Sunday, 10 September 2017

Glastonbury 2017 - the hunted becomes the hunter

"Do you want to go to Glastonbury?" My good mate Matty asked me over the phone, a month or so before the festival begins. "Too fucking right I do," I replied with all the hesitation of a man that had just been asked by Pamela Anderson if he wanted to fondle her tits. But there was a catch, there always is! The catch was that I had to work whilst I was there. A small price to pay for free entry to this most incredible of festivals. I'd been wanting to go for years but the process of buying tickets appeared to be long and arduous, with only a small chance of a successful ending (a bit like my sex life after 5 pints of beer).

The telephone interview for my job as a steward (security) went something like this. Are you a reprobate? (Internal dialogue - debatable) No! Have you ever done security before? No! What would you do if there was a bomb scare? (internal dialogue - shit myself and run away), make people aware of the emergency exits, and do my best to keep people calm. What are your strong points? (internal dialogue - Oh fuck! fuck! fuck! fuck! - I hate this question), I'm very approachable, friendly, and won't make people feel intimidated. What are your weak points? (internal dialogue - fuck! fuck! fuck! fuck! fuck!, and even more fucks! - I hate this question even more!), I'm possibly overly friendly.
Shit did I just say that? I'm going for a security job at one of the world's largest festivals, during a time when terrorism is at a critical level, and I've just told my interviewer that I'm overly friendly. Surely this can't be good.

But it was, it was almost as though he wasn't listening. As though he was just going through the motions. The interview ended, and although I wasn't altogether sure, I think I had the job.
A month later and I'm picking Matty up from his place on the Wirral. It's a soaring hot Tuesday afternoon, our spirits are high, and judging by the stash hidden in our bags, they're about to get higher.

"Get your sat nav on lad," Matty urges me. But I'm far too proud for that, I want to get to Glasto using only my inbuilt compass. We've estimated that it should take us a little over 4 hours to get to our destination, and we need to be there by 6 pm to comply with the security company's requirements. "We've got loads of time Matty, stop stressing" I tell him, when I see his agitation as we sail past the junction for the M56.

To cut a long story short, the journey takes us at least half the time again that it should have done because of a catalogue of geographical errors - which in itself is highly hilarious since we both met on a Geography degree course, and Matty is himself a Geography teacher. Amongst other notable errors on our way to Somerset was the taking of the M6 toll motorway, at a cost of £5.50. Had we glanced at a map we would have realised that this was a burden rather than a benefit to us, and resulted in us driving 20 miles in the wrong direction.
By the time we reach Shepton Mallet we've missed our deadline by some considerable margin. But more importantly we have to buy our supplies for the coming week. Thirty minutes of shopping in Tesco later, and we emerge with a shit ton of alcohol, a massive bag of ice, some crisps, and a bag of nuts.

To Glastonbury we ride.

Confusion reigns upon our arrival. Nobody seems to know what they are supposed to be doing, ourselves included. We scramble all our possessions together, and make our way up the grassy knoll in the direction of what we think is the correct entrance. When we eventually arrive there we are met by an endless sea of bodies who appear to have been waiting around for hours. Fortunately, although it's way past 7pm the weather is perfect and this being a day before the equinox it feels like midday. As we sit and wait with the crowds I notice a girl in her in 20s who is sitting there proudly displaying her young pert breasts in their full glory. It's as though we've jumped back to 1969 Woodstock. Not being one to hide my curiosity I find it hard not to stare at her chest, and attempt to take my mind off her boobs by chatting to people around me. My attempts unfortunately are futile.

It's an hour later before we realise that we've been sitting in the wrong queue. Gathering all our stuff together we return to the whence we came, and the whole confusing procedure of finding out where we're supposed to be starts again. Eventually we are directed to a portacabin, where we produce all our documents, and are instructed to wait. There appears to be something wrong with my documents, which prompts me to wonder if I passed the interview at all. This problem takes the best part of 90 minutes to rectify, before we join a large group of burly looking men with about 15 brain cells between them, as we walk towards the entrance. More confusion later, and we're in. No security checks, I hasten to add, have taken place.

