Category Archives: Contemporary Issues

Reflecting on issues of the day

Small Towns, Monkeys and Nonagenarians

So this last week I’ve been back down in Durban, Kwazulu Natal, home to mum’s eldest sister, my gran and an assortment of cousins and their offspring. It was very nice to be able to see the ‘old lady’, erstwhile known as Mutty (moo-tee), born in 1921, and still plodding along.

Allegedly once a rather formidable lady she has been tamed by the passage of time and the limitations of an aging body. She is entirely dependent on her daughter now, her aging bones unable to lift her from her bed without assistance, her sight marred by advanced macular degeneration (MD) but, as I quipped to my cousin, at least it wasn’t a case of moral degradation… Quite the opposite in fact. The woman still insists on weekly communion, delivered courtesy of a parish minister who visits the various invalids on a Thursday.

I am ambivalent about the influence of Catholicism on my family, particularly with regards to my mother, but I have a choice as to how I want to live my life and I certainly don’t have to embrace the more puritanical aspects of the religion if I don’t want to. I felt that my mum lived a fairly good life – she was certainly quite selfless when it came to ministry and active service – but one lived with certain insecurities that her religion could not address.

It’s complicated and there’ve been times I’ve become quite worked up about it but on this occasion I chose to avoid these negative emotions and spent an hour two of the day chatting to Mutty on various topics: my unrealised ambitions; who in the family was doing what and where; and old memories. She was remarkably conversational, more so than the last time I saw her a year back. My aunt Liz put it down to the blood transfusion she’d recently received.

The rest of the family was busy as always. I arrived late on the Monday after Easter, ostensibly a holiday, to find my aunt working on some quotations. My uncle Derek’s asphalting business was always prone to fluctuations in cash flow so I wasn’t particularly surprised to learn how it been borderline viable over the Christmas period only recovering recently by dint of an influx of insurance jobs. Some late storms ensured that properties across the city experienced largely superficial damage to driveways, paving and exterior walls – bread and butter for my uncle’s business. I’d worked for him back in 2007 so I knew the deal.

The garden was looking great. My cousin Ellysa lived on the property with her husband Steve,  a commercial diver who was currently working offshore somewhere in the Persian Gulf. They are hoping to put down a deposit on an old house somewhere in the vicinity, perhaps in the hope of starting a family of their own. I’d always admired Steve, an Englishman by upbringing, for his energetic lifestyle. He’d made a number of improvements to the property between jobs which included installing several large, green, plastic JoJo tanks for rainwater storage. They had quite obviously made all the difference over the dry summer. The photos below speak for themselves:

Steve and Ellysa also do a great job of participating in a non-profit wildlife organisation called Monkey Helpline (you’ll find them on this page). I haven’t seen them in action but I’ve heard enough to know that they’re doing an invaluable job in the field of conservation, with particular emphasis on assisting injured and orphaned vervet monkeys. Whilst there the local troop of vervets visited the house on two occasions. My cousin and her mum feed the animals bread, oats and fruit to supplement their diets.

With the colonisation of that part of the coast by city-dwellers the natural vegetation has been cleared, altered and replaced by gardens, roads, houses, shopping malls, schools, fields and factories. Feeding them is just a means of being considerate for these free-ranging primates who are really quite entertaining. They are not aggressive although they can bite if cornered and I am surprised to read on the MH website that there has never recorded case of a rapid monkey in the city. See for example my video below and another taken by a Durban resident which shows several taking a dip in a swimming pool.

Here is a gallery of the furry creatures dining out on my aunt’s roof:

Quite remarkably I never made it down to the beach. During the week everyone was busy with their respective jobs – the family mostly works from home: my aunt on commission for a cupboard and cabinet outfit; my uncle for himself, Ellysa doing the office work – so I didn’t have the use of a car or anyone to take me down.

To be honest it didn’t bother me too much. On two occasions I walked across to the local shopping centre for odds and ends and for exercise I jogged up and down the hills a few times, an exhausting task I assure you. The rest of the time I was chatting with Mutty, Liz or Ellysa, watering the garden, swimming with the dogs in the late afternoon, discussing composting toilets and permaculture with my uncle and the like.

