Wednesday, 8 June 2016

Friend Or Foe

A story in three parts...

Part 1 - Foe

It’s 1982. It’s early in the morning. My birthday. It’s dark outside and my curtains remain drawn. I lie awake.

Something is buzzing through my head that I cannot let go.

In the corner, a pile of presents can be seen in the light from the landing, winking through a crack at the door. Amongst them, among a set of indistinct boxes and carton shapes, I can see the, tell-tale, twelve-inch square shape of an album. I’m no genius, but I know that this will be the new Adam Ant album. I’m excited.

But it isn’t this excitement that keeps me awake. It’s something different.

I don’t know whether we owned a video recorder at this stage of my life. I cannot recall. But – even if we did – I doubt I had recorded much from the telly at this point. Pop videos were still something that I would see once and then have to hold in my memory. No round the clock MTV in my house. Just Saturday morning TV and Top of the Pops. But it’s a video that is causing me to lie awake. It’s been nights on end, now.

I’m troubled.

I’m troubled because, although I have only seen it once, I know that one person clearly plays three completely different roles in Adam Ant’s “Friend or Foe” video. For no apparent artistic reason. He is just there. In the Royal Box looking down at Adam on the stage. Then, dressed differently, he is in the stalls throwing cabbages. Finally, he is there, dressed in scrubs staring at the camera while Adam’s heart is being ripped out by the female surgeon.

So, the night before my birthday, I am still awake trying to find a relevance or meaning. It’s Adam Ant. He is all about grand gestures. I’ve convinced myself that there must be an artistic reason.

A few days later I’m too wrapped up in “Here Comes the Grump”, “Man Called Marco” and “Crackpot History” to care.

The video is forgotten.

And I no longer worry. I lose no more sleep. And I forget.

It’s 2016. It’s April. Dusk
I have returned to London. It’s grey. It’s cold. And I am utterly uninspired. I’ve arrived and become immediately despondent. I’m going through the classic, immediate state of regret at the decisions that I have made. I suppose that many suffer this after making a big change. I’m not worried, but it eats away at me. Within minutes of being back in town, I’ve grown weary of the tube and am finding the arrogance and self-importance of Londoners too much to bear. I’ve been gone eighteen months and the city is no longer my home. I’ve had a couple of near arguments with joggers in Southwark and am bored and frustrated with the incessant noise and busyness of the capital. Which disappoints me. London is my home and I feel as if she has excluded me.

So I’ve dragged myself out onto the barren highlands that rise above Edgware with Lukey to try and find my sense of place. We walk. It grows dark. And we follow an old country lane that hangs above the tributaries of The Brent and drops down to the old Underhill stadium in Barnet. We get onto the standard time and place theories that we’ve discussed a hundred times before. We talk of the hedgerows and trees that have stood for decades or centuries as suburbia has swallowed their neighbours and relatives. We walk this Scarp – as Nick Papadimitriou calls it – that crawls from Rickmansworth to the River Lea and we get lost in psychogeography.

Lukey tells me that we know little of the Inca Empire because they view time differently to “Western” civilisations. The past, present and future are intertwined and blur as one. I forget the detail, but it seems to relate back to their obsession with the stars. Relative to the age of the universe, a human life is but a speck. Irrelevant. So, as a culture they never saw the need to record events and drop them into any linear, temporal narrative of history. Everything happened at the same time. Culturally, they were far more existential than we are or have been. Today, as I write, thinking back, I like it. I interpret it as meaning that we don’t age and you can always return to something that happened in your past and live it in the present.

So while I waited at New Barnet station later that evening, heading home, I was simultaneously awake in bed on the morning of my birthday in 1982, with no time and all time in between.

It was a worthwhile way to spend a few hours. It offered me a different perspective on everything and anything. I immediately started to find my feet again and feel at one with London.

A year or more ago, I said that I was going to write about the BT Tower.

But I am suffering from the same false starts that I ever was. I’m beginning to think that it’ll be an unfulfilled promise. But I am also thinking that I find it difficult because everything that makes me love the tower so much is still happening. Fluid and evolving. Back then, I wrote that I thought the tale would have an epic nature, while acknowledging that it lacked a start, a middle or an end. Perhaps the reason relates back to the Incan stuff that I’ve just spoken of. What am I to do, when the Tower’s influence still resonates in my past, present and future? The tale’s starting point is unclear, the middle stretches between never and forever making an end point an uncertainty.

So I am left with waffle…

But it ties into this post. Lukey and I stopped to search the skyline for the Tower when we arrived at the high ground of Barnet. It was the first building we tried to seek out. For me, it always is and always will be. The Tower is my marker for being back in London. Screw the Ravens at the Tower of London, if the BT Tower was to fall, we would be in real trouble. She looks after us.