By the time we've collected our security outfits, and been assigned our living quarters it's time to go to bed. The mere fact that our living quarters are referred to as The Jungle pretty much says it all. Thankfully I've never been to prison, but if I had I imagine this is how it would look. Our home for the next week is a gigantic marquee, which is filled with bunk beds on one side, and single camp beds on the other. It's obvious that there is a division between the two ranks, which has culminated in verbal assaults being thrown across The Jungle. The atmosphere could be cut with a knife (a little like the huge mound of white powder they're all snorting.) The bunk bedded area is occupied almost entirely by very menacing looking Glaswegians. That is, apart from me and Matty. For those of you that have never come into contact with Glaswegians, let's just say that Braveheart was no exaggeration. Even the meekest looking of Glaswegians will scare the shit out of anybody once he/she speaks. For want of a better phrase, they are hard as fucking nails. The sound of their collective snoring is like that of a dragon that's about to explode into fiery fury.

The next morning we're up early and after eating the worst breakfast I've ever subjected my intestines to, we're assigned jobs. Matty and I are assigned night shift jobs, which is totally against our requirements - so we play dumb and tell another supervisor that we're on days. Fortunately for us he changes our rota without consulting the first supervisor that has just assigned us the night shift. Matty sees that I'm about to verbalise this at volume and drags me away from the scene before I fuck up his good work. As we walk to our designated area I'm blown away by the sheer scale of the site. Apparently Glastonbury is the second biggest city in Somerset, which sounds impressive until you realise that there aren't actually too many cities in Somerset. Anyway, there's no doubting that it is bloody enormous.

The job I've been assigned is to walk up and down the line and relieve people if they need to go on ciggie or toilet breaks. Since they've only just been positioned there though nobody seems that arsed about taking a break. Besides which I'm not overly sure what my supervisor means by "the line". He's given me a brief description but it was all a bit wishy washy. I spend the best part of the day trying to establish exactly where my parameters are.

Unusually for Glastonbury it's not raining. In fact it's blisteringly hot. The heat is so intense that I gain anther duty, in the form of keeping the security team hydrated. Given that most of them are off their head on some form of drug or other (mainly ketamine or MDMA), this job is of vast importance. They're dropping like flies out there, but because they're hard as nails Glaswegians they refuse any form of liquid that doesn't contain alcohol. Once I've established that they'd rather die of heat exhaustion than look like pussies my job becomes infinitely easier.

The bands don't actually really start playing until Friday, and it's only Wednesday - this means that I'm on my holidays for the first few days of the festival, or so I think. I've agreed to a 12 hr working schedule with my employees, but it appears that (for the first few days at least) staying alive is my main role. As long as I avoid the supervisors I'm in for a cushdy ride.
Day one ends and Matty and I go for a walk around the festival site. It truly is enormous. I reckon you could spend a week exploring, and still miss bits. We have a few beers, listen to a DJ set, and then retreat to the civil war that is The Jungle.

Day two starts off pretty much as day one ended. However, today I'm assigned a partner. My partner is a blond girl who is 20 years of age. On paper this sounds like I'm on to a winner, but in reality she's a living nightmare. It's hard to decipher which gene she possesses the most of. Does her stupidity outweigh her laziness, or her laziness outweigh her stupidity? Conversation with my new partner is a laboured pursuit, and generally results in monosyllabic responses. That is, until I realise that we can have a reasonably detailed conversation if we talk about her troubled relationship with her insanely jealous fella. She looks to me for relationship advice, although after he dumps her the next day, she probably wishes she hadn't. Once she's been dumped her laziness enters an entirely new stratosphere. The only time I ever see her is when our boss has radioed through to her walkie talkie and she's been asked to find me.

Disaster strikes around 4 pm on the second day. I'm given a job to do. The Love Bullets tent is in full effect, as hundreds of eager kids take to the dance floor to worship a bunch of DJs, who seem to be collectively known as Elrow. Such is their popularity that my partner and I are radioed through to help deal with the chaos that ensues. By the time I arrive at the Love Bullets tent the party is well on the way, and my feet (which are crammed into new boots) are absolutely killing me. Although it's not even 6 pm the majority of the predominantly young crowd are manically off their collective faces. In a scene that is not too dissimilar from Wigan Pier circa 1994 (when I was in my prime).

