Counting Holes

Any Glass, Any Car‘ say Autoglass… er… well, not a Tata Safari, Puna’s finest, and if the Indian promotional literature is to be believed ‘a premium MUV targeted at the upper strata of society.‘  However monsoon-proof Tatas purport to be, it has to said that their windscreens are not best suited to the cracking northern winter we’ve just experienced.   Thus it was that I found myself in a steady descent from the rarefied upper stratum of Northumberland heading towards Blackburn where, in between rounds of uncontrolled clog dancing, a couple of Lancashire lads were happily occupied unscrewing the oily bits from a car similar to mine – the windscreen was ‘champion’ apparently.

As usual the sat nav issued instructions on where to go, without offering a sense of where I was.  Passing signs for Samlesbury Hall, Church and C of E School, I realised this was the scene of my father’s childhood.  Here the Graf Spee ruled the sawmill pond, pram wheels came off runaway bogies and zeppelins hung in the sky – escape from a lifetime on the home farm came courtesy of Adolph Hitler – my dad never hated the Germans, he had a good war.

‘You have arrived at your destination.’ Amongst steep streets of red brick houses Blackburn was a scene from ‘the day after’.  After what I couldn’t be sure, though there was certainly a sense of being too late and of having missed it.  White youths paraded jarhead haircuts that framed faces too old for their years, uncertain Pakistani patriarchs rode similarly elderly Mercedes, and uniformed Asian kids filled the pavements by a string of halal snack bars.

Miraculously the cheery chappies from Lancashire Windscreens were expecting me, having successfully removed the ‘champion’ windscreen from the wreck, and were primed with glue to replace the existing crazed glass .  While the adhesive went off and whilst the law still allowed, I took the opportunity to have a quick pint – the Griffin – ‘grand pub, lovely inside.’

‘Psychic Night’ announced a board propped by the door,  and even without ‘the gift’ I had a premonition of what lay within… Tortured whispers strained across the bar, ‘What you ‘aving in there Al?’ It seemed that Sheffield style guru John Shuttleworth been here first, offering a range of services from feng shui to fashion makeover and elocution lessons.  ‘No, were not doing food.  Just ‘ad to make a call t’ospital.’ I made do with a packet of crisps and supped my pint of Thwaites, waiting patiently for the certainty of death along with the other afternoon regulars.

How many holes are there in Blackburn, Lancashire?  Maybe that’s the wrong question…

This post’s weblink reminds me of finding Jilted John on cassette in a field and having evicted the nest of earwigs, playing Gordon is a Moron to destruction on a friend’s state-of-the-art ‘music centre’ –

Sheikh Down in the Snow

Sheikh Khalid Al-Qassimi drops it down a cog and gives it some welly in a Swedish forest...
Sheikh Khalid Al-Qassimi drops it down a cog and gives it some welly in a Swedish forest...

A few days ago I waited on the tarmac at Stockholm’s Arlanda airport whilst twin turboprops wound themselves into sufficient frenzy for flight.  A blond female flight attendant, who save for the strings of supermarionation bore  outsize resemblance to Thunderbird’s Lady Penelope, went through the safety briefing.  40 minutes later, over miles of snowy forest and frozen lakes, Karlstad hove into view.  F.A.B.  I thought

I was in Sweden to interview Sheikh Khalid Al-Qassimi, a driver with the BP Ford Abu Dhabi race team and former winner of the Middle East Rally.  Khalid was scheduled to first scare me witless on a shakedown lap in his £500,000 car – or at least that was the plan…

34″ waist, long leg, big head – my flameproof longjohns and racing suit seemed made to measure as I waited, heart quickening, in the warmth of Abu Dhabi’s Oasis hospitality trailer.  Outside temperatures hovered around a chastening -22 deg C.  Khalid’s car came in, was subject to feverish mechanical attention, and then went out again.  ‘He just needs a couple more runs.  It’s been two of years since he’s driven on snow.’ Now they tell me…

This cycle of rising adrenalin and unresolved anticipation ran a couple more times, before a downcast PR woman entered the trailer. ‘He doesn’t want to do it I’m afraid. ‘

Well, I could hardly blame the guy.  Sand and snow are different beasts and as such it wasn’t worth killing a journo, or worse still pranging the motor.  Disappointed, I stripped off my race gear, though after an unfortunate experience in a Builth Wells launderette, first sought privacy behind one of the oasis’s metaphorical palm trees.

With wit intact, I did the interview.  Khalid turned out to be a personable and considered ambassador for his sport and for Abu Dhabi.  He finished 14th, climbing 12 places as he atuned to both the surface and studded tyres.  Abu Dhabi hopes to join the World Rally Challenge circuit following a proving event later this year.  If the venue is successful maybe Khalid will be too and perhaps I’ll get another chance to wear flameproof underpants.

