A Life on the Lam

Unlike David Copperfield, I will not start the story of my life at the beginning of my life, as for all intents and purposes my existence did not begin until the age of twenty one, when I left these shores for Australia. I was what, in those days was called a ten pound Pom. For ten quid the Government of Australia would fly you out to Oz, and all one had to do was to stay there for two years. That length of time could be long in the passing, but, at twenty one years old, the cantering along of the calendar does not mean very much. Only after the age of fifty does time begin to have any meaning for the individual, and then simply because one realises that one is running put of ones personal stock of the commodity and there are no top up supplies available.

As the aircraft manoeuvred on the runway at Heathrow, I could see my mother waving from the roof of the terminal building. It was at that point that the penny finally dropped as to the enormity of what I had done. As I was negotiating the final barriers in the departure lounge, which would separate me from all I had ever known, thereby pitch forking me into God knows what, I wanted desperately to change my mind and stay. The only reason I continued with the venture was because I would look such a fool if I were to take that quantum leap back into the arms of the familiar, and I had looked a fool on so many occasions in the past that nothing would have induced me to add to my laurels in that department. I cannot but feel that most of the disasters in History are the product of people who lacked the courage to reverse their course.

Finally we were up in the air, an exhilarating experience for one for whom not so long ago thought foreign travel to be day trip to Manchester. They had given me a window seat, which suited me perfectly. My travelling companions did not. Nothing wrong with them, perfectly respectable folk, a niece and her aunt. We were only a few feet off the ground when the niece started telling me all about auntie. I suppose the old dear was able to speak for herself, but at the age of ninety one, I presumed the venerable party thought it best to conserve her energy. It was not that I harboured any particular animus against nonagarians, it was just that I was terrified the old dame could cash in her chips at any time and I would spend the flight to Australia wedged between the fuselage and a corpse.

The journey was pure magic, flying over territories I had heretofore only read about in books, the one drawback was auntie. The crew were continuously feeding us, and auntie persisted in shovelling most of her’s in my direction, with the inevitable result, what goes in, must come out. There was an obvious solution to the conundrum, but I was petrified of negotiating my way past auntie in case I slipped and crushed the life out of her, in those distant days I was far too polite to inform her to shift herself as I needed a dump. When finally I set foot on Australian soil, it was not the Wizard of Oz that was on my mind

I suppose I had anticipated landing in Perth on a Monday and starting work on Tuesday. Naturally, things did not quite pan out in that manner. I did get a job, selling encyclopaedias, but it did not take long to discover I was no salesman. After a couple of weeks, I landed a job labouring in a steel mill. Now, if there is one thing I can not abide, it is physical labour, but when one is broke, one does not chose ones options, just grab what comes along.

With my suitcase clutched in my hand, somewhat reminiscent of Charlie Chaplin I walked from the hotel to the bus stop. The steel mill operated a hostel and a place had been booked for me, this is where things started getting complicated. A man approached me, he was much older than I, he chattered away, and, being an amiable cove, I reciprocated. The fellows name was John Wayne, the upshot of all this talk was him offering me a job running a business he was about to set up. I said yes, and before I knew what was happening, I was in a car heading off into the wilds of Australia. As you may have guessed, I was a bit simple in those days, and, unlike a good Bordeaux, I have not improved with age.

After several hours driving, we reached John’s home, he left me alone in the car while he went into the house to explain what he had found in the big city. The squawks, shouts and imprecations echoing around the happy homestead left me in no doubt that his latest discovery did not find favour with his missus, and that it would be a night in the car for me. At that time of year the southern continent could be perishing.

The next day, John gave me a tour of the town, such as it was, all the while telling me how rich his family was, well, I may have been simple but I had not been lobotomised. We stopped off at the local garage to re-fuel where the owner answered a few questions for me. John did come from a rich family, but he was as thick as they came and not allowed access to the inherited lucre, he was given a small allowance and that was that.

