Dear diary – another sunny day?

Sometime during the year I lost sight of the schedule. After moving and taking time to draw breath we were sufficiently organised to find a way of moving around the diminishing towers of unpacked boxes and leave for a while; we were set for travelling. All it needed was a modicum of organisation in order that the few fixed points punctuating the calendar dovetailed neatly into any plans that developed. We had to be at the wedding of course – a grand weekend affair at an English country house could not be missed – and I had to vote in the Brexit referendum, which required some time in Cambridge even if I made a postal vote. There was a birthday gathering in Thailand and a short trip to Dubai. Those apart, it looked like there would be plenty of time to fit in some spontaneous peregrination.

It would take just a little planning and a few simple decisions. Simple, that is, until Sweden presented something that we hadn’t accounted for – a long, hot summer. It’s difficult to describe the effect of summer on a nation that lives half the year in dark, cold winter. As soon as the sun peers over the horizon Netflix and jam-making are discarded for al fresco dining in what are still single-digit temperatures; fallen leaves are swept from patios with gusto; excited chatter echoes over garden hedges and the air fills with the aroma of barbecue lighter. In the streets and supermarkets those long Scandinavian shorts appear – the ones with tie-strings, utility buckles and pockets on the knees – and on the beaches people huddle behind windswept dunes while their blond-haired children frolic in the bone-chilling water. But in 2016 it was different. Above average temperatures and long, sunny days made it feel just like the Med and you didn’t need a fleece blanket if you sat out in the evening.

The first cranes arrive over the garden in March and the sun is already shining.
The first cranes arrive over the garden in March and the sun is already shining.
Midnight at Mjörn lake near Gothenburg.
Midnight at Mjörn lake near Gothenburg.

Sweden’s summer can be a hard mistress but she does provide the perfect excuse for fleeing to warmer climes. But as the warm spell lengthened from days to weeks and then months there was little need and no justification in leaving. In fact, those arrangements that we had made were appearing more inconvenient as the year sweltered on and it became galling to leave the hammock. We swam in tepid water until early October and started a re-reading exercise as the summer’s supply of essential books was exhausted. It was too hot on some days to do more than lie in the shade with a cool drink.

I left the blogosphere inside with my tablet and just let the summer sweep me along whilst ensuring, in the interests of tradition, that the legacy of James Pimm was upheld and the fortunes of Tanqueray maintained. And as a measure of catching up, a few posts covering some aspects of my 2016 carbon footprint follow this.

A tree sparrow cooling off while I was doing the same
A tree sparrow cooling off while I was doing the same
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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

 

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.

Dubai and Sicily – growing old gracefully

Towers at Barsha adjoining Dubai Marina

Travelling in the weeks leading up to Christmas was interesting as it allowed informal cultural comparisons between Sicily and Dubai. Last month I was standing alongside the water at Dubai Marina, a spectacular and very impressive melange of towers, contemporary construction, neon light and retail outlets. It’s a new and artificial inlet that frequently appears as a backdrop in Dubai’s publicity and was created, I suspect, simply because it could be. At night the coffee-shops and cafés that border the promenade are filled with the conversation of the dispossessed and translocated of the Arab Spring and the air is apple-scented with the smoke of shisha. Nonetheless, it still manages to feel a lot less Middle Eastern than one might expect. The stainless steel and machined copings are as far removed as they could be from the worn quay faces of the harbours of Marsala and Mazara dell Vallo in the south-west of Sicily and the irony is that those towns also formed the bridgehead for an Arab influx that, unlike in Dubai, brought with it a culture and style of building that still characterises the region.

In Sicily you experience history and a built environment that has substance; a cultural background and a population that can trace its roots back to 800BC. In Dubai, the vista is one of a city-state that exudes such a redolence of newness and impermanence that one begins to doubt it might even be there on the next visit. In December the President announced that all homes in the northern Emirates less than twelve years old would be demolished and replaced with new and one anticipates that all the new buildings will be the same shape, same size and same colour. And probably similar to what you might see in Florida or on the Costa del Sol.

