Go on – impress me

The beach at Palm Jumeirah - access is just a passport copy away
The beach at Palm Jumeirah – access is just a passport copy away

Dubai has an undefinable quality; it can amaze and depress; enlighten and shock but never, I’ve found after many years living there, leave one unmoved. You can love it or hate it in equal measure and, sometimes, endure both emotions simultaneously. When I received a request a few days ago for a copy of my passport my initial reaction was of disinterest but it quickly changed as I learned that ‘they’ were requesting an update because my passport had expired. ‘They’ are not the police or the immigration authority or any other quasi-governmental body. ‘They’, in fact, are the inept leisure division of a crap developer that issues access passes to the beach.

Dubai has a wearying reliance on bureaucracy and I suspect it may have cornered the world market in rubber stamps. At every turn, it seems, a document is required from individuals who are at once detached, uninterested or, frequently, merely absent. You need a stamped and signed piece of paper for just about everything in Dubai whether it’s bringing in your piano, buying a bottle of wine or shopping for a local SIM card. And you have to provide a copy of your passport to get it. I once estimated that I have probably provided over two hundred and fifty copies in exchange for passes, approvals, authorisations or, that singular invention – the ‘no objection certificate’. So there must be literally millions of passport copies floating around the Emirate and where they all go is one of the great Mysteries of the Universe. In an endless danse macabre passport copies are stamped, signed, stapled and – well, from that point on I have no clue. They just disappear after they’ve been taken so if you visit two desks in one organisation the second desk will have no knowledge of your passport existing. A further copy will be demanded and if you are unfortunate enough to be sent back to the first desk – the usual procedure when five administrators are tasked with doing the work of one – they won’t be able to find the first copy and you’ll have to copy it again. Next day all three copies will have disappeared so it’s likely you’ll have to start all over again. Where do all those copies go?

One of the pools at the Palm Jumeirah beach
One of the pools at the Palm Jumeirah beach

The process is numbing and takes time but if you want the freedom to run child-like through sunshine in a landscape of tax-free salaries as you seek consumer Nirvana, developing patience and a personality that provides for circumspection become essential because in Dubai most things eventually get done and most things work. For individuals like me, with little or no patience, an administrative foray can be a very bumpy one but at least I’ve grown out of banging tables and demanding to know where all the copies go. That question, always greeted with a smile, is never really answered because no one really knows; it’s just a requirement, you know, to make the copy, stamp it and sign it. It has occurred to me that there is perhaps a secretive government department going around in the dead of night, cruising silently in unmarked vehicles and collecting copies of passports. But that would be silly, wouldn’t it?

Dubai’s idiosyncrasies often defy analysis, inducing an impassioned response. But then, with eye-watering speed, perception can be turned on its head and one is lost in all the things that Condé Nast Traveller and the Sunday Times tell us it is. Last year, while my mind was on packing cases and contract exchanges, the gourmet tower at Dubai Marina was completed. Now renamed Pier 7 it is a circular building linked to the Marina Mall and with a single themed restaurant on each level. The views over the marina are spectacular and, at night, even cynical travellers like me can’t help but be impressed. Dinner or drinks in balmy air on an open-sided terrace high over the water has to be one of Dubai’s most striking experiences. And in another example of the city state stretching a visitor’s sensibilities to extremes, an extension to the already gargantuan Mall of the Emirates has opened. Of course that delivered yet more restaurants as well as a vastly expanded Vox cinema complex. Our old favourite, Gold Class – with its wide seats and Coca-cola on call – was gone. In its place was a cinema restaurant experience called ‘thEATre by Gary Rhodes’. This puts watching a movie with a tub of popcorn to shame. If you like your food and reclining sofas ‘juste pour deux’, semi-private viewing-rooms, a waiter on hand when you need a drink or snack or just like spending a couple of hours watching a movie the way Donald Trump probably does, then this is for you. Dubai’s apparently endless capability to knock your socks off has left me non-plussed once again.

My Passport, by the way, was copied several times when I was in Dubai a few weeks ago and is valid for another seven years.