Oh calamity, here I was in a wilderness that was not even on the map with a nut case as broke as the Colossus of Rhodes. The business John had been thinking of starting was selling cars. By some miracle, I was able to persuade him to buy an old banger on HP, and I was to take it to Perth and sell it. The ploy worked, as soon as the paperwork had been completed I was on my way. The only fly in the rejuvenating serum was that I was not very good at driving. I negotiated the one hundred and seventy five mile trip back to Perth in second gear as that was the only one I could find. On the way I had phoned the steel works and told them my wife had been rushed to hospital with appendicitis, and I would be in work the next day. So, I still had a job to go to, but, by God, I’d had one hell of a fright.

Working in the steel mill was ghastly, but it had to be done, there was no other option. Every day I scanned the papers in search of more congenial employment. One particular advertisement caught my attention, I rang the number given, they asked to see me. Bingo. A few days later I dumped the jalopy, then it was off to the Pilbarra. At that time, the North West of Australia was like the Klondike in the Nineteenth century, people came from all over the world to work there, about the only nationality one did not see was Australian, they had more sense than to go to the place. If on the odd occasion you did sight one of the natives, it was odds on that they were either running from the law or their creditors, it was as sure as Hell they were not there from choice.

Life here was like nothing I had before experienced, the rules of normal society were not ripped up here, they had never existed in the first place. In one particular fight, a man had been knifed to death, they had to keep the body until the police arrived, so they stuffed it in the canteen’s walk in fridge. Unfortunately, no one took the trouble to tell the cook, who suffered the indignity of a heart attack on discovering a stiff where the bacon ought to have been in his cold store.

It was here in Dampier that I mastered the art of driving. I’d had lessons back in England, but my efforts were so lousy that the instructor had refused to teach me any more, but here in the out back, with unlimited space and no competition for it’s monopoly, I perfected my skills. I had particular trouble with reversing, as the essential fact that when executing that particular manoeuvre one had to turn around and look where one was going, eluded me for quite some time, but eventually, all came well.

Weekends were spent in boats. The Dampier Archipelago is a series of uninhabited islands set in turquoise waters, every weekend we would set out for the islands we took our own beer and caught the fish when we got there. Now civilization has poked it’s nose into that little paradise, and it is now necessary to obtain a permit to set foot on the islands. They call it progress for God’s sake.

Six months in Dampier and I was off, if one had but a scrap of ability coupled with a reasonable grasp of the English language, then one was in demand. A few jobs later found me in a town called Wickham, same neck of the woods, same game, construction. It was while at Wickham that I had the great adventure of my life. Nothing would ever compare with the period which I spent on Legendre Island.

As at Dampier, weekends were spent in boats, and after the statuary six months at RRIOA, I developed a chronic dose of itchy feet. Loving islands as I did, I decided it was time to go and live on one. For the venture, I purchased a small rowing boat approximately the size of a bath tub, this was totally inadequate to negotiate the fourteen miles of open sea to reach Legendre, so a friend towed me out, and there I was left, completely alone with no contact whatsoever with the outside World. What I ate was what I caught, just as well I had always been fond of fish.

My stay on the island came to an abrupt end. Some friends had come out to visit me, but their boat capsized and when they failed to return to the mainland, a search was instigated. The first I heard of all this was when a helicopter landed on the beach besides me, the chopper had a glass front and mine was on display as I was starck naked at the time, which was the state in which I was returned to civilization

Once back on dry land, I needed a job. Quickly. Having often cooked for friends, I thought it reasonable to try my hand as a cook, my friends thought so too, and told me of a pub whose owner was in need of a chef. I marched into the pub and announced that I’d had my own restaurant in London. I was given the job on the spot, it was for a week and I was to start there and then. That night I cooked one hundred and twenty covers with great success, which lead me to believe the patrons had no palates and their knowledge of food did not extend far beyond the confines of a cornflake box.

