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Near Death Experience Part 1 Oct 16th, 2007 3:41:37 am - Subscribe
Mood | jolly

Part 1 – Saddam Tried To Kill Us

C and I often joke that whenever we go on holiday we end up having a near death experience. This is not always the case. But it is mostly the case. So, I'm not sure why our parents are always so keen to come with us.....

We did get a bit spooked when we went to Eilat in Israel and almost ended up in the middle of a second Gulf War (this was, of course, long before the second Gulf War). Eilat is at the base of Israel, on the Red Sea. Eilat is surrounded by hostile states. From our hotel you could see Jordan – Eilat is next door to Aqaba in Jordan, which is where Lawrence of Arabia went through all that grief to get to. We used to joke that as long as the lights were on in Aqaba then we were OK. Saudi Arabia was also visible from the hotel and Egypt was just 10 minutes round the corner on the coast road. And, most importantly, Eilat was within scud missile range of Iraq, Saddam’s Iraq.

That would be enough to put most people off Eilat, especially at a time of such international tension. But not C and I. Indeed, the threat from weapons of mass destruction aside, I am not sure that Eilat is somewhere that I would recommend to anyone other than the most committed scuba-divers. Eilat is a bit like holidaying in Birmingham by the Sea, or, a Portsmouth with dolphins. It is quite a big city, at the edge of an even bigger desert, with nice beaches, a wonderful aquarium, and dolphins. But, it also has huge shopping malls (a bit disconcerting when you get searched as a possible suicide bomber on the way in), prostitutes, and quite a lot of industry too. It also has the rudest rip-off taxi drivers I have met anywhere. They are even worse than those of Paris (don't get me started) with the one notable exception - Eilat cabbies tote guns!

When you visit Israel you can kind of understand why they do not get on with their neighbours. Israel is surrounded by hostile states. Admittedly, those states are hostile because they lost the war and ended up with a very westernised, very Americanised, very militaristic Israel in the middle of their holy land, and, in their own cities and homes. To the victor the spoils of war. Also, Israel is only something like forty miles across at the widest point - and that is shrinking fast as the Dead Sea finally seems to be giving up the illusion of life. And, it seems that the Israeli's are not always the easiest of people to have as your neighbours. Israeli's differentiate between those that are born and bread in Israel and those that are immigrants. The home-grown variety are called "Shabra". In Israeli this means "Prickly Pear", being soft and delicious on the inside but spiky and aggressive to the outside world.

Anyhow, things were a little tense when we were in Eilat. Saddam was not playing ball. He was not allowing the UN weapons inspectors to search for those mythical WMDs (Weapons of Mass Destruction) that would cause Tony Blair so much trouble later on. The Security Council, egged on by the US and Britain, were spoiling for a fight. Israel expected to be a target and mobilised its forces. Admittedly, C noticed this mobilisation a little later than the Iraqis probably did. She is a bit short sighted. I had to point out to her that every Israeli man and woman of a certain age, walking about the streets of Eilat, was sporting a sub-machine gun. The navy was constantly patrolling the Red Sea. The naval base was just five minutes up the road from our hotel. Trips to Jordan were cancelled after a tourist bus had been fired on. We never did get to see Petra. We were searched going into the local mall. We watched Red Neck US satellite TV to stay in touch with the scarce news. We were getting worried. We got even more worried when we met another British couple at a bus stop and they told us that they had been advised to report to an Israeli police station upon arrival to be issued wit their gas masks. We had received no such warning. We had no gas masks. Thank you Foreign Office. Thanks for nothing.

Local TV was full of advice about sealing your home against a chemical attack. Great. There is only so much bottled water you can store in a mini-bar. And, mosquito nets are not the best defence against anthrax spores.

