost cause.

After the show we found out that the actual League Cup trophy was there (it could have been a replica, of course, but it looked real enough) and a few of us had our photos taken gurning over the trophy with thumbs aloft and so on. Craig Hignett, ex-member of the dynamic strike duo of 1995-96 named the Midget Gems (partnered by Nick Barmby), came and chatted with us for a while and posed for more photos. A few drinks were imbibed and it was soon time to head back to the North East.

For the match itself, I decided to head down the night before the match and stay in a Travelodge just off the M4. This meant I could get into Cardiff nice and early without worrying about driving a long way twice in a day, especially as the weather had turned wintry. I gave another couple of Boro fans a lift down as well, and they stayed at the same hotel. Next morning we ate a hearty breakfast in the Little Chef next door and headed into Welsh Wales. I had never been to Wales in my entire life, and hoped I wouldn’t be accosted by enormous unintelligible signs emblazoned with thirty-letter place names (made up of the letters H, L and U, mostly). It wasn’t like that at all, of course, and it didn’t take long to cross the Severn and get to Cardiff.

We were directed to car parks on the outskirts of the Welsh capital city, from where we could catch buses to the city centre. It was all fairly well organised and we got into the heart of the city with a good few hours to spare, and found that it was already buzzing with football fans. The strange thing was that it seemed to be all Boro. There were very few Bolton fans to be found, and all the pubs were awash with the reds and whites of Middlesbrough. There was a convivial and excited party atmosphere all around.

I headed to the Cardiff branch of the British Legion where a few people I knew where going to be meeting up for a few drinks. When I got there I found that they had a German beer called Bitburger which I hadn’t tasted since I was a young slip of a lad back in the late 1980s. My excitement abated a tad when I found out that it was an alcohol-free version, but I still drank it. I was high enough on expectation as it was, and had to drive home after the game anyway.

Everyone was itching to get to the match, and there was an amazing feeling of optimism amongst the Boro fans. It was more optimistic than the feeling I’d witnessed back in 1997. It wasn’t just optimism, actually, it was belief. This was our time, and I don’t think we’d ever felt so sure of it. As kick-off time approached people finished their drinks, exchanged handshakes, hugs and back-pats and headed towards the venue for the cup final.

The Millennium stadium is an impressive venue, with high, white steel columns in each corner and polished black cladding around the top of the stands. On the day of our final it had Carling Cup banners draped from various structures. I made my way into the ground and up to my seat, which was high up at the back of one of the end stands. The retractable roof was closed for the match, and from the roof hung two huge banners bearing the club crests of Bolton and Boro. The centre circle was covered with a huge circle of cloth bearing the name of the sponsors. The stands were soon full of hopeful fans, decked out in their red and white shirts, hats and scarves and waving their flags. The atmosphere was crackling with expectancy and nails were bitten as news of the team selections came through. Hopes and dreams by the thousand were ready to pour out onto the pitch when the teams appeared.

The teams emerged a few minutes before kick-off to a background of vivid, moving colour and colossal noise. Fireworks erupted from the pitch and flash-bulbs by the thousand lit up the stands. The two teams lined up along the pitch, one on each side of the half-way line and did all the pre-match presentation stuff they like to torture us all with. Get on with it, will ya?

When it did start, it started better than anyone could have dared to imagine. In only the second minute Danny Mills knocked a long ball forward from right back. It was headed back into midfield where Mendieta suddenly had acres of space. He curled a gorgeous ball out to Zenden on the left wing, and Zenden whipped a wicked low cross into the six-yard box where Job slammed it home to give Boro the lead.

If that was good, better was to follow. French World Cup winner Djorkaeff had a chance for Bolton, saved well by Schwarzer to his right, and from the resulting corner Boro won a free kick for Bolton naughtiness in the area. A bit of head tennis ensued before Mendieta slid the ball in towards Job who was lurking in the area with his back to goal. As he tried to take the ball to one side, he was floored by a clumsy tackle from behind and referee Mr. Riley pointed to the spot. Oh. My. God. We had a penalty.

Zenden took the responsibility on his shoulders and stepped up to take the penalty kick. As he kicked his standing foot slipped and he did actually strike the ball twice, but the contacts were so close together it was only visible on a slow-mo replay, and the ball ended up in the net. Only six minutes had passed, and the Boro fans could barely contain themselves. I found myself hugging the bloke next to me, who I’d never seen before and have never seen since. I would have apologised, but he was hugging back with great enthusiasm.

On 21 minutes Bolton woke from their stunned stupor and hit back. It was a goal out of nothing by Kevin Bloody Davies (didn’t I warn them?) with a weak, long-range shot from wide on the right. Schwarzer made a bit of a boo-boo of it, misjudging the bounce and letting the ball in at his near post. He was visibly annoyed by the mistake, kicking the goalpost in frustration.  Of course Bolton came at us hard after that. They launched a series of attacks in their usual, Big-Sam-drilled way, but we stood firm. Schwarzer was a man possessed, making a series of great saves to quell the white-shirted hordes, and we made it to half time with the lead intact.