Convinced I was the reincarnation of Escoffier, I set off to Melbourne to conquer the culinary world. Jobs came and went, the worst was in a country pub where I was entertained on a nightly basis by then sounds of the pub keeper belting his missus from one end of the joint to the other, and I was not going to stand up for her, he was built like a brick dunny and getting my ribs broken was not in the job description.

Time to go home, I had seen the World, or at least I thought I had, little did I realise that I had only just started. On my return my family treated my like the conquering hero, but the trouble with families is that they think they know you, and the problem is, they invariably do. The “Darling your home” refrain soon changed to “Why didn’t the bugger stay there”. Not to worry, I was soon up and off again.

My next berth was Iran. The past had always been my favourite subject, knowing of the glories of Persepolis and Susa, I saw myself stepping into history. Unfortunately, all I put my foot into was a revolution. The uprising against the Shah coincided with my arrival in the country. This was not the surrogate excitement of life, as experienced via television and the press, this was the real thing, there are many ways to learn about fear, this was one of them.

My posting was in Khusistan, the revolt here was particularly virulent, ethnically, the population of this part of Iran was Arab, these people were rebelling against their hated Persian overlords as well as against the monarchy, add this to the residual resentment against Westerners in the Middle East, and you have a potent brew.

Westerners were particularly targeted by the rebels, such was their singular brand of logic, we were assessed as supporters of the Government simply because we worked for it. Expats were attacked, some were killed, there were days when we could not leave our villa, as the word had been put out that we would be shot if seen on the streets.

I vividly remember on one occasion, when we were expecting to be attacked, we positioned ladders against the courtyard wall in order the reach the roof should things get out of hand.. In the living room we had prepared a stock of Molotov cocktails. If an assault on us should materialise, then we were determined to take some of our attackers with us.

I left Iran after three months, my leave was due, took it and did not return. Having a gun stuck in my ear by one of the Iranian constabulary was not my definition of work experience. Nonetheless, I had not done with the Middle East, oh no, the best was yet to come. Actually, a taste of revolution did me good, toughened me up for what was in the pipeline.

Back to Blighty, although not for very long. I loved England, only in small doses, there was something in my make up which revelled in recklessness, not that I realised it at the time, as strange places and peculiar situations formed the normal tempo of my life. Another advert, another interview, this time in a charming eighteenth century house in Berkley Square. I had a chat with a Swedish gentleman, he did not tell me much about the job as it was terribly secrete. When I arrived home in Chester later that day, there was a message waiting for me, the job was mine. I was off to Baghdad.

Think Baghdad, and the mind conjures visions of palm trees, balmy nights on the banks of the Tigris, yes, that is all correct, only in February the temperatures are sub zero, naturally, I had dressed for sunshine. One lives and one learns, at least most people do, I have only managed to live.

In those days, Baghdad airport resembled nothing so much as a ramshackle garden shed built out of corrugated iron sheets. I was met and conducted to the Canal Hotel, this establishment was Government owned and used to train staff in the catering trade, a task at which they were crushingly inept. In the run up to the second Gulf War, this establishment was used as the headquarters of the UN mission. I could not help feeling that someone a joke at the expense of that portentous body, later when it was blown up I howled laughing.

The overwhelming impression the hotel gave was of cat’s urine, the place stank of it, and the creatures overran the corridors. The menu was extensive, but little on it was available. One would ask the waiter for a particular item, only to be sternly informed by the functionary, “Marco”, meaning finished. One would then patiently trawl down the list until something was eventually available, whether one liked it or not, one took what was on offer, it then took two hours to arrive, by which time all and sundry had drunk themselves into a stupor and did not fancy any food after all. Life is tough in the tropics.

Now for a word about what I was doing in Baghdad, Saddam Hussein had commissioned twenty five nuclear shelters to be built in the metropolitan area, it was my job to design and supervise all the concrete used in them. It was one of those shelters, the one at Adhamiya, which was blown up during the first gulf war.