C and I even conjured up an escape plan. In the event of something kicking off we were going to steal bikes from the hotel reception and cycle the two miles round the coast road to Egypt and seek sanctuary there . This could have been fun; it had been a long time since C had been on a bike…….As it turned out we were evacuated instead. We were evacuated through Eilat’s military airbase, which was bristling with attack helicopters and other such military hardware. It was quite spooky. And, being interrogated by an 18 year-old female soldier about the contents of your luggage was pretty spooky too, especially when she went into graphic detail about how little explosive was needed to bring down a jumbo ( a credit-card sized amount will do it apparently). We didn’t mention that we had left our bags unguarded at reception for two hours as we took a last swim in the pool…….

As it turned out, Saddam did not unleash the mother of all battles at this time. The day was saved by Kofi Annan, then top honcho at the UN. He flew into Baghdad just as we flew out and he came to an arrangement about the weapons inspectors……It was pretty tense for a while though.

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There's A Bomb! Aug 21st, 2007 8:51:36 am - Subscribe
Mood | volatile

There’s A Bomb

I have never understood why my parents worry so much about overseas travel. They seem to have this view that the UK is safe and that the rest of the world is about to get blown up at any time. This perspective has, of course, hardened since the attacks on the Twin Towers and the emergence of Al Qaida. It has, however, never really been my view. I am fully aware that Britain is often just as violent and at risk of terror attacks as anywhere else. I survived the Handsworth race riots. I lived in London at the height of the IRA bombing campaign. I was at Charles de Gaulle airport in Paris when they carried out a controlled explosion on a bag. We were in Manchester in 1996 when the IRA blew up the Arndale Centre (for which we are eternally grateful – it was a dump! We now have a Selfridges and a Harvey Nichols as more than adequate compensation).

I am not sure why my mom and dad hold onto this xenophobic view of the world. Mom is from Warrington, which the IRA bombed to devastating effect in 1993; my dad was working late in Birmingham and was just yards away at the time of the pub bombings in 1974, and was outside Harrods during the bomb attack of 1983. Hmmn, come to think of it, I’ll have to keep a closer eye on my dad. I hope it is just a coincidence. He has never shown any tendency towards Irish republicanism…and I’m not sure that he is the mercenary type. But, it is always the quiet ones…….

Nevertheless, fear of Irish Republicanism and Al Qaida terrorism has led to a couple of notable experiences.

I should start by saying that I am not anti-Irish. I love the place. I love the people. One of the best holidays I ever had was cycling and camping around the southern counties aged 18. There were these two American girls.........The friendliest people you could hope to meet. And, my mother-in-law's maiden name (and we do not have a typical mother/son-in-law relationship - we like each other) is Hoolihan (the origin of the word "hooligan"), first generation immigrants from Ireland.

When the IRA bomb devastated the centre of Manchester in 1996, C and I were living in Alderley Edge. We lived next to “mad V” and Irish lady, who when not with her toy boys, lived alone, and who took regular holidays back to the “old country”. After the bomb, the police immediately sent out a plea for public support in the hunt for the bombers. They said that a typical profile would be a group of young Irish men who would have moved into a suburban area of the city a couple of days before the incident.

Well…….1996 was the time of the European Football Championship in England (we got knocked out by Germany on penalties in the semi-finals…so no change there). V, our neighbour, had gone on holiday but, unusually, left us a note explaining that she would be gone, and, that while she was away, some friends would be staying at her place. Some male Irish friends who were over to watch the football. However, even before the bomb, I had commented to C that these four blokes were the strangest football fans I had ever known because they were never out when the games were on at the Manchester grounds, and were never watching the football when they were next door. We would know. The walls were paper-thin. This was why we moved. In fact, it was because V played “I Want To Know What Love Is”, the Shirley Bassey version, non-stop, for a whole weekend. That is why we moved. I can still hear that bloody tune. Anyhow, C laughed at my suspicions. She pooh poohed my suspicions as obvious racism….until after the bomb.

Fortunately we had a friend who was in the Ant-Terrorist Squad at the time. He took my concerns seriously and a constable on the Manchester team that was investigating interviewed me. They were very interested and put a watch on V and her friends. Indeed, it never did lead to anything. They decided that V and her friends were not the ones they were looking for. But, they could have been, and I felt that I had done my duty by reporting it…….But, I am often (jokingly) derided by C (3rd generation Irish immigrant) and my friends for my anti-Irish racism….but not by my mate in the force!