I should point out that I did not come directly to Durban but rather indirectly via Vryheid and Richard’s Bay. In the former resides a cousin of mine, Amy, who works as an occupational therapist at a local government hospital. She’d recently been on a workshop in Pretoria so we’d got to catch up over a drink and she’s extended the invitation for me to visit over the long Easter weekend. I went down on the Wednesday and she picked me up after work, gave me a tour of the little hospital before we headed back to her house in the suburbs.

She appeared to live a happy, independent life with 3 rescue dogs and a rescued kitten in a two bedroom cottage on a subdivided property. The owner lived in a house on the other side of a partition. In-between was a simple, two-roomed outbuilding in which the son resided. It was quickly apparent that the young man, Eugene, was besotted with my cousin. Amy possesses an air of self-assurance and a ready smile that seems to put people at ease. All of 26 she has a full head of blonde hair dyed with purple streaks in it. On her fridge was a hand-drawn picture of Queen Elsa from the Disney animation Frozen. It was a gift from Eugene who thought Amy looked just like the aloof snow-queen.

We had gone out on two successive evenings to a local bar called Ella The Greek. No surprise to learn that the proprietor was a Greek himself. In summary I can say that every male between 20-50 in the town seemed acquainted with my cousin, notwithstanding most of the women too and those who weren’t probably wanted to be. To be fair it was a typical small-town situation which put me in mind of Harare which, although substantially bigger than Vryheid,  in a social context was not much different.

The local barman Shaun served us all evening and threw in a few extra shots for the sake of it. Amy told me he was one  of the good ones who looked out for her. There was another young guy, JP, a bit of a hard luck story, who gravitated towards Amy partly out of affection but also as a ready source of ciggies. Now I have been informed that her parents are under no circumstances to learn about her habit, so if you do so happen to Mike and Jan your discretion in this matter is appreciated! Heck I am no-one to judge, puffing on a fair few myself. All the same I was a bit taken aback by the sheer number of smokers I encountered. There was barely anyone who didn’t smoke in the establishment.

On the Friday we dove down to Richard’s Bay to Amy’s folks. Her granny lived with them in the main house and I was able to move into the granny flat. Her dad Mike had built the place himself, being something of a jack of all trades. Like Steve he’s installed half-a-dozen plastic storage tanks for rainwater runoff as well as grey water from the washing machine. He claimed that his coverage was so effective (via the roofs and driveway) that it only required 5 mm of rainfall to refill all the JoJo tanks. In addition he had a swimming pool which was, he pointed out, a further 20 000 l emergency storage.


Richard’s Bay, or just R-Bay, had featured periodically in my upbringing. This was the first time I had visited in almost 14 years and the first time I’d visited without my cousins or one or other of my brothers. I’d gone down there with Ivan and my mum the year before she died and we’d gone back the following Christmas just before Ivan was to start university and I was to complete a final year at UP. The social and family dynamics had been different on that occasion.

I hadn’t really felt present if you know what I mean? It was no fault of Mike and Jan’s but it was still very reassuring to feel so welcome at the house all these years later. The addition of the granny flat aside nothing much had changed. Mike still drank cider, appeared slightly eccentric (well he is) and held forth on various issues with a strong opinion. I like him. Jan had recently retired after several decades of teaching English but was nonetheless cheerful and obliging.

I won’t write too much more except to say that I did get down to the beach. Hooray! After all those years away I was quite shocked to see how much the main bathing beach, Alkanstrand, had been eroded. The sea had cut into the previously broad expanse of sand and was in danger of undercutting the lifeguard’s hut. On the Easter Sunday I’d walked for some way along the beachfront heading north. I was impressed by the beach cliffs and the streaky black sands that are so characteristic of the area. This is not in fact oil or other pollution as one might expect at first glance but rather a concentration of heavy minerals like ilmenite and rutile, both titaniferous and commercially exploitable. I’d had a tour of the dune-mining operation of Richard’s Bay Minerals when I was an undergraduate at UP.

There’s no denying mankind’s rapacious appetite for natural commodities whether they be heavy minerals sands or the ocean’s bounty. There was an Easter fishing competition at the nearby Ski-boat club and the fishermen had hauled out quantities of rock-cod and various game-fish. Amy told me how she deplored the sight of the dead fish and I have to say that I agree after seeing the poor creatures laid out on concrete slabs by the boat ramp, their engorged swim bladders protruding from their mouths, macabre, like the tongues of drought-stricken cattle who have succumbed to thirst.

