Still Here

It's good to be back. But Christ, this place looks different.
8.8.11 16:52


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FAREWELL 20six

This will be my final entry at this blog.

I'm sad to be leaving after almost three years of blogging here. Like many early adopters, I felt a keen sense of involvement in 20six, having watched it blossom from a fledgling start up in the summer of 2003. I got involved in its growth, meeting with Azeem and Jo early on in that summer to research a story I'd been commissioned to write on blogging.

After that meeting, I was so impressed by the sense of community that was growing up within 20six that I changed the angle of the story, concentrating on what Azeem and Jo were doing, and how 20six was changing the face of blogging in the UK. My editor liked the tone, it went out on the newswire and was picked up and run by a range of magazines and newspapers both here and overseas.

Like many of the 'Old Skool' on here, I'd hoped that the changeover to a new platform wouldn't be as bad as we'd anticipated. And I'm not one to criticise without seeing for things for myself, so I resolved to stick with it and try to embrace the change. Easier said than done.

A month on, 20six today is a pathetic shadow of what it was. And the new platform that was supposed to herald so much has instead made blogging here impossible. It's not only massively inferior to the platform it's replaced, it's resolutely unsuitable for what it is designed to do. It doesn't facilitate, it obstructs. It's buggy, unnecessarily rigid and elements that should be straightforward are too complex for their own good. A blogging platform that requires you to log in every time you visit and which logs you out at will, sometimes within minutes, is worse than useless. I'm not prepared to watch helplessly again as several hours of writing disappear into the ether when I hit the 'Save as Draft' button and see the words "Your session has timed out. Please log-in" instead of the expected blog entry.



Presentation matters to me. It's not just about content; I want my blog to look how I want it to, and compared to other platforms out there, 20six lite just doesn't cut it. So I'm boarding this place up and bugging out.

I appreciate that this will make no difference whatsoever to those who own and run 20six. The deal with 02 and others that was so instrumental in forcing the change is what matters, not the views and frustrations of those of us who at the end of the day have had the benefit of free software. There's a new order here, and those of us who don't like the way it's headed can go elsewhere.

So that's what I'm doing. I'm just getting to grips with WordPress and the finer points of self-hosting and I have to say, although it's early days yet, it's a revelation and I'm wondering why I didn't make the jump sooner. It's clean, flexible, straightforward and as a platform, eminently stable. And by self hosting, I'll never again be forced to watch as something I've created is changed beyond recognition and rendered useless.

My new home is at www.someoneelseslife.com and I'll be redirecting my www.black-rat.net domain to point there in due course. To my readers who have supoprted me over the past three years, and those who have contributed so much by way of comments and discussion, thank you. Please update your bookmarks and links to point to the new URL, and I hope to see you over there. The new blog is something of a work in progress at the moment and as with any new home, I'll be decorating and changing things once I'm settled. The important thing is that it works, it's approximating a design that I like and I can blog again.

Farewell all, I hope to see you there. And in the words of one Vinny Jones, can I just say..."It's been emotional!"

Cheers.
28.2.05 17:13


LAZY DAYS AND ARABIAN NIGHTS

One of the nicest things about freelancing is the ability to cherry-pick your assignments. By nature, I'm an optimist, but alongside my optimism, passion runs like a thread through me, colouring everything I do. Consequently, I find it difficult to write convincingly about something I don't believe in so over the years my commissions have come to reflect my interests. Key in making those commissions happen are the PRs with whom I've fostered relationships, placing stories in the media and securing coverage for the clients they represent. Bear with me, and I'll explain how it's all relevant.

Last November, I travelled to India on a press trip. I forged some great relationships with other journalists on that trip, but the best element for me was the relationship I've built since with the Covent Garden-based PR agency that looks after publicity for the UK arm of one of the companies I wrote about. Sophie, one of their PRs contacted me earlier this year to arrange a reunion dinner for those of us that had been to India, and I've since fostered a relationship with her, and through her introduction, several of her colleagues who look after myriad other clients. It's not terribly stressful, and ultimately, very enjoyable - we meet for lunches or coffees, talk about projects, and if there's an overlap with one of their clients and a publication or newsagency that I write for, I place the story for them. And we're all happy.

So, a couple of months previously, I'd had a meeting with Caroline, one of Sophie's colleagues who looks after Etihad Airways, the State airline of the United Arab Emirates. Two weeks ago, she phoned me and mentioned that she was putting together a press trip to Abu Dhabi with another of her colleagues, ChloŽ, and would I like to come? Tough calll....er...let me think about that for a second. I made a couple of calls to editors and having placed the story, the invitation arrived in my email inbox. The allure of sun, sea and sand, coupled with business class travel and luxury all the way rather appealed, so I have to say I was rather looking forward to the trip and I duly blocked out the 8th through to the 12th June in my diary.

Things were fairly quiet on the work front, so I wasn't expecting any conflicts to spring up date-wise. Whihc was why I was caught so off guard when Sophie rang me about ten days before the trip. She didn't know I'd committed to the Abu Dhabi trip (Caroline and Sohpie work on different floors looking after different clients, so no reason why she would) and a couple of days previously, I'd written a story about another of her clients, the McLaren Mercedes Formula One team. The upshot was that I'd been invited to join the team at the Silverstone F1 round as a VIP guest. Alluring enough in and of itself, obviously but Sophie hadn't even scratched the surface in telling me. No, as she peeled the layers from this particular onion, tears formed in my eyes...overnight at a five star hotel in Marlow on Thames, followed by a helicopter transfer to the circuit on race day where we'd kick back in the paddock and on the grid, drinking copious quantities of Champagne before joining Juan and Kimi after the race.

I was practically drooling at this point (it's so not a good look, but that's one of the benefits of working from home) and clearly didn't hear her properly when she confirmed the date of the event as Sunday 11th...it seemed so far off. So for just a moment, I achieved the kind of ethereal bliss that perhaps David Beckham feels when he looks in the shaving mirror each morning. Everything was at peace in the world and I'd achieved a state of serenity that Zen Buddhists would sin to attain. I was truly happy for a moment - you know, the kind of sheer delight you might experience watching all six of your numbers come up on the lottery before realising you were watching a Sky + recording of last week's draw. And then the realisation hit me with all the piercing certainty of an ice pick, and I came crashing back down to earth. When I came round though I realised I still had a decision to make. It was never going to be easy - for me, as dilemmas go, this one was on a par with being in flagrante delicto with Andrea Corr, and getting a call on my mobile from Angelina Jolie pleading with me to assume the pivotal role in a menage a trois with my pick of Girls Aloud. Yeah, a tough call.

Silverstone

Silverstone: What I wasn't doing last weekend (c) McLaren

Still, there was no danger of La Jolie calling me anytime soon, and there was really only one decision I could make. I'd already committed to Abu Dhabi and whilst that one was work (honest - I'd have to write about it and sell pictures which both earn me money!) Silverstone would be no more than a very desirable jolly. And besides, the climate in Abu Dhabi - guaranteed sun, an average temperature in excess of 45 deg C - and the itinery rather appealed to me; but then, I guess being asked to stay at a five star hotel, followed by a seven star hotel, and to undertake activities including dune busting and dinner in the middle of the desert under a starry sky would appeal to anybody wouldn't they? And besides, there's no such thing as a bad press trip - they're all just varying degrees of brilliant to very good. So, having been and now returned, I'm pleased to report that as press trips go...this one was off the scale.

Etihad 777

Etihad: A 777-300ER of the U.A.E's National Carrier (and you thought it was Emirates?!) (c) Etihad

The trip itself was to promote Eithad's new daily Manchester - Abu Dhabi service and ChloŽ was travelling up from London to escort several journalists from the local press out. I was the only journalist travelling out from Gatwick, but I wouldn't be travelling alone - I'd arranged to meet Jonathan, a PR from the London office of the Abu Dhabi Tourist Authority and one of Etihad's partners on the trip, at the Gatwick Express platform at Victoria station. As the Gatwick and Manchester flights leave within an hour of one another, the plan was for the two groups to meet at our hotel in Abu Dhabi.

If you're not already familiar with Etihad as an airline, the chances are that you soon will be. Etihad Airways is the national carrier of the United Arab Emirates and came into being in July 2003 by decree of the UAE government. It's capitalised at AED 500 million and each of the half a billion shares are wholly owned by the Abu Dhabi government, so it's unlikely to face any of the vicissitudes familiar to some of the U.S carriers, or other start ups in the airline business. Indeed, it's one of the fastest growing airlines in aviation history and made history as a new carrier by placing an order worth US$8 billion for new aircraft within 2 years of its launch. And whilst the Manchester-based hacks would be focusing on the launch of the new route, I was more interested in one of the unique elements of the Gatwick service - the brand new Boeing 777-300ER aircraft which Etihad has recently taken delivery of and which have been built to the airline's specific and exacting specification.

Pearl Zone

Pearl Zone: One of the self-contained seats in Pearl Zone, Etihad's new business class product. 15" LCD screen, wi-fi, massage facility and a 6'1" flat bed all conspire to make your journey a little easier. The mood enhancing lighting is the icing on the cake. (c) Etihad.

The five new 777s have replaced the leased A340s and A320s that were previously flying the Gatwick - Abu Dhabi routing, and with Etihad's fit, represent the state of the art in passenger travel. The two aisle aircraft is configured to fly 378 'guests', as Etihad refers to its passengers, with the airline's Pearl Zone product (pitched at the lucrative business class market) catering for just 28. Pearl Zone features individual cabins for each guest, which fold into 88" fully flat beds. Washbags by Aigner of Paris provide a range of products designed to refresh and revitalise and the individual cabins are arranged four abreast in a 1-2-1 configuration meaning that, unlike with BA's Club World where you have to step over your slumbering neighbour's feet for a midnight bathroom visit, every passenger has direct access to the aisle. Each seat is self-contained and includes a 15" LCD video screen with LED reading light, wall light and magazine rack, a variable massage facility, laptop power supply with two USB ports and an RCA jack to enable you to plug your iPod into the aircraft's sound system. There's also an RJ45 ethernet jack, although this is only necessary if your laptop isn't wireless capable - because Eithad's 777s are fitted out with wi-fi connectivity, allowing access to the internet.

Jonathan and I arrived at Gatwick in plenty of time for our 11:00 flight and relaxed in the airline's executive lounge before wandering to the aircraft. It's always a pleasure to turn left on boarding, which is exactly what we did, taking our seats in a Pearl Zone cabin that was less than half full. Nice, as it would mean a far higher ratio of cabin crew to guests, and a half empty cabin is always more serene than a full one. Take off was interesting, viewed on my LCD screen through a choice of user-defined video feeds from cameras situated at the front of the aircraft to offer a pilots' eye view, or beneath.

BA 747-400

Tracking: The BA 747-400 which flew alongside us for 30 minutes or so, before we were vectored to climb above it (c) Black Rat

About three hours into the six and a half hour flight, I noticed another aircraft flying parallel to us, and on the same flight level. It was close enough that I could identify both the aircraft and it's airline (A BA 747-400) and we flew alongside one another for at least half an hour before we were vectored to climb. At that point our flight paths converged and I watched the BA aircraft flying directly beneath us for a while before tiring of that particular diversion. Dinner was served shortly thereafter, and I was impressed by the imaginative menu which offered a range of dishes prepared by award-winning chefs. One particularly nice touch was the range of wines and Champagnes available, all of which were served from full-sized bottles by immaculately turned out stewardesses.

After dinner, I fired up my laptop, and although I was expecting it, I have to confess to still feeling somewhat surprised by the green light that told me I was connected to a wi-fi network. Actually using it was a straightforward excercise in firing up my browser and setting up a login and password with Conenxions by Boeing. I'd expected the cost to be as astronomical as the eye-wateringly expensive in-seat satellite phones, but was pleasantly surprised to discover that $14.95 would buy me two hours of surfing. As soon as I'd entered my credit card details, that was it - I was online. I blogged, I did some internet banking, I sent and checked my emails. I downloaded a couple of mp3s and, on seeing the download speeds, I fired up Skype. It was all well and good using it to chat with friends down on the ground, but I was feeling bold, so I made a couple of phone calls with it to friends back home. And it worked! No appreciable lag, and here I was sitting in an airlner at 40,000ft, travelling at a groundspeed of 550mph somewhere over Turkey, phoning mobiles back in the UK for a paltry 1p a minute! This is what technology is all about; not obfuscating, or complicating time management but facilitating, simplifying...enabling you to take control. Sure, you can argue that there falls the last great escape from the office- that airborne connectivity means you're now destined to be always on call, always available, but you still have the choice - and as it stands, your mobile will still render you unavailable. Personally, I think airborne wi-fi rocks.

Being online also gave me access to 5 TV channels with live broadcast programs that I could watch whilst flying but since the highlight there was the execrable and anodyne BBC World, I didn't bother. And having used my two hours of surfing, I didn't really have much time to play with the 200+ hours of audio-visual on demand accessible via my in-seat remote that comprised over 200 hours of entertainment. With 30 feature films and over 120 CDs worth of audio, there was more than enough choice, but simply not enough time - and that's the real test of long haul travel. When you can get off at the other end and not notice you've been sat in an aluminium tube breathing pressurised air that's equivalent to that on the summit of an 8,000ft mountain...that's the real litmus test. Etihad utilises what it calls 'mood lighting' systems on its aircraft too, with mood lighting scenarios that are designed to create just the right ambience to suit the time and duration of your journey. Proven to reduce stress levels associated with long-haul travel, I certainly felt wide awake as we made our night time approach into Abu Dhabi, which I watched via the pilot's eye video routed to my screen.