Dubai Marina from Pier 7; not to be missed
Dubai Marina from Pier 7; not to be missed

One step at a time

Blakeney - church and saltmarsh
Blakeney – church and saltmarsh

Moving home is never easy although I guess it can be a lot worse than what we’ve experienced over the past year. It’s taken much more mental energy than I would have thought possible and it’s also been somewhat distracting. So, along with a range of other pleasurable activities that weren’t a priority as we rebuilt walls in the old place and removed them in the new, posting an occasional blog was put on the back burner. In any event, the exercise would likely have gravitated towards anecdotes surrounding delayed sales, clarifications of legal easements, moving packing cases across Europe or getting the piano to the auctioneers so describing events seemed just a bit too much like sharing personal angst.

The dust has settled now and life has taken on a complexion that looks normal so taking the time to set out some thoughts with a passable Pinot is back on the agenda again.

The past year wasn’t all moving boxes, retrenchment and decanting furniture; we broke surface for air to visit Dubai and Thailand, had a couple of short breaks in Germany and enjoyed some summer being Swedish in Sweden. Getting away from it all – which will fill some posts shortly – kept us sane and provided perspective.

When I was younger and needed some thinking space I’d go up to Norfolk and walk the East Bank at Cley where the saltmarsh and sea air is cathartic. We did that this weekend and stayed at the excellent Byfords in Holt. It snowed a little, was very cold at times, sunny and windy by degrees and the Brent geese were everywhere. Being back in Cambridge today has the feel of home for the first time – most of the boxes are gone, new furniture is in or due for delivery, cables have been tidied into ducts and the new bookshelves are full. Climbing into bed is once again a choice, not a necessity.

Brent geese overhead at Wells-next-the-Sea
Brent geese overhead at Wells-next-the-Sea


Dust in the attic; full of memories

Arthur William Eldridge: 'Bill' or 'Will' in a photo taken in 1914 just prior to mobilisation
Arthur William Eldridge: ‘Bill’ or ‘Will’ in a photo taken in 1914 just prior to mobilisation

At last; I’ve thrown out the oar. It’s been gathering dust and cobwebs in the shed ever since we moved here and, before that, it languished in the loft of the coach-house. I forget why I carried it out of a party at Hampton Wick as a cocky and irrepressible youth and have even less idea of how such a useless object – I’ve done enough boating to know you need two oars unless you’re a gondolier – took up space for so many years. I can’t remember now whose party it was so there’s no possibility of returning it but I wondered, just for a moment before I hurled it into the skip at the recycling centre, if someone, somewhere is hanging on to the other one in the hope of one day finding it’s partner at the back of their shed.

When I look back on 2014 I’ll think about the oar. I won’t think about the floor we relaid, the plasterboard we fitted in the loft room or the new partition we built and I’ve already expunged recollections of the painting and decorating. No, what I’ll remember in the year we fixed, closed and prepared to sell our farmhouse and move to a less encumbered life are the memories that the exercise evoked. The musty collection of boxes, old cupboards and dust-sheeted piles in the attic and those big storage boxes that we never open have been brushed-off, sorted and their contents assessed for moving, selling, recycling or, like the oar, dumping. Today I have busy accounts on e-bay and Gumtree; I know the local charity driver and enjoy first-name banter with the bloke at the Council dump. It’s been a long year.

This still incomplete exercise has taken me out of circulation for months at a time and it has manifested itself in a reverie of nostalgia that has frequently been overwhelming. The dust has been blown off old photos of the family and adventures abroad, model trains, a colour TV, school report cards, tape decks, a turntable, empty suitcases, an uncle’s stamp collection, parents albums, yellowing letters from colleagues to a twenty-something exile in the middle east, a baby chair, carpets, clothes racks, a darkroom kit. Under dust sheets my grandmother’s sideboard, my mother’s secret hoard of postcards from her boys, my old Etienne Aigner briefcase, Ikea’s coat stand and my grandfather’s ‘diddybox’, still holding a cache from the first world war that includes his new testament and a couple of bullets, are among the surprises. We’ve been hoarding junk with little value but a wealth of memories.