On an adjacent dredging platform some young teenagers leapt into the shallows with squeals of delight. I watched two guys snorkeling along the periphery. I’d done the same thing with Dale, a friend of Amy’s, the day before. On that occasion he’d pointed out an octopus hiding amongst the cracks in the concrete foundations. We’d let him be. Dale told me that he only took live specimens of tropical fish for his aquarium. He evidently had a big set of lungs.

Today one of the two snorkelers came out of the water gripping an octopus, whether the same one I’d seen the day before I can’t be sure. Laughing and moving the frantic creature from hand to hand he gave it to a fisherman friend on the shore. His two kids looked on in fascination as he proceeded to bash the poor creature senseless on a rock. He was doing nothing more than using it for bait. I turned away disgusted.

I love the ocean and the myriad creatures that live within but sometimes I wonder if most of us don’t just see her as another resource ripe for exploitation so that we can feed another hungry mouth or satisfy the whims of a middle-class ever keen to gorge on tasty, low-fat seafood. Such is the world we have made. It is not without hope though. I can see that there are many, like Dale, who care and understand the finite nature of the sea and her coastal resources.

An information board entitled Our Coast for Life near the car park elaborated on their importance for recreation, rural  livelihoods and biodiversity. For me the photo I took of the Indian mother and daughter standing ankle-deep in the surf, a younger member of the family frolicking at right, with a large cargo-ship entering the harbour in the background, is somewhat symbolic of the choice we have to make between exploitation and utilisation on the one hand and recreation and conservation on the other. Only time will tell where the balance lies.

Palmyra after Isis: images taken following Syrian recapture offer hope amid ruins

Palmyra after Isis: images taken following Syrian recapture offer hope amid ruins

I shared a Guardian article from the 19th August when Palmyra had already fallen to IS/Daesh and the brutal murder of resident archaeologist had just come to light.

So it is great news that these fanatical oafs have been dispelled from the city even if it is by virtue of Bashar al Asaad. So evidently he cares about the legacy left by prior civilizations. Does this make him a more worthy ruler? It certainly puts him ahead of IS in most Westerners eyes but is it the only criterion by which he should be judged?

Some Interesting Tellie

I just sat down and watched a very curious bit of TV via the BBC iPlayer app on my tablet. Strictly speaking I shouldn’t be able to but with the help of a VPN (otherwise known as an IP spoofer) I am able to download program episodes as if I were doing so from within the UK.

My usual fare are espionage, thriller, the odd comedy and drama thrown but the programme I’m elaborating on here is a documentary episode showing on BBC3, also available for catch-up via the iPlayer, entitled Sex in Strange Places – Turkey

I was intrigued for several reasons. Firstly, I have a fond relationship with Turks and Turkey – not all of them of course – but having worked and traveled there for several months at a time I’ve made friends and acquaintances in many of its towns and cities.

Secondly I am fighting against the imposed sensibilities of my conservative upbringing and trying to take a healthy interest in the whole issue of sex and sexuality. I identify as a heterosexual male but I increasingly feel the limitations of describing ourselves confidently when we know so little about how other people identify. Sex is, after all, something all of us will contemplate at some stage and for most of us it will involve much more than contemplation alone.

Thirdly, and a little superficially I guess, I like the presenter, Stacey Dooley. She’s young (28), attractive and engaging, flashing a wide and disarming smile quite frequently. She wins over the trust of her interviewees with her smile and genuine empathy. To add to that I overheard somewhere that she’s from Luton, a town where I’ve spent a good deal of time in the UK. Like many Lutonians, who tend to of working class origin, she doesn’t always pronounce her ‘t’s or her ‘l’s which makes me a little sentimental and definitely not objective e.g. Water becomes wah-ah and girls become geh-wzah.

Anyway I found it all quite fascinating. The hypocrisy of many Turkish men and indeed society, is unveiled in this hour-long feature. I’d heard some of the proclamations through an Arab friend of mine who bemoaned the importance that Turkish women put on virginity at marriage. Apparently this is an expectation held by most Turkish men. An Algerian friend of mine alleges that young brides-to-be will go so far as to have surgical operations to try to ‘restore’ the undefiled state of their womanhood in order to meet this expectation.

In truth many of these same men are visiting prostitutes as Stacey discovers. Some visit transvestites because they are apparently more authentic whilst many married men frequent brothels. They choose to use prostitutes because they feel inhibited at home, unable to play out their sexual fantasies in the marital domain. 