And I hate to be juvenile about it, but Jonathan and I were the first off the aircaft and the first through immigration. We were first to the baggage carrousel, and somewhat implausibly, our bags were first off, too! We were met by our tour operator who led us outside to a waiting car and it was here that the ambient night time temperature of 35 C degrees hit us. An ever-present breeze drifted in from the coast bringing with it more hot air than you'll find coming out of President Blair's mouth during Prime Minister's Question Time. No sweat here; the arid, dry air felt pleasant, especially after the chilly air of the climate controlled terminal building, but the low humidity meant my anti-perspirant wasn't working overtime!

The Group

Desert Team: From Left to Right, Meg, Chloe (PR), Rob, David, Susan, Jonathan (PR), John. (c) Black Rat

Just twenty minutes after we'd left the aircraft, Jonathan and I were being whisked across the city to our hotel for the first two nights, the five-star Beach Rotana Hotel and Towers. It was around 22:00 local time by the time we checked in, but instead of heading up to our rooms we did the only sensible thing and made straight for the bar where ChloŽ and the others were waiting for us. Despite none of us having met before, we immediately identified one another and introductions made, got to know one another in the tried and tested method much loved by journalists and PRs everywhere - over drinks. Rob, David and Susan were all northerners, and predictably, we set our stall out from the off, with Jonathan and I exhausting our deep well of 'northern monkey' stereotypes in seconds. Rob countered with some well-honed 'soft southern bastids' and by our second round of drinks, we were well split along good-humoured sectarian lines. We laughed like old mates, the banter and well-meant insults coming thick and fast and by the time we headed up to our rooms for the first time some three hours later, we'd bonded, shared some of our pasts...and we were all significantly less than sober!

I didin't bother unpacking - there seemed little point given the itnery we had ahead of us that would see us leaving the hotel for another within 24 hours, and besides, long haul travel, alcohol and lack of sleep combine to make bed the most attractive aspect of the room. A quick shower and I was out for the count.

Poolside at the Rotana

Life Guard: The view from my sun lounger for the six hours I spent on my first morning in Abu Dhabi. (c) Black Rat.

We breakfasted together the following morning at 09:00, an easy familiarity between us. ChloŽ and Jonathan's stock as PRs soared when we found out that we had until 16:30 'at leisure' so having eaten, there was really nothing else for it - sun and sand beckoned! By 10:00, I was slathered in SPF15 and laid back on a sun lounger alongside the infinity pool by the hotel's private beach. Healthy it isn't, but for me, there are few pleasures equitable to laying poolside, feeling the warmth of the sun's rays upon my skin. I fired up my iPod Video with a suitably summery playlist and lay back to lose myself in the moment. But for the 46 degree temperature (that's 115 degrees F, fact fans and Americans!) and cloudless blue skies, I could have been anywhere but Arabia, going by my fellow sunbathers. Fellow Brits - largely drawn from the huge expat community - dominated, but there were a number of bikini-clad Arab girls from more progressive nations such as Lebanon and Jordan. They were easily identifiable by their dark beauty and complexions...and by the bottles of beer they were drinking openly. I cooled off by drinking lots of water and occasionaly standing in the water, my iPod and book resting in front of me as I leant against the poolside. This surely was bliss!

Mates

Sated: Me, Jonathan and Chloe at the poolside bar after lunch - two people who really made a difference. Jonathan, Chloe and I clicked straight away and their characters, as well as organisational skills contributed massively to making the trip so memorable for all the right reasons. And no, my trademark Oakleys haven't gone into retirement, they're just taking a well-deserved holiday (c) Black Rat.

After a while, I was joined by Jonathan and we taxed ourselves with the vexing issue of whether to swim first and then eat or vice versa. It was tough, but we settled on a swim before taking our seats at the poolside bar to order lunch where we joined by ChloŽ. And so we sat and chatted, enjoying an afternoon unconstrained by time, relaxing under a mid day sun high in the cloudless sky. We swapped stories of past assignments, shared contacts and mutual friends and acquaintances. We learned of the Abu Dhabi Mall Walker's Club, which allows those keen on exercising but tired of the heat, to walk the climate controlled mall from 07:00 until its daily opening time of 10:00 - sensible, I guess, but we all found the idea somewhat amusing. Later, Jonathan went off on a shopping expedition whilst ChloŽ and I lay poolside to enjoy the warmth of the sun for a while longer.

Rob of the Desert

Robert of Arabia: Yes, he was dressed like this, and no, it wasn't for a bet. Robert, another one of the reasons I have such fond memories of this trip. (c) Black Rat

I returned to my room at 15:40 for a quick shower before, what promised to be one of the highlight's of our itinery - a desert safari, followed by dinner at a Bedouin camp under the stars. We mustered in the hotel lobby at 16:30 where we were joined by Dave's brother-in-law John, and his neice, Meg who were to join us for the evening (they had driven up from their home in Dubai) and after introductions, we wandered outside where two GMC Yukon Denali SUVs were waiting for us. With Jonathan, David and Rob, I made for the rearmost SUV where we met our driver, Kassim a native of the UAE. And introductions over, we set off for the hour or so's drive into the desert. Somewhere along the main drag out of Abu Dhabi, the tarmac gradually loses its war of attrition with the desert that exists on either side and as the buildings thin out to nothingness from the sprawl of the city, the sand reclaims the road and you realise you're in a world without landmarks. Kas turned off from the tarmac and before us, rising majestically for as far as the eye could see, were sand dunes, utterly devoid of vegetation and beautiful in their simplicity.

Desert

Ripples: Looking out across the sands on our first desert stop where Kas let air out of our SUVs tyres. (c) Black Rat

We got a rude awakening to the shape of our immediate future when Kas attacked a series of ever higher dunes without warning. Pointing the SUV towards the horizon, he gunned the engine and headed up what appeared to be an almost vertical incline, turning hard before we crested its summit only for us to slide sideways as gravity attempted to pull us back to sea level at an alarming angle. Just as we were certain the SUV would turn over and roll, Kas grinned and we surged forwards again, only to be confronted by another dune; so began our baptism into the world of dune busting!

Out of the Desert

Out of Arabia: Robert, having spent three days crossing the desert on foot with just a 500ml bottle of water emerges to civilisation. Oh, alright then, he just stepped out of the car to stretch his legs. (c) Black Rat.

We stopped, briefly, outside a camel farm which appeared from nowhere and was surrounded by nothigness. Reunited with the girls in the other SUV, we stepped out onto the sands as the drivers let air out of the SUVs' tyres (17psi offers the best grip on sand dunes). I'm a tactile person and I loved the sensuality of the sand on my feet, having kicked off my flip flops to really enjoy the feeling. The sand was as fine as I've seen anywhere, having a consistency not dissimilar to water. With shoes or sandals on, you stand on its surface, but bearfoot, the sands part to swallow your feet up to the ankle. We wandered across featureless landscape towards a sun high on the horizon, feigning being lost, without water, without a clue - but for our drivers, it really wasn't that much of a reach!

Desert Busting

Dune Busting: Kas hits the downslope of one of the dunes (c) Black Rat.

A short time later, we remounted and then the fun really started. Kas was off the leash and saw each successive dune as a challenge greater than the one immediately before it, attacking them with ust the right amount of power. There's a real art to getting it right, with the dividing line between success and failure a thin one indeed. Approach a dune with insufficient power and you slither back down. But attack it too fast and you're likely to clear the summit, leaving the dune entirely before crashing back to earth. A little more than insufficent power sees you stuck firm at the dune's crest, but a tiny bit more than not enough sees you just where you need to be - facing the valley on the opposite side of the crest face down at an alarming angle.

Here, Kas would milk the situation for all its worth, holding us firm on the brakes much as the Oblivion roller coaster at Alton Towers holds you facing the hole in the ground before throwing you into it. He kept up a relentless laughing monologue throughout, a soliloquoy of his feigned incompetence and disaster-prone driving. To squeals of an almost feminine pitch (think utter exhilaration tinged with fear and laced through with stellar quantities of dopamine, seratonin and adrenaline and you'll be some of the way threre) from his testosterone-loaded passengers, he regaled us with anecdotes of how "This is only my second day on the job, but don't worry, I've only ever rolled the car twice before." This immediately before letting the brakes off and attacking the valley before rising up the opposite dune at an imporbable speed and even more perilous angle.

Footsteps

Footsteps: Looking out across an ocean of wave-like dunes as the sun sets (c) Black Rat.

We continued like this for over two hours, our stomachs and sense of balance left somwhere at the roadside back in Abu Dhabi. We were in what's known as 'The Empty Quarter' and given the sparse nature of much of the Emirates, you just know that it's going to be the very definition of empty indeed. And it is. We watched in awe as the wind changed the shape of the dunes before our eyes, the shifting sands carried away from the crest backlit by the sun. We sat amazed as Kas navigated us with ease across the trackless wastes devoid of landmarks and pointers, cresting dunes which were not there the week before, and would not be there a day, a week, a month later.

Desert Sunset

Desert Sun Set: The sun paints the sky with vivid hues as it drops below the horizon somewhere in The Empy Quarter (c) Black Rat.

I've been to the Arctic circle on snowmobile safari before, and I've travelled the globe experiencing much of what it has to offer. One of the boxes left unticked though was desert - proper, endless, nothingness. This was everything I'd longed for and then some - magnificent, rolling dunes like the waves of the ocean, as far as the horizon in every direction. The H20 as a metaphor for the sands was reinforced on some particularly aggressive dives down the dunes as it washed over the windscreen of our SUV, obscuring our vision temporarily before running away to nothing like water on glass.

Ripples

Ripples: The wind creates an infinite number of patterns in the sand, each as unique as a person's fingerprint. (c) Black Rat

All good things come to an end though, and after cresting one of the highest dunes to watch the sun set and the moon rise desert-style, we set off across seemingly un-navigable terrain (more dunes!) to a Bedouin camp situated in the middle of more nothingness. To fading light, we partook of camel rides, before being welcomed with Arabic coffee ( a delicious perfume of coffee beans, cardomom and saffron).

Camel

Midnight at the Oasis: Sing your camel to bed (that's enough bad puns drawn from lyrics - Ed) (c) Black Rat.

Then we enjoyed a fantastic barbecue feast of lamb, beef and chicken roasted in Arabic spices, served with rice, cooked for us by our guides and eaten whilst sat cross-legged on cushions around low tables. That done, we retired to an open air majlis where hookah pipes were available for anyone desrious of an after dinner smoke. We sat back on the cushions under the stars of the desert firmament and let the mood carry us away.

Dune Sunset

When Dune Busting Goes Wrong: The girls' vehicle gets bogged down on the crest of a dune. Our SUV arrives in support to pull it free in a well-rehearsed operation that took no more than a couple of minutes (c) Black Rat.

We were predictably late to bed that night, arriving back at the hotel at almost 23:00. The bar beckoned, but as most of us had walked barefoot through the desert, we appeared to have brought much of the sand back with us, necessitating a quick shower before we could relax. Given enough tourists heading out into the empty nothingness, and given enough time, there's a chance the desert could be trying to escape by osmosis given the amount of sand left in the shower tray when I'd finished.

Moon Rising

Bad Moon Rising: Rob shoots the moon as the sun sets behind him. (c) Black Rat.

We checked out of the Rotana early the following morning and were picked up by a coach which took us on a guided tour of Abu Dhabi, visiting the port side where many of the markets were based. First to the date market.

Date Me

Date with Destiny: Traders at Abu Dhabi's date market. Alongside pearl diving, dates were one of Abu Dhabi's greatest exports until the discovery of oil. (c) Black Rat.

Then to the Fruit and vegetable market...

Fruit

Fruit and Veg: A trader at the main fruit and vegetable market in Abu Dhabi (c) Black Rat.

And finally to the fish market alongside the harbour.

Fish

Something Fishy: A trader holds aloft the catch of the day. You don't need smell-o-vision to imagine the pungent aroma in a fish market where the outside temperature is in excess of 115 degrees F. (c) Black Rat.

From there we headed over to the cultural centre where we learned something of the heritage of Abu Dhabi, the capital and wealthiest of all the states in the Emirates (as well as holding over 94% of the UAE's total oil and gas reserves, it also occupies 87% of the UAE's total area). Until as recently as the 1960s, Abu Dhabi was no more than a humble pearling and fishing village, populated by just two thousand or so people living in dwelings constructed from palm fronds, or mud for the wealthier families. Everything changed when Abu Dhabi became the first of the Emirates to begin exporting oil and when Sheikh Zeayed bin Sultan Al Nahayan took over from his brother as ruler, the transformation began. Sheikh Zeayed is regarded as the Father of the UAE and almost everything that it is today exists due to his benevolent hand. Forbes magazine described him as one of the wealthiest men in the world, estimating his fortune at around US$20 billion. The source of this wealth was almost exclusively attributed to the immense oil assets belonging to Abu Dhabi and the Emirates, which sit on a pool of a tenth of the world's oil reserves.

Majlis Man

Chai Man: Serving traditional Arab coffee at the heritage and cultural centre, Abu Dhabi (c) Black Rat.