As the title alludes, London was my friend and foe when I returned. I think that London behaves like a cat. I returned to my home in April, but London decided that given that I had gone away for 18 months, she would turn her back and ignore me for a while. She’d drag out the time before she would let me pet her. I can return, sure. She won’t and can’t stop me. But she chooses when I am welcome, again. She chooses when I am back in her realm.

It’s now June. I think I have been forgiven. London is talking to me, again.

Part 2 - Friend

Wednesday June 1st. 4-30pm.

I’m sitting in Jerusalem. Jerusalem in Clerkenwell. It’s an old pub in an austere grey brick, Victorian street set up on the valley of the River Fleet, above Farringdon. Inside it’s a rabbit warren of small rooms with green/grey painted wood panelling. Every corner feels like a snug. The pub is far from full, it’s mid-afternoon, after all, but the cramped interior makes it feel full and busy and loved. I find the single table that isn’t occupied. Ironically, it’s the largest in the house. I sit, alone, perched in the furthermost corner of the pub.

Early. I’m waiting on Lukey, again.

An hour before I arrived, I had had a meeting about my future in an office on the other side of the Fleet valley. Up toward Hatton Garden. I’d visited the office a few times before, but this is the first time I had noted that you can see the top of the BT Tower on the horizon. It was doffing its hat to me. Another sure sign that catlike London was welcoming me back into her life. It was as if, out of the blue and after a period of turning her back and ignoring me she had strolled into the room and weaved through and rubbed against my legs, letting out a little mew of welcome. But, by noting its renewed friendly and warm behaviour toward me, I should have been forewarned that something unusual was about to happen.

You see, this is what regularly happens when Lukey and I meet up in the shadow of The Tower. The best made plans evaporate, the most sensible ideas go out the window and our paths are usually taken somewhere unexpected. It’s happened a myriad of times… like when we realised that the infinite monkey cage principle was old hat, because the entire works of Shakespeare had already been written by a chimp. Don’t believe me? Explain the spelling. And the made up words… Chimps!

I digress.

Before reaching Jerusalem, I’d dropped down into the heart of the Fleet Valley. I’d gone for a stroll at the north end of Saffron Hill, where it drops down onto Ray Street and you realise how deep the valley actually is. I’d guess that you are only a metre or so from the remains of the river at this point. I’ve read that this is one of the places that – after heavy rainfall – you can still hear The Fleet as it surges through the pipes beneath the road. All I heard that day was the sound of a shift on a fenced off and scaffolded building site finishing. But I could sense the river was there. Passing. Constantly passing beneath my feet.

You’ll note that I made a point earlier about walking near a tributary of the Brent. Now I am waxing lyrical about the Fleet. Yes. I am obsessed with London’s rivers. We all should be. They may at times be invisible, but they will never go away. At a level they will live and flow on. Transferring energy. Forever. In Inca terms, for all time. If you let yourself, you can sense the movement of energy when you are close to water. If you want, you can choose to accept it and channel it. I want. I need to latch on to it. I feel rejuvenated and invigorated by rivers. They are a life blood.

But back in Jerusalem.

“How do you spell chicory?”

I glance up. The guy who I clocked as I sat down is looking at me. He stands up. He’s 6’5” maybe 6’6” tall. Without a hat. But he has a hat. A Bowler. It adds a few more inches. He stands tall. Lean. Square jawed and clean shaven. Youthful but looking as if he’s been around the block. Piercing eyes. It’s an understatement to say that he’s imposing.

Since I’d taken my seat, Lukey had arrived and we had had a chance to explore personal admin – family, new houses, the “Bristol yes/no question”. Throughout, the gentleman had been crouched over a munchkinesque table nursing a pint of cider, studiously ignoring an open tabloid paper and scribbling with a small book maker’s pen on slips of paper that may, once have been a notebook. Even when silent, he filled the room. His size and attire just made you look; made you take him in.

But now, Lukey has gone to the loo. For a wee. I’m alone…

“C H I C H O R Y”, I spell out. Immediately doubting myself and buying for time… “Like Chicory Tip?" I offer.

The tall man bites back. “Son of Your Father. You’re too young to remember that!”

His eyes narrow. He glances down at me with suspicion. I feel alone, small and utterly exposed on the little bench seat at the back of the pub. I’ve never had my head kicked in because my spelling is poor. Not even by Miss Buck. Junior school. 1982.

I buy more time. I parry; “Older brother. Georgio Moroder fan.”

He continues to look at me. Weighing me up.

“C H I C O R Y”, I hastily offer. Time bought and paid for. Success. I am a spelling bee.

Happy, he sits down back down at his dolls house table. He continues to write. I’ll hazard a guess that he adds the word “chicory” to a sentence.