And so Dubai pushes on but is guilty of forgetting one or two minor details in its headlong rush to cement a permanent presence in the 21st century. Thirty years ago the buildings we designed took on a form that reflected the local climate and traditions while meeting the exacting standards that were used in the West. [Much to the chagrin, I might add, of finance departments in our clients’ offices that were trying to keep costs low]. With more questionable probity and a worrying reflection on the greed all too commonly seen here we have recently discovered – well, some of us knew already but it’s now in the public domain – that some of the material used in some of Dubai’s iconic towers isn’t fireproof. That’s bad news if you purchased an apartment off-plan and probably cause for some sleepless nights if you live above the first couple of floors. Talk now is of new fire regulations and improved vigilance but I wonder if my reverie at the Marina will prove prophetic – will they start taking the towers down when they’re twelve years old?

Back in Dubai

National Day lights in Dubai

It’s always fascinating being back in Dubai; the pace of life here is fast and changes mount up at an extraordinary rate so I’m always forced to spend my first few days scanning the horizon for new towers, making certain our favourite restaurants haven’t been replaced and asking the same old questions of why anyone with a modicum of commercial acumen would open a shop that sells only decorative dried fruit and flower petals.

We’ve been sandwiched between the Islamic New Year holiday and the 41st National Day celebrations – JLo has just strutted her stuff and we are enduring the world skydiving championships, which will be warbled to a close by Katy Perry. Dubai is feeling good about itself if a bit too glitzy but thankfully, from a personal point of view at least, we have an evening with Al Jarreau later this week.

The Government has just confirmed that the recession is over – officially. A new city is to be built on the outskirts that will include just what Dubai needs – the biggest shopping mall on the planet; Universal Studios will headline a new leisure park and the Dubai Mall, currently the biggest mall on the planet, will be expanded. No one in this den of iniquity needs further encouragement; new villa projects are being purchased off-plan within 48 hours in a repeat of the mayhem we experienced in 2008 and a planned extension to an estate called Arabian Ranches is already 80% sold. That’s before a put-upon labourer from Kerala has even stuck a shovel in the ground.

How times move on. Back in the day it was pleasant to return to a country that hadn’t changed while you were away and where consistency was held as a virtue. Life was filled with the same old friends and the same old haunts and there existed a reassuring sameness. These days I experience an increasingly pervasive feeling that most people alongside me in the queue at the traffic lights are simply mad or three-quarters of the way to it.

A popular song then was Back in Dubai, sung by a guy called Sal Davies. On one occasion after returning from London I was at dinner in the Dubai Country Club, where he was playing. What I didn’t know was that my friend and host, a significant Pakistani businessman, was an old friend of Sal. After starting his set he moved on to tell the audience that he’d had a request for an old favourite and, as the lights went down the spotlight came up on our table, and Back in Dubai was sung to us as I wriggled uneasily in excruciating embarrassment. The tune isn’t memorable for much more than that evening at the Country Club, but as I hear about another US$1 trillion being committed to new projects I get a little nostalgic and miss the way it used to be.  Here’s Sal in a recording made a few years later.

Dubai; over to you, rent-a-crowd

Sitting outside a restaurant in Dubai recently our evening was disturbed by a raucous and rude party who were perhaps drinking more than was appropriate and who began shouting and intimidating the staff. They happened to be Russian [there are a lot of Russians in Dubai] but could have been British or German or any other of around 200 nationalities that are represented by the people now living and working there. What they weren’t was Emirati. There was a time – and not so long ago either – when the principal reason for being in Dubai would have been work-related. It wasn’t hard to get into the country but there was a process one had to go through and an implied level of obligation was imposed of the visitor. We were frequently reminded that we were guests and there was an unwritten but well-understood code of conduct. These days the doors are not only wide open but hanging off the hinges. Dubai does tourism and shopping in a very big way but, in embracing anyone who wants to spend, has been the architect of its own downfall. Consequently, one of the less endearing aspects of selling itself and its glamorous lifestyle across the world is that rent-a-crowd has moved in.