Using the country's enormous oil revenues, Sheikh Zayed built up institutions such as hospitals, schools and universities and made it possible for UAE citizens to enjoy free access to them. He also decreed that the State would undertake the cost of foreign health care for those families unable to afford it. Land was also often distributed gratis. However, whilst this policy benefited many landless families, enormously wealthy clans and individuals were given free land grants in proportion to their status and influence with the royal family.

Broken

When Dune Busting Goes Wrong, Pt. Deux: The girls' SUV falls foul of yet another crest as Kas comes to the rescue. (c) Black Rat.

His tolerance towards other people and their faiths was evident, and he allowed the building of religious buildings such as churches and temples. This is perhaps one of his most important attributes, which endeared him to the vast multitudes of expatriate workers who make up approximately three quarters of the population of the UAE. He was a progressive and saw the UAE of which he was architect as a secular nation, where people were free to follow their own religion free of state interference. Zayed was also an advocate of women's rights and the education and participation of women in the work force, within traditional parameters. His views regarding this issue were considerably more liberal than his contemporaries in the GCC (Gulf Co-operation Council)nations.

Boys

The Boys' Team: Rob, Kas, Jonathan and David shortly before the drive back to Abu Dhabi from the heart of the desert. (c) Black Rat.

The next highlight on our itinery came after lunch at a local restaurant on the beautiful Corniche, when we transferred to the seven star jewell in the UAE's crown, the Emirates Palace Hotel. Superlatives are utilised so often in English that they've devalued the currency, so I'll have to let the facts for this astonishing place speak for themselves. The hotel was built and is owned by the Abu Dhabi government (essentially comprised of Sheikh Zaeyed's nineteen sons). It cost US$3 billion to build and took 20,000 men working 24 hours a day over three years to contstuct. Situated on its own sandy beach and set in 274 acres of beautifully landscaped gardens this property comprises three buildings, the Palace, the East Wing and the West Wing, each with its own facilities. It runs over 1.3km from East to West Wing and was built as the de facto residence for the Emirates' Sheikhs to use when hosting heads of state from other nations. It has sufficent presidential suites to simoultaneously accommodate the rulers of each of the member countries in the GCC in the ultimate luxury to which they have become accostomed.

Emirates Palace

Emirates Palace Hotel: The full majesty of the hotel is visible in this shot taken from across the Corniche. East to West wing is 1.3km, the Palace is in the centre. (c) Emirates Palace

It's difficult to describe the sheer scale and opulence of the palace as you approach it. Rolls Royces and Bentleys literally litter the private road that forms the hotel's entrance and once through its towering doors, you are met by a team of immaculately turned out 'ambassadors' - in reality, multi national girls who speak at least three, and more usually five languages, dressed in the most exquisite hand-emroidered gowns. These ankle length affairs are slit to the thigh on three sides and worn over a more sober skirt suit, but the sum of the parts is greater than the whole and defines the maxim 'less is more'. Each of us was met by our own ambassador, and with Lamia, a delightfully charming and pretty Tunisian girl, I was escorted to my room via the centre of the palace with its 60 metre high dome (there are 113 others around the hotel)

Room 3106

Opulence: The 50" plasma screen in my room. The unit to the screen's right contains the compimentary mini bar (Now that's a first!) and a Denon DVD player (c) Black Rat

Check in takes place in your room and is handled by the ambassador, who shows you around and explains the facilities to you. And once she'd done that, Lamia bowed out. She was replaced by Pinky, an Asian girl who introduced herself to me as my own personal butler, assigned to me for the duration of my stay. And no sooner had she taken her leave, than she was replaced by the bell boy bearing my luggage. It's all well and good having one's own staff, but privacy takes a back seat and it's as well the rooms are so palatial - it could get a little crowded with three staff for each guest. There are over 2000 staff at the hotel looking after the 300 or so guests, so you can work out the service yourself.

Room 3106 - II

Extravagent: Another view of my room showing the silk embroidered bed spread. No veneers here - the fittings are solid wood and it's that sort of attention to detail that sets the Emirates Palace apart. (c) Black Rat.

The rooms echo the rest of the hotel; accessed by larger than life doors, they're the last word in opulence and extravagence. Tranquil colour combinations of gold and creme in silk upholstery dictate the style and everything else follows; quite simply, if it's the best of its class, you'll find it in your room. Welcome cocktails and a complimentary half bottle of Champagne await. Soft drinks and snacks from the minibar are gratis. There's a Denon DVD player and 50" plasma TV screen in every room (or 60" in the suites - there are over 750 plasma screens in total throughout the hotel), with complimentary wi-fi and high speed internet connectivity and a remote touch screen control panel the size of a tablet PC that allows you to control every aspect of the room at the touch of a button - TV, lighting, entertainment, climate etc. The wi-fi connectivity covers the whole area of the Emirates Palace both inside and outside as far as the private 1.3km beach and two swimming pools. In fact, at a private dinner with the hotel's marketing director on our final night, I learned that the hotel's technology budget alone was sufficient to cover the build of a conventional 300-room 5 star hotel.

But then, in a parallel universe such as Abu Dhabi represents, a world where native-born Emiratis are so wealthy that money itself ceases to have value, what price luxury? Emiratis don't judge according to cost, but by attention to detail, and in this, the Emirates Palace doesn't just go one better - it rewrites the rules. Bear in mind that to be born a native Emirati means to live with the sort of wealth that is beyond the imagnation of the average westerner. To exist in a land where no tax is levied - of any kind; no income tax, road tax, national insurance, or VAT. Where services, hospitals, police, defence, education and the like are provided out of the gift of the ruling Sheikh. Where you receive an annual income and bonuses for marrying, bearing children etc from the government, yet you're guaranteed a well-paying job by the statute that obligates local businesses to employ locally born citizens. Wealth begets wealth, so when you drive your Ferrari to the Chocolatier, you leave the engine on and the air conditioning running to keep the car cool in the 45 degree heat. Nobody is going to steal it - because everybody who wants one already has one. And if they're an expat, they live under the threat of immediate expulsion (i.e within 24 hours) for any transgressions where the law of the land is concerned. And the governement goes out of its way to make Abu Dhabi a desirable place to live and work for expats, so who's going to run the risk to losing that? No, crime is really not a concern here.

But I digress. There's only so much luxury you can take, and besides we had more pressing matters ahead in the form of England's opening match, v Paraguay in the World Cup. With a 17:00 local time kick off, Jonathan has once again come up trumps and left us with the whole afternoon and evening once again 'at leisure'. So we shower, change into suitable attire and convene in the lobby (guys only - the girls are busy poolside and agree to meet with us later) to catch a taxi to the Hilton hotel across the Corniche where they've turned Hemmingway's into a sports bar. We joke about 'slumming it' at the five star Hilton as we make our way into the deserted bar and order some drinks. There are several screens set up throughout the bar, and we commandeer a 50inc rear projection set with four seats around it for ourselves - surely it doesn't get any better than this?!

The game itself is memorable enough for all the wrong reasons (England's execrable performance for one, even if we did win) but the game for us is defined by seemingly the only Paraguayans in the northern hemisphere turning up at our bar in the UAE to watch the game alongside us. Several twenty-someting Latin girls in very short skirts (of course I noticed that!) take up residence behind us and begin to cheer every decision that goes against England, bringing the house down every time a Paraguayan player gets possession. Still, it makes a change from the bar's other, mostly English expat patrons who watch with us. After several rounds of drinks, the girls join us, and later we wander upstairs to dine at the Royal Orchid restaurant. We're given a private dining room to ourselves (I wonder why - loud, us? Surely some mistake!) and we consume several bottles of wine over a most delightful meal (the salt and pepper prawns and Singapore noodles are to die for). It's almost 23:00 when we catch two taxis back to the Emirates Palace and we reconvene in that hotel's Al Majlis island Caviar Bar. The first Bombay Martini I drink seems like a good idea, but by the time first David, then Jonathan bids us good night and heads off for the evening, sleep is the last thing on my mind. I have to accept responsibility for the second Martini, and hence my lack of judgement for what followed...

Me, Chloe and Rob

A Rose Betwixt Two Thorns: Me, Chloe and Rob doing an impression of three sober people. Okay then, Chloe and I doing a passable impression of sober people. Rob falls at the last hurdle: blinking. (c) Black Rat.

It seemed like such a good idea when somebody suggested that we go for a midnight swim in the sea. And honestly, it still seemed like it at about 00:30 when Rob, Susan, ChloŽ and myself stole outside under cover of darkness dressed only in our robes to cover our modesty (alright, our swimming costumes then!) It was but a short walk (or a somewhat longer drunken amble) from our rooms in the East Wing to the private beach, with its crystaline waters and sand the consistency and colour of the finest Bolivian marching powder and in a scene from some bad teenage movie, we've cast our robes aside before we're past the sun loungers and we're plunging into the waters of the Arabian Gulf with abandon. My mind's DJ is spinning up the theme music from Jaws before I'm off the beach and my imagination summons sharks to the foam that we create as we splash through the shallows. Under the moon's ethereal glow, the water takes on an inky black hue, and the white foam as the waves crash to the beach transforms the Gulf into one great bath of Guinness.

The water is a shock as I let it wash over me; it's bath-water warm, hot even and we laugh hysterically as we revel in the moment; midnight swimming, under a moonlit sky off the private beach of one of the most oppulent hotels in the world, with the lights of Abu Dhabi's Corniche twinkling in the distance. Does it get any better than this? If so, I can't imagine how. It feels like the ultimate in hedonistic decadence as we tread water under the moon. A wave catches me and carries me out into deep water and a moment of clarity pierces my inebriated mind - I'm not in control here, this is madness! Another couple of waves like that, and we could be swept out to sea. It's indicative of our happiness, drunk on the moment as we are, that rather than alarm me, this thought just enhances the now.

Corniche

Corniche: The view across the Corniche from outside the restaurant where we had lunch. Yes, the sand really is that soft, and yes, the water is as warm and inviting as it looks. Another reason Abu Dhabi is staking its claim as a desirable holiday destination. (c) Black Rat.

We have our own pool outside of the East Wing, a splendid affiar that snakes into the distance and encompasses its own whirlpool bath. We eye it longingly from afar, but its out of bounds at this late hour and I don't think we'd be terribly popular with the hotel management were we to throw caution to the wind. Discretion prevails, and we make our own entertainment on the beach. We should worry, we have a whole ocean to play in! The night time breeze which fans us every time we leave the water feels not unlike the full onslaught of a salon grade hairdryer on its hottest setting but it's no less pleasant for that. Somehow, time takes on an elasticity which is curiously absent during more sober daylight hours, so I've no idea how, but it's gone 03:00 when we say goodnight and fall into bed.

Iron Ore Deposits

Desert Sands: The orange hue of this dune on the road to Al Ain derives from the level of local iron deposits. (c) Black Rat.

All the more surprising is just how bright I feel when my alarm rouses me just three hours later at 06:00. A long, hot shower revitalises me, if only on the surface and the smile I wear as I walk to breakfast is a thin disguise - my mind is toying with the hangover that's doubtless franked and posted ready for delivery later in the morning. I see Susan and ChloŽ mid-way along the corridoor and catch them up. They too are surprisingly subdued but we smile when we realise that as well as being the hotel's last residents to bed, we're also first to rise as the restaurant is empty. Jonathan joins us and a few minutes later, Rob puts in an appearance, grinning sheepishly.

Camel Traders

Camel Traders: Having listened to us offer to trade the girls in our party for seven camels, the man on the left discusses our proposal with his manager. No Deal (c) Black Rat.

The day is a busy one, but it's spent mostly aboard the bus which arrives at 08:00 to take us on a tour of the Oasis city of Al Ain.Al Ain is one of the oldest settled cities in the Gulf with archaeological excavations unearthing evidence of settled civilisations in the area dating to 3000BC. It's situated mid-way between Dubai and Abu Dhabi and is the capital's second city. It takes us almost two hours to make the 120 mile drive, time which we use to catch up on some of the sleep that eluded us the previous night. We visit both the Al Khatwa oasis and the Al Ain Palace museum before crossing the border into Oman (no passport required, but another tick off the list of countries left to visit!) where we stop briefly to visit a local souk. This one is notable for the guns that are traded openly in the market, but we're not here to buy weapons, just to look. We head out of Oman and back into U.A.E where we visit Al Ain's camel market. We try, but the traders aren't interested in our proposed swap of Susan for seven camels, even if we do a two-for-one offer and throw in ChloŽ, too!

.Al Ain is one of the oldest settled cities in the Gulf with archaeological excavations unearthing evidence of settled civilisations in the area dating to 3000BC. It's situated mid-way between Dubai and Abu Dhabi and is the capital's second city. It takes us almost two hours to make the 120 mile drive, time which we use to catch up on some of the sleep that eluded us the previous night. We visit both the Al Khatwa oasis and the Al Ain Palace museum before crossing the border into Oman (no passport required, but another tick off the list of countries left to visit!) where we stop briefly to visit a local souk. This one is notable for the guns that are traded openly in the market, but we're not here to buy weapons, just to look. We head out of Oman and back into U.A.E where we visit Al Ain's camel market. We try, but the traders aren't interested in our proposed swap of Susan for seven camels, even if we do a two-for-one offer and throw in ChloŽ, too!