A few minutes later he has joined Lukey and I at our table. He’s excited. How our interaction and conversation went to reach this point, I cannot really recall who started talking to who? It’s all blurred. Not an alcohol blur, but blurred because we seemed to discuss everything and nothing for a while but forever. I know it featured a brief talk about Ramsgate and Worthing and how any spare cash we could pull together should be invested in property in either town and ended with Lukey saying;

“What about investing in Bristol?”

And I noted, immediately, that his demeanour changed. His eyes darted low right. I read it as him dropping into “reflection”. The word Bristol appeared to immediately trigger him to access memory files that cause him pain. I guessed this based on some training about human recall and subconscious signs of truth and deceit that I once undertook. To make it easier, he reached up and touched his lower right jaw as if in pain.

“I cracked two teeth in Bristol. 1979. A gig. Adam & The Ants.” He confides.

My music geek clicks in. Expert.

“Dirk Wears White Sox?”, I ask… … … If you don’t understand, look it up.

It registers; “Yerrr… … Yeah! Probably that tour.”

He’s still rubbing his jaw. He still looks pained.

It’s at this point that he joins us. He now wants to talk. And things start to go a bit odd. A quick catch up with Luke turns into an exploration of Soho’s underworld from the late 1970’s to the present day. This is what happens when I meet Lukey in the shadow of the Tower. And meeting on the banks of The Fleet, we stood no chance. Inevitably, an energy flowed and we were in its wake.

He introduces himself. Phil Dirtbox. Feel free to do your own internet searches, but he is someone who – at the back of my mind – I think I knew existed but don’t know how. Subconscious. I didn’t know his name and/or realise that he was an actual being. But his history would have jumped out of magazines and club listings or through reports from friends and gossip columns throughout my late teens and twenties up to the present day. I’ve spoken with him, now. Shared stories, jokes and experiences. And as a result, I am less sure that he really exists. He seems strangely timeless. Of the past, present and the future. A stream of energy. An apparition. Seemingly, like the type of River Spirit that Ben Aaronovitch writes about or a physical manifestation of life; lived out in “Incan” time.

Phil Dirtbox

Dirtbox takes us on a glorious, self-promoting tour of his Soho years. Through the early 80’s, shacked up with Siobhan Fahey from Banarama, as opening act and compere for Madness through to his nomadic Dirtbox club nights that moved to take advantage of the empty warehouses around Farringdon and Smithfields in the early 1990’s. He brings us up to date. Poetry and a Christmas single that he will release this year.

From Lands End to the Gorbals. Polish up your baubles”. I kid you not. You will all be singing it…

He tells tales. But does not share secrets. No real gossip. He’s not a grass. But the names and the hints that he dropped were wonderfully alluring. Trust me, I’m probably far happier making the stories up on my own than worrying about the truth. Dirtbox’s sheer size and stature means that he cannot help but impose. He is eloquent, charming, funny and warm. He listens as much as he speaks. He pulls you into his world and his stories. Clever. But throughout, there is an edge that says do not push too hard, observe the boundaries. I suspect that he doesn’t suffer fools. I wouldn’t want to cross the line. I suppose, that is how you survive making a living at the edge of Soho’s underbelly. 

Throughout the conversation, he is pushes us toward Google and YouTube to demonstrate his truths. Showboating or fearful that Lukey and I will think him a fool, I don’t know. So we Google and follow the links. And there he is. I have a browser history that attests.

Dirtbox’s love for Soho was overwhelming. Which is perfectly understandable. I mean, how many people who live in London and have sampled the nightlife don’t have a few stories that will live forever based on dubious decisions made in Soho’s dark corners? I do. Plenty.

Dirtbox raved about clubs, bars and pubs that I never knew as they evolved before I found them but several that are close to my heart. The Coach & Horses, The Ship and French House. I’ve known them all at one stage or another. The darkness at the heart of Soho can be warm to an outsider. Although I appreciate that there is real darkness associated with the sex industry, as a suburban boy, it feels seaside comic when you first see the clubs at the bottom of Berwick Street or get offered drugs and/or sex in Great Windmill and Rupert Street. Dirtbox still feels the warmth and has latched into the community that is still there and still thrives. He still promotes gigs and events in the area. His work – voice overs – is centred there. He is the “Unofficial Mayor of Soho”. I’m not kidding. He is.

Therefore, it seems odd to meet him off patch. But Dirtbox lets slip that he no longer lives there. He has moved to Camberwell. He’s even more pissed because the gaff that he had to leave, on the top floor of a four storey building – above a couple of brothels – lies empty. It’s owned by a millionaire who hasn’t done anything with it. A waste.