We did not spend every long in the Canal Hotel. We arrived back from work one day, only to be told that our rooms were required to house a fraternal delegation from some socialist paradise or other, and the next day, we were on the streets with the personnel department frantically trying to find us alternative accommodation. Then, the whole process would be repeated a few weeks down the line, and once more we would be turfed out on to the street.

Eventually, our campsite was completed, we now had secure accommodation. The structures were prefabs shipped in from Sweden, sort of Ikea on the Tigris so to speak. Our site was located in what was then called al Quds, the most poverty stricken sector of the city. The entire area stank of sewage, but like everything else in life, you get used to it.

Life in Iraq was dangerous, the Iran Iraq war was at it’s height, the walls of the houses draped with black mourning flags. The flag would go up, the coffin arrive, then a few days later a television and fridge would be delivered as compensation from the Government for the loss of a loved one. The whole place seethed with resentment, it was nothing to see people standing in the middle of the road weeping uncontrollably. In the southern part of the country, the conflict was known as Saddam’s war, although not openly, that would have been too dangerous by far.

As expats, we were sheltered from many of the vicissitudes of wartime existence. The shortages of food in Baghdad were horrendous, at one point, onions had not been seen in the shops for six months. There was an institution called the foreigners shop, to get in you had to show your passport. They would accept any currency except the Iraqi Dinar, naturally, the locals were not allowed in this establishment. On sale were items the locals could only dream of, but even here the supply was patchy. A rumour would go around that there was bacon on sale in the Foreigners, and we would all pile into our cars heading downtown before they sold out.

There was a constant danger from bullets. The Iraqi army was being comprehensively beaten, but every night Saddam would appear on the television announcing another glorious victory, people would then rush out into the streets firing celebratory rounds of ammunition into the air, not caring that what went up, invariably came down, it was nothing to have a bullet come through the roof while enjoying a cup of tea.

I spent two and a half years in Baghdad, and despite the perils of life in war torn Iraq, it was the finest project I have ever worked on, I enjoyed every moment. My sojourn in Iraq came to an end, and once more I was on my travels. By now I was a dyed in the wool expatriate, I could not have coped with a cosy nine to five job in England, such an existence would have driven me off my trolley.

The next port of call was Saudi Arabia. I had been given a start date, however, six weeks elapsed before I left for the Kingdom, I was not complaining, after all I was on full pay. On arrival. The full story was revealed. This project involved building the King’s personal gold mine, the problem was that some of the engineers had been caught half inching the King’s gold, not the wisest move in that particular polity. By the time I came on the scene, there were more members of the compliment in the slammer than sitting behind their desks. It was touch and go whether we would be slung out of the country, in the end, the Saudi’s went ahead with the project, the King wanted his gold.

The location of the project was a small outpost called Mahd adh Dahb. The workings went back some three thousand years, and some archaeologists think this was the site of the biblical Ophir, location of King Solomon’s mines.

This was in the eighties, and even then there was considerable resentment against the royal family. The consensus was that the country would eventually go up like a bottle of pop. I did a year in Saudi, which was quite enough, there is only so much of a good thing a body can stomach, and that place was not even good to start with.

Libya was another workers paradise, an absolute hell for those condemned by birth to live there. I was working on the Great Man Made River, thousands of miles of pipes bringing water from the artesian well of the Sahara to the coast. When I say pipes, do not imagine the feeble little things bringing domestic water to your home. These monsters were big enough to drive a double decker London bus through, and totally useless. There was no need to bring water to the coast, there was plenty there already, but, this was Gadaffi’s pet project, and with that, no argument was possible. Once more I was living in a society held down by brute force. While I was in Libya an uprising occurred, the entire town of Brega was wiped out as an act of retribution. When the pampered liberals of the West demonstrate against the authorities and complain of a police state, I do not know whether to laugh or throw up, the self indulgent fools have no idea what the real thing is like.