Leaving there, it's lunch time and we make the perilous climb some 4,000ft up Hafeet Mountain to our lunch destination, the Hotel Mercure Grand Jebel Hafeet. The hotel has a commanding position at the summit. The terrain here is utterly different from what we've seen so far, barren and rocky, redolent in many ways from news images of the mountainous region of Afghanistan. In another display of the extraoridinary wealth of the government, grass grows verdant and rich alongside the slopes; no freak of nature this, it's nurtured by man with 24hour sprinklers drawing water up the mountain from the desalination plant. The irony isn't lost on us as we watch water literally flowing down the drain in this desert country whilst our homes back in the island nation of Britain bake dry under drought orders. We stop at a natural spring mid way up the mountain and I plunge my hands into water that is hot to the touch as it bubbles up through the rock.

Painted Desert

Painted Desert: The view across the desert floor from the terrace of the Hotel Mercure Grand Jebel Hafeet at Al Ain. The different coloured sands are defined by mineral deposits beneath them. (c) Black Rat.

Lunch is a relaxed affair and after a tour around the hotel (another five star, yet all it does is highlight the dichotomy between itself and our accommodation back at the Emirates Palace) we climb aboard the bus for the long journey back (after quite a raucous start to the journey puncutated by more hysterical laughter, we all fall asleep, lulled by the motion of the bus. Jonathan waves to a Hummer which follows us and we laugh all the more when our guide points out to us that it was driven by one of the Sheikhs (you had to be there, I think).

Sunset

Sun Set on the Trip of a Life Time: The sun sets across the Corniche as viewed from the Emirates Palace on our final night. (c) Black Rat.

It's gone 17:30 when we get back to our hotel and after a quick shower, we check out of our rooms and dump our bags in Jonathan's (he's staying an extra night to welcome BBC presenter Darren Jordon who's flying out on the aircraft that will take me home later that evening). Susan, ChloŽ and I wander outside to take some photographs before dinner, but I'm hampered by the change in temperature, which fogs my camera lens with moisture as we leave the chilled hotel for the ambient 40 degrees which dominates outside. We hcommandeer a golf buggy and drive along the beach watching the sun set for the last time as we head for the advernture pool on the opposite side of the hotel. From there, we wander inside the air conditioned luxury of the West Wing to the Caviar Bar where we order Champagne aperetifs before dinner.

Caviar Bar

Caviar Bar: The luxurious surroundings in which we sipped Bombay Martinis and Champagne (c) Emirates Palace

Dinner is a formal affair as guests of the hotel's convivial Belgian marketing director, a hotelier straight out of central casting. He proves an excellent and entertaining host though and regales us with tales of his life on the international stage at a succession of luxury hotels. We dine in private once again, in the understaed elegance of the Empire Palace's MezzalunaItalian restaurant but have to say our farewells at 23:00 for the ride to the airport. We leave Jonathan and I say goodbye to ChloŽ and the others at the depature gate as our flights depart fifteen minutes apart. It's a busy flight, with an 01:55 departure but I'm not planning on doing anything except sleeping on the way back. In another nice touch the washbags on the way home contain a 'Do Not Disturb' sticker which you place on your headrest if you wish to sleep. For me, having dined before take off, it's perfect. As soon as we reach top of the climb, I slide my seat into the fully flat position and with eye mask and ear plugs, pull a blanket up to my chin. The next thing I remember is a stewardess waking me with a hot towel shortly before breakfast an hour or so out from Gatwick; that's what flying is all about!

Farewell

Farewell: A picture taken by the doorman at the hotel 23:30 on our final night. Three hours later, minus Jonathan, we were on our flights home (c) Black Rat.

Looking back a week later, it's hard to pick out any particular hightlights, because so much of what we did was superlative. As with every press trip I've ever been on, I knew nothing of the people I created memories with, yet before we met, I was secure in the knowledge that the dynamic would work. For whatever reason, those of us drawn to careers in the media, be we journalists or PRs, tend to have much in common. Principally its that desire for learning, that drive that pushes us to want to know as much as we can about the world we live in. But there's something more, a thread that ties us all together as strangers with a common bond. We live the accelerated pleasure that is a holiday at someone else's expense, an amplified existence where the highs are that much better than you'd experience on a two week holiday. We're priviliged that we get to see and do what do, yet we know that somebody has to - otherwise, how does the message get out? It's a tough job, but somebody has to do it!

For my part, I've forged useful business relationships as well as some new friendships with like-minded people. And in doing so, in undertaking the job I'm paid to do, I've had an immense amount of fun living a truly unsual lifestyle in a destination that is poised to usurp its neighbour, Dubai, as the place to go. Work? Yeah, whatever. We were left to ponder that one when we were asked at immigration on the way out, business or pleasure? And I still don't have the answer. It's our job, so it must be business, right? But it never felt less like it.

If you've read through this marathon entry and stuck with it to the end, thank you. What started out as a regular blog entry took a left turn somehwere along the way and I decided to write what is pretty much a standard journal entry, something to help me remember the finer points of a remarkable trip through the lens of hindsight. If you've learned anything as a result, good - I've done my job. Actually, I haven't - the real work starts now, as I have to filter my memories into a story suitable for publication. Normal blogging service will be resumed as soon as that's done.

15.6.06 17:00


GREETINGS FROM 40,000ft

Couldn't resist the opportunity of posting my first blog entry from aboard a commercial flight. So much to report, so much has happened since my last entry, but so little time.

We've moved house, I've been away, come back. Discovered how it's nigh on impossible to make a seamless transition moving broadband from one address to another, even via the same ISP. Discovered the pain of a house with no Satelite TV, no phone line and no internet. Still, all done and sorted now - although I don't fancy three weeks offline again, that's for sure.

I'm enroute to Abu Dhabi as I write this, sitting in the Pearl Zone of an Etihad Airlines 777-300. Another press trip for four days of sun, gorgeous weather, desert trips, dune busting and dinner underneath the stars. Sounded fab on the invitation and I thought it'd be rude to decline, so here I am. Airborne wi-fi rocks - it's a much better way of passing the time than watching one of the countless on-demand movies I've got access to - and Skype is just so cool for making phone calls with when the alternative is a massively expensive sat-phone in your seat. Yet another technological leap forwards.

 

Out in the Blue

 

I'll write more with updates of what I've been up to, news, and pictures upon my return. And hoperfully, will have this blog looking just how I want it just as soon as I can come up with a design that I like. For those who've stuck by me and still visit - thank you. I'll be back to the UK on Monday morning, so more from me next week. Until then...I've work to do. Oh all right then, I've a press trip to write a travel piece about Abu Dhabi to enjoy. And it soo won't feel like work! Laters!

8.6.06 15:55


PARKED

It's often said that the three most stressful things we might have to confront in life are the death of a loved one, getting divorced, or moving. Moving I'm well acquainted with, having done so several times in my adult life, and I can well believe it's one of the most stressful events out there. However, for all its ups and downs, it has a readily identifiable conclusion and once the move has taken place, the stress is replaced with a renewed sense of optimism for the future.


I wonder then how the situation that's facing me and mine 24 hours from now ranks in terms of stress: living with builders. Or more accurately, having builders take over your home. For tomorrow morning, after over 2 years of meetings, inspections and negotiations, work begins to rectify the subsidence of the place that is my home, workplace, sanctuary and haven. Family life is being turned on its head as we will effectively have to vacate the premises for an estimated two weeks whilst the ground floor is dug out and removed. My office is being sealed off as from 08:00 tomorrow morning and life will become somewhat difficult.


I fly out to the U.S on Thursday morning for a two week holiday, effectively removing myself from the situation, but until then, I will have to try and live within the constraints imposed by having no ground floor to talk about, the world of dust and dirt that all that encompasses, and having access to just one room (the lounge) via the garden. The house will be out of bounds between the hours of 08:00 and 17:00 daily, meaning I'll have to be up and out with somewhere to be and something to do that doesn't revolve around my being at my desk, working, as is the norm when I'm not away on assignment. From 17:00 each day, if I'm so minded, I can access the upstairs (bedrooms, ensuite and bathroom), via the kitchen - and a plank of wood, which will act as a bridge over the abyss that will exist where we once had a floor. Deep joy.



Tomorrow, after driving our two Russian Blues to a cattery for the first time in their ten years on earth, I've got a meeting and a lunch appointment in the City, meaning I have to dress and equip myself for that. And on Tuesday, I'm in work mode as I fly off on assignment for the day. Somehow, I need to ensure I remove from my office everything I'm likely to need until Thursday, together with whatever non-work things I'll need for my holiday.


However, it's the knowledge that even when I return from the U.S, there's at least another six to eight weeks of stress waiting for us. Six to eight weeks in which we live without carpets whilst we wait for the newly laid floors to dry out. Almost two months of redecoration, cleaing, tidying and making good, as one by one, each of the ground floor rooms are cleared, repainted, etc. We've had to choose new wallpapers when there was nothing wrong with those they're replacing. Choose new floors etc. None of which is massively problematic. But the prospect of having to share my sanctum with a team of builders for the forseeable future, trying to work whilst they bang, chisel, hammer and hang, doesn't exactly fill me with joy. Still, it has to be done, and getting stressed about it ain't going to change any of that or make it any easier.


So today, sees the sun set on one chapter of our lives, for a new one to open tomorrow. After tonight, I'll be surfing on my laptop from wherever I can get wi-fi access, so my presence on here will probably be intermittent. I'll be around though; I should have some interesting photos and a story to upload after Tuesday, so whether I manage it here or after I arrive in America, I'll endeavour to blog something. There is one positive to report; our close  friends Nick and Eva became the proud parents of twins in the early hours of yesterday morning as Sophia Alejandra, then Antonio William took their first breaths. Eva is likely to be discharged from hospital today with the new additions, and a new chapter will begin for them, too. Congratulations to the proud parents!  


I'll take this opportunity to wish a Happy Easter to all my readers; thanks for your support as ever, and I look forward to catching up with you all after the holidays.

2.4.06 11:27


SOMETHING WICKED THIS WAY COMES

I've always been a fan of BMW's cars. For me, German cars have always set the benchmark in automotive engineering, and I had a soft spot for BMW's designs. I had two successive 3 series coupes in the latter half of the 1990s, and by the time the Millenium beckoned, I'd graduated through to a 7 series. They were all company cars, each bought to my specification, but paid for with my employers' money. I'd had the choice of anything I wanted within the price range, but for me, they were the only vehicles worthy of consideration.


Dynamically, as well as aesthetically, each was definitive within its class; tight, sorted and epitomising the German engineering ideal. Whilst the marketing men had to take some of the credit, no product could withstand an advertising campaign as relentless as that of BMW, if its integrity was lacking. Design-wise, the whole range was faultless. The flowing lines, low stance, feline silhouette; muscular, yet feminine too; agile. You'd expect the cabin to be the perfect cocoon, and it was. But it was outside of the driver’s immediate environment that the attention to detail really shone. Everything was in synergy - even the components under the bonnet that would never see the light of day. The bonnet was damped to perfection, as were the doors and boot. The electric sunroof opened and closed at just the right speed, at with just the required amount of force to communicate its position.


Somewhere in BMW’s headquarters in Stuttgart, sits a man whose sole reason for existence is to find the algorithms necessary to enable the doors to shut with just the right ‘clunk’. To push buttons a million times until he discovers the value to give them the right amount of resistance. The same must apply to the chemist who toils away in a darkened room in the depths of the factory, working night and day to improve on the already perfect formula of the windscreen wash. Here is a chemical that gives off the most wonderful essence when sprayed through its electronic jets to the tinted, heated screen. Whatever smell is supposed to convey ‘quality’ in screen-wash, BMW have discovered it. Don't ask me how - it's screen-wash, for God’s sake; water and something else available through a million outlets. So couldn’t BMW do what every other manufacturer in the world does and send its cars from the factory with commercially available stuff? No, of course it couldn’t, The screen wash has to be like the cars – perfect, in aroma, colour and operation. Who thought of a detail like that? What kind of person is so obsessive?



Losing my company-financed BMWs was probably the biggest wrench when I left the City for life as a journalist, although the pill wasn't as bitter as it might have been; I might not have had one sitting on my drive 24/7 then, but a call to the press office could source me what I wanted and for a couple of weeks, I'd have a top spec model on hand to play with, which has to be the next best thing. But then Chris Bangle came along to re-design the BMW range, and suddenly, it didn't seem to matter as much. People fall into one of two camps when they look at Bangle's work - they either love it, or loathe it, and there's no middle ground. Personally, I fell into the latter camp and for a couple of years, BMW and I have been strangers.


Recently though, I've undergone something of a conversion. I've started looking at BMWs with renewed interest and the designs no longer seem such a departure from the norm. Maybe it's familiarity. Maybe I've softened as I've got older. But I could no longer ignore the hype, and besides, a commission is a commission. And I'm not even going to try and moan about it, because at the end of the day, even I know that having to live with a £45,000 car for a couple of weeks isn't exactly living with a hair shirt. So when I get back from America, BMW and I are getting reacquainted in the form of a 535d M Sport Saloon. She's fully loaded, with about £7,000 worth of toys and options including a head-up display and adaptive headlights and we have plans!



One of the best aspects of freelancing is the freedom. Okay, I could let the car sit outside my office for the duration, and use it for the school run, but where's the fun in that? No, I wanted an adventure. So I've devised one. Myself and a mate will be driving the BMW the thousand-odd miles from London to The Millau Bridge in southern France, a structure that has to rank as a modern wonder of the world. From there, we're just an hour or two from the coast and the Mediterranean Sea, so I fancy we'll spend another night down there before heading back. That should see a couple of thousand miles under the BMW's belt, a nice mix of urban and provincial roads together with some long, straight motorways, which will be just perfect for me to get an angle on what the car is really like.


