Thursday, December 30, 2010

Weather Report

Peope sometimes ask why I moved to France. The answer is that I have not really moved, but I do live here when I am not working because Tricia lives here and one should spend time with one's wife - and I quite like the idea that I live in more than one place.

Of course the most noticeable thing about our home here is the s   p   a   c   e. Also the (best of the) food is fresh, local and seasonal; most aspects of the lifestyle are slower than the UK with hardly a thrash metal club in sight... and, of course, there is the weather. I don't mean the long hot summer which draws tourists here from northern Europe. I mean waking up to views like this (which is sort of average as our weatherscapes go):

The little town on the hill is Lauzerte and this view is from our house. With a few exceptions (one of the towers, the street lighting and some details of the houses) this view of the town has not changed since the 15th century (factual corrections are welcome). 

The view from the other side includes a number of developments over the centuries, the most visible of these being the concrete neo-brutalism of the 1960s and '70s (not very well shown in this view)
In the winter the sun just pops over the hill and floods the house. Yesterday morning I noticed a bright light out of the corner of my eye, turned around and there it was framing a print on our kitchen wall.

Print by Ros Marchant

 It also warms up the snow.

A few hours later the very same sun sets way off down the valley to the right and produces some stunning skies..

 and illuminates Lauzerte with a soft warm light.
A slightly re-touched photo. OK it's been quite severly fondled,
but it produces an effect which is very much like being there.

At the western end of the of the town in the Maison de Retrait (retirement home) which has a large curved window. This catches the sun most evenings and winks its red light at us across the valley. I sometimes think this is a sign of things to come, then I think it is a relflection, then I have a beer and do not think about it until the next day when it all happens again, only slightly differently.

Wednesday, December 29, 2010

National Day

This ordinary looking building, possibly a Royal Oman Police block of flats, has a secret. By day it is an austere, sombre block with a rather foreboding crest on the roof.

By night it dons a coat of many colours and is the blingy-est bulding on the block.

It was difficult to get a good picture  as our drivers did not understand the concept of "slow down,  I want to take a picture". No matter how many times we passed this place at night, it was always at high speed - anyone would think they just wanted to get back to the hotel and go to sleep.

Many building are bedecked in the national colours, from a modest display of national pride ...
to the full blown rope light dreadlocks seen above. There are also more portraits of Sultan Qaboos bin Said than you could shake a stick at. They are on cars…

…on the walls of shops…

(Seen here above a pencil sketch of the shopkeeper) 

Shopkeeper, you decide.

….and 100 feet high on office blocks.

The hotelhad joined in but had taken down their lights by the time I arrived. But the evidence was in a photo on the official World Fireworks Championships web site:

On the roof was evidence of further displays of loyalty, but incandescent bulds are just so passé.

This book, extolling the virtues and delights of Oman, has 51 pictures of the Sultan. (And, yes, I am afraid I did count them.)

The cult of the leader is strong in Oman in normal times, on this 40th National Day, celebrating four decades since he came to power, it is ubiquitous.

I could get all high-minded about the relative merits of democracy and autocracy, but I do not really know enough about it to give a qualified opinion, so, suffice to say I just wish I was the lucky sod with the rope light and large-scale ink jet printing franchise.

Shopping - Electrical Shop Muttrah Souk

Went to Mattrah Souk to buy a 3-way 13amp adaptor. 

Ran the gauntlet of souk stall holders looking for a suitable outlet. Several dozen stilted conversations along the lines of: "No thanks I do not want a pashmina, and, yes it is lovely and probably a very good price, and no I don't want any frankinsence, even if it is best quality and a very good price"  Repeat for dish dasha, hat, cermonial daggers, powder horns, and, and, and...

Finally find an electrical shop which is being studiously ignored by a local stall holder, presumably miffed at not sellling me a pashnia, frankinsence, dish dasha, hat  etc etc

This is looking promising

The shop is presided over by Ali Bin Ahmed, who seems to be able to reach any item of stock without leaving his seat...

which includes a 13amp adaptor. 

To fullly appreciate the wonders within check this out.
(You will have to sign in, but it is worth it - and once you are in you can make your own Photosynths...)

Eating Out

There was not much need for eating out. We had breakfast in the hotel and lunch on site and after a dirty pint -  the one just back from the site, and before a shower - I'd munch my way abesent mindedly through copious bowls of pop corn and olives which were served with every drink and must have put on a couple of kilos in the last few weeks [and the rest. Ed.]. The killer combination of beer and a weak will. Still, plenty of time to diet when you're dead.