I'm briefed by a muscular Asian fella from Bradford, who informs me that he's been trained by the military, and generally works for the anti-terrorist squad. I inform him that I've never done security before in my life, and that I would rather be off my face dancing to Elrow. This information does not seem to go down too well with my very right wing compadre, who was under the impression that I was on board with his political agenda - to confiscate all the drugs in the place, arrest everybody for having fun, and generally make their lives a misery.

My (Nazi) boss sits on top of a tower, which gives him a perfect view of this arena of pure and unadulterated pleasure. Meanwhile I'm ordered to circulate whilst maintaining eye contact with him at all times. If he sees anything untoward taking place he will point to the location of the criminal activity, and it is my job to go over and sort it out.

Fifteen minutes into my new role, and I'm under the impression that things are going well. I'm actually quite enjoying the party. And boy is this a party! The whole dance floor is enshrouded in a mist of dry ice, with machines that fire it like a cannon at the elated revellers. Add to this a cacophony of air horns, a parade of blue Avatar creatures, and more colourful head dresses than the Mardi Gras, and you'll sort of understand what's going on. Nitrus oxide seems to be the most visible drug of choice, which my Nazi boss doesn't appear to give two shits about, "If they want to kill themselves on that shite, then let em die", he tells me.

The pain in my feet starts to subside a little and they start to move to the beat. Much to the amusement of the crowd, who urge me on. "JUMP, JUMP, JUMP", they shout, excited to see a security guard having as much fun as them. "If my feet weren't blistered to high heaven, I'd be up there with you," I tell one bunch of dancers. The more they encourage me, the more I get into it. So much into it that I forget what my role is supposed to be. Although I'm rapidly reminded of my job when I feel a strong hand on my shoulder, and turn to face my irate boss. "What the fuck do you think you're doing?" he asks me. "You're supposed to be taking their drugs off them, not dancing with them," he continues.

I give him a fake apology and return to my role as a druggie catcher. Oh the irony, I spent half the 90s abusing "designer drugs" whilst trying to avoid the watchful eye of the bouncers, and now I am one of those bouncers. I'm reflecting upon this when I notice sudden activity in the corner of my eye. I spin around to be confronted by "the Nazi" jumping furiously up and down, whilst pointing at a figure on the dance floor. I'm offered no choice than to approach the person that he's pointing at.
The figure is that of a boy around 20 years old, who is nonchalantly handing drugs out from a carrier bag. As I approach he makes no effort to hide his wares. I shoot a glance at "the Nazi" who is giving me the thumbs up. My worst nightmare is unravelling before me. I'm about to ruin somebody's pleasure.

"I'm really sorry about this," I inform the raver.

"But my boss is watching me. I really don't want to do this, but I have to take your drugs off you.", I apologise.

I needn't have bothered. The kid is so far off his head that he barely notices that I've just taken his stash. As I retreat to my post I take a peak in the bag, which contains a big mush of space cakes. I later give this to "the fun Nazi" who promptly throws it in the bin.
"I was hoping it was coke so we could sell it.", he tells me. "what the fuck am I supposed to do with that pile of mushed up shite?"

What follows is a period of approximately 40 minutes where nothing untoward takes place. Well, nothing that my boss spots anyway. I see loads of illicit stuff going down but I choose to ignore it. Just as I'm feeling rather pleased at myself for being able to be getting paid to experience this I am faced by a catastrophe. Somebody grabs me from behind, and cries "please help, our friend has collapsed on the dance floor!" My internal dialogue once more awakes, and says "Shit! I can't think of a worse person to ask for help. I'm about as useful as a eunuch at a sperm bank."