On the journey, we'll have ample opportunity to take in the sights, stopping in places like Clermont Ferrand, drinking in the majesty of the Massif Central. It'd be rude not to stay in a fine hotel and partake of some of France's best wines and gourmet food, and as we won't want to appear impolite, I suspect that's exactly what we'll do. Technology has moved on apace since my last BMW, so as this one will come pre-wired to receive my iPod, I'll fire it up with a playlist of specially selected tracks for the journey, including a few by the extraordinarily talented and beautiful Russian soprano Анна Нетребко. (known outisde of Russia as Anna Netrebko and pictured above) who I've only just discovered. Her voice is notable for having both the softness and flexibility of a lyric soprano as well as the resonance and darkness of a spinto soprano. She also has a large range, being able to sing high E flats and high E's. You can hear her singing Simpre Libera from la Traviata - click the link on her name above, which goes to her offical home page, and the excerpt loads with the page. 

 

Millau Bridge


Millau Bridge and Montpellier on the South Coast should provide some great backdrops for the pictures, and...well, it's a road trip, so the stories will make themselves, really - I'm not planning on thinking about that particular aspect of the gig too hard! It's not one of my most stressful assignments, it must be said, but the logistics of arranging press facilities at the bridge, accommodation, passage across the Channel etc have all kept me busy of late, and besides, it'll be the perfect antidote to my time in Iraq. Expect words and pictures in early May, then. 

30.3.06 12:25


SOMETHING FOR THE LADIES...

One of the things I most enjoy about my job is the sheer breadth of subjects that I'm commissioned to write about. Each new assignment means my undertaking research, conducting interviews with the right people, visiting different places, and the process never deviates, whether it's a subject I'm famililar with, or something completely new. In many respects, it's the new ones that inspire me the most, because those are the assignments that confer new knowledge upon me, gifting me an awareness where previously there was ignorance. I find an angle or a hook to hang the story from and then immerse myself in someone else's world, soaking up as much data as I can. I make notes, record interviews, take pictures. Then it's a matter of  filtering out what's not relevant, so that I can write a feature that hopefully educates or informs the reader. When the copy is filed, the knowledge combines with what I experienced whilst undertaking the research, and I'm one step further along the learning curve. It's the best insight into life anybody could wish for.


A quick look through this blog's archives might suggest that I only write about aviation or the military, though. And whilst it's true that I've spent quite a bit of time with all three of our services over the past few years, it doesn't tell the whole story. For every trip I've had in an RAF fast jet, or ship I've sailed on with the Royal Navy, there is a raft of features that I've written on a whole world of subjects - from business, women's interest, technology and automotive to news, celebrity interviews and lads' mags, with everything in betwen. I'm a profligate writer, churning out countless stories each month on a range of subjects for two news agencies, but they rarely see the light of day on here because it's my higher profile assignments that take prominence.


I thought it high time I softened the feel of this blog with something a little more feminine and tactile than guns or military hardware, so for my female readers - and the men actually, come to think of it - I offer you this story about online retailer figleaves.com and the blooming success story that is the lingerie market in the U.K. And you thought business was boring?!


A changing demographic in Britain has seen professional women becoming an increasingly powerful economic market force and nothing underlines this better than the market for intimate apparel. In the UK, intimate apparel sales (the collective term for hosiery, corsetry and lingerie) have rocketed in recent years, climbing by some seven per cent in 2004 to over ?2 billion as shoppers bought garments ranging from knickers and bras to thongs and stockings in record numbers. Retail sales for hosiery and lingerie stood at ?624m and ?552m respectively in 2004 with brassi?res alone accounting for 33.4%.



High Street retailers like Marks and Spencer used to be the de facto choice for underwear purchases, but for a generation raised on ?Sex and the City?, tastes are becoming ever more adventurous, leading to a whole new market of designer-band luxury items, which shun scratchy lace in favour of sheerer, more comfortable fabrics. The lexicon for the internet generation is ?anything goes?, a legacy of the rave culture of the eighties which saw underwear worn as outerwear.


A gradual blurring of the lines between work and home wardrobes by young women and a penchant for using sheer, diaphanous fabrics in outerwear by designers has seen sales of brassi?res and panties outstrip the growth of other lingerie items by a considerable margin. Whereas women once regarded underwear as a commodity and bought out of necessity, it is now regarded increasingly as a luxury indulgence or fashion accessory and it?s designer names like La Perla, Lejaby, Love Kylie and DKNY which are reaping the rewards, replacing the more familiar High St retailers? labels on the garments in the discerning woman?s underwear drawer.


The development of new fabrics and the use of new materials in lingerie have provided an opportunity for companies to diversify their product ranges ever further and no company has been better placed to take advantage of this than online UK retailer figleaves.com. Figleaves was founded eight years ago by its current chairman Daniel Nabarro and survived the dot.com crash of 1999, which saw some high profile casualties including the one that started it all, Boo.com. Figleaves almost went the same way - they originally started out with the name 'Stuff for Women', but when current chief executive Michael Ross joined, he came up with the rebranding and used boo.com simply as a source of inspiration for the revised business model. The boo.com vision was that fashion brands are truly global - the 'open a copy of Vogue, and it will be the same all over the world' concept. But whereas Boo focused on outerwear, figleaves concentrated on underwear; it?s branded, light, and easily shippable, anywhere in the world. You can see the attraction - and so can the customers. 


Figleaves got lean and shaped up, offering  intimate apparel from its website in over 2,500 styles from over 170 designer brands. Today, the company offers online shoppers the widest range of lingerie, hosiery and corsetry available anywhere in the world offering more styles, sizes and brands than any other online or physical retailer. 80 per cent of the 400,000 customers are women in the 25-50 age range, spending an average of ?50 per transaction.


Figleaves? philosophy is a simple one - to provide a simple, one-stop shop for all intimate apparel needs, regardless of size, style or budget through a simple, easy to use web portal. Customers place orders online; these are checked against stock before being despatched from a purpose-built 27,000sq.ft warehouse for free global delivery. From its humble beginnings in 1998, the company has grown from a staff of four to its current complement of 70 and has seen turnover increase from ?180,000, doubling year on year to an estimated ?14m this year. The company is now nudging profitability as planned.



Growing at that rate is not easy for any business, be it offline or online and chief executive Michael Ross, doesn?t pretend that it is. He says it has been made possible by having a clear vision and sticking to targets. ?We knew from the beginning that breakeven was going to be at around ?15 million turnover, and we couldn?t have afforded to wait 10 years to get there,? he says. Perhaps just as notable though, is the fact that Figleaves.com has succeeded where so many of its peers have failed ? by breaking America. Unlike Marks & Spencer, which came unstuck when it paid over the odds for luxury shirt maker Brooks Brothers, and Midland Bank, which lost over ?1 billion on California?s Crocker Bank, Ross did not expand into the U.S until the company had already established a presence there.


?On the day that we launched in America it was already our second biggest market,? says Ross. ?Most British companies fail in America because they start with high costs, such as setting up flagship sites in New York. But American women were ordering online from us and only realising that we were based in Britain when they received the underwear and saw it was posted from England.? Figleaves.com has since set up a separate American website and all the online marketing deals are negotiated by somebody who flies out once a month from England. The company now runs a concession within Amazon.com. ?We did a joint launch with Amazon and Anna Kournikova for a new Shock Absorber bra,? says Ross. ?Jeff Bezos, head of Amazon, had a tennis match with Anna Kournikova in New York and within a week we had orders worth $250,000.?


Having conquered America, Ross now has his sights set firmly on Europe, particularly, France. France has a huge lingerie market - even small French towns seem to have as many lingerie shops as bread shops - but Ross thinks there is still a niche for him. ?The French lingerie market is worth about ?3 billion a year,? he says. ?We are looking to turn over ?8m in four years? time, mainly from expatriates or people who don?t like shopping.? The company already exports to 66 countries.


Traffic to the Figleaves website sees over 3m unique hits each month, and has seen over ?2.5m of sales to customers who arrived via Google alone. A growing customer base that is rapidly approaching half a million, has taken Figleaves firmly into the Top 10 of UK internet retailers with the result that the company now boasts a host of prestigious awards from business and media, including the prestigious Online Retailer of the Year 2005 award from Retail Week.



Right, that's enough lingerie for now, let's talk TV. I'm loving the new (and final!) third series of No Angels, which airs on Tuesday evenings (er...like today) at 22:00 on Channel Four. I might be a little outside of the demographic for the audience, but I still love the storylines, the slick production, kicking soundtrack and the brilliantly cast characters. I've obviously got a soft spot for medical dramas, because I'm completely hooked on ABC's Grey's Anatomy, too. Oh, and whilst we're on the subject of TV, and medical comedy/drama, Channel 4's inspired sit-com/sketch show Green Wing  returns this Friday for its long-awaited second series.


The writers really broke the mould with Green Wing, a smart and original blend of sitcom and sketch show, with a hint of docu-soap, and a grim determination to drive the tired old genre of TV sitcom into fresh and dynamic new areas. Green Wing for the first time expanded the traditional sitcom format from half an hour to a full sixty minutes. In making this bold move, the show liberated its large team of writers from the Albatross of having to ?move the plot forward? in every scene, and gave them enough screen time to create surreal ?freestanding? comedy moments that were there for one reason only ? to be funny. And my God, they are! If you didn't catch this first time round (and Ch4 will be broadcasting the first series each night until Friday for those of you who didn't) don't miss this. And for my readers in the U.S - unlucky!


Actually, that will include me from next week. With the builders moving into our house from Monday for the next couple of months so that the subsidence can be dealt with, I'm off to my parents' house in warm and sunny Louisiana for two weeks whilst they get the dirty and heavy work sorted out. Hopefully, by the time I get back, we should have a new floor downstairs, and it'll just be a case of working around the painters and decorators who will have to make good every room on the ground floor (including my office, natch). The cats are off to a cat hotel whilst the messy work is going on, so I'll have the delightful task of driving them there on Monday and making myself scarce until my flight leaves a week tomorrow. Still, I have an assignment to undetake before then, plenty of writing to keep me occupied and a host of things to do before I go so I'm expecting the time to fly by.

28.3.06 13:01


SOMEONE TO WATCH OVER ME

I had often wondered what she looked like. Thought about the lay of her hair, its texture, its colour, its cut. Spent hours ruminating on her voice, her look. But most of all, I wondered about her. What was she like? Where did she go when she wasn't with me? What did she do? She's always been there; she's had my back for as long as I can recall, always there to warn me, show me the hidden dangers, point out that which I've missed. And on countless occasions, she's saved me from myself.


She was there with me in Baghdad in 2004, when I stood rooted to the spot as Iraqi insurgents launched a salvo of Katyusha rockets at my precise location (I didn't take it personally, they could hardly have known I was there!). One landed close enough that the concussion wave when it came lifted me from my feet. But that first rocket was as nothing compared to the next one, which I watched arcing over toward me, its parabola placing it within my line of sight. I watched its trajectory and as it fell inexorably towards me, it hit the ground...and failed to detonate.


She was there the day that I left my helmet on my motorcycle in a busy central London street and went into WH Smith's, only to find it had been stolen when I returned from the best free library in Britain after ten minutes (yeah, I know, how stupid can you get?) I could hardly ride home helmetless and I'd come out minus my wallet, but she'd placed a long-forgotten ?200 casino chip in my pocket, which I was able to cash in. I got to the accessories shop in the West End ten minutes before closing, and walked out with a better helmet than the one I'd had stolen, too.



She had my back too, when I was involved in a motorcycle accident in 1999 that could have prevented me from seeing the dawn of the new Millenium. A car took me out from behind at 60mph and I was knocked unconscious when I hit the deck. I don't remember any of this, but witnesses and the police later said that I went body surfing along the main road and into the path of oncoming rush-hour traffic, coming to alongside the pavement about 100 yards from where the impact occurred. The paramedics might have been concerned that I'd broken my neck, carting me off to hospital on a spinal board, but I was discharged later that night, walking away with no more than soft tissue damage and a broken toe.


If I recall correctly, she had a hand in having my favourite, and too expensive Hugo Boss cashmere overcoat and several irreplaceable items returned to me a week after I'd lost them. My fault I guess for including such an expensive item in my wardrobe of beer clothes and wearing it on a night out with the lads. It was stupid of me to leave it on the coat mountain in a pub made tropical by the heat of a thousand bodies, whilst I got slowly drunk. So I shouldn't have been surprised when I went to leave several hours later and found my coat had beaten me to it. The loss of the coat was a bitter pill, but all the more so when I remembered what was in its pockets - my keys, my mobile phone, and my little black book; the book in which I had countless celebrity phone numbers, contacts, irreplaceable jottings and bullet points from God knows how many meetings and assignments.



Hair, and a 'look' Like This...