Herb and Simon came over one night and we went to the Japanese restaurant on the eighth floor of my hotel.

Does just what it says on the door
There was a shed-load of sushi,
soups, stews, rice, eggs,
, and not a little saki.
But we managed to force most of it down
Then Herb came over again and we went to the Golden Oryx. 

Everyone else thought it was brilliant, and that included Cindy Cheung (the Chinese Team Leader) and she should know what with being Chinese an' all. But then again she is Hong Kong Chinese and that is different (so I am told).

Personally I thought was the worst Chinese meal I could remember and I remember London Chinese take aways of the 1970s. Maybe we just visited at a bad time on a bad day. And it cost silly money. Personally I would have preferred less choice, plainer surroundings and better food costing less than my flight.

Apart from the Arabic, this place would not have looked out of place in Brighton:

And I just had to have lunch here one day. It is the Omani equivalent of a greasy spoon (a working person's cafe for the uninitiated).  

I was probably the only westerner they had served since arriving on the planet. The guy asked if I was from England and I said yes, then asked if he was from outer space - ho ho ho! how we laughed...

The menu was sparse, just an indeterminate meat curry, a similarly anonymous vegetable curry and some fish which looked as though they had been to the fish equivalent of the university of hard knocks - if they could speak they would probably say 'Hey! Hoo yoo lookin' at...?' - so I had some.

I am unlikely to hired as a food critic on account of my insensitive palette and lousy memory for menus and tastes. I can just about differentiate  between major food groups but I do remember that the rice was flavoursome (cardamom maybe? a little chilli and something a little bit sweet) and the fish was just plain delicious (flaky white fish with a crumbly, mildly spicy coating). The green salad with limes and chillis was an excellent foil and pomegranite juice was not too sweet which suited perfectly. Bloody marvellous, one of the best meals I had, I could hardly walk back to the hotel. And only 2.2 Rials (about £3.50)

The other best eating out experience was at the local kebab stall, the only eatery I visited twice. (Later I discover they are called schwamas)

The stall is not much to look at in daylight...

...and still pretty grim in the dark.

 But the people were nice.

and the food was... well, see blog Snippets of wisdom - A night on the Tiles for more details.

Delicious meals are one thing but...

a delicous restaurant didn't really appeal to me , or anyone else it seems as  I never saw it open.

Maybe it's not a restaurant at all...

Sunday, December 26, 2010

Tourists Beware!

Christmas Day. Tricia and I are listening to the wireless (for younger readers it is a primitive, but effective, broadcasting system - like television but with better pictures). I think the programme is The Best of Woman's Hour. There is an interview with Annie Lennox of The Eurythmics during which she sings a slice of the hymn In the Bleak Mid-Winter.

Later in the interview Annie's previous band, The Tourists, is mentioned and I am catapulted back to the bleak mid-70s.


My girlfriend, Mandi, had met someone connected with the band who told her that they were looking for someone to design a logo. Always up for the game, and convinced that I was a talented graphic designer (probably because I had told her that I was) she put my name forward. 

A few days later I am on the phone to The Hope and Anchor pub in Islington:

RPJ: Hello, can you put me on the guest list for Thursday?
H&A: Why?
RPJ: I have a meeting with someone from The Tourists.
H&A: Err.. OK, what’s your name?
RPJ: Paul Jones (I seldom use my full name with people I don’t know as they have a problem with the implied hyphen, so I tend to drop the ‘Richard’.
H&A: Hey! Sorry, of course. No problem…
I am somewhat confused but content that I can get into one of north London’s better pub gigs without paying - so if nothing else happens, I am in credit.

It is Thursday. I arrive at The Hope and Anchor. The chap at the top of the stairs to the basement venue where the bands play holds his hand out for my ticket. I trot out the awful line “I’m on the guest list... Paul Jones” He pauses, looks at me, looks at the guest list, seems satisfied but unsatisfied at the same time, and after a second’s pause (that seems to last an age) nods me through.

I find the band’s dressing room and spend half an hour talking about all sorts of things including a little of what is required. The conceit is that The Tourists are visiting Earth from another planet. I am sure that this will be reflected in their lyrics and that careful listening will flesh out the very brief brief. 