I don't even have a walkie talkie, so I send somebody around to notify my boss of the ongoing tragedy. I did do a first aid course in 1985, but all I can remember is joking around with my mates as our lecturer gave mouth to mouth to a plastic dummy. I kneel down next to the young girl,  who is convulsing on the dance floor like she's in the process of been exorcised. Around me people shout conflicting pieces of advice "Give her water!", "No don't give her water!", "Raise her head up!", "No, raise her feet up!", "PLEASE just do something!". The last comment hits home, and I'm about to do something, I'm not sure quite what, when all of a sudden the girl jumps to her feet, and charges to the dance floor to bust some new moves. Just as she's running to the dance floor my boss arrives at the scene. "Is everything OK!" he asks me. "Yeah, don't worry it's all sorted now." I tell him, as if I had it all under control.

I spend the rest of my time in the Love Bullets tent either pretending to take people's drugs from them, or dragging them from the stage as they attempt to dance on it. Neither of these roles fill me full of glee, so by the time I'm relieved of my duties I'm ready for my bed. I can only hope that I will be offered a more convivial role the next day. I'm about to be pleasantly surprised.

Monday, 21 August 2017

Gizmo's trek across the pond

"Right, I've done my bit, now it's your turn to sort out Gizmo!" Lee demanded, within a few hours of my arrival in the USA. Well, I had just spent 6 months travelling around South America, whilst she sorted out her recently deceased mum's house, so I hadn't got a leg to stand on.

By sorting Gizmo out she meant getting him ready for his transit across the pond. He'd been living in Buffalo now for over a year, since that snowy night he'd arrived just after Christmas 2013. Summer was fast approaching and we aimed to re-locate to England before it kicked in. Our original plan to teach English in Chile had pretty much fallen by the wayside when we'd realised that we couldn't cope without Gizmo in our lives.

To be honest I'd been dreading this journey for quite some time, given Gizmo's last long haul flight. If it hadn't been for the drugs this experience would have been a whole lot worse, and this time we were going to try him drugs free. We hadn't suddenly become all moralistic about it, we just couldn't get any drugs.

The first obstacle that I had to overcome was to find an airline that would take him. The Americans it turns out are legions ahead of the Brits with the whole air transportation of pets. Fortunately things had loosened up a little since 2012, and quarantine could be avoided if Gizmo met certain travel rules i.e he was travelling from a listed country, his documents were in order, and he was correctly vaccinated and treated for worms. We employed a local vet in Clarence, New York to assist us with all these requirements, and a nicer fella we couldn't have met. He had himself lived in Ireland, and had brought his pet cat from Ireland to the States. He was also a big fan of James Herriot, the famous vet who wrote a number of humorous books about his life as a vet in Yorkshire. In the 1980s a dramatised TV series was made based on his books and became essential Sunday night viewing for most of the population of the UK. Anybody who liked James Herriot was a winner in my eyes.

Finding an airline to transport Gizmo home proved a little difficult. It would have been fine if we wanted to send Gizmo by cargo, but this was never an option. We'd read too many horror stories about this which ranged from dogs freezing to death in the hold, to dogs running down the runway after the plane because the cargo arranger had forgotten to put them on board. After a multitude of phone calls and emails I came to the realisation that we could only get Gizmo back to England if we took a recognised route. And by recognised route they meant idiotic route. He was only allowed to reach English shores by ferry from continental Europe. Given that I was due a visit to Holland where I'd previously lived for 5 years, I chose Hoek Van Holland as my ferry port. Days upon days of Internet searching later, and I found a flight that would get both me and Gizmo back to European shores for the mere cost of $350 -  a bargain by anybody's standards. But there was a catch! There always is!

The catch was as follows. Lee would first have to drive me and Giz up to Toronto, Pearson airport, from where we would catch a Condor Air flight to Frankfurt, before boarding another plane to Amsterdam. Gizmo and I would then get the train from Amsterdam to Leiden (where I used to live). This part, granted was an optional extra, just so that I could get to walk Gizmo around the beautiful streets of historical Leiden before boarding the train to Hoek Van Holland. A short walk to the ferry terminal would follow, before catching an overnight ferry to Harwich. Finally, I would rent a car in Harwich and drive back to my sister's house in Manchester, some 260 miles away. If on paper this sounds like an ordeal, that's because it fucking was. But as much as I feared the trip, the challenge of it excited me greatly.