Arthur William Eldridge: probably just before the Great War - 1913 0r 1914
Arthur William Eldridge: probably just before the Great War – 1913 0r 1914


In the years we’ve been here we’ve made some good friends and lost touch with others; we’ve seen parents leave us, children born and youngsters grow to start their own families; we’ve agonised through divorces and danced at weddings. Memories of occasions down the years materialised as bits and pieces were turned over in the attic and as we sifted through curling photos younger versions of people we know smiled at us from long-forgotten dinner parties and lunches in the garden.

It’s come as something of a surprise to me that so much has accrued so going through this process has been cathartic and, to some extent, energising. It’s felt good to shed detritus that, in some cases, hasn’t seen the light of day for decades but it poses a difficult question – should one keep something just because of it’s association, because of the memories? Throwing out some junk this year made me feel I was committing wanton acts of disloyalty but how much do you keep, how long do you keep it and how much is enough to preserve a memory?

Havre theatre programme



Demob account

The first world war was the biggest event in my grandfather’s life. Not the most important – he survived Ypres and came home to marry and have three children – but it was something he wouldn’t forget. I can understand why some papers and a few small keepsakes were put into a box and allowed to gather dust under his stairs for seventy years. I don’t think he looked at it unless he was pestered by us grandchildren. Now that dusty box is mine and it’s been a joy – and a little sad – to recall my memories of him as his ‘diddybox’ reaches its centenary.

Today is Armistice Day and marks a hundred years since the start of the great war. I can’t imagine what it must have felt like to be ‘called up’ and shipped off to war. Rupert Brooke’s poem, written in 1915, captures something of that.

The soldier

If I should die, think only this of me:
That there’s some corner of a
foreign field
That is for ever England. There shall be
In that rich earth a richer dust concealed;
A dust whom England bore, shaped, made aware,
Gave, once, her flowers to love, her ways to roam,
A body of England’s, breathing English air,
Washed by the rivers, blest by suns of home.

And think, this heart, all evil shed away,
A pulse in the eternal mind, no less
Gives somewhere back the thoughts by England given;
Her sights and sounds; dreams happy as her day;
And laughter, learnt of friends; and gentleness,
In hearts at peace, under an English heaven.



No problem Sir!

Polished, waiting and ready to serve
Polished, waiting and ready to serve

Anyone who’s spent any time on the roads there will know that traffic in India is an absolute nightmare. Road discipline is patchy at best and the application of basic common sense breathtakingly absent; vehicles hurtle into blind bends or career towards each other in hoards down the centre of bumpy, narrow and fragmenting roads before lurching aside only to avoid a collision. For the remainder of the time they are, well, anywhere on the road but most frequently in the oncoming lane. Drivers continually sound their horns while ignoring road signs, line markings and speed limits; more worryingly, received knowledge is that any obstacles in the way – be they cows, people, cycles, carts or other vehicles – must be either ignored or passed, depending on what speed they are moving at. Crowds of pedestrians spill out into the roads due to badly parked vehicles and rubble-strewn verges, vying for space with innumerable ‘two-wheelers’ and seemingly suicidal truck and bus drivers – especially those ferrying pilgrims.

And most numerous of all, the ubiquitous auto-rickshaws – ‘tuk-tuks’ – weave in and out of the traffic trailing clouds of blue smoke and constantly tooting their horns to generate a of noise and chaos. Put simply; it’s bedlam. There are rules, of course, but as they are ignored with single-minded thoroughness by everyone, including the police, foreigners require a car and driver if they aren’t up for any of the public transport options that the sub-continent offers. And anyway, my days of sitting three to a seat with people that don’t use underwear were over years ago.

In Kerala this week we left the relative safety [and luxury] of the delightful and highly recommended surroundings of the Raviz for a few days in the forests of the Western Ghats, a mountainous region away from the humid coastal plain. Our driver, supplied by the genuinely helpful people at the hotel, was selected, I’m guessing, for his command of English rather than his ability to coordinate hand and eye movements but we didn’t know that at the time. Smiling and positive in the hotel coffee lounge where we were introduced, he readily agreed that our journey of some 160km would be a benign but wondrous adventure, punctuated with invaluable local knowledge, pearls of cultural insight and occasional roadside stops for fresh pineapple juice or opportunities to snap shimmering vistas. To each of my questions he smilingly replied, ‘no problem, Sir! I should have known better.