We agree that, although Soho will inevitably change, it will always remain that little bit seedy. An outsider in the heart of the city. It will live on. But we all fear for the changes that the proposed North/South Crossrail may bring. The Curzon is already at risk. It’ll be demolished to create a construction access shaft. It is cheaper to rip the cinema down than build on Leicester Square. I know which I would rather see demolished. I’ve, since, seen that Berwick Street Market is at risk of being homogenised, it’s soul extracted by forcing stall holders to work with an agency rather than self-manage (look it up and sign the petition against the change. Do it!). But, on balance, I think Soho will survive. It always has.

We’re never likely to run into Dirtbox again. Which is fine. It’s right. But my google searches suggest that we were lucky that afternoon. The common thread online is that he is an enigma. He is a hard man to find and an even harder man to get to talk. Journalists tell tales of missed appointments, unreturned phone calls, failures to put them on guest lists despite repeated promises and interviews with his partner who arrives as an apologetic substitute. It all goes back to my observation, above, that I am less convinced that the giant in the bowler, waistcoat, tie, DMs and a beautiful gold braid, Vivienne Westwood frock coat – making him look like an extra from Clockwork Orange - actually exists. He is some kind of eternal spirit. The spirit of Soho that soars from the Coach and Horses into ordinary lives.

In late May I saw an odd film – Primitive London – from 1965 that searched to explore the depravity and social decay of Soho. It featured all the expected clips of the ‘gangster’ cabaret club scene, the grotty striptease acts but also the underground rock venues and commercial voice over industry as it was. Less than 20 years later and Phil Dirtbox had taken up the tale. And it has changed little. Today, he is still part of the same story. Given my theory that Dirtbox is this eternal spirit I do not know whether I should re-watch the film. I simultaneously hope, fear and imagine that I will see him in the background somewhere looking similar but not quite the same. Not returning calls but living at Soho’s heart.

Part 3 – 1982

Let’s step back to when Dirtbox initially joined Luke and I at the table.

Wincing in pain at his Bristol memory he turns to me and says:

I’m a mate of Adam. Well, more Marco, but I knew Adam really well back in the day.”

“I was in the Prince Charming video.”

I was immediately in awe. Adam Ant is a hero. He is key to my youth; key to my childhood memories. Back in the mid 1990’s, I had an opportunity to meet him. It was after a play at The Drill Hall. Adam had played opposite Sylvester McCoy. I was with my brother in the bar with a bunch of his friends and had cornered Sylvester for a chat. Soon, Adam arrived. I clocked him out of the corner of my eye; quiet, alone and small near the exit. He looked out of place; almost, fragile. The antithesis of the hero figure from the early 1980’s. Despite my brother practically pushing me into him, I stood back unable to talk to him. I’d like to say that it was because he looked like he didn’t want company, but it wasn’t. I was utterly star struck.

You can see why I – if not Lukey – was so willing for him to talk. A friend of Adam’s is the closest I’m likely to get to Adam, himself.

“But I’m in another video, too. What’s it called?”

Dirtbox dips back to his memory files. No pain. Pleasure, this time. He’s smiling. But still dropping his eyes, low right. It’s one of his “tells”. I should play him at poker. Assuming that he didn’t use marked cards - which he undoubtedly would - I might win.

“Friend or Foe!” He exclaims. “Yeah. I remember that one. I went along with some mates. It was a right laugh.”

Dirtbox points at my phone. “Go on. Get it up on YouTube. I’ll show you.”

So I fire it up. Dirtbox, Lukey and I huddle together at the back of Jerusalem. Three stooges, staring at my little Samsung screen. And it unfolds. A trumpet playing, Adam surprises and is then chased through a theatre by an orchestra conductor. The audience are nonplussed.

“I’m all over this video.” Dirtbox chuckles. A deep, bass chuckle
His face is alight. Glee. It’s as if he’s not seen it since 1982. Perhaps he didn’t have a video recorder. Maybe he missed it on Saturday morning TV.

“Yeah. There I am!!!” He explodes, pointing and jabbing my phone. He has to stop himself toppling the table over. Disturbed, our drinks weep on the table.

But the moment passes in a second. It’s a fast cut sucker, is the Friend or Foe video. Fat fingered, I shuffle the video back and forth until it’s paused where he directs. It seems to take an age in the electric buzz of excitement from us all.

“Pause it on the word Foe”, Dirtbox offers. Sage, advice. But there are a lot of “foes” to choose in this song. It’s not easy but three times I succeed. Three times, I pause. Each time, a smiling Dirtbox - who seems 22 again - points himself out.

And it’s undoubtedly him. Looking similar but not the same:

Standing at the back of the Royal Box.

In the audience, wearing glasses, throwing a cabbage.

And staring at me from the screen, dressed in scrubs. Adam’s heart is held aloft.

June 1st 2016. 6:30pm. And It’s 1982. It’s early in the morning. My birthday. It’s dark outside and my curtains remain drawn…

Sunday, 27 March 2016

May the Lord Have Mercy on Stringy Bob

The sun shines. It usually does over here.