Then there was the occasion of the on-board bomb on a plane between Manchester and Amsterdam. This was not long after the London bombings of 2005, when fear of Al Qaida was still high. It was another of those oh so typically frustrating journeys to Rotterdam. My plane had been delayed due to a technical fault. There was a lot of hanging around, but, eventually, we boarded. I was sat in the first row behind the business class section. As ever, I was first on board – I am well practised in the art of where to stand on the shuttle bus to be sure to alight before other passengers. As ever, having already checked out the on-board totty (the stewardesses), I paid attention to the talent that might be boarding in the guise of female passengers – I have to explain that this is typical male behaviour and does not mean that I am a pervert or anything – while looking for potential hijackers, bombers and the like. As you do. As I do.

I noticed one obviously African couple get on board. I say obviously African because both of them were in traditional tribal robes and headdress. T his was what had brought them to my attention. That and the fact that the guy was carrying the biggest, squarest, reddest holdall that you had ever seen. He placed it in the over-head lockers in the business class section and went to sit towards the back of the plane. This was not suspicious in itself, as often passengers would leave their luggage at the first possible spot they found in the overheads. No, my suspicions were raised by subsequent events.

The cabin crew carried out the passenger count. They did this three times. An announcement came asking if anyone on board was actually booked on the later flight to Amsterdam (which due to our delay, was scheduled to now leave just 10 minutes later). The announcement was repeated, twice. Eventually they must have cross-referenced the boarding ticket stubs and they identified that the extra passenger on board was, indeed, this African man that I had seen earlier. He was asked to leave. He left. He left without the big, red, square bag in business class……..(at this point, if this was a movie, there would be suitable mood music such as the da da music in Jaws…..)

I was suspicious. I discussed my suspicions with the guy next to me. He was suspicious. I discussed my suspicions with the cabin crew. The stewardess was suspicious. She sent for the captain. The captain was suspicious. The captain checked and a number of us had noticed the man place the bag there when boarding. The captain tried to lift the bag down but as he did the African lady came flying down the plane to explain in pigeon English that the bag was hers and that the man had merely been carrying it for her. Very suspicious.
We were all still suspicious, and a number of passengers around me told the captain that unless the bag was removed that they would leave the plane. The captain went to speak to the air traffic people and, it would seem a security protocol was put into place.

This security protocol seemed to hinge on making sure that if we had a bomb on board, the loss of life and damage to the terminal would be kept to a minimum by moving the plane to a safe area. With us on board. The doors were shut, the engines were started, and, we taxied to a far corner of the airport. Clearly, it was not our potential loss of life or damage to our plane with which the controllers were concerned. The bag was removed to the safety (not) of the galley area with the curtain closed. I hadn’t realised those curtains were bomb proof. I still suspect that they are not. The bag was searched by the captain, and declared to be safe………..

I can look back and smile at the incident now. It is a good dinner party story. Admittedly though, it is not as good a story as Smithy’s. Smithy is the boyfriend of my sister-in-law, Debs. He is a pilot. He once diverted a plane en route from India to Manchester to Germany because of a suspicious package on board. The package turned out to be an embarrassed passenger’s colostomy bag……

You all be careful out there and do it to them before they do it to us.

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Celebrity Spotting Part 2 Aug 13th, 2007 5:04:43 am - Subscribe
Mood | perky

Z List

Many B, C and Z list celebrities live in the Wilmslow area of Cheshire. It is the land of Coronation Street stars and Manchester United players. And, they all seem to shop at Sainsburys. Or at least they did before the arrival of Waitrose a couple of years ago. Ken Barlow (Bill Roache) used to live around the corner from us in Alderley Edge and was a regular in the corner shop. As indeed was Steve McDonald (Simon Gregson) – "allegedly" often pissed and buying alcohol. Jim McDonald/Charles Lawson (his screen dad), another alleged alki, Samia (sigh) Smith who plays Maria Sutherland, and Denise Welch (Natalie Barnes) are also Sainsburys regulars. Also, Brian McClair of Manchester United.