Project followed project, Pakistan where I had to be accompanied everywhere by an armed guard, the Philippines, a country which had crafted chaos into an art form, Saudi again, would I never learn? Of course not. All the while Nemesis was lurking just around the corner, waiting for me, and like everything else in my life, the encounter was dramatic.

I had returned from another stint in Saudi, a particularly gruesome experience, with the intention of having a six month break between contracts. I enjoyed my six months, living as I had always lived, high on the hog, and why not? There was always another lucrative contract on the horizon, but, this time things were different. There was a slump in the construction industry and no new work materialised. By the time I realised things had changed, it was too late, I was broke.

There was nothing for it, I had to sign on, oh, the humiliation, but there was worse to come, far worse. For some reason, the local council made a mess of my housing benefit, by the time things were sorted out I was two months in arrears with my rent and they refused to pay the backlog. The inevitable happened, I was served with an eviction notice. I tried everything to avoid being thrown onto the streets, to no avail. I went to a centre run by the council, supposedly to help people in my situation, it was rapidly brought home to me that the people who worked in such places were exceedingly partial as to where they dispensed their do goodery, and white Anglo Saxon Protestants were definitely de trop.

All I wanted was a little help, they handed me a list of estate agents, against every name was the notation “No DSS” They could not even take the trouble to disguise their indifference. I was living in Leyton, no money, no food, in order to eat I had to walk the seven miles into central London, then seven miles back, finally, the day came when I had to leave the flat, it was not much but all I had to call home.

The time of year was February, bitingly cold. For a few hours I was elated, away from my flat, no longer terrified of the landlord’s agent banging on the door demanding money I did not have and had no prospect of obtaining. That relief soon evaporated as the reality of life on the streets hit home.

How to fill a day with nothing? Oh, it can be done, but take it from me it is hard work, endless hours in libraries and art galleries, the lunchtime lectures at the National Gallery became a fixture of my days. Little things became immensely complicated, just getting a drink was a problem. When on the streets, there is no tap to turn on for a glass of water, no fridge to turn to for some milk, I was reduced to trawling around public lavatories in search of drinking fountains. The Champagne days were gone with a chill wind.

I spent my nights in a cardboard box just off Oxford Street. Eventually, I was found by a CAT team who placed me in a hostel in Great Peter Street Westminster, from there I could hear the chimes of Big Ben, so close to riches and power, yet they could have been on another planet for all the relevance they had to my current situation.

This may sound strange, but my problems truly started after I had moved into the hostel. Living on the streets, I was too concerned with the mechanics of surviving from hour to hour to think of anything else, freed from these pressures, I had the leisure to contemplate what it was that had happened to me, at this point I came as close to a breakdown as I ever will.

In the fullness of time a flat was found for me, in Whitechapel. Things started to improve, that was inevitable, I am nothing if not a fighter. All my life I have written, scribbled would be more accurate, but now I applied myself seriously to the task. I wrote a novel, the gates to the future were wrenched open. In publishing, nothing opens overnight, there were still plenty of hungry days in the pipeline.

One cold February evening, the telephone rang, it was a construction agent asking if I would do a job in the Caribbean, this was Wednesday, Sunday found me sitting at a table on the sea shore eating lobster for my dinner. As they say, life has its little ups and downs.

After the Turks and Caicos came Siberia, couldn’t have got more of a contrast if I had ordered one up especially. I thought I had experienced most of what is possible, however, Siberia stretched my boundaries ever further. The company put me up in an establishment called the Hotel Tourist, not a bad place actually, the mafia had taken over an entire floor and filled it full of tarts, I was hooked on the place, honestly, you could not make it up. I came to know quite a few members of the mafia, they were tremendous fun. Life goes on, I do not know what the future holds for me, frankly I do not want to, but I can be absolutely certain of one thing, it will not be dull.