In a few weeks’ time, I will be in the grey and overcast battle between a UK winter and spring. So, it’s back to the Corniche to sit in the shade of a tree on a concrete bench to watch the World go by. A goodbye to the sea front that has served me so well over the past 18 months.

I stroll.

I’m watching Tern hunt a metre or so off shore when I hear a cry from behind me.


A look back and recognise Ibrahim immediately. He’s not dressed in a dish dash but dark jeans and a heavy jacket that looks too hot for the weather. It’s touching 30C. I’ve bumped into and spoken to Ibrahim a dozen times before. I won’t say that he’s a friend, but he is as welcoming as any other soul out here.
Ibrahim lives and sleeps on the Corniche. I’ve seen his stuff laid out across benches in the past. I have no reason to doubt that he lives as a vagrant.

He is Libyan.

He has repeatedly told me his story. Over and over. It doesn’t really deviate.
He has reached a point where he lives on Khobar Corniche. And each time the story ends with an explanation of how he will be moving on in a few days. Today, he was talking with friends who have offered to pay for him to go to Jeddah in the West. Previously, it has been Bahrain, Jubail, HufHuf, Kuwait City, Doha and Abu Dhabi. The reason that he needs to travel is always the same, he has no paperwork, Saudi does not recognise his legal identity or status and he needs help. His friends will help.

The story, over the year has become Godot like. Helplessness and inertia. A permanent promise of improvement tomorrow.

The story that I have been told is one of success, bad luck and dispossession. Ibrahim says that he is from a well known and widely respected Libyan family. His contacts have led him to meeting the great and the good. Gadaffi, Qatari Royals, members of the Saud family and UK Royals; Elizabeth, Phillip, Harry and William. The stories don’t change. He explains that when he was introduced to “Liz” – his abbreviation, not mine – in London she touched his hand as she spoke of her respect for his father and uncles.

We all read the press. We all know that Libya is in disarray and he tells me that he has not heard from his family in years. They live(d) in Benghazi. He hopes… he prays that they are well. If I prayed, I would, too.

When I first ran into him, I assumed that it was the usual preamble to asking for a spot of cash for a bed for a night or a cup of tea. But Ibrahim has never asked me for anything. Money. Food. Nothing. The opposite, in true Arab style, he offers to share his tea and food. In reality, he appears to appreciate someone to talk to.

I first heard this way back in early 2015. It was late. Dark. I had no idea whether I should take him seriously. I guess I still don’t. But it’s his talk of UK royalty I find unusual. It got me thinking back to something that happened way back in Birmingham; something that has always given me the creeps. When I have bumped into Ibrahim, the same sense returns albeit, to a lesser degree. As if the story is being told to me is prophetic in some way...

I will explain.

I sat on a bench at New Street. I was on my way to Belper in Derbyshire. Later in the day, I would bump into and chat for a while with a former railway worker who claimed that – while living near Cambridge – had snuck into the grounds of Jeffrey Archer’s home and poured super glue into all the locks he could find; cars, doors… anything. A story that I so want to believe is true that I lie still lie awake at night laughing when I think about it.

Back to Birmingham. An interlude...

I had forty minutes plus to wait and the platform for the Derby train was deserted, so I was a little miffed at a guy not only choosing to sit at my bench, but right up alongside me. It felt as if my personal space was not just invaded but had surrendered and the equivalent of the Vichy Government had been imposed to govern it. He barely gave me a moment to “tut” before starting to talk.

He talked of where he was going. Chatsworth House, out near Bakewell. He told me why. A reason I had forgotten within moments. He told me of the route he was taking. He told me of every other stately home he had visited. And it went on and on and on.

I have no idea of when the conversation changed. But, I suppose that it was just before the train arrived.

“Do you think Diana is happy” he asked.

He was referring to the UKs beloved Princess. I was non-committal.

“She seems so happy with Dodi”

I cared so little about either of them, that I gave them no show time in my thoughts. But he went on and on. Or, so it seemed. He wouldn't stop talking about their relationship, their happiness, their luck and their love. 

I couldn't have given a fuck about them. So, I just wanted out, but he went on for some minutes. It’s a long time ago, but my memory (my dream) is that his voice was monotone and dull. My imperative was to lose him when we boarded the train.

I managed to get behind him. I figured that he would find a seat, I’d spot where he was and keep walking until the end of the earth to avoid sitting next to him. The train was crowded. It took a while for the crowds wanting seats to force their way through the crowds happy to stand.

And I lost him.


But, we’ve all been there. You cannot help but look around to see what other poor soul has landed next to him. It was a small carriage and, try as I might, I couldn’t see him. It was odd, because it was a little one carriage train and I hadn’t pushed past him. A few minutes on, I didn’t care… But at Derby, I kept a wary eye to avoid him.