The second half wasn’t half as hairy for Boro as it could have been. Bolton soon ran out of steam. They kept pressing for the equaliser, but Boro kept breaking quickly, and could well have scored a couple of goals up at the end of the ground where our nervous fans were seated. Mendieta had a couple of good chances and Juninho made a couple of trademark mazy runs, but the third goal wouldn’t come. Ricketts came on for a bumbling cameo and our nerves were shot. Regulation time ran out and Bolton had four minutes of injury time to try and draw level. They threw everything forward, and there was a horrible, heart-in-the-mouth moment when Ehiogu’s arm was struck by a goal-bound shot as he lunged across to block it from almost point-blank range. Mike Riley waved play on and we were so, so close to Paradise. The strains of “We Shall Overcome”, that protest song of the civil rights movement adopted as an anthem of valiant defeat by Boro fans in the past, wasn’t going to get an airing today. Please God, I can’t say I really believe in you, but please: not today.

The roar at the final whistle was like nothing I’ve heard before or since. The release was immeasurable. Finally, finally, Middlesbrough had won a real trophy. Mickey Mouse trophy my arse. I stood with arms aloft and screamed until my lungs burned and my head span, then had to sit down to get my breath back. It was then that I wept like a big bloody baby, and I’m not ashamed to admit it. I’d not been a Boro fan for very long compared to many of those around me, but at that moment I felt 100% Teessider.

I’d seen cup final defeats and relegations, and this was sweeter and more real than anything I’d ever felt as a football fan, even in my foolish and misguided younger years. I can’t imagine a Manchester United or Chelsea fan knowing how this moment feels. They win trophies all the time, so they get used to it. Hard times for them are going a season without winning a pot, whilst the majority of clubs just want to survive and go on the odd cup run, hoping to get a few crumbs thrown their way now and again by Sky Television.

The celebrations were long, lusty and loud. Long after the Bolton fans had vacated their half of the stadium to trudge home feeling hard done by (been there, done that), the stadium rocked to the Boro rhythm. The players partied on the pitch as much the fans did in the stands, with a beaming Juninho laying the ghosts of Elland Road to rest. You could see it meant a lot to him. I rang my parents on my mobile, giving them a replay of my full-time roar, but with all the noise around me, I wasn’t sure who I was actually speaking to. It could well have been the answering machine.

The spectacular trophy presentation ceremony saw Gareth Southgate lift that glittering piece of silverware high above his head as fireworks shot towards the dark voids of the roof. Steve Gibson, the lad who came from the tough, working-class Middlesbrough estate of Park End to become one of the most popular chairmen in the modern game, was persuaded to come up to the podium and was lifted shoulder-high by the players. As for Steve McClaren, he hadn’t been universally popular with fans of the club, but he had done the one thing no other manager had managed before: won a cup.

 It was all just flipping fantastic, and I am so glad and I feel so privileged that I was there to see history being made. 

Full book available at Amazon.co.uk

Thursday, 2 February 2012

Not a Holiday in Cambodia,,,,

For anyone remotely interested in my current adventures in Cambodia, please take a gander at this...


Thursday, 26 January 2012

An Unexpected Return to Wonderland...

When I imagined myself returning to Dubai, I imagined all kinds of things and how I would feel as I looked at the now-working Metro lines and the finished Burj Dubai...I mean Khalifa. What I never, ever imagined was seeing Dubai from the inside of a police van, through the bars of black caging.

I was flying to Cambodia with Etihad, via AD and Bangkok. There was supposed to be a 2 hour stop in each place. On my way to Manchester Airport my new company rang to say there was a long delay to the Bangkok leg, and it would be leaving 8 or 9 hours late. When I landed in AD the transfer desk gave everyone a hotel voucher and told us to go through immigration and get picked up for the hotel. I had no inkling that they would pull me. I do have a debt outstanding to a UAE bank, but had agreed a payment plan with a UK company. I have also been back to the UAE since I left in 2007, staying for 3 weeks in AD only last year. So it was a surprise when the immigration officer took more than one look at my passport and then told me there was a case against me.

I was taken to 2 different offices, where I sat around a lot, watching blokes in uniforms looking at computer screens. They said very little to me other than there was a case lodged by HSBC about a bounced cheque in 2009. I said this was impossible. Surely I would have been pulled last year, and there was this agreement I had in place as well. I was then lead to a goods lift and down to a grim deportation holding area in the bowels of the airport, where I say on a metal bench. There were cells down there, with a collection of subcontinental men lying on dirty mattresses. Water was available, but you seemed to have to share one chewed-up polystyrene cup with everyone else. After a couple of hours they told me I was going to Dubai via AD police station and wouldn't be allowed to fly to Bangkok. Nice. This was turning hellish, and after another emotional goodbye with my kids, I was close to screaming the bloody place down. They off-loaded my bags and drove me to AD police station in a caged van. They said they might keep me there for the night (in a cell), but then after another few hours of sitting around they took me to the main police station in Dubai, again in a caged van, with all my luggage squeezed between and onto the seats.