I once saw Christian Ronaldo in there (Sainsburys). It was before the world cup (2206) so he was still popular then. He was with his brother and his dad. He was clearly buying stuff for a family bbq. He was swamped by youngsters seeking autographs. He was very patient and took it all in his stride and I remember thinking “what a nice bloke”. But, I will never forgive him for getting Rooney sent off!

In fact Wayne Rooney has also moved into the area, and lowered the tone. Apparently he is now a regular in Brasingamens, the Braz, being a club in Alderley Edge (Bolliwood!), where, allegedly, he once punched his girlfriend, Coleen McLoughlin. It would seem that Wayne is often to be found partying with other Scousers, and that the potential WAG factor has begun to attract the ladies of Liverpool to this part of Cheshire on a Friday and Saturday night in search of a potential footballing hubby. Well, denim mini skirts, see-through tops, pierced navels, and white stilettos have not gone down too well with the ladies who lunch of Wilmslow and Alderley Edge. I know who I'd back in a fight though. And, be careful where you park your car at the weekend.....

I even saw Liam Gallagher (of Oasis) and his then wife Patsy Kensit in Sainsburys. That caused a stir. You don’t get many Man City fans in Wilmslow! Not with all those shops selling prawn sandwiches. I like Patsy Kensit. In fact I have loved Patsy Kensit ever since she starred in the Birds Eye Peas adverts, starting in 1972. Those big blue eyes. That blonde hair. Mother wouldn’t approve.

I gave up my chair once for Barbara Knox who plays Rita Fairclough/Sullivan. It was in the business lounge of Manchester Airport. The cast was assembling there en route for one of those holiday specials in Ibiza or Majorca or some such place. You know, “the Street goes on holiday and it all ends in disaster” special.

Airports in general are a very good place for hob-nobbing with stars…..I bumped into the Edge (U2), literally, in the lounge at Heathrow. I followed Annika Rice’s bottom (nice) up the stairs to a plane. I stood next to Alex Furgusson and Craig Brown (then Scotland Manager) on the tarmac at Heathrow as we tried to find our baggage after it had been turfed off a broken-down plane. I once sat next to Willy Thorne and his snooker cue on a plane to Amsterdam. He was a very nice guy, sociable, if a bit obsessive about his cue.

Most bizarrely, C and I once sat at a table next to Jason Orange of Take That in the Swan public house in Wybunbury, in darkest Cheshire. This was in the wilderness years between the demise and rebirth. He was just like any other normal bloke out for a drink and Sunday meal with the family.

C and I sat next to Jane Danson (Leanne Battersby of Corrie) when she was having a girls' night out, in Pizza Express in Wilmslow. In fact, we were once in there at the same time as Dwight Yorke, when he was still a Birmingham City player. I didn't pester him for an autograph though. We once queued next to Sinbad from Brookside in the big Ikea at Warrington. I sat next to Frank Finlay (star of Bouquet of Barbed Wire – TV incest in 1976) on the Northern Line tube. Twice. On separate occasions.

It is sporting stars that I have got closest to though (apart from Annika Rice's rear of the year). I once shared a ride in a friends Mini Cooper (one of the original ones) with Bob Willis, the former England fast bowler. He is huge. Very tall. It was quite a funny sight to see him folded up in the back of a mini. And he stood his round in the pub. And, I once spent the day with Eddie the Eagle at the height of his "fame". At the time I was running a truck racing team sponsored by the company that I work for, and Eddie was there for a celebrity race. He lost, of course. He grinned inanely all day long. He hit on my colleague, Liz. He lost out there too.