Stacey manages to elicit some very candid interviews from some of her interviewees. One of the first, a prostitute names Hulya, elaborates on how many of her clients don’t even know the basics of sexual intercourse – which bit goes where! A man might penetrate his wife’s navel on their first encounter she says. Quite bizarre but a testimony to the virtual absence of sex education in the school curriculum.

There are also some touching interviews with an outgoing transvestite and a young gay lawyer who is trying to get justice after being raped by three men. His attempts to report this to the police at the time go unheeded and only with persistence and financial support from the broader community of independent lawyers does the case make it to court. At the first court appearance they are in complete denial and accuse him of lying. During the second court hearing the three fail to turn up at all. No action is taken by the authorities we are informed.

It makes me angry many times over for these and many other injustices which are perpetrated in this beautiful nation under the autocratic and religiously conservative Erdogan and his AKP. It also reminds me why I am so very against any sort of conservative ideology, usually dressed up under the guise of religion, which seeks to limit, prohibit and sensor people on the basis of their sexuality. I look forward to subsequent episodes in the series where Stacey will travel to Russia and Brazil for some further investigative work.

Evolving Challenges

I am back on my beloved continent since Thursday afternoon, courtesy of an indirect flight from London Heathrow via Addis Ababa. What a relief I won’t die on British soil: that’s honestly how I feel. Ridiculous perhaps to a rational being but I’m not such a person. This is really about rediscovering some self-belief, sense of purpose and, dare I say it, destiny.

It’s great to be reclining in the sunshine and temperatures upwards of 20C. Despite being in the clutches of a seasonal drought the meadows and highveld gasslands are green, testimony to the tenacity of the native flora. The humidity is moderate and rain has been forecast this week although people seem skeptical.

Next week I intend to go through to Pretoria again to see James, a Rhodes and Wits alumnus who I actually knew personally at the former institution. He is now a lecturer in igneous petrology at Tukkies (University of Pretoria). We spoke last May and he expressed an interest in taking me as a postgrad. I’ve dreamed (and dreaded) of taking this step for the last 10 years of my life. It feels like a last throw of the dice. It’s not just the money but the whole series of practical and bureaucratic obstacles that have to be negotiated and overcome.

I’m not going to revisit that chapter of life except to say that it was a mental minefield. Anyone who knows me personally knows how badly affected I was by the circumstances. Looking back now I can see how much of it, probably all of it, are the projections of loneliness. Thankfully I can recognise that on a certain level even if the reality of it has yet to be fully embraced. I still see brick walls, fences, concrete and enclosures but I also get a peek over those same barriers at the sweeping panorama of the Highveld and remind myself that everything I fear and loathe is bounded by this almost limitless landscape, so much greater.

I still recall those less fortunate souls, friends and colleagues, who didn’t manage to find a state of co-existence in this enigmatic country and continent. There are many and there will no doubt be others to come. It can be brutal and tribal, beautiful and soothing in turn. The land beneath our feet is perhaps our ultimate salvation for we all depend on it: white, black, Asian and mixed race alike.

On the postive side I will meet a relative of mine is on a short course in Pretoria next week and, as always, I have the unwavering support of my dear Ania from Warsaw. I hope to report back with some good news in a week’s time notwithstanding student protests and agitation from the likes of the EFF who seem to be responsible for the university being closed this last week after intense protests regarding the university’s language policy. These things are beyond my control sayeth the pragmatist in me. And this really is a moment for pragmatism. Let the head lead the heart on this occasion.




Beheaded Syrian scholar refused to lead Isis to hidden Palmyra antiquities

One of the real unsung heroes of the civil war in Syria:

Beheaded Syrian scholar refused to lead Isis to hidden Palmyra antiquities

This is why we need to promote tolerance and acceptance as a matter of urgency. Not just in Western society but abroad too. Boots on the ground, yes, just not more soldiers. Learned people like Khaled al-Asaad are the ones who make a real difference in these places because they are a permanent fixture. The people of Palmyra, let alone the world, will be considerably poorer without the insight and knowledge of such a scholar and academic. If Western advocates of democracy want to stem the flow of toxic ideology promulgated by ISIS then they need to make sure that his legacy is perpetuated. It’s probably time to sit down with the Syrian government and negotiate. They have been weakened considerably and will no doubt be open to dialogue. If the chance isn’t taken now then we can expect more of this outrage. What other solution is there right now?