As we set off I asked him if he was clear about the journey, the route we’d take and so on – the kind of amiable banter that one enters into in order to bond with someone who will, after all, be an enforced travel companion for the next four or five hours. His response was to gaze serenely into the middle distance, raise a finger in assertion, and, with a gentle shake of his head, reply, ‘God will take us there’. That, I believe, and the accompanying whimsical smile, was meant to reassure us but my faith in divine intervention, frail at the best of times, had evaporated with the fumbling gear changes and sudden braking. A brief shadow of alarm passed over Mission Control’s face and, as our little car meandered erratically across the tarmac I was advised in the most unambiguous terms that I was expected to wrestle control of the vehicle from him in the event of a confrontation with a truck, overloaded two-wheeler or washed-out road.

From previous experience I know that driving in India can be somewhat eccentric and I’m not a nervous passenger but I was already fighting the urge to grab the wheel and drag the car back onto our side of the road, especially after a bus full of shrieking worshippers avoided us by so narrow a margin that the car was filled with an intoxicating aroma of incense, garlic and body-odour. Interspersed with changes in velocity and sudden lurches, our progress became increasingly hesitant and he clearly sensed something in my tone when I asked if he actually knew the way, especially after he’d stopped and engaged in animated conversations with several taxi drivers, a shopkeeper and, at one point, a cyclist who pointed back in the direction we’d come.

At that point the road was climbing through 2000m on hairpin bends alongside precipitous drops into forested ravines. We should have been about 15km from our destination and less than an hour from the hotel but we passed a road sign that informed us we still had over 60km to go – two hours at least. Rather than invoke a spiritual solution in the face of my polite irritation our driver, clear now that my patience had gone the way of the setting sun, merely refused to answer me when I asked where the hell we were and when the hell we’d reach the hotel. I clearly wouldn’t take silence for an answer and my persistence eventually elicited a slow, deep breath and the adoption of an appropriately formal tone before he replied with dignified resignation, ‘I have no absolutely no idea, sir.’ This was surprisingly disarming and took us both aback as this is the last thing you’d expect your driver to say when you are high in the mountains of a foreign land with darkness closing in and an unknown distance still to cover. After all, that was the only reason he was there.

Well, we eventually arrived and it was dark, some two hours later than planned and a mysteriously unaccounted-for 75km extra on the journey. 

The Ministry of Road Transport and Highways in India tells us in its latest statistical report [for 2011] that 140000 people were killed in road accidents during the year [cows, dogs and elephants are not mentioned] as the consequence of ‘one road accident every minute, and one road accident death in less than four minutes’. It also lists the causes of fatal accidents and, while acknowledging that the majority of these are due to the fault of the driver, a significant number – I calculate that to be around 20% – is due to other related causes that include issues with passengers.

I can’t find the data but I suspect a great many of these involve the driver being murdered.

Taking Mum shopping


Road through Kollom

Just follow the signs, dummy

Brahmin bull in the road

Look out for pedestrians and monks

Another road hazard to be passed

Flipping heck

A new building site is rainbowed onto the Palm Jumeirah

A swaggering confidence surrounds us in Dubai; the hotels are full and traffic is once again forming long, impatient queues at intersections. They have even extended the Palm Jumeirah to make another building site. Slicked individuals with tottering, spike-heeled companions once again scent money in the air while in the background the evils of greed and self-interest are beginning to stir after the brief hiatus of global financial collapse. As 24-hour construction activity recommences and piles are driven throughout the night the crash of 2008 is being spoken of as a momentary blip in the progress of this phenomenal and fabulous city-state.

A few evenings ago we were at the opening of Design Days, a part of the Dubai Culture initiative whose patron is the Crown Prince. He was there, actually – but very briefly. The reception was set against a backdrop of the Burj Khalifa, with the shiny towers, lights, fountains and music of Downtown Dubai combining to produce a venue that is both opulent and impressive. Regardless of what one might think about the moral character of this place – and anyone who has read earlier posts will know that I sometimes have something to say about that – today’s Dubai is quite fantastic and developing the ambience of a major international city.