But, by far my most memorable brush with celebrity was with Golden Balls himself, David Beckham. Actually, more precisely, it was with Brooklyn Beckham, his first-born. I was minding my business hanging around the arrivals area of Manchester terminal 1, waiting for a car to come and pick me up, when a small sprog grabbed my hand. It was Brooklyn. He had grabbed my hand by mistake, thinking that I was his father. Well, it is hardly surprising, we could be twins! Identical. Well, at least we were dressed in a similar fashion. Becks had apparently been there, keeping a low profile, waiting for someone to come off a flight, and little Brookie had wandered off just like any other two year old. David was very good about it. This was in the days before the alleged kidnap attempts. He smiled and squeaked something to me which I didn't quite catch......

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Celebrity Spotting Part 1 Aug 9th, 2007 4:30:06 am - Subscribe
Mood | friendly


Trains

Business travel, and Sainsburys in Wilmslow have been a great source of rendezvous with minor celebrities.

Perhaps most enjoyable have been train journeys. You feel closer to the celebs in some sort of strange way. Journeys on Virgin trains between the North West and London and back have been most fruitful. On one occasion I sat opposite Sarah Lancashire, star of a “wealth” of Sunday night family viewing such as “Where the Heart Is” and, most notably “Coronation Street”. She once starred as Raquel Watts, ditsy barmaid who married (and divorced) Curly Watts.

She was/is a bit of a babe. Especially in the flesh, so to speak. The kind of homely, northern lass that your mom would approve of. And, as her recent spell in Chicago (the West End musical) has demonstrated, she still looks great in a corset and stockings. And she is only two years older than I am.

Sarah asked me the time. An innocent thing you might think. But, it was the way she asked. You know. The tone that she used which implied “do you want to come to the toilet and get to know each other intimately?”. I did want to. I didn’t. I couldn’t be quite sure that I was reading the signals correctly. Another opportunity lost.

My other notable “rain claim”, in a very different way, was Pete Waterman, of Stock, Aitkin, and Waterman fame. He who discovered Kylie. For which, I shall be eternally grateful. Pete sat opposite me on a journey from London to Crewe. He was on his way home to Stockton Heath. I was on my way home to Bradwall. At first I was dead cool and did not let on that I recognised him. I surreptitiously texted C and colleagues at work who I thought would be impressed. C sent a simple text back “Don’t sing!”. Good advice. I am tone death (and I mean death!) and toneless. J, whose uncle is the keyboard and song writer in Tears for Fears replied, “My uncle says he’s a tw*t!”. Not quite the reaction I was looking for.

When I subsequently told my best mates about the encounter, they were similarly suitably underwhelmed. None of them have quite the same affinity with Kylie Minogue as I have. I still remember her climbing through that window in Neighbours. Most comments ranged from “Tosser”, “W*nker” (they meant Pete, not me of course), or “big deal”. But, they don’t know Pete like I do. Most likely they were trying to deflect me from one of my usual waffling, rambling stories of great adventures starring the Middle Man. They know me too well. But, they’re very forgiving.

Actually, he, Pete that is, was a thoroughly nice guy. It was vodka that broke the ice, both literally and metaphorically. Pete exclaimed: “Vladivar. Not seen that for ages!” “From Warrington”, says I. Pronounced “Varrington”. I am old enough to remember the TV adverts. We have been best buddies ever since. I explained that my Uncle Tom used to drive the cart, and then a truck, making deliveries for Greenalls the brewery that produce Vladivar, and, Pete told me of the brewery’s demise. He is into real ale and was looking forward to getting home. His local village hall turns into a real ale pub for locals and members of CAMRA on a Thursday, Friday and Saturday night and he was keen to get there by 8pm for opening. I wish our village hall did the same.

We chatted quite freely for a good hour. He told me about his home in London - a disused warehouse (3500 square feet) in Borough which he bought for fifteen thousand pound in 1983 (presumably on the back of Kylie……now there’s a thought). He employed interior designers for thirty five thousand. They painted the walls white and the floors black. He has one bedroom, a dining room (Chinese red, "very warm and welcoming in winter") with a table and four chairs, a huge lounge with two fourteen foot long sofas, and a “f*ck off bathroom” (his words). The latter was his main stipulation. He has no shower, but, apparently a palatial bathroom. He explained, “I didn’t live anywhere with a bath until I was 17.”