However, as may become apparent in future blogs I am ASTONISHINGLY bad with lyrics and tend not to listen to the words in songs. This is a serious failing, and one to which I will return, but suffice to say that I stayed for the gig but do not remember a thing about it, or the lyrics, or the songs, or the tunes, or the members of the band - or anything else for that matter.

Later I did a few sketches of ideas including one of which this is the essence.
For reasons to tedious to go into, I never submitted my thoughts. Whether they would have been appreciated is unknown. Now that it doesn’t matter, whatcha think Annie? 

By the way, I did not know that former Manfred Mann singer, Paul Jones (real name Paul Pond), and his excellent Blues Band, were regulars at The Hope and Anchor. I suspect that the ticket-checking chap on the basement stairs had been comparing me with his mental vision of Mr. Pond and decided I was close enough, and was not prepared to make a scene.

(Left) Paul Pond, (Centre) you choose (Right) RPJ

Many years later I was to miss another opportunity for a serious name-dropping experience when I went for a pint with my mate Gary who was in Pump Boys and Dinettes, a touring show with Paul Jones, Kiki Dee and Carlene Carter... (see I Wasn't There - Cashing Out).

Saturday, December 25, 2010

Daddy wouldn’t buy me a snow plough

Daddy wouldn’t buy me a snow plough
I have a little cat, and I'm very fond of that
But I'd rather have a snow plough-wow...

(Paraphrased from Joseph Tabrar - 1892).

Tricia has spent a long time organising aperitifs garni for Christmas Eve  (It is like coming round for an early evening drink, but with a few snacks thrown in). And it does take a lot of arranging to ensure that your favourite people have the chance to attend, get fed, and do not make the foolish mistake of attending inferior events with a similar theme. This planning included Tricia's prescient decision to do the shopping a couple of days earlier than usual as her version of 'a few snacks' is a full blown meal in snack form. 

We get up on the morning of the 24th to find the whole place ankle deep in snow which looks lovely and not very threatening.  

 The shopping is in so there is no need to drive anywhere and we get on with de-pig-stying the place in honour of our guests, and preparing the small barn for it's first test run as a party venue.

I have promised to drive the 73 metres up the hill to collect our neighbours, Lucien and Juliette. 

Lucien and Juliette's house precariously
balanced on ours

Lucien is struggling on with a dodgy hip and walking is not so easy, especially if it involves hills. Some hours later I think the sensible thing is to test the effectiveness of the transport system  (OK, try driving the car up the lane) before it is needed and am scuppered at the first hint of a gentle slope. 

Nothing moves (unless you count spinning wheels). This does not bode well for collecting L&J.

Always on the lookout for an upside, I think that if I can’t get the car up to their house, there is no way our guests will be able to get up our similarly steep hill, so L&J will not be missing out as we will have to cancel. As upsides go this is not a particularly satisfactory example and, with a premonition of dread and foreboding, I return to the house to tell Tricia the news.

She, up to her elbows in canapés, is surprisingly pragmatic and suggests I email our guests to let them know that we will be cancelling. In an attempt at optimism I send an email saying that the forecast is good and that it may thaw out and to watch this space.

A thought drifts through the nether regions of my sub-conscious ‘If only I had a snow plough’ it taunts... This notion finally surfaces with the realisation that I do indeed have the makings of a snow plough. I have a tractor, I have a grader blade (think bulldozer) and I have the means to attach one to the other… somewhere.

Grader blade and fitting in its native environment
at Chester Hudson's Wonderful World of Tillerparts
in deepest Sussex
The grader blade is buried under some timber. The ease of finding it is countered by the difficulty of carrying it through the clutter-laden hanger (open-sided barn) and across the snow to the tractor. Fortunately when I put it away I had greased the fittings. Unfortunately this was several years ago and they needed a severe talking to with a hammer to do the decent thing. Then I realise that there is a bit missing. Some time later I find it in the cave and fit the blade to the tractor. The problem then is that I cannot raise or lower the blade and have no control over the ploughing activity. I finally find and fit the lever that can do the job provided I can find a suitable link between lever and blade. 

Blimey! I think, and begin to imagine this might actually happen.

The lifting gear
The reason I had put the blade away in the first place was a lack of a suitable steel rope to lift the thing. But in the intervening years I have had the item  on my subliminal list of things to acquire and thought that I had found something some time ago – but where had I put it? In the steel rope box obviously. This is the one box I can not find in the workshop (there is a whole thesis in the notion that there are any number of other boxes I could not find, but I was not looking for them so this one took on the role of ‘missing box', but I digress.) I conduct a rigorous search using a torch in broad daylight (another thesis in the making: it helps focus the mind and reduces the temptation for the eyes to jump around at random, but I digress again).