Eventually Lee's mum's house was sold, and as Lee, Gizmo, and I waited for our departure to England to arrive we moved in with Norma (Lee's amazing grandma). We were there for around 5 months in total, and very enjoyable months they were at that. Lee, not being a person endowed with patience, would make us dinner every night, before retiring to the conservatory to drink wine and smoke cigarettes. It was then time for me and Norma to watch classic films - Brief Encounter, Whistle down the wind, The third man, Casablanca etc etc. During our film nights Gizmo would sit on Norma's lap whilst she calmly stroked him. If he wasn't around she would shout out "where's Junior?" Over those months they formed a solid bond.

Despite her advanced years Norma was never one to miss a trick. If she thought that I wasn't watching the movie with the passion that she required, she would ask me questions about it, "What's the guy's name again? Who's so and so in love with?" etc. Of course she knew full well what was going on, but she also knew that I did not. Her questioning kept me on my toes. So it was not surprising that I looked forward to her toilet breaks, so that I didn't feel under threat to give the film my undivided attention. Norma's prowess was never to be underestimated though! As soon as she left for the toilet I'd breathe a sigh of relief, and get my computer out to check Facebook. Five minutes later she would re-emerge and almost instantly ask me for a synopsis of what had happened in her absence. I counteracted this by using Wikipedia to read the film's plot whilst she was gone, which ultimately meant that she had won anyway.

Before we knew it, it was time to leave America. Obviously our departure was tinged with sadness. It was the unspoken word that we may never see Norma again, but deep down Lee and I knew that was a highly probable outcome. Not to sound too morbid, but with Lee's cousins leaving Buffalo for New York City,  her aunt spending more time in Germany with her German husband, and with Lee and I heading to England, it felt as though a time was coming to an end.

On a more positive note, our vet John had promised us that all Gizmo's paperwork was in order, and he was so confident about it, that he gave me his phone number. "Ring me if anything goes wrong, but I can guarantee you that nothing will." Famous last words!

Then the day came, June 15th 2015. I threw my bags, and Gizmo's box in the car, and said my goodbyes to Norma. As we drove off from 765 Woodstock Avenue, Tonawanda in Norma's Toyota Camry, I shed a tear. Gizmo, it can safely be said displayed no emotions whatsoever, other than his incessant whinging as he fought to be liberated from his box

The drive to Pearson airport complete I said my goodbyes to Lee. Once she returned to Buffalo she would be boarding a plane bound for Manchester the next morning. The next time I would see her would be at my sister's house when my ordeal was complete.

The dreaded moment had arrived....

Unlike Delta airlines whom I'd used to fetch Gizmo from South Korea to The States, Condor Air could not have been any less welcoming. I walked onto the plane thrusting Gizmo's box proudly before me, expecting to get preferential treatment. Only to be told "make sure you keep that dog in his box." I pretty much made my mind up at that second that I'd be taking gizmo out of his box as often as I could. Fortunately for me the girl in the next seat fell in love with Gizmo, and wanted him to sit on her knee. The girl told me that she too had a shih tzu herself, and was missing him like crazy whilst she was on her travels. I couldn't have written the script. Whilst I got busy with the business of drinking as much free wine as was humanely possible, the girl next to me spent practically the entire journey mollycoddling Gizmo. This was much to the annoyance of our grumpy flight attendant who insisted that we return Gizmo to his box.

By the time the lights on the plane went out, and it was time for everybody to get sone shuteye, I was pretty much annihilated on red wine - and fit for fuck all. In this state of mind it felt like a great idea to take Gizmo out of his box so that we could cuddle each other to sleep. This, I was to find out, was not one of my better plans.

I've no idea how long I'd been out, but I woke up with a start. "Shit, fuck, bollocks...", was my battle cry as I realised that Gizmo had disappeared. Getting down on my stomach I began to writhe around under the seats in a desperate bid to locate him. Most of the passengers were by this time asleep, and my actions went by largely unnoticed. Unnoticed that is by everybody apart from the irate flight attendant who was walking down the aisle with Gizmo in her outstretched hands. "I believe you're looking for this!", she spat at me with such vitriol that I could only assume that she was a cat owner that hated dogs. It took everything in me not to retaliate with equal venom at her referring to Gizmo with such cold terminology.  "This is your last warning, keep that dog in his box!" she shouted at me.