Dubai, embarking this week on the annual culture fest of Art Dubai, is of the moment and very much a place to see, drawbacks aside. But hard on the heels of the upturn and the irrepressible feeling of ‘we’re back!’ comes a familiar and odorous occupation – flipping. This is where high art flourishes because the denizens of Dubai have turned this distasteful practice into their very own version of it. Houses and apartments in projects that are nothing more than notions in computer generated imagery have been purchased before the construction has started with the clear expectation that they can be sold on at a profit as inflation jacks up the prices. That, in turn, is driving costs and rents higher and tenants are once again being pressurised into leaving accommodation so that unscrupulous landlords can install a higher-paying incumbent. The renting laws have been amended to afford some protection against this but in a land that is over-regulated and under-legislated money still rules so, in reality, nothing has really changed since 2008.

Cultural events like Design Days struggle to be anything other than passing entertainment [and a further opportunity to wear those shoes, of course] and in a place that has its mind on money most of the time they are soon forgotten as the next takes over the interest of the media. Reviewing the opening next day on ‘Dubai Eye’, the nearest thing Dubai has to a ‘serious’ radio station, the presenter was asked to recall what impressed him most. His answer was the Audi 7 that was placed, courtesy of a sponsor, at the rear of the exhibition. Astoundingly, nothing relating to the exhibits or artists was mentioned in the programme and that, in many ways, is Dubai in a nutshell.

I found several of the exhibits original, many innovative and all of some merit. In particular, the stainless and Core-10 steelwork of Helidon Xhixha was beautifully executed, an engaging and temporary installation by Andrea Mancuso and Emilia Serra was very original and kinetic pieces by Frederik Molenschot, Ritchie Riediger and Humans Since 1982 had huge potential.

Maybe to fully appreciate Dubai you don’t need to know about art, you just need to know what you like.

Midsummer murmurs

Midsummer is on us and the Scandinavians are preparing to celebrate it in customary fashion. Here in Sweden the ever-practical locals take a pragmatic and serious view of the occasion so Midsommarafton or Midsummer’s Eve is a holiday and celebrated on the nearest Friday to the sun reaching its zenith; something to do with managing the effects of drinking copious amounts of snaps and dancing around a maypole in national dress, I suspect. The celebration demands a lot of singing, pickled herring, strawberries and neighbourly back-slapping and, after a few years of practice, I’m doing well on my personal journey towards mastering the effects of caraway-flavoured alcohol.

The celebration of midsummer is founded in pagan ritual when the white Scandinavian sky makes the evening shimmer with magic. In Sweden it’s said that if you put seven varieties of wild flower under your pillow at midsummer you will dream of your future spouse. I tried that after some of my early flirtations with snaps but all I dreamt of was falling down a deep, dark tunnel. Maybe you have to be Swedish. It’s also said that herbs and water taken from springs at midsummer will bring health to people and livestock so a tradition of ‘greening’ sees flowers and greenery hung over houses or barns. The gathering, feasting and dancing around the maypole can be joyous – to say the least – and have ancient echoes of fertility rites. I don’t know if that’s based on fact but I do know that as the evening wears on and the alcohol warms the northern clime a certain mellowness sets in.

In Sweden midsummer is an important holiday that ranks with Christmas as the principal festival in the year. For our part, we’ll make the ninety-minute ferry crossing to the island of Bornholm, Denmark’s easternmost outpost, where there will be friends, family and a midsummer chef’s competition – Sol over Gudhjem.

Denmark also considers midsummer a big occasion. It’s celebrated with bonfires and is called Sankt Hans aften or St John’s Eve. The fires, especially when placed alongside the sea or bodies of water, are a traditional measure to drive away evil spirits or witches. I’ll maintain a keen lookout for spirits heading south but until then I’m taking stock of the real magic of midsummer; wheeling Red kites, birdsong and the wealth of wild flowers filling the fields and margins at this time of year. Skål!