But he wasn’t there.

I scanned the platforms and even the onward train to Belper, as I knew he should have been on it. But, no… I never saw him again.

I immediately found it a bit unnerving. Like I say, he would have to have pushed back past me to miss the train. We were going the same way using much the same route.

The following morning – a Sunday – I woke early and couldn’t sleep. Switching on the radio, I was confronted by wall to wall sombre music only broken occasionally by an equally sombre presenter telling me that Princess Diana was dead.

Since then, I have often thought back and wondered whether the guy at New Street station was there or whether I had imagined it. But, given my antipathy toward the UK Royals, I think it’s a really odd thing for my imagination – fevered or not – to latch onto.

Now. Back in 2016, following my chats with Ibrahim, nothing odd has happened to the UK Royals, to my knowledge. Although, I accept that such is my dispassion toward the family that I wouldn’t immediately read anything about them. Even a death. But, even I, would have to accept that I would probably have noted the Queens death and resulting coronation of Charlie Boy, Sarah Ferguson, Clare Balding, Katie Price or whoever is next in line these days. So I am guessing that lightning hasn’t struck twice.

But, I’d not seen Ibrahim for an age. Maybe six months. Like my Brum experience, I had thought of him and questioned whether some or all of our meetings were in my imagination.

Back to Ibrahim.

His stories are fantastic and fantastical. They seem extraordinary and utterly false. I cannot prove them to be either true or false but I warm to the conviction in the way he tells his tale. Though his English can be laboured and his voice mousy quiet at times, the tale seems to have the sincerity of truth.I enjoy listening.

Away from the Royal associations, he tells me how his life changed at BAE. He worked at an airbase where he was belittled and physically abused by Saudis. He wasn’t assaulted by the British or Americans. Eventually he suffered a severe head injury, leaving him hospitalised for a long, long time. Even then, laid out and injured in a Saudi hospital (he has tried in vain to explain which one) he was visited by members of many royal families; Saudi, Qatari… et al. They sat with him. They shared their families concerns and offered hope and prayers for his recovery.

And Ibrahim tells the story with unnerving sincerity and belief. I’ve spent a year looking for holes or angles. Not to attack him, but to satisfy myself that I am just listening to yarns. But, no; the story doesn’t change.

What is it that I read or heard? If you tell a lie often enough you end up believing and acting as if it were true. As a test, perhaps we should ask Jeremy Hunt.

Although his story is the same each time, it isn’t a monologue. He talks and listens to me. He engages. I tell him stuff. About my family, about life in Saudi. Small talk. But he listens, interjects and understands, offering opinions and advice. And he remembers. He picks up on things that I said months ago, pursuing updates. He appears to care. It’s difficult not to talk with him and – once sitting down – he can be difficult to leave. There have been times when I’ve wanted to just walk away, but others where I’ve found his story telling utterly compelling and I am left enthralled.

Ibrahim is a great story teller. He tells his tale with pathos. Misfortune. They always seem sad, but he tells them in such a matter of fact and dispassionate way that all emotion is suspended. Again, as I say, there is a hopeless, hollow, Godot-like aura to our interactions. Sadness. And senseless hope.

Today, I explain that I’m heading back to the UK. I share some of the reasons and he is broadly supportive. He, certainly, doesn’t look to try and make me reconsider my decisions – unlike just about everyone else I talk to out here.

He says that it is the end of a chapter. Which is how I have viewed it since the first conversation that I had about it.

Ibrahim goes on to tell me about heaven. Of how we will both meet again after death. But, when we meet again it will be for eternity, not for the few years that we have in life on earth. He explains that we will sit in the shade of a tree, just as we do on the Corniche and we will talk for 100 years. But the sea will be of milk or honey. Something unexpected. A gift from Allah.

Expanding, Ibrahim explains that heaven will be like our dreams. But that dreams, themselves, are just memories. But as we live and build more and more memories while having more and more dreams, the edges between the two become blurred. Many of our recollections are from our dreams rather than from actual memories. Both become clouded. Neither true nor false. But real.

Our conversation started to take a more philosophical direction than usual.

And I go back to the suggestion that, if you tell a lie often enough you end up believing and acting as if it were true.

I left him today with a million thoughts buzzing through my head. But I feel a little phased, just as I did after my conversation at New Street station and events that followed.

I have no idea how to take Ibrahim and his story.

He claims to be a vagrant. No. He claims – and appears – to live a vagrant life. Everything that I see supports this. His stories of royal ties are sold with such conviction but – to the sceptical outsider – they do not hold water when reviewed in the cold light of day. But, although his tale is tragic, I hope that it has a basis in truth, even if it is exaggerated. I want to believe that I have met a Libyan from a noble family. I hope that he has met Gadaffi and our dear, dear Queen Liz. It’s a good story. As a result, I will miss him. I will miss our little chats. I will miss his serenity in an apparently hopeless position. I will miss his quiet inspiration.