Today’s website of the week is some footage of Khalid’s 2008 Rally Sweden.  Just bear in mind that most of these spectators have all day been intent on fortifying themselves against the cold with various dilutions of lingonberry hooch.  Mind you they’re quicker than the RAC…

Chim Chim Cher-ee

Hearth and Home
Hearth and Home

Yesterday saw chimney sweep Jeff’s annual visit.  At 62 and a former Coldstream Guardsman with an army pension, Jeff’s once taught fighting man’s physique had in retirement inflated to that of a leaden balloon, leaving him awkward and wheezing at the least exertion.  Say what you like about Dick Van Dyke’s accent, his fancy footwork would have left Jeff asystolic.  Still, as Jeff struggled, red-faced to shove brushes up the chimney and displace a year’s worth of our soot he seemed content enough.  ‘I can live off the land you know.  On camp in Germany I always got in with the waldmeister.  Some of the other blokes had no time for them but I always kept them sweet with a bottle of scotch.  One old fellow turned up, ‘ankommen’ he says, and in his truck was a wild boar.  Me and the lads strung it up in a tree and butchered it there and then.  Beautiful it was when we roasted it.  The officers’ mess wanted some, we told ’em ‘Get away.’ Jeff was in his element recounting stories from three tours of duty, occasionally diluting his stream of North East vernacular by a perfectly enunciated German word or phrase.  ‘So are you busy Jeff?’ I enquired.  ‘I could work 12 days a week if I wanted, but the wife just says ‘You calm down Jeff!’ And she’s right, I don’t want to be the richest man in the cemetery.  I do three days now.  If I do any more the tax man takes the lot anyhow.’

I paid Jeff £45 for his hour’s work and considered soot removal as a more dependable source of  income.  I wondered if being an associate chimney sweep would scupper my prospective BGTW membership application?

Have a good week…

Today’s website has to be Dick Van Dyke –

Haiti – Devastating Earthquake Hits Poorest Nation

Floating, looking up at the sky, my ears were occasionally muffled by cosseting Caribbean swell entering the sheltered cove – God, is this really Haiti?

Port au Prince, Presidential Palace and statue of Toussaunt Louverture
Port au Prince, Presidential Palace and statue of Toussaint Louverture (Nick Redmayne)

In early December 2009 I was on freelance assignment in Haiti. Here are a few reflections upon my experiences.

Floating, looking up at the sky, my ears were occasionally muffled by cosseting Caribbean swell entering the sheltered cove – God, is this really Haiti?  Well, it was certainly Cyvadier Plage, a few kilometres beyond the south coast town of Jacmel and given its derivation from ‘Ici va Dieu’ there remained the outside chance of divine confirmation.  Lobster sautéed in garlic butter, a green salad and banane peze (fried plantains) digested pleasantly in my stomach assisted by the waves’ gentle rocking and the semi-euphoric effects of a cold Prestige beer.  Yes, this was indeed Haiti.

Given half a chance, Haiti and Port au Prince in particular rush to confirm preconceptions; crushing poverty – tick, piles of refuse – tick; crumbling infrastructure – tick; a highly visible UN military force – tick; and bad French…  However, a country should not be measured solely by the extremes of its capital and it’s all too easy to allow media ‘analysis’ to define real life, spoon feeding us infantilised pre-chewed portions of reality.  Few have heard of Jacmel’s beautiful New Orleans-style architecture, the laid back resort of Port Salut, the pretty fishing villages of Île à Vache, and the Caribbean’s most remarkable castle of Citadelle Laferrière?  The truth of Haiti has long proved an awkward story to process, and even before Tuesday’s earthquake, one that has suffered from misleading packaging.

After 29 years of corrupt and despotic Duvalierism, a proceeding period of chaos, disappointment and broken promises so bad that in some areas it spawned a dark nostalgia for Baby Doc, things did finally seem to be improving for Haiti.  Mobile phone and internet provision was better than neighbouring Dominican Republic. In the north near Cape Haitien, USD$55 Millions had been lavished on Royal Caribbean’s faux Haitian Labadee© beach site, following downgrading of foreign governments’ travel advisories inland excursions for its float and flop cruise clients were being promised.  Elsewhere, USD$1 Million was to be spent upgrading Port au Prince’s international airport and before Christmas foreign hotel chains had committed to open new properties providing further resources for the country’s small but growing tourism industry.

Last month, passing the pre-earthquake catastrophe of Citie Soleil’s slums, I watched a stream of Port au Prince’s characteristically colourful tap tap buses.  One bore the epithet ‘Le Bon Samaritan’, another a flattering portrait of Barack Obama, behind it ‘Chuch Norriss’ – right now amidst settling dust of 12th January Haitians are still waiting, increasingly desperate for any of these buses transporting salvation to arrive.

During my time in Port au Prince I stayed at a guesthouse attached to St Joseph’s Home for Boys.  Funds from travellers using the home as a base supported the work of St Joseph’s to bring impoverished boys off the street and into a safe and stable environment.  The earthquake has almost levelled the seven-storey building undoing much of the good work started in 1986.  To find out more and to donate towards St Joseph’s see