As I said, it wasn't how I expected to see Dubai again...through bars. We went along the Emirates Road so I only saw the Burj from a distance. I guess sight-seeing isn't on the agenda. Food was, though. They stopped at a service station to get bottles of Sprite and a Burger King drive-through meal. At the police station I was locked in a holding cell and after an hour or so a representative from the bank arrived to talk to me...well, I actually talked to the regional collections manager...and I was pretty much coerced into agreeing a new deal to pay back a reduced portion of what I owe in a short timeframe, despite already having an agreement in place. What choice did I have? I needed to get away and back on my way to my new job. So I was released after a 12-hour detention. The bank man was slightly apologetic but didn't explain how this police case had come about and why it hadn't shown up last time. All very strange.

I have been told it could have been worse, but some wonderfully helpful people kindly pulled a few strings and got the bank man to see me quickly. I walked out of the police station with all my luggage and no local currency, needing to get back to AD somehow. My company found me a room in the Crowne Plaza for the night (luckily, there were barely any rooms going), so I got a taxi (via Dubai airport to change some money) and I got the Etihad bus to AD airport early next morning and got the hell outta Dodge. I really don't know if I want to ever set foot in the Middle East again. And I certainly won't give HSBC any of my business again!

Still, I am now in Cambodia. I arrived pretty much 48 hours after leaving home. The accommodation is fine, the commute is a 100-yard walk, and the people seem really nice. I won't be too glowing about it...been there before and fell flat on my face. I'm quietly optimistic that this Year of the Dragon, and the project I'm going to work on is supposed to represent the Dragon and Health and Prosperity. Fingers crossed...

Sunday, 15 January 2012

The Journey Continues...in writing and in life.

It has been a few days over six months since I self-published my first book, One Year In Wonderland, to Amazon using their KDP service. It has been an interesting half a year, there can be no doubt about it. I have sold 2,300 copies of the book, and now have 16 reviews on Amazon UK and US, with a further 3 on Librarything and 5 ratings at Goodreads, with an average rating of between 3 and 4 out of 5. As a first-time writer, I can't be too unhappy with that. My second book, "You Are My Boro", came out in December, and it has sold 300 copies so far.

The sales figures have been interesting to follow, with the huge increases I saw in late September and early October then a little dip before I redid my cover and blurb, which took me into another little climb. I trawled all over the internet looking for ways to publicise, using Twitter, Facebook and various forums and blogs to spread the word. Then there was the madness of the Christmas week, where I sold 200 copies in a week. For three months the book never left the top 1500 (UK overall) in terms of sales ranking, and has consistently been number 1 in the Travel>Middle East category.

Following the reviews has been interesting as well. I had one or two nice ones from on-line "freinds" who gave me glowing reports to get me going, as you'd expect, but soon had real reviews coming through. A couple of 4-star reviews with some constructive criticism were nice to read, including one saying I was a good writer who should travel more (well, I think I might be able to see to that soon...more later). Then there were one or two negative reviews. At first I was stung by them, especially when they were so dismissive and almost personal. I took it personally, and felt like making comments, particularly when someone said I was "racist and sexist". On a writer's web forum I was warned that this was not a good idea, so held my tongue/fingers. One has to develop thick skin and try and learn from these things, they told me. OK, thought I. I draw the line at people completely misquoting and misrepresenting my work, though, and have posted a comment after one very recent review showing the actual words I wrote, nothing more.

What I have learned and picked up is that the style I wrote OYIW is maybe a touch too informal and chatty for some. Whilst the light, bloggy style was OK for most, I think it jarred for a few people. Some were looking for a more serious and considered critique of Dubai, I think, and although I do talk about some bad things I saw, I know that there is far more to the place and far worse that could have gone into the book. I am currently in the process of writing something else about Dubai that will make OYIW seem like a glowing holiday brochure. It's not all my own work; it comes from someone else's experiences. I can't say too much at this stage until we decide how to bring it to the public eye.

I will also write about my time in Libya, where I spent 6 months in 2010. It will not be blog-based this time, so I hope I will be able to develop a more "mature" style or writing, although I'll definitely include some of the lighter moments of my time there.

And now there's the chance to use my career as a platform for writing material once again. More my accident than by design, I am going on my travels again. I have been unable to secure long-term QSing work in the UK, so have had to accept an offer to work in Cambodia for several months in Contracts Management...which CAN actually be a bit more interesting than plain old quantity surveying. In the family sense, it is far from ideal, as I will be leaving the wife and kids again (I am dreading the goodbyes already). The rotations aren't terrible (9 weeks on/2 weeks off), and I should be able to make some much-needed improvements to my finances...if my health holds up (that dreaded phrase I have been son fond of in the last decade). I have been to the Far East before (Taiwan in 2002/3), but Cambodia is a fascinating country with a troubled recent history, and I hope I will be able to craft some worthy words to describe my experiences there. Hopefully what I write will show that I am developing as a writer, if not (corn me up now) a person...

We shall see!