However, I am also well aware that he could just be an expat worker who has overstayed his visa and is now stuck in a bureaucratic limbo where he cannot leave the country without being found out and imprisoned prior to deportation. Perhaps, a bench on the Corniche is favourable to the cell and a one way trip to a war zone. The tale he tells walks the edge between a dream and a memory. But it passes the time of day.

Of course, he could be completely off his tits and as mad as a box of frogs. 

I hope not, but, - if that is the case -  “May the Lord have mercy on Stringy Bob”

Monday, 29 February 2016

Of Drakes & Kings

There was a park behind the house I grew up in. It was an area of open land, split into three fields. Closest to my home, there was a field that two local schools shared as a sports ground. Cricket pitches, football pitches and a 400 meter running track overlapped and competed for space. The second field had more footie pitches, landscaped borders and a kids’ play area. The third was an open field that was waterlogged by a stream most of the time. It wasn’t impressive but was a fair, adventure playground for a kid growing up in the suburbs.

The park was accessed by three or four formal entrances from local streets but the local kids had decided to cut through the chain link fences that lined service alleyways along three sides. As a kid, I always took the informal, vandalised short cuts. It’s just what you did.

But what got me thinking about Drake Park and my childhood?

Let me explain.

It started at a desk in Khobar.

Mel dropped a pair of tourist brochures on my desk. He says he found them while not working at a local shopping mall. One featured iconic and historic buildings in the Eastern Province, the other was a vivid green, highlighting all kinds of places that you can visit to explore the great outdoors. I chuckled. I’d been through this before. Look back in my past entries and you’ll find my dismay at finding a fenced off castle and yet to be built museum being advertised. I flick through the brochures and – sure enough – both places are still there, encouraging others to be disappointed.

Flicking through the list of “sights”, I ignore the obvious disappointments; the archaeological remains that are listed as being vaguely close to an ill defined main road in South Dhahran and a natural hot water spring that is clearly housed in a building surrounded by barbed wire. But I am drawn to a sight/site that I had read about in other sources. King Fahd Park in Dammam.

Before I set foot on a plane to Saudi, I’d researched things to do in the area. In part to allay the fears of my mother who was convinced that “there would be nothing to do” and partly my own identical fears.

Google it. King Fahd Park is there in full glory. Much of it is just like the green tourist pamphlet dropped on my desk. Cafes, green space, lakes, cafes, a theme park, cafes and coffee shops.

I’d been meaning to go for over a year but never got around to it until last Saturday.

And the curse of Saudi Tourism strikes again.

You see, King Fahd Park is being redeveloped. Much of the once beautifully landscaped grounds around the edges have been ripped up by diggers ready to build new 21st Century facilities like Paintball Centres and football pitches. A drive around a wasteland and a quick chat with a gate keeper in a ramshackle entrance to the deserted Cobra Theme Park – where rollercoasters sit idle and rust – we established that there is only one entrance remaining open to the public, way back in the direction that we had already come. Retracing our steps, we found a massive car park alongside a 500 meter square children’s play area that is protected by a wire fence that blocks it off from the apparently, once beautifully landscaped park.

Which is how I got to thinking about Drake Park in Rayners Lane.

Back in my teenage years, I would sometimes while away the evenings watching joy riders racing and trashing their hot-wired cars around Drake Park from my bedroom window. Naming no names, I recall discovering one of my class mates had almost flipped a car when he misjudged where a concrete platform for tennis courts used to be in the dark. I’d watched it live. It was the talk of the school for a few days. The occupants boasting of their near death experience and of the excellent driving skills averting disaster. All I recalled watching was a car getting stuck in a rut and the occupants bailing out, trying yet failing to push the car back onto smoother ground before running away.  Another time I watched the same kid, again, abandon his stolen car after forgetting how physics works when you plough a large, heavy item at speed into a static post buried deep in the ground. The second incident I found strange because Roger Christopher (damn!) always seemed quite good at the science subjects at school.

Anyway, before I saw the chain link fence separating the kid’s area from the former park, I was already thinking about Drake Park based of the number of apparently abandoned cars parked at jaunty angles with their doors left wide open in the car park and on the access road. It seems that this, too is a place for the end of a joy ride.

Saudi Tourism really excels. Perhaps they misinterpreted UK news footage of kids joy riding in Cowley, Oxford in the 1990’s as a travel guide.