When the plane touched down in Frankfurt I breathed a huge sigh of relief, stage 2 of the trip had been executed. And although it was not without hitch, he was now on European soil. The time between flights was minimal, and before we knew it we were airborne again on route to Amsterdam.

I wasn't sure what to expect when we arrived in Amsterdam. Would Giz and I have to go through rigorous scrutiny? The answer quite simply was no we would not. We exited the airport with absolute ease. Before we knew it we were on a train bound for Leiden.

The weather in Leiden was perfect. The sun glistened on the canals in such a way that I was filled with joy. Who would have thought that 14 years after I left this city that I loved so much, I would be returning with a 2.8 kg Shih tzu/ Yorkie in my possession. As soon as we got out of Leiden station I liberated the poor mite from his box, and put him on his lead. As I paraded him up the Oude Rijn, down the Rapenburg, through the Werf Park, and along Harlemmerstraat, he looked as though he was going to die of fatigue. Only a few more stages to go now and we'd be back on British soil. Months of planning, and thankfully it was all following the script. Nothing could go wrong now surely could it? Well yes it could!

Gizmo hated being on the train. By the time we arrived in Hoek Van Holland he was a nervous wreck. Running in every direction to try and get away from the noise of the train's wheels as they grated against the tracks. On the journey I met another girl who was in a similar situation to me. She was moving to England from Canada, and was bringing her dog with her. We chatted all the way to the ferry port, and continued to chat until the moment that we met the bitch from hell.

"You've got the wrong papers!"the bitch yelled at me, with all the compassion of a warden at a high level security prison.

"No, they're not, they're all good. We've been in contact with our American vet for months, and he says that they're good."

The bitch wasn't having any of it!

"Sir, these papers are not correct, and this dog is not boarding the ship," she told me.

"Well, I'll ring the vet then," I said.

"Ring the pope if you want, that dog is not boarding the ship,", she reinforced.

By the time I got through to John the vet the boat had set sail. John insisted that the paperwork was correct and offered his apologies. But alas there was nothing he could do.

As soon as the bitch knew that I'd missed the ferry she suddenly became nicer.

"I have a friend with a guest house in the town that takes dogs," she informed me. "He'll also be able to take you to the vets tomorrow to sort out your dog's papers," she continued.

By now alarm bells were ringing. I felt as though this was a well rehearsed scam to get money into the local economy. But I was not in a position to argue. My options were limited. The only solace I could take was the fact that she told me that if I could sort it all out by the following evening I would be able to travel on the ferry at no extra cost.

To cut a long story short. By the time the ferry set sail the following evening, all Gizmo's papers were in order, and we were onboard. Of course I was £200 lighter in my pocket, but by this point my only focus was to get him home.

Once onboard I was instructed to take Gizmo down to the hull of the ship, where he was imprisoned in a cage for the night. Leaving him there whilst I retired to my cabin almost broke me. Only one thing could ease my guilt. Well two things actually, a bottle of Cab Sav, and a bottle of Merlot. As I lay on my bed, drinking my woes away I flicked through the TV channels, desperately searching for channel 36. This was the CCTV channel to the dog cages. The TV would flick from cage to cage so that the owners could be tortured by the sight of their dogs looking desperately unhappy. I'd added a few comfy cushions to Gizmo's prison cell, but he'd elected to lie on the metal bars of the cage. Probably to make me feel even worse I imagine. Each time the CCTV imagine of Gizmo came back around he looked slightly more sad. So I did what any self respecting dog owner would do, slammed a few glasses of red, and stuck on Midsomer Murders instead.

The next morning I abruptly awoke. My alcohol intake had been such that I didn't immediately know what was going on. But then it all came flooding back to me. There were 2 burning questions on my mind  - Who exactly had carried out the Midsomer murder? Oh yeah, and how was my dog?