She must have been looking out for me then, because imagine my surprise when I got a phone call a week later, (having given up all hope and reported the items lost to the police), from a man who ten months earlier, I'd run down whilst riding my motorcycle (bear with me, it'll all become clear)! At the time, I'd written his contact details down on the first page of my notebook. And somebody had found that notebook in my coat pocket, turned to the first page, and called the number saying something like "You don't know me, but I am trying to contact the person who has your details in their notebook". The person trying to reach me was a man who, one week earlier, had found my coat on the windscreen of his car, which he'd parked outside the McDonalds opposite the pub I'd been drinking in. He'd stopped to buy a burger before driving to Yorkshire or somewhere, where his father had had a heart attack. Picked my coat up, meaning to do something about it, and drove off, remembering it when he came home and found it in the boot. Long and short of it is, he returned it to me, exactly as it was when I'd taken it off - everything I'd had in it was still there in the pockets. What do you say to a person like that?


Actually, those years when I was riding a motorcycle on a daily basis must have really kept her busy! Remember the guy I mentioned who I ran over whilst riding my not-very-old but very expensive and shiny Yamaha R6? I wrote about the story here a couple of years ago. I was riding home through rush-hour London one balmy summer's evening. The traffic lights were green in my favour, and I was carrying a fair bit of speed, when Nigel, a lemming-like pedestrian, tried to run across my path. He failed, stood rooted to the spot like a rabbit caught in headlights, and I went straight into him. We were both unscathed, but my bike had incurred ?1,500 of damage. Step up two traffic cops who'd watched the whole thing unfold, and then shamed Nigel into paying up every penny to have my bike put right.


You seeing a pattern here? I could go on with the anecdotes - and I haven't even started on all the positives she's seen me through, the luck she's brought my way - but you're probably already hating me, so what's the point? Is it any wonder I've felt blessed by the presence of someone to watch over me? I used to joke about my 'Guardian Angel', but she never had a face, or even a form; it was a label for something that I didn't, couldn't and still don't understand. I'm not a terribly spiritual person, so it was my ironic name for the series of bizarre coincidences and ironic occurrences that have accompanied me throughout my life. 'It' had to be a 'she' though. I mean, come on. This is me ;-)



So yeah, we've shared a lot, her and I, although it's never been a relationship of equals. And as I've grown older, I've assumed, in that 'don't really believe she exists but just in case she does' kind of way, that she's remained forever young. Er..and sexy. But until recently, I'd never seen her face. She was a stranger to me.


She's not now.


A few weeks ago, I had a night out with my mate Ian. Remember him? I've written about him here several times. He's the fella I used to work with in the City, the one I lost contact with for a few years, but who I hooked back up with. We met up one night in February for a few too many beers and a curry down Brick Lane, and having bid one another farewell, I'd somehow made it to Kings Cross unaccompanied. Let me paint you a picture: It's a quarter past midnight. I'm walking on somebody else's legs, and joined-up thought is some long-forgotten concept that left me somewhere between the last pub and the restaurant. My phone beeps with a text message from another mate. I read it:


"What is the group of bad people called in 'Angels and Demons' by Dan Brown?"


I think that's what you call a curve ball. Something from out of left field. I did a double take. "You've got to be fucking kidding!", I thought. (hey, I'm less than sober, okay? It made perfect sense to me). "Why on earth does he need to know the answer to that now? More to the point, how am I going to answer him? It's two years since I read that particular book, and I average two books a week at the best of times; the answer's there in the back of my mind, but it's like trying to grasp clouds in your hand. No chance!"



But dressed like this! 


I wouldn't mind, but it's not like I'm being asked something about the Da Vinci code. I mean, everyone's read that one. And for those late to catch on, there are a fair number to be found still reading it. So the chances are there'll be somebody on the train I've just boarded (the 00:36 if you're interested, also known as the 'Drunk Train' on account of the people who catch it) reading it that I could ask. But no; he wants to know an arcane question about one of Dan Brown?s lesser-known books written in over six years ago. I sit back, frustrated. (I don?t like failing at anything, no matter how obtuse the challenge - I?m male, so the competitive element comes with the Y-chromosome).


Just then, I look up as my peripheral vision detects a devastatingly sexy thirty-something girl, shapely and with long, dark, lightly-curled hair tumbling down to her shoulders, boarding the train. I'm not the only one; each and every fella on my train seems to have found an excuse to look up and as one, their eyes follow her as she gracefully walks the length of the carriage...and sits down next to me. I try to avert my gaze, but it's difficult because (a), I'm more drunk than sober, so my co-ordination and sense of timing aren't exactly in synchronicity and (b), rather predictably (as my regular readers will know) she's wearing 'The Uniform' - a white blouse, black mini skirt and black tights allied with a terrific pair of black leather (obviously!) fuck-me boots. She looks at me. Smoothes her skirt And smiles. I'm looking at her face, but I'm aware of her reaching into her bag for something as she settles down for the journey ahead. The doors close and the train moves off.


I look, and even as she reaches into her bag for it, I know. A shiver runs down my spine, like somebody's just walked over my grave, and I watch the scene unfold like I'm the director of a film that I've both scripted and cast. I know what's coming. She takes out a paperback copy of Dan Brown's 'Angels and Demons', opens it to page 53, and starts reading. My heart begins to thump. My mouth's dry, and I hear the words as if spoken by someone else...


"Look, this is going to sound like a really lame chat-up line", I offer - and she looks up and smiles at me - "but my friend's just texted me to ask me a question. It might sound a little bizzarre, but could you tell me the name of the brotherhood who..." - her smile cedes into a coquettish laugh, but she stops herself to interrupt me, and I hear her speak for the first time; she even sounds angelic! "Oh, you mean The Illuminati?" she asks, flipping back two pages to show me the symbol that is printed there on page 51 in a biazarre gothic font, which means it reads the same whether viewed left-to-right or in reverse. I smile back at her. "That's it", I say, and we chat briefly about the book and Dan Brown. I want to say more, flirt a bit, but there are two reasons why I can't; firstly, I'm married. Besides, she's my Guardian Angel, it'd be like...like..nah, don't go there! And anyway, she's sober, I'm not. Three reasons then.    


I look away to text my friend the answer to his question, feeling smug, despite still being perplexed as to the pressing reason he'd want to know such a bizarre thing - and so late on a school night, too. I leave the girl to her book, troubling her no more, but smile to myself at the unlikely series of events that have brought me together with this...what? Who is she exactly? Just a commuter? Or have I just seen the face of, talked with, flirted with, my Guardian Angel? Half an hour later, I get up as the train rolls into my home station. I walk unsteadily towards the doors (look on the bright side, at least I wasn't at the dribbling stage of drunk!) and as I look back, I see her holding my gaze, looking at me, smiling.


I smile back, and step out into the night. 

23.3.06 14:03


WATERWORLD - ANOTHER PERSPECTIVE ON IRAQ

Ask most people about their perceptions of Iraq, and they're likely to tell you it's a country sliding inexorably towards civil war. They might proffer an opinion on our involvement in removing Saddam from power and our subsequent role in teaching the country's inhabitants the rudiments of democratic rule, but their likely conclusion will be that "It's a mess out there". Pressed further, they might expand upon its history as the cradle of civilisation, and asked about its topography and geographic properties, they'll probably describe its deserts, riverine economy and the sphere of influence of its two major cities, Baghdad and Basra. What they're most unlikely to know about is its coastline.


Which is hardly surprising, given the country's geography, bordered as it is by Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Syria, Turkey and Iran. Its coastline measures little more than 35 miles in total, yet its strategic importance can't be overstated. It is the site of a number of important oil installations, most notably Iraq's two main oil tanker terminals, KAAOT and ABOT. Its chief importance is its strategic location, controlling access to the Shatt al-Arab waterway (and thus access to the port of Basra).


My recent return to Iraq focused on this southern-most tip of the country, and it would be fair to say that I've come away with a completely different perspective on events. One of my biggest frustrations when I was based in Baghdad in 2004 was the way in which the U.S utterly dominated every aspect of life in the city, making it somewhat difficult to get an objective perspective on events. We spent U.S dollars buying U.S goods in U.S stores staffed by Americans. The only accents you heard around the city were American - from the people you worked with, from the radio stations you listened to; even the mobile phones we used on a daily basis has U.S dialling codes. The U.S military operates on a different footing to the British - whereas we engage local communities to win them over using the classic hearts and minds method, the American approach tends to be far more dominant and imposing. I was hoping to gain a different, and hopefully more objective understanding on my most recent visit, and given the group I travelled with, I think I may just have done so.


I flew out of Heathrow on Wednesday night, the 1st March, with the Royal Navy's recently appointed Commander in Chief, Admiral Sir James Burnell-Nugent, KCB CBE ('CINCFLEET'). The purpose of the visit was for him to get a heads up on the role played by the Royal Navy in Iraq, through a mixture of briefings from his commanders on the ground, and visits to the various bases and places of strategic importance. Media wise, Michael Evans, the defence editor from The Times and myself were the only two journalists invited to travel with the Admiral and report on his trip. 



Tactical Climb: The door gunner on our Sea King helicopter covers us against potential threats as we hover over the Iraqi port of Um Qasr (c) Black Rat.


One of the upsides of travelling with a four-star General is that you get similar treatment by association. So, instead of a 36 hour journey into Iraq, travelling in a cramped Tri-Star and bone-shaking Hercules courtesy of the RAF as I experienced last time I flew there, this time saw us kicking back with a glass of wine in BA's Club World lounge at Heathrow before boarding a 777 bound for Kuwait, a mere five and a half hours flying time away. Being a night flight, the fact that we were travelling Club World was particularly welcome and the six-foot flat bed meant sleep wasn't too long in coming; just what we needed given the packed program that lay ahead of us.


Being part of the Admiral's party also meant that we bypassed immigration completely on arrival in Kuwait. Instead, we were met by our defence attach? in the country with a delegation from the British Embassy and escorted to the airport's VIP area. Here, our passports were taken away to receive the requisite entry stamps, and instead of us fighting to recover our bags from the baggage carrousel, one of the Admiral's staff disappeared to collect our luggage for us (I could get used to travelling like this!) Once he returned, we changed from the lounge suits in which we'd travelled, swapping them for working rig in the case of myself and Mike and uniform dress for the Naval and Royal Marines officers who were in our party. Before leaving, and over hot tea, we were handed invitations to dinner as guests of the Ambassador at the Embassy on the Saturday evening, and whilst we packed only the kit we'd need in Iraq into one bag, everything else was taken to the Embassy for us, from where it would be transferred to our hotels to await our arrival. That done, we wandered out into the bright sunshine and a temperature in the mid-eighties (something of a shock given the zero degree temperatures we'd left in London) where we were driven the short distance to a Royal Navy Sea King helicopter, which awaited us out on the pan, its rotors already turning. Donning body armour, shades and helmets, we then embarked and without further ado, took off for the short flight across the Arabian Sea to MND (SE) the headquarters for British forces in Iraq situated at Al Basrah.



Hurry up and Wait: Michael Evans of The Times (back to the camera, in civvies) gathers up his gear as we await transport on the ground at MND SE (c) Black Rat.


We were met on arrival by a fleet of British military Land Rovers and driven over to the HQ building for a briefing on the current situation in Iraq by Major General John Cooper, the General Officer Commanding (GOC) at MND SE. The briefing was in-depth and all-encompassing, aimed at bringing CINCFLEET up to speed on events in theatre, but both Mike and I were given an opportunity to ask questions throughout. One of the things that was evident to me throughout the briefing was just how great the dichotomy between how we do things, and how the U.S do things out there.


We're very heavily committed to training and regenerating the infrastructure of Iraq, the key being to allow the Iraqis to take responsibility for, and master their own destiny. It's not our job to do it for them, but to train them, show them, and demonstrate methods which they can take on themselves to become effective. One of the threats, eloquently pointed out by General Cooper during the briefing, is that "Too often, we come in with our own mindset and our own way of doing things. What we need to do, and what we are doing now is letting the Iraqis establish their own identity, with Iraqis in key roles, doing things their own way. That's happening across the board now; from the police force, to the army, the border protection force, to the marines. Iraq's is a riverine economy, so the domination of her waterways by the Iraqis is vital". One of the keys to this lies in training the Iraqi forces through their involvement in live operations as opposed to staged exercises, as we'd do here, say.



Saddam-U-like: Admiral Sir James Burnell Nugent, Commander in Chief of the Royal Navy, greets a line up of senior Iraqi naval officers at their HQ in Um Qasr (c) Black Rat.


Intelligence on the ground as regards the security situation in theatre tends to present a rather different picture to that which we see over here. Sunni support for extremists and those involved in the insurgency appears to be limited outside of the main Sunni strongholds, and the view amongst the man on the street is simply a desire for stability within Iraq's borders. Evidence tends to suggest that a large proportion of the insurgency is driven from across the border by Iran, another reason why Coalition forces are working with heavyweights such as Ali Al Sistani and Muqtada al Sadr, both of whom are seen as stabilising influences amongst their respective communities, with the power and respect to keep the peace. Ironically, the now-defunct Coalition Provisional Authority issued a warrant for Al Sadr's arrest on murder charges whilst I was in Baghdad in 2004, a warrant which remains outstanding. Such is the nature of realpolitik.


One of the biggest problems facing the Coalition forces in rebuilding Iraq's infrastructure lies in the reluctance of Iraqis in government ministries to take responsibility for anything. That reluctance appears to be endemic, and stems perhaps from the darkest days of Saddam's rule, when any minister associated with a failure could, and would often be summarily shot. The corollary is that now, everything might be in place in terms of a project that is vital to Iraq's economy or future; the research has been done, the parts or equipment exist and are in stock, and the people are available to make it happen. Coalition forces will draw up the purchase order and forward it to the respective ministry in Baghdad, where it will become mysteriously 'lost' or buried at the bottom of the minister's in-tray. It's becoming a serious problem now, as vital work remains outstanding, simply for want of a signature authorising the spending of funds which are available and earmarked as such at the treasury. Quite how one solves that particular problem is anybody's guess.