I asked him for Kylie’s telephone number. He declined. When I explained I only wanted to wish her the best after her recent cancer he said he would pass on my regards. So close. So far.

We talked of Pop Idol and X Factor. Allegedly, Simon Cowell’s banter is scripted and the US version of the game is fixed. But, enough of that…..let’s talk about Kylie. Sigh……

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The Times They Are A-Changin Part 4 Aug 6th, 2007 6:04:58 am - Subscribe
Mood | overwhelmed

Good Manners

Manners, good and bad. Etiquette. Class. They have been much in the news recently. I am not entirely sure why this is newsworthy when there is a war on in Iraq and Afghanistan and a maniac gunman is massacring students in American universities. But, newsworthy it seems to be. This was probably prompted by the recent (but maybe back on again) demise of the relationship of Prince William and Kate Middleton, and, rumours of a gum-chewing mother (Kate’s not William’s of course!) offending the royal sensibilities (another oxymoron) at some do or another as the possible cause.

Can you imagine it? They may have split up because he was embarrassed by the potential in-laws. Sorry? This is Prince Charles’ son we are talking about. I mean, it is not as if his own family is full of perfect role models is it. Gin swillers. Racists. Affairs and infidelity. Rumours of Charlie taking advantage of his male staff members. I choose my words advisedly. If you know what I mean…..

Kate Middleton seemed to be a great catch by any bloke's assessment. And you would have thought she would be a parent-pleaser too. Bright, beautiful, composed, well-dressed, discreet. And I have never seen her with a Wriggley’s in her mouth.

Take away the title and the money and what has William got going for him? He is already going bald. He dresses like his dad. Oh, and he has a career in the Forces. Well, he has a career in the forces safe in the knowledge that he will progress through the ranks without ever facing a shot in anger. Unless the Queen or Prince Philip take a shot at him during a gin-enraged hunting tantrum.

William is a toy soldier. Unlike his Uncle Andrew who flew helicopters in the Falklands Crisis twenty years ago. And, unlike his brother Harry - the one who looks like James Hewitt - who is keen to put his life on the line fighting the Taliban in darkest Afghanistan. Is it just me or is the uncanny resemblance between Prince Henry, to give him his posh name, and the former lover of Princess Diana just a coincidence? Are those Beafeaters I can hear on the drive?

Anyhow, manners. It is all so confusing! I have always opened the door for people. Men and women. Young and old. I have never differentiated. I have endeavoured to be polite to them all. These days, however, it just seems to get you into trouble. It just makes my blood boil.

What is so difficult about it? If you are approaching a door or passing through a door at the same time as someone else – anyone else - you hold it open and let them pass through; they say “thank you”; and, you move on. Simple? Not!

Try holding a door open for a woman these days. More often than not they will mutter something about “male chauvinism” and you end up having one of those “After you. No, after you” conversations that are just so embarrassing. Or, if they are anywhere near good looking, they will assume that you are letting them past just so you can have a sniff of their perfume as they pass and watch their wiggle as you follow them down the corridor. Wherever did they get that idea? Well……..

And, don’t get me started on old people! Pensioners. Our elders. There is a myth that old people have good manners and young people do not. How does that work? Surely the ignorant and rude young people of today grow up to be rude and ignorant old people tomorrow. The number of times I have held shop doors open for a couple of elderly ladies and they have just wafted by all blue rinse and germolene without so much as a “thank you”. As if I was a doorman or something. This makes me very angry. I normally wait until they have passed and then say “Pardon” very loudly, just in case they are hard of hearing. Typically they respond by saying, “I didn’t say anything”, to which I retort, “Oh, I thought you might have said thank you”. I trust they are duly embarrassed and shame-faced. More than that, I hope they say "thank you" the next time that someone does something nice to them.

One day you will probably find me lying in a pool of my own blood, clubbed by an angry octogenarian’s walking stick. Or clutching my balls, having been kneed in the groin by an irate perfumed feminist in a short, tight skirt……

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