The Taizé Mission and the Trouble Next Door

The second part of my recent trip to Antakya, the Hatay, Turkey.

These Archived Memories

When I questioned Barbara on her source of funding for the renovations she revealed that she was solely dependent on income derived from visitors to her guesthouses. She had originally come to Antakya in the mid-1970s to establish a Catholic church, now presided over by Fth Domenico, a Carmelite priest.

The church backed onto the Taizé guesthouse which she had established subsequently. She’d rented the various rooms and courtyards for several decades. She was by no means assured of keeping them indefinitely. In recent years wealthier individuals and families had begun to buy the older houses for restoration. She worried that her landlord/s might be enticed to sell one or other of the accommodation she rented were an attractive offer made by a prospective re-developer.

She worried that her landlord/s might be enticed to sell one or other of the accommodation she rented were an attractive offer made by a prospective re-developer.


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Back on the Minimum Wage

I don’t like to bang on about my circumstances because, to be honest, I’m probably a lot better off than the vast majority of people out there on the minimum wage. That’s because I have savings. Yes, I’ve taken a nice big bite out of them these last couple of years but I’ve also lived a bit: traveled, indulged in some cultural pursuits – live performances that sort of thing – bought a car (major expense), done some courses.

But when I consider my income from those periods where I have worked on or near the MW pretty much full-time, my perception of money and indeed my place in society was completely different. This was pre-2012 when I didn’t have any savings to draw on. Life was tough – hand to mouth. Granted I was living in London and life there is more expensive without a doubt: rental, food and transportation major expenses. Generally I worked for around £7/hr, 30-40hrs/wk, in office catering and events. Working through an agency had the benefit of flexibility but transport costs were variable and quite high, as was time spent commuting (nothing unusual there though!).

Back in 2011 I moved out of London to Luton (via several intermediary towns) and landed up working in hotel catering for a similar wage but without the associated transport costs, free lodgings for several months in a decent suburban house, and it made a great deal of difference. When I did have to rent it was certainly cheaper than London was for a similar house-sharing/lodging arrangement. My disposable income increased noticeably but my quality of life was not always great considering the industry which was quite taxing especially during the summer months and Christmas time.

Now the thing is I never had a family: mouths to feed, clothing to provide and that sort of thing. How do other people in a similar position with families cope? Has their situation improved or deteriorated over the last five years (my timeframe in the UK)? After working for 7 months of this year in a part-time job for a negotiated £7/hr (25- 40 hrs p/wk) supplemented by agency work I have gone back to relying solely on the agency. I work in an industrial role for £6.65/hr which is less than the pay for a similar tier-one job I did 5 years ago! Does anyone else feel there’s an injustice here?

All the same, like I say, I am fortunate to have other sources of revenue and I have made a conscious choice not to work full-time so I have a work-life balance that keeps me sane and (relatively) healthy. To sum it up I feel that people who have to subsist on or near the MW miss out on things that people in median or higher income brackets take for granted. The live panel show How Rich Are You? on Channel 4 this week highlighted the growth in inequality in the UK today and reactions from some members of the audience strongly suggest that the government would do well to look at this issue more closely. I have a lot of time for Owen Jones who sees the need for MW increases in line with the likes of Australia, Luxembourg and several other European nations.

One argument against MW increases is that it reduces competitiveness. To that I would say, yes, there has to be trade-off between competitiveness and productivity. One cannot force businesses to become unsustainable because of labour costs but by the same token there is moral imperative on the part of the government to mandate business paying, at the very least, a living wage. Estimates of the LW vary between >£7->£10 off the top of my head. Considering a rate of inflation consistently between 3-5 % since I arrived in 2009 I really can’t see how this government has got away with such minimal increases to the MW, tracking well below the cost of living increases.

On a happier note I have been feeling a lot more positive about life of late and had an awesome evening with a good friend of mine from school days, Fraser, and my date (+friend) at a pub last night. We competed in a pub quiz, won two enormous Galaxy bars, and generally enjoyed ourselves. We might even have won the cash prize, a modest £30 or so, but it went down to the throw of a dice and one of our competitors was luckier than we were!

A Time for Change?