The dilemma that arises from the occasional clash of culture is well-publicised; tales of medieval punishment emanating from a stolen lip-smacking kiss in public tend to exaggerate the extremes and aren’t typical but there appears to exist now a level of communal disrespect that is both alien to the culture and saddening to witness. My experience has been that even in the most trying of situations Emiratis are by nature respectful, polite and dignified; qualities reflected in a legal system that will tolerate dangerous driving – to some extent, anyway – but which will lead to deportation for showing the finger to another driver. Rowdiness and injudicious dress amongst tourists are not only commonplace now but are justified by ubiquity. I guess this attitude comes with the proliferation of bars, clubs, restaurants, shops and leisure facilities that have swamped the place but, in many ways, the removal of exclusivity and the relaxation of entry regulations have combined to lower the bar.

Of course, expatriate life has changed a lot since I first stepped off a VC10 into the heat of Dubai. That was a long while ago and I’ve gone on to spend many years since then living and working in the region. Whether living in the Middle East is better or worse in 2011 falls to personal opinion, unless you’re in Syria, Bahrain or Yemen I guess, so I’ll avoid nostalgic anecdotes of a life when we had to use handwriting and telex, before we e-mailed each other and kept in touch constantly with mobile phones and before fax machines, computers on every desk and two-day weekends. Going to the souk a couple of times a week and bargaining the price of fruit and veg was just a part of life then; in Dubai last week we shopped at Waitrose for the same stuff you can get at our local store in England. We were spoiled for choice so breakfast was organic muesli instead of the flat bread I used to get in a pack from Sharjah Modern Bakery. And there are no weevils in the flour any more, which I suppose is progress of sorts.

There used to be very few amenities and whilst hotel bars, the Rugby Club and one or two other celebrated watering holes were always popular, one’s social life tended to develop around a dinner table or barbeque. In Dubai today you are spoilt for choice and you go out but, despite there being so much, there is a wearing sameness to what’s on offer. Before the move towards tourism the community was much smaller and less diverse than it is today. Expatriate society then was dotted with real characters and I’m often left wondering, dealing now with the mind-numbing ordinariness of the Facebook generation, where they’ve gone. Perhaps the paucity of people with charisma, individual qualities and original opinions reflects the manner in which society has changed but whatever it is, fewer occasions these days in Dubai leave you thinking that you’d just spent time with someone special. Often, it’s quite the opposite. Social life used to be a joyride that ricocheted between sumptuous feasts and evenings of inedible food, memorable occasions highlighted by adventurers, raconteurs, personalities of questionable background and a share of lost souls. Now we go to a sports bar, compete with flat screen television and look away as the bare-footed untravelled in cut-down shorts loudly demand service.

The Middle East and Dubai in particular is overflowing with the mile markers of our ‘improved’ and accessible lifestyle. It likes to wear it’s modernity on its sleeve so the tenets of what the USA upholds as ‘freedom and democracy’ are on every corner; Starbucks, McDonald’s, Domino’s Pizza and Baskin-Robbins proliferate and the fast-food courts in the malls are full.

So while I watched as restaurant staff were insulted and intimidated I wondered if the Emiratis who wanted Dubai to be the destination of choice have got what they wished for. And in an obtuse kind of way, I think they have. It’s busy, a lot of money washes around, it’s unquestionably safe and the Emiratis don’t have exposure to what I watched last week.

I am nostalgic for how it used to be but being an expatriate is of course enjoyable and more comfortable in different ways now. Variety and accessibility, however, don’t necessarily equate to richness and it seems to me that what’s on offer in Dubai sacrifices life experience for gratification. It sometimes feels like Ibiza.

I’ve made good friends in Dubai, some of whom I’ve known for more than thirty years; spending time with them these past few weeks has been an absolute joy. And we didn’t sit around groaning at how much better it all used to be, either – the steak and Argentine wine we had at Jumeirah Beach Hotel were as good as it gets. But it’s sad to think though that what made Dubai special and kept us coming back over the years has gradually been eroded. Things do change, of course, but it seems that the majority of visitors these days don’t really mind where they are, as long as the sun shines, they have money to spend and restaurant staff doesn’t answer back.