Meet and Greet: Admiral Burnell-Nugent talks with officers from the Iraqi forces, portside at Um Qasr, as we await a demonstration of an opposed boarding by Iraqi marines (Black Rat)


It's clear though that things are markedly more positive compared to how they were when I was last in the country, with the Iraqis taking ever-greater control and responsibility for what happens within their own borders. One gets a sense that the Coalition forces are there more as a backstop in many cases, and Iraqi forces taking the lead response has become the norm. Take the recent bombing by Sunni insurgents of the Al-Askari Shrine in Samarra, one of the holiest sites in Shia Islam. The response to that was effected by local governors, involved Iraqi forces, and was led by them without reference to the Coalition. That's exactly the sort of independence the Iraqis have achieved, but it's a message that's been slow to emerge, buried under the weight of a daily news flow of bombings, attacks and ever-increasing numbers of dead.


Other positives to come out of the briefing were that, with the democratic process now firmly established in Iraq, there's a steady improvement of governance. Oil and electricity production are within touching distance of their pre-war levels, and the water supply is better than it was before the war. There's a deeply-held belief amongst the senior British officers that I spoke to that 2006 will see burgeoning Iraqi sovereignty, although there is also a recognition that, as time moves on, we may become seen as part of the problem rather than the solution. We may be well regarded by most Iraqis at present, but that goodwill has a best before date stamped across it that we will disregard to our detriment.



Lock and Load: An Iraqi marine, H&K MP5 submachine pistol at the ready, waits for the order to board an Iraqi Navy patrol boat, which is playing the role of a suspect ship (Black Rat).  


When the briefing ended, we were driven over to the mess hall for lunch, where we were joined by a number of locally based RN and Royal Marines officers, keen to hear Admiral BN's plans and engage him in conversation. From there, we were driven across the pan to the Joint Helicopter Force HQ where, after a brief photo call, our Sea King arrived to fly us down to the port of Um Qasr, Iraq's only deep-water port and the home of the country's fledgling Navy and Marines.


It was at this point that the importance of the waterways - and their role in Iraq's oil infrastructure and contribution to the country's regeneration, started to hit home to us. Previously, I'd wondered just what impact the Royal Navy could be having with regard to the British military's presence in the Gulf, but here the evidence was writ large. They're training Iraqi marines - how to effect boarding of boats and ships threatening Iraq's territorial waters. They're training the country's navy, now almost 900 strong and operating patrols in defence of Iraq's waterways 24/7. Our senior Naval officers have been working with the Kuwaiti Navy to promote a closer working relationship with the Iraqis (bear in mind that memories of the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait in 1991 remain strong) and the result is joint ops between the neighbouring countries.



Give me Warp Speed! A Sailor of the Iraqi Navy steers a course as we leave port for the Khawr Abd Allah waterway (c) Black Rat. 


We watched a demonstration by Iraqi marines of an opposed boarding at sea and I was surprised at just how efficiently they performed the task. Next, we donned life jackets and boarded one of the Iraqi Navy's 24 new aluminium-hulled fast patrol boats, a gift from the U.A.E. With an all-Iraqi crew, we took off at speed along the Al Faw peninsula, for a demonstration of the boat's capabilities - which with twin 250hp Mercury outboard engines, was impressive enough. The .50 calibre machine gun mounted astern and manned by a crew of 3 is more than enough firepower to deal with reluctant smugglers or insurgents intent on attacking the country's oil platforms, and the comms fit and GPS were all state of the art. The Iraqi Navy counts  5 shallow hull Predator patrol boats amongst its fleet, as well as 6 high-fit ribs, and they have a new class of patrol boats on order which feature a deeper draft, are wider, and with space for a larger crew. It might not sound much compared to our own Navy, but then its about the right tool for the job and with just 35 miles of coast to patrol, they have exactly what they need to project firepower and force where it counts - they have no aspirations to become an expeditionary force, they're there solely to patrol territorial waters and defend the oil platforms.



Firepower: Iraqi sailors man the mounted GPMG, the patrol boat's main armament as we patrol the Khawr Abd Allah waterway. (c) Black Rat


We drove over to the Navy college where a number of senior Iraq navy officers were presented to the Admiral and it was driven home to us just how motivated these men are, given the risks that face them. Attacks by insurgents on senior military officers in the country's regenerated forces are widespread and the higher up the chain someone is, the greater the risk. Just two days before our arrival, the chief of the Iraqi Navy, who we'd been due to meet, had his home shot up whilst he was there with his family (fortunately, nobody was hurt in the attack). The risk is evident too even lower down the chain of command - at a recent graduation ceremony for Iraqi Marine recruits, not a single family member was able to attend due to the risk. These are men with a great deal of pride in their country, whose single greatest desire is to see it returned to a position of strength and independence, free of the debt to Coalition forces, and free from the instability created by what is by and large, and insurgent threat from across the borders.


The sun was setting by now, so after bidding our hosts farewell, we returned to the pan where our Sea King was awaiting us, engines hot and rotors turning. Donning body armour and helmets once again, we boarded and took off on the short flight across the Gulf to our home for the next two nights, the amphibious assault ship HMS Bulwark, the Royal Navy's newest vessel. She had assumed duites as Flagship in the Northern Arabian Gulf (NAG) on the day of our arrival and would also be playing host to Commodore Bruce Williams, the commander of Command Task Force 58 (CTF 58) for the duration of our visit. It was on this short hop across the sea that things got interesting. A short time after take off from Um Qasr, we appeared to come under attack. I looked out of the window to sea two tell-tale smoke trails heading towards us, followed shortly after by three or four loud explosions, accompanied by blinding white light as the aircraft fired off its chaff and Electronic Counter Measures. We banked sharply to starboard, and climbed to altitude, and continued on our way, shaken but not stirred!    



Attention on Board: Captain Clive Johnstone, captain of HMS Bulwark, in discussion with Admiral Sir James Burnell-Nugent, CINCFLEET, Royal Navy. (c) Black Rat. 


I was surprised at just how spacious the ship was when we arrived. On disembarking from the aircraft, the ship's crew stood to attention to receive us, and our bags were taken from us to be delivered to our accommodation. After a short welcome brief from Captain Clive Johnstone, we were shown to our cabins, with both Mike and I allocated private cabins on the Wardroom deck. After a quick shower and change, we joined the ship's officers for dinner in the wardroom, but it had been a long day, so I retired a short time later. 



Commando: A Royal Marines Commando from the detachment aboard HMS Bulwark mans the 7.62mm GPMG mounted on our Landing Craft as we cruise across the Northern Arabian Gulf towards the KAAOT oil platform (c) Black Rat


 Friday was a day spent learning about the finer points of Iraq's infrastructure, a fast track to learning exactly what it all means to the country's regeneration and future - in short, everything. As it stands though, that message seems to be lost to the world at large due to the focus placed upon the insurgency, and the problems within the country's borders. Understandably, the world?s attention is on the mainland, where multinational forces are trying desperately to hold the country together and prevent all-out, bloody civil war, but the social and political troubles besetting Iraq are overshadowing the potential vulnerability of its economy.



Bearing the Scars: KAAOT oil platform as seen through a slit in the landing ramp of our LCVP. Despite its size, this platform is almost redundant, rendered almost unusable through intense fighting during the Iran-Iraq war of the 1980s. The money doesn't exist to regnerate it, and inward investment is difficult to attract at present given Iraq's volatile security situation. (c) Black Rat. 


Iraq?s northern oil pipelines are closed at present, following a series of terrorist attacks last last year, so the 1.1 million barrels of crude oil that Iraq exports each day is being pumped to two oil platforms in the south, just off the al-Faw peninsula. The Al-Basra oil terminal (ABOT) handles the overwhelming majority of this (roughly 90% of total exports) and the Khawr al-Amaya oil terminal (KAAOT), which was badly damaged in intense fighting during the Iran-Iraq war handles the remainder. The two terminals, run by Iraq?s Southern Oil Company, lie just sixteen miles off the southern coast of Iraq, and oil is fed to them via huge 48inch diameter pipe that snake along the seabed.



Unsteady Legs: The rusted, holed carcass that is one of KAAOT's main supports for the oil platform above. The holes were caused by gun fire between Iranian and Iraqi boats during the war of the 1980s. (c) Black Rat. 


Given that between them, KAAOT and ABOT are responsible for almost 97% of Iraq's Gross Domestic Product (GDP), it would be fair to say that they are vital to the country's economy, and they are the reason that the Northern Arabian Gulf  is awash with Coalition ships; the military forces of CTF 58, currently led by Commodore Williams are there to protect them, because those two platforms and the piplelines that feed them hold the key to the economic survival of Iraq. The point isn't lost on those intent on Iraq's destruction;  a two-day shut down in April 2004 caused by an attack on the platforms, which killed three U.S servicemen is estimated to have cost $28 million and the price of oil spiked on world markets resulting in a further loss to the global economy of approximately $6 billion.



A Hole Runs Through it: This gaping hole which disects a steel strut, one of the main beams across KAAOT, shows the sheer firepower of an armour piercing round. You can see the thickness of the steel; this is the damage caused by what was most likely a uranium-tipped, armour piercing round. KAAOT is littered with other, similar damage. (c) Black Rat.


Michael and myself accompanied Admiral BN on a rare visit to both platforms to meet those who are guarding Iraq?s future and protecting the oil flow. With a detachment of the ship's Royal Marine Commandos and Andy, an RM Lt. Colonel who is my media liason back in the UK, we were lowered into the Gulf aboard a Landing Craft (LCVP) and taken first to KAAOT. Known as ?Waterworld?, the platform is commanded by US Navy Lieutenant John Moses from Mobile Security Detachment 31 of US Naval Coastal Warfare. Under his charge are 13 American military and 30 Iraqi Marines; he works with the terminal's manager, an Iraqi, and the 34 Iraqi workers who run the platform, but his role and that of those under his command is not to lead; the U.S military are there as a kind of 'older brother' to the Iraqi marines, who are now entirely responsible for the point defence of the platform. That defence is concentrated on the north side, consisting of twin .50 calibre machine guns and grenade launchers, which are manned round the clock. 



Coalition Forces: Standing L-R at rear are Lt. John Moses of the US Navy, Admiral James Burnell-Nugent, CINCFLEET Royal Navy, and Captain Paddy McAlpine, RN, operational commander of CTF 58. Crouching at front are two Iraqi marines, responsible for point defence of the KAAOT oil platform. (c) Black Rat. 


KAAOT was severely damaged in the Iran-Iraq War in the 1980s and is in dire need of repair; evidence of the intense battles that were waged over this vital strategic location is everywhere, from the rusting supports, which prop the platform up, to the holes ripped through 6 inch thick steel beams by uranium-tipped rounds. The platform is in a state of utter decay and is gradually slipping into the sea. It has only one berth for oil tankers and is only able to accommodate vessels limited to carrying one million barrels of oil; in effect it is little more than a back-up platform. In four months Lt. Moses has left the platform only once and that was to go across to ABOT. He explained his rules of engagement: ?If any boat enters the exclusion zone, we warn them off with loudspeakers, flares and whistles. ?That normally puts them off. If they keep coming, we fire warning shots over their heads and, if they still don?t turn away and come within 500 metres, we?ll blast them out of the water.? Asked if he and his team had engaged in firefighting in the event of an oil fire, he replied: ?No, sir, the only firefighting we do is with our guns.? How does he motivate his men, having to spend every day sitting on an oil platform, month after month? ?I tell them their safety is inextricably linked to the safety of this platform, that motivates them,? he said.



The White House: The main accommodation block on KAAOT which provides housing for the terminal manager, his staff and Lt. John Moses, commander of US troops based on the platform. The US troops are based elsewhere on the platform. Conditions are better than the appearance suggests; wi-fi internet, a fully equipped gym and extensive DVD library all help to while away the hours. (c) Black Rat.   


?Iraq?s GDP is flowing through these pipes,? Admiral Burnell-Nugent said. Cupping his hands around the pipes, which resonated to the sound of oil being pumped through them, he said, "it's not often that  one can experience something so literal, but I have almost 100% of this country's economy in my hands at the moment. There can be no more graphic representation of just what this country relies upon that this".



"Fill 'er Up!": An ultra-large supertanker, one of the world's largest ocean going vessels, takes on crude oil alongside one of the ABOT platform's four berths. It takes approximately three days to take a full load of oil onboard. (c) Black Rat.


A 3,000- metre exclusion zone exists around each platform, and every fishing boat, dhow and RIB in the area - anything up to 1,000 a day - is warned in the strongest possible terms not to intrude even a few metres over the line. If they do, they risk being mistaken for an insurgent or a terrorist. ?I have the job of deciding whether it?s a fisherman or a terrorist, but we don?t get a second chance,? said Royal Navy Captain Paddy McAlpine, the operational commander of multinational task group CTF 58. With HMS Bulwark, our temporary home on constant duty around the two platforms, accompanied by vessels from the Australian and Singaporean navies, US Coastguards and, most importantly for Iraq?s future, British-trained Iraqi Navy teams in patrol boats, there is a round-the-clock lookout for terrorist suicide boats.