Certain notions can only develop with the passage of time. One of those notions is ‘change’. In one sense it seems intuitive; nothing remains constant over the course of one’s life. As we age our bodies change, families grow closer or don’t, friends come and go, society endorses something at a whim whilst another goes out the window, political parties fall in and out of favour, money inflates… nothing remains the same. Then there are all those catch phrases endorsing the word e.g be the change you want; change the world; change is a given etc. Ha ha, whilst writing this a very good cover of the Man in the Mirror by James Morrison is espousing the virtue on my Spotify music stream. I’m looking at the man in the mirror, I’m asking him to change his ways.

The truth is that change IS a given but it also a very subjective entity. It always needs to be looked at in the context of its use. I suppose what I am getting at is that I am at one of those junctures where I would like to heed the title advice of Sheryl Crow’s number A Change Would do You Good (also on my playlist). The choice is between staying put and ruminating on getting another job and continuing in my effort to integrate into the society in which I have lived for the last year. Unlike the better part of previous year in Luton I have gone out and actually revived a few old habits and engaged with other people: mountain biking and playing my clarinet in a band being two such examples. And yes I have actually derived a good deal of pleasure from the latter and though I still mostly cycle on my own, to and from work, I’ve enjoyed a biking excursion to the Isle of Wight earlier this summer with some social riders as well as a peak at the lovely New Forest. Why then this underlying feeling of disconnect?

Perhaps it is down to a change, not so much within, but without. It’s not an easy change to define but it’s a feeling of protracted unease which seems to permeate through the lower and upper levels of British society regarding notions of identity. People don’t generally say much but a comment here and there betrays a disdain of the ‘foreign influx’. The meteoric rise of the right-leaning UKIP bears testimony to this. Now we have the In or Out Scotland debate I am seeing people who only weeks ago profess indifference becoming rather more vocal in opinion. The general gist of it is, who the heck does this Alec Salmond think he is even considering the notion of independence? My attempt to draw a corollary with the in-out debate on Europe is either met with a blank stare (how can you possibly equate the two?) or a dismissive wave of the hand. ‘This is not the same debate’ they seem keen to impress upon me. Really? Issues of taxation, how it is collected, where it is collected, and who decides to spend it? Issues of political representation and powers imposed from abroad? Issues of identity? etc

In all this I feel like an observer. I am a tax-paying citizen but I am an emigre. I came her a mere five years ago. What qualifies me to know what it means to be a British patriot? If it came to it I would take up arms for this country I suppose, but what would I be fighting for? I need to take up a position because I do believe in the principle. And so I feel a little disconcerted. Which way to lean? To the left, to the right or neither? In which case I adopt the position of most other emigre I have interacted with, notably the Eastern Europeans and Asians, and stay clear of politics and the identity debate. My gut feeling is that this is a debate for the English, especially after the Scots have had their say and more than likely take the independence offered them. After all who would win the right to a referendum on independence and then refute it? I will keep my head down for now.

I’ve Been Here Before…

One criticism I should level at myself is that I don’t do enough thought-blogging, by which I mean transferring current, unrefined thoughts to the blogosphere. Perhaps it’s my background in scientific study which puts great emphasis on critical analysis, accuracy and referencing. Everything must be referenced, although this could be said of academic writing generally. This is good and necessary when it comes to academia, bad when it comes to opinion pieces and artistic originality. Ok, so I’ve identified my achilles heel and I will make an attempt to be more spontaneous!

With regards to the title of the post: I’ve definitely been here before. In a temporal sense rather than a physical one. On the verge of something else, something undefined as of yet. I’ve given notice at work, a place I’ve been employed mostly part-time for since the beginning of Feb. I took 9 days off over Easter to visit friends and family and South Africa, otherwise I’ve been there every other working day to date. I feel a teeny-weeny bit proud of the fact I do. And I’ve covered for Phil for perhaps 2 weeks cumulative leave which involved some level of responsibility I guess. The job: working in warehouse. I dispatch motors and such stuff by packing it into boxes and on palettes. Nothing mind-blowing but with some pros. Firstly I only have to answer directly to Phil. Phil is cool. He listens to Frank Zappa and does mushrooms (not at work I must stress!). He’s actually a conscientious old fart, despite his apparent nonchalance. If he doesn’t have the day’s orders packed and the manifest printed by the time the couriers arrive mid-afternoon he gets a bit cranky. I’ve never seen him lose his cool with anyone but he has a grumble and that’s ok. He’s never taken anything out on me. At best he makes a tactful suggestion when I cock something up. I’m no dummy but I’m liable to be distracted at times and forget details: ticking a box here, submitting a form there. That sort of thing. Phil lives by a simple principle in life: be honest. He always tells his wife when he intends to go on a jolly and if something or someone is bothering him he verbalises it.