Artist's impression of an untidy workshop
The steel-rope box finally turns up complete with a small tin box of ‘dogs’ (fixings for steel-rope) and the fitting proceeds. Thinking all the while of how my colleagues in the rigging industry would have dispised the botch up, I fashion a crude (but effective) linkage. There are two ways one can place the dogs on a loop of steel rope and there is an aide memoire which describes it. Trouble is I could not remember the words [A bit of a failure as an aide memoire, then. Ed.]. This was further complicated by the inability to remember the particular rigger’s jargon which describes the elements. All I could remember is that it has something to do with hanging a, possibly dead, horse, or it may have been some other domesticated beast, and maybe not hanging it but restraining it by some other means. It's at times like this that you need Mike Davenports splendid Guide to Rigging.

This is not the book I needed. It is about rowing
but it is written by a chap named Mike Davenport
which it just so happens is the name of a structural engineer
with whom I have worked at Glastonbury and as I cannot
find a picture of the book I wanted I am using this one
as it gives me the opportunity say its a load of rollocks...
(Clear? Good.)
Like the half remembered lyric of a long forgotten song the ghost of the missing phrase rattles around in my mind. Then my frozen hands take the decision for me. “Just bloody do it.” they say, “Sod the right way, just get the damn thing on so we can crawl back inside your nice woolly gloves.” Talking hands, marvellous!

So eventually the contraption is assembled...

...the lane is cleared and the question of how the man who drives the snow plough gets to work is answered.

He works from home.

PS A second email was sent  “If you can get out of your place, you can get into ours. See you as planned.” L&J are collected, tout le monde turn up, and a splendid evening ensued.

Friday, December 24, 2010

Fun with Words - Signs of Oman

To have a business in Oman you must have a sign. Not some brass plaque on the door but a BIG ILLUMINATED sign and it must say what you do. 

You would not go into this shop to
buy a trouser press or a
table tennis ball.
There is help for thoe who don't read too well:

That may well include educated Brits as the 'supply of building materials' means tools (above) and hardware such as door furniture (below). They tend not to sell wood and bags of cement, though I dare say they would pop round the corner and get you some if you asked.

As well as decribing the nature of the business, the sign may give you some linguistic flourish to further extol its virtues:

Of course it is possible to be too honest.

Well, you'd think twice, wouldn't you...

Some shops think nothing of using endangered species to sell stuff.

And some try to reassure you of their reliability with technical talk (the sign equivalent of the toothpast advert featuring a chap in a white coat with a clipboard).

Personally I like my pharmacies to be a bit scientific, as opposed to, say, emotional or experimental. So this one does it for me.

Others do not inspire the same level of confidence. Though the idea of viral jewellery is kind of intriguing. And you should be in no doubt about what you are likely to find inside Silky Textiles next door.

You can get most things over the counter, though some signs make you wonder exactly what is on offer:

Malls proliferate and, despite being mainly populated by the major international chains they, too, have a few independent traders who entertain us with some interesting signs. 

The shop on the left just seems bizarre to a non-make up wearer. It is positioned as 'sophisticated', witnessed by the black and grey colour sheme, blow up fashion photos and the flightcase furniture (What is that about? To me it says 'You need so much of our muck that we need to pack it in boxes the size of a small car, which are capable of surviving the rigors of international air cargo')

But I cannot see the fashionista admitting buying their slap from a store called MAKE UP FOR EVER (PROFESSIONAL / PARIS) - they'd be fessing up to underwear from Pirmark and shoes from Lidl next.

Then I Googled it: MFE was started by someone called Dany Sanz (yeah, likely!) and appear to have 17 stores worldwide. It was also mentioned on several blogs (one sub-titled "where the fashion nerd meets the pop culture obsesed") and I lost the will to go on.

This development still does not make it sophisticated but means it should not really be in an 'entertaining signs' blog  - nonetheless, I am leaving it in as yet another example of how little I know about some aspects of the world I live in.

I just liked the name Beach Sparkle.

But if this were a competition, the winner, would have to be:

Stationary Pivot may be a direct translation of something in Arabic, or it may just be a delightful description of a stable place around which the universe revolves.

And who would have suspected that this singular point would be in a back street in Oman.

(More fun with signs and beauty tips to come... watch this space)