Pipework: Admiral BN with Lt. Garth Kaliczack, US Navy Commander. Visible behind them are two of the 48 inch pipes, which carry the oil that is vital to Iraq's future. Within these pipes flow almost 100% of the country's GDP. (c) Black Rat


On board the two platforms, US Navy troops and Iraqi Marines live and work together to protect Iraq?s economy, patrolling the 1,000- metre-long structures and manning point-defence gun positions at each end. They are under constant observation by a small team of Iranian military positioned on a sunken crane, just inside Iranian territorial waters, which lie no more than 3000 metres from KAAOT, although the top of the structure bends over into Iraqi waters. Outside the CTF 58 exclusion zone, it is an ideal observation point for the Iranians, although Captain McAlpine is not suggesting that the Iranians are planning anything hostile.



HMS Bulwark at Anchor: HMS Bulwark is the Royal Navy's most recent ship to enter service, one of the Albion Class, Landing Platform Dock Ships (LPD's). The primary function of Albion Class ships is to embark, transport, and deploy and recover (by air and sea) troops and their equipment, vehicles and miscellaneous cargo, forming part of an Amphibious Assault Force (c) Black Rat.


We're taken to ABOT, by far the more important of the two platforms because it has four berths for ultra large super-tankers - the world's biggest, each with a maximum capacity for three million barrels of oil. You're looking at three days to transfer that sort of quantity of crude, and there's a constant stream of ships in and out of the platform throughout the year. Lt Garth Kaliczak, the US Navy officer in charge of an 82-man team welcomed us to the ?ABOT Marriott?, as he calls it. He has up to 40 Iraqi Marines under his wing. ?My job is to defend and train,? he said. On the day of Admiral Burnell-Nugent?s visit, there were four super-tankers in position, all plugged into Iraq?s oil flow, drawing out crude oil in return for the money that is Iraq's future. ABOT is handling 95,000 barrels of oil per hour; in terms of value, $65 million a day or up to $11,000 a second.



Looking to the Future: Andy, a Lt. Col with the RM who acts as a media relations officer looks across the clear waters of the Gulf from the deck of HMS Bulwark. Just visible on the horizon is KAAOT oil platform (c) Black Rat 


CTF 58, which was set up in 2003, has previously been commanded by the Americans and Australians but is now led by the British for the first time, under the overall control of Commodore Bruce Williams, Captain McAlpine?s boss. Commodore Williams emphasised the importance of building up intelligence of all the regular users of the sea area for which he is responsible. ?The key to this is the involvement of the Iraqi Navy (rebuilt from the navy destroyed by American and British bombing in the first Gulf War), which goes around among the fishing boats and dhows to explain why there is an exclusion zone. Most of them are quite happy with the situation when they realise it?s the future of their country at stake,? he said. One Royal Navy officer on board HMS Bulwark, who has been given the job of mastering the intricacies of the Iraqi oil business said: ?If these oil platforms were taken out by insurgents or terrorists, Iraq would be bankrupt.?



Landing Flare: A Royal Navy Sea King, part of the Joint Helicopter Force based at MND SE flares before landing on the deck of HMS Bulwark. A short time later, we're en route for Kuwait, the final stop before coming home. (c) Black Rat.  


That night, we had a private audience with HMS Bulwark's captain, followed by a private dinner in our honour hosted by Commodore Bruce Williams. With just six of us around the table in his private dining room onboard the ship, he expanded on his remit and was candid about his vision of the future and how he sees it taking shape. Although his command is for a fixed period, he's keen to see it extended until the point that Coalition forces are able to withdraw, handing control and responsibility fully over to the Iraqi forces - he has no wish to leave the job mid-way through completion.  



GPMG: The door mounted 7.62mm machine gun, which protects most British Military helicopters, lies dormant as we transit across the Arabian Gulf towards Kuwait. Over Iraq, these weapons are manned whenever the aircraft is flying, but here, over the benign waters of the Gulf, any potential threats are a long way away. (c) Black Rat


After dinner, we retired to the wardroom for a private chat with the Admiral over brandy. He's an amiable fellow, fiercely intelligent, with a great strategic overview of global affairs as you might expect, and it was useful to hear some of his insights and his plans for our Navy, which he is going to have to manage with a zero percent increase in funding over the next five years. "In essence", he told me, "we're going to have to deliver better productivity from the resources we have".



Cabin Crew: Two journalists (one visible), two Royal Marines offficers, the Commander of CTF 58, CINCFLEET and two Naval assistant officers comprise our final cargo as we head for Kuwait and a reception by the British Ambassador, Stuart Laing. (c) Black Rat.


The following morning saw us saying farewell to HMS Bulwark, as our helicopter landed on deck to transfer us to Kuwait. Attached to the cabin via a lanyard, I was able to sit with my legs dangling outside the open door as we flew at low level across the Gulf. Out of danger, our flak jackets and helmets were left packed for this mission as we transited the crystal clear waters getting ever closer to Iraq's safer, and richer neighbour. On touching down at Kuwait Aiport, we were met on the pan by Stuart Laing, Her Majesty's Ambassador to Kuwait. He and Admiral BN are old friends, having met at Cambridge, their alma mater where they also met their wives. Michael, Andy, his colleague Richard from the Royal Marines and myself all took our seats in an armoured Mercedes and joined a motorcade led by the Ambassador's car flying the penant, on the short drive to Kuwait city. Here we peeled off, as the Admiral and his aides headed for the Embassy. We had the day at leisure before dinner that evening, so were driven to our hotel, the Mariott Courtyard in Kuwait City.



Circle the Wagons: On the ground at Kuwait Airport by a vehicle of the Kuwaiti force protecting the British Ambassador. Several of these, together with a number of armoured limousines from the Embassy comprised the motorcade in which we left the airport, bypassing immigration entirely!        (c) Black Rat 


As expected, our lounge suits  and other kit were in our rooms waiting for us on arrival, and we quickly changed into shorts and headed for the rooftop pool and sun loungers to soak up a little of the 90 degree temperatures over lunch. Once again I was left to ruminate on the moral issue that is a journalist's nightmare whenever departing a war zone. Soldiers and those fighting on our behalf are faced with court martial and a prison sentence if they choose to leave. We on the other hand, are given 5 star treatment in luxury hotels, and business class flights to our home airports.



The Lap of Luxury: Three hours after leaving the hostile waters off Iraq's south coast, we're relaxing by the pool of the Mariott CourtYard under the clear blue skies and mid 80 temperatures of Kuwait City. (c) Black Rat  


We spent the afternoon at leisure, wandering the Souks and malls before heading back to the hotel to change for dinner. A car arrived at 19:40 to convey us to the British Embassy for a private dinner given in the Admiral's honour. There were just sixteen, a mix of senior embassy staff, and three or so high ranking Kuwaiti Naval officers, including the General commanding. We sipped gin and tonics on the verandah of the Embassy, the night sounds of Kuwait the soundtrack to conversations with our fellow guests who wandered hither and thither amongst us, introducing themselves. At dinner, I was seated next to the embassy's first secretary, and arms salesman who introduced himself to me thus: "Hello, I'm Keith, and I'm a dealer in death", without any hint of irony.  



RSVP: An invitation to dinner from Stuart Laing, the British Ambassador to Kuwait and his wife Sibella (c) Black Rat.


We left Kuwait early the following morning on a British Airways flight that left at 08:50 - exactly the same flight I'd caught home two years earlier after my last visit to Iraq and I was left to reflect on the changes I'd noticed this time around. There's no question that there's a different slant on things as seen from the south of the country, compared to in the north. There's no question that the majority of Iraqis I encountered on this visit welcomed what we are doing there and saw us a a positive influence, compared with the negative viewpoints and dislike of the Americans which I encountered on almost a daily basis with the Iraqis I met in Baghdad. There's an unmistakeable air of progress in the south, of the Iraqis working to take responsibility for themselves allied to a frustration and hatred of those visiting violence on the country. Most Iraqis I spoke with see the insurgency as an outside thing, not home-grown. They are glad to see Saddam gone, and amongst the Iraqi military we encountered, their favourite daily entertainment is watching the broadcasts of his trial on TV. On an Iraqi Navy patrol boat that we cross-decked to en-route between KAAOT and ABOT, the TV was tuned permanently to the trial, and the boat's crew would watch intently, mimicking, gesturing and laughing every time Saddam's face was shown.


T.E. Lawrence, better known as Lawrence of Arabia, gave wise counsel in an article published in The Arab Bulletin in August 1917. He listed 27 points which were his guiding principles in dealing with the Arabs so successfully, and one paragraph in particular sums up the British military's approach in Southern Iraq. It reads thus:


?Better the Arabs do it tolerably than that you do it perfectly. It is their war, and you are to help them, not win it for them. Actually,also, under the very odd conditions of Arabia, your practical work will not be as good as, perhaps, you think it is. It may take them longer and it may not be as good as you think, but if it is theirs, it will be better".


If we are achieving successes there, it would appear to me to be due to our working to this creed, and a dedicated desire to win the hearts and minds of the Iraqi people. There's a marked dichotomy between the reality on the ground out there, and how it is reported back here and in the U.S by the mainstream media, which I suppose is just one of those things. Certainly, there seems to be amplification through the miles, in how events are portrayed here. I spoke to one of the Iraqi marines about the new photos which had just been disclosed of the torture at Abu Grahib by U.S soldiers, and of the video which showed British soldiers beating up their Iraqi prisoners. He was sanguine about them, saying "We want to move forwards, not backwards. You get this in war, there are bad people in every organisation, but not representative of those organisations as a whole. Britain is good for Iraq. Saddam bad. One day, we have true independence and when that day comes, In Sh'Allah, it will all have been worth it".


It's hard to admit you're wrong, doubly so when your opinions are published on the internet for the world to see. My thoughts and opinions on Iraq, and our role in removing Saddam, which I wrote contemporaneously whilst based in Baghdad in 2004 are representative of how I felt at the time, based upon what I saw and experienced then. But based on what I saw this time round, I'm beginning to reassess my opinions. I still have trouble with Blair's justification for our being involved and I'm even more concerned over the legality of it. I despise the way the British military has submitted so many soldiers to the stress and pain of criminal investigation over their actions in combat - more so than in any other conflict of recent times - and there is no question that we're embroiled in a mess in Iraq, a country that might yet slip over the precipice into a civil war that will make Beiruit in the 1980s look like a vicar's tea party by comparison. The fact is though, that we're there, we are involved, and nothing is going to change that. Withdrawal, at this stage, is simply not an option, no matter how much we wish it to be. We have an obligation, having removed Saddam, to do all we can to stabilise the country, and see that those desirous of violence and power for thier own ends, do not succeed. The big question is whether or not we have both the finances, and the stomach to achieve that goal.

16.3.06 16:42


BACK TO IRAQ

Hello world. Thought I'd bowed out, did you? Tell you the truth, I had. What with the changes that are hanging over 20six like the sword of Damocles and the mass exodus of Old Skool bloggers to the four corners of blogsville, I was ready and willing to join the flood, seeking pastures anew on WordPress. Still am, come to think of it.


But all that was before I was struck down by the return of my sciatica, the same excrutiating and all-consuming pain that afllicted me and so blighted my summer throughout last August. For the past ten days or so, I've been laid up, unable to move, unable to sleep and unable to escape or alleviate the pain. So once again, I'm drugged up to the eyes, lost in a sea of opium-induced drowsiness as the various drugs in my pain management regimen fight for supremacy in my central nervous system. Oh, and I've now got a referral to an orthopaedic surgeon too, so hopefully I can discover what's causing these intermittent bouts of intense pain.


Ironic really, as I spent the day before the onset of this particular episode with an eminent neurosurgeon, planning the logisics of a forthcoming feature which will see me shadowing him for a week as he performs brain surgery, talks to patients, and looks in on them in intensive care. Should be fascinating to say the least.



Otherwise, I've spent an awful lot of time working up forthcoming assignments, trying to put into place the neccessary arrangements for me to get where I need to be, with the right people, and at the right time. Oh, and along the way, making arrangements for the builders to move in for six weeks from the beginning of April to address the small problem of our house literally slipping away from under us. That little hiccup will require us to vacate the premises for a few weeks, so we rather have our hands full at the moment.


Thankfully, there seems to be some light at the end of the tunnel for me pain-wise, which is just as well as I'm going back to Iraq next week. The date had been pencilled in my diary since the tail end of last year, but it's taken until this afternoon for the neccessary approvals to come though. They have though, so myself and the man from The Times will fly out to Kuwait next Wednesday night, the first stop on the lengthy process of getting us into theatre. Only a short trip this one, but it looks like being action-packed and given what I know of the itinery, fascinating too. I'm due home on the 5th, but just two days later, I've got another assignment which will take me to the northern-most tip of Norway, way up in the Arctic Circle to watch the Royal Marines undertake their cold weather training. Brrr. So, desert to arctic within a week. Never let it be said that my life isn't about extremes!


Looks like this is going to be a busy weekend for me as I'll have lots of last-minute packing to do, plans to make, and things to buy. Oh, and it would be nice to try and live a little in there somewhere too, as I haven't done much of that in the past week or so due to being in so much pain. I shan't make any more lame promises of 'service returning to normal' because I won't be able to keep them. I'm definitely planning a move to WordPress which I shall facilitate upon my return, but until then, this is where you'll find me. A toute a l'heure

24.2.06 16:24


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