So why am I leaving the job? Because I’m bored; because I think I’m selling myself short; because I’m not happy in my personal life; because I don’t have a personal life. It also happens that it’s a family company. My boss (a relative through marriage to a cousin of mine) has his ex, two of his sons, his eldest son’s wife and now my cousin all working in various positions. Another son is at college being lined up for a future role. I don’t have any problem with this in principle (I would be a hypocrite if I did) except that my cousin is soon to take up a rather senior position which I think she’s completely unsuited too (she’s a hairdresser by trade). I suppose it’s a form of nepotism which has been relatively benign until now but is in danger of causing damage, if it hasn’t already done so. the former Ops Manager left because of this apparently, and I’ve just learnt that the accountant is also leaving. I don’t know his reason but it’s just a hunch I have. Anyway enough of that.

You want to know more about my personal life? Like I told you, I don’t have one! Do I have to elaborate? Ok ok. No juicy gossip but a few thoughts. One theme this year has been rejection. It’s not nice as some you may well know. My feelings in this department are directed towards a certain Polish lady who I had an intimate relationship with last year, severed ties, got back together with briefly, became ‘best friends’ with, and then fell out with before becoming the pitiful object of rejection. Truth be told, in that grey area between being with someone and not being with them, it seems there was very little room to manoeuvre. Deep down I know what I want: If I am not going to have the advantage of being the rejector, I would at least like to part on good terms, and by good I suppose I would settle for a definition of ‘without malice’. I think I have run out of opportunities. She is uncompromising. What is the lesson in this? It’s one you have probably heard before i.e. get to know someone before you start having sex. Sex complicates things. In hindsight we were not well matched.

I am glad of a few things this year, however. Apart from the stores job I have also earned about £1500 as an agency worker doing some truly dull jobs at some truly unsociable hours. One involved making compressed polystyrene products in a small factory running antiquated injection-moulding equipment. It was repetitive work but it helped ease me through the initial despondency of the rejection I talked about. That was late last year. I was assured of work in the new year but it never materialised. I never did feel completely safe around those heaving, steaming, temperamental machines anyhow. Rob, who had worked there longest, wasn’t very reassuring. One of them had blown a panel or a hose off with enough force to kill someone a few months earlier. Fortunately no one had been standing close to it at the time.

Another agency job earlier in the year was as a cleaner at a large bakery. It involved waking at 2am and slopping detergents into toilets, floors and other surfaces, mopping, vacuuming and sweeping. I admired anyone who was prepared to do that for more than two weeks. My mainstay of the agency work has however been as a parcel sorter. It’s work I had done a few years before in Bristol as a stopgap. Most of the shifts run from early morning, 0300 until 0700/0800. Once again it’s the monotony of it which gets to me. There are always a few blokes who make it a bit more bearable but who would really want to do that ad infinitum? Ironically the shift pays the minimum wage which is less than the hourly wage I was getting paid for night work in Bristol back in 2010!

But before I lose my audience and my point, I have to admit that there is a value to this: the people who do these jobs – the packing, sorting, cleaning and so forth – are the cogs that make the economic machinery turn. I think it’s important not to lose sight of this. Doing this sort of work from time to time is a good way to stay grounded and if not humble, at least a little more grateful for the day job. But perhaps most importantly it allows one to debate and discuss from the perspective of a participant. Yes I have seen capitalist Britain creaking at the seams, her native workforce disgruntled, and not necessarily without reason. The working conditions are sometimes shoddy and this culture of efficiency without accountability quite frankly sucks. Sadly, as an educated person, I can see how the system is geared towards maintaining a certain status quo. It scared the hell out of me a few years ago when my prospects were not looking good in the skilled sector. I have no excuse now after liquidating my assets in Africa, but I still feel vulnerable. I know I need to train in something that will cushion me against the buffeting winds of uncertainty the future always brings.

Now to temper these deep thoughts with anecdote! The title of the post is pertinent in another respect as well. I came to be where I am now, Bournemouth, via several other UK towns and cities, following the work or the prospect thereof. Well that was the general trend. In this instance I came to look after my nephew who is technically a cousin once-removed, but due to the age difference (35 versus 12), in a personal sense much more of a nephew.