But, like Drake Park, King Fahd Park has the same myriad of informal entry points. Within minutes of my arrival, I had found a hole in the fence and started to explore the old park.
You may recall my visit to the old castle on Tarout Island that I wrote about last year. It seems that Saudi isn’t big on visitor centres and entry gates when a simple vandalised chain link fence will do. And who am I to argue. Informal works. It discourages the civic minded and makes the place more interesting to me.

Camera in hand I started to explore.

And I liked what I found.

The lakes have drained and are now shallow remnants of what they clearly once were. Brown water with stubborn plants cracking the concrete retaining walls and floors. Street lights, smashed and dirty. Old benches rotting from concrete cancer, exposing their rusty steel frames. Once manicured lawns yellowing with age and reverting to desert as the winds do their erosive best or worst. Picnic tables – empty - stretch away in all directions, many having had their shades removed, I assume to keep them safe(r). The entrance gate houses now stand empty with smashed windows. The gates are wired shut. The many, many coffee shops now stand idle with faded Coca-Cola signs atop and the windows shuttered with wire; inside their shelves lie barren save pigeon shit and the fuse boxes are ripped open.

The only place that still seemed to be maintained was the mosque at the centre of the park. It was the sole building that continued to look cared for – albeit that it was closed – and up to standard, surrounded by colourful plants and shrubs.

Thirty minutes into my exploration, I realised that I was finding it heavenly.

No surprise. I am a sucker for that type of stuff. I’m a loner and love large spaces where I can get away from everyone, the sounds of the outside and leave the civilised world are far away. Many of my adventures and trips, if you were to see them in isolation at the start of a horror movie would cry out either:

“OK. This is the bloke who will be first to cop it”


“OK. He’s gonna find the dismembered body and become possessed by its evil spirit”. 

I like it that way and – to date – I have neither “copped it” nor (aside for a flamingo, a small deer and a cat) ever stumbled over a dead body.

But in King Fahd, I wasn’t alone. I wasn’t the only visitor on the wrong side of the fence.

A few hardy souls were there before me. A family had chosen a decaying slide to play on rather than the well maintained equipment in the “official” site down the hill. A couple of older guys chilled out on a beaten up a concrete bench in the shade of an over grown and badly manicured tree. And we all, politely, ignored each other. It was as if we all knew we shouldn’t be there and were all worried that we’d have to kick each other out.

The park, with its shabby abandonment, reminded me of my all too brief visit to Pripyat near Chenobyl (a whole different story for another time) ten years ago. Ghost like, sure, but with a character and a charm all to itself. Far from the character that the municipal authorities envisaged of a large happy go lucky, clean living, family friendly open space full of happy go lucky, clean living families; but a character all the same. It was a little like walking into a time capsule. It felt as if all the park’s inhabitants had left with the intention of returning a short period later. It is just that they never have and each passing day, week, month and year make the amount of polish and elbow grease required to make it shine again increase exponentially.

But the park still feels lived in, wanted, needed and desired. The hole in the fence shows that people still crave the space. Recent tin cans and gaudy coloured footballs discarded in the lakes show that despite attempts to exclude, people – like me – are still visiting. And that is good. It makes me happy.

Khobar and Dammam both possess beautiful formal parks along their sea fronts, but they are just narrow strips of land that encourage people to stroll back and forth in straight lines. Neither city has enough space where you can wander and become momentarily lost. King Fahd Park still holds a bit of that.

Fenced off or not, King Fahd Park has become one of my favourite places in Saudi Arabia.

A Gatehouse and a Roller Coaster

The Tourist Leaflet
Official Entertainment

Abandoned Car

Once There Was Light



Hardy Souls In a Wilderness





A Drained Pool & The Mosque

Informal Entrance

I spoke with colleagues and friends about the park. No-one seemed to know anything about it. Where it is? How big it is? What you can do there? 

While it may not be Brigadoon, it is certainly an enigma.

I have no idea how long it has lain in decay. With hindsight, I guess I first read about it on my favoured bird watching website. Looking again, although it is listed, I can find few references in the site to suggest that its contributors visit on a regular basis or have visited recently. I am guessing that the park has been closed for years.

And I am left astonished at how wrong Saudi Tourism seems to get it. How can you promote and push somewhere that is so clearly out of bounds?

I’m sure that something will rise in the parks place. It will have a second shot at being a public place that people want to go to. The hoardings around the edges promise all sorts of family based entertainment. Football pitches and a gym have already been opened. Shiny and new. With heart and hope. In time, I expect that the cash will be found to revisit the gardens and to clean the lakes, tidy the trees and grass and replace the dying concrete. And King Fahd’s Park will rise again. But not for a while…

But before that. Before I get on a plane bound to Europe for the last time, I think I may go back and find a shaded bench one more time to watch the world go by for a little while. But when I am there, as with most of my strolls into isolated places, I will be hoping that I don't stumble over Roger Christopher’s dismembered body in an abandoned car.