What I like about Bournemouth is ironically the little bit that I actually likes about Luton: its diversity. I was living in Ringwood initially but now I live in the town proper and get to mix with a broad spectrum of nationalities. What I didn’t expect was to bump into Frazer! Rewind 15 years to a smokey pub in Harare, Zimbabwe (there were only three or so). There’s me, Frazer and some English guy who was about to return home (he may or may not have rekindled his relationship with his GF but he was going to give it a bash) sitting round a small table with pint glasses of lager in various stages of consumption strewn across it. Frazer was also of English origins but he’d been at high school (secondary) with me for as long as I could remember. Something about his dad moving over to run a security firm. I liked Frazer because he was gentle and unconventional. Most of the guys I went to school with seemed to feel the need to emulate American mannerisms and machismo and were just generally loud. I don’t remember particularly enjoying St Georges College because I felt like a misfit. Frazer was also something of a misfit so not surprisingly we came to hang in the same small group of geeks and quieter sorts. We used to assemble against an outer side-wall of the school chapel even when I was made a school prefect and could have sat in our exclusive common room with the rest of the feds.

So, as I was saying, Frazer and I were sitting in this bar in Harare a few years AFTER leaving school in ’98. I had finished phase I of university after returning prematurely (family issues) and was working at some audio-hire place in town. Naturally I had hooked up with Frazer when I found he was still there. What were we talking about? Buddhist philosophy and/or new age mumbo was part of it. I don’t lump the two together because I know very little about Buddhism but I think even back then Frazer was gravitating towards Eastern beliefs. I remember the English guy turning to me at some point late in the evening and telling me what he thought about Frazer’s notions on the ‘flower of life’ and that sort of thing. ‘He’s talking like a pot-head’ I remember him saying. The truth is that Frazer was a stoner. Later that evening or a subsequent evening I went back to his place where he had an enormous bag full of dried cannabis leaves. I think he told me that his gardener had grown them out back which was not unheard of. My very first joint (there haven’t been many to be honest) was smoked with Frazer. I got a serious case of ‘the greens’ on that occasion. I remember it well. Do not mix booze and nicotine and/or THC. Why have I never learnt that lesson properly? Not long after that Frazer literally dropped off the planet and I went back t uni. No-one knew what had become of the man and he remained mysteriously absent from all social media sites: Facebook, G+, Skype etc. None of our mutual friends from school were any the wiser either.

So fast forward to the present, or approximately 6 or 7 weeks back. The place: Boots Pharmacy, Bournemouth Town Centre. I was there to collect a prescription for a course of antibiotics prescribed my dentist for some pretty hectic toothache. You know what’s coming next. Yup, that’s right. I bumped into none other than that old dope-head Frazer. Except that he looked at me and just kept walking. There was no reunion then and there but it did prompt me to look him up in the local directory. When we did meet up properly I discovered that it was most definitely Frazer. He had given up the booze, cigarettes and dope but he was still the dreamy-eyed wanderer that I recalled from Zimbabwe. Now he practises yoga and follows a Buddhist lifestyle so far as possible. His life has mirrored mine to some degree. Loss of his mother in the early 2000’s as happened to me and some estrangement from his father (other woman/women, just like mine!). it was apparent that there had been some difficult times, some challenging times. Another development was that his health had also failed him a little. He had been diagnosed with MS which had affected his vision. I had to forgive him for not recognising me in Boots. He doesn’t have a paid job although he does voluntary work and I can only assume he gets some sort of government disability/ill-health benefit. Like me he’s not in a relationship but he seems to be very close to an older English lady, a divorcee he met whilst living in Malta. Like I said earlier, I felt like we’ve been here before…

Mmmmm, I could honestly keep on writing but I don’t want this to turn into a book. No, honestly, I do the memoir thing because I think I have a good memory for recollection. Who else has had a similar experience? Losing touch with someone only to discover them years later somewhere completely unexpected? Please share if you will.

Herewith a picture of Frazer in a very apt location:

Frazer, not quite at his house, but not far from it. In another sense this is the town where he grew up so yes indeed, The House of Fraser. It was interesting to learn that his name is spelt with an ‘s’ on his birth certificate and a ‘z’ in his passport!