Once the ferry docked, I collected Gizmo, hired a Hyndai I 40 car, batted up north to Manchester, and the story was complete. The journey that had started some 1.5 years earlier with a taxi ride from my little village in South Korea (Anmin Dong), ended as I drove down Old Lansdowne Rd in West Didsbury, Manchester. Gizmo had been through 6 countries, on 6 forms of transport, travelling a distance of 11, 000 miles, and yet he was none the wiser. All he cared about was where his next chewy was coming from.

Monday, 31 July 2017

Gizmo goes Stateside

"I've got a dog", Lee sheepishly informed me, knowing full well that I didn't want one.

"What kind of dog is it?", I responded.

"It's hard to say really", she replied ,"he's kind of a weird looking thing."

And that was that! I was sold, I couldn't wait to see him.

Well, there's weird, and then there's weird, and fuck me, was this dog weird looking. A solid mass of matted hair, runny nose, and eyes that the devil would be scared of (but yet, still cute). He sat on the floor of Lee's apartment next to a small bag that contained all of his possessions -which amounted to a few toys, some chews, and a bunch of clothes (Korean's love dressing their dogs up). One particular outfit, a black and red hoodie, suited him the best, this was forever to be known as his orphan jacket.

The reason I'd been so hesitant about owning a dog, was because we were living in Korea, and I had plans to travel when I left. The last thing I wanted was a dog to hinder my plans. As soon as I saw him I knew that our plans were going to change forever. There was no way we weren't keeping this little bundle of fluff.

Gizmo, or Te hwan as he was known then, had been living with a Korean family for a few years, but for some inexplicable reason they had decided to get rid of him. Believe me, if you saw him you'd fail to understand how this was possible. The family had taken Te hwan to the vets and asked the vet if he could find him a new home. The vet had in turn taken Gizmo to the local dogs home, who had fostered him out to Jenna (an all round good egg, and avid lover of dogs). Lee, had met up with Jenna one night outside the local convenience store (Family Mart) in Sodap dong (their hood) and Gizmo and his possessions had been passed over.

All good and well, if it weren't for Lee's dick of a landlord, who didn't take kindly to Gizmo's separation anxiety whilst Lee was at work.

"Lee-uh, no dog-uh in this apartment-uh", he informed her when she arrived home from school. Korean's have a tendency to put an uh on the end of lots of words, in case you're wondering. Lee (who was still unsure whether she'd done the right thing in getting a dog) made the decision to return Gizmo back to Jenna. As soon as I saw him though there was no way this was going to happen. I got Gizmo in the car and headed back to my apartment on the other side of the city.

Soon after we got him we realised that he was scratching himself an awful lot. So much so that we took him to the local vet (who spoke very little English). The vet couldn't have been any sweeter. After examining Gizmo for a few minutes he made his prognosis - which he ran around the surgery shouting in Korean, whilst searching for his Korean/English dictionary. After flicking vigorously through the pages for a few minutes he suddenly shouted out in English "SCABIES - Gizmo has scabies". He then spent the next 5 minutes frantically hunting for scabies armed with a magnifying glass and a pair of tweezers. His search proved fruitful. He beckoned us over to his microscope and triumphantly thrust his tweezers, complete with one of the scabies, under the lens. A more disgusting monster I'd never seen.

With the aid of medication we got rid of his scabies. And in order to try and prevent him from catching them again we took him back to the vets for a haircut. Bad idea! A severe lack of communication meant that Gizmo ended up with an almost total skinhead (apart from his ears and tail). He went to the barbers looking like a cute mogwai and left looking like an evil gremlin. If you've never seen the film Gremlins, try Googling it. He looked so scary that I was ready for turning around and leaving him there, but given his past my conscience got the better of me (only kidding, I would never). The problem was, that Gizmo knew that he was ugly. His whole personality changed. For one thing he was freezing. He'd just had his furry jacket sheared off, and it wasn't even summer. He submerged himself under the duvet and pretty much refused to come out, until his fur had grown back.

Over the next few months Lee and I got to learn all Gizmo's little habits, and eccentricities. For example it was soon apparent that Gizmo loved his bed time. His bedtime ritual was a sight to behold, even if it sometimes played on our patience. You see, the bed frame and mattress were approximately 3 times higher than Gizmo's body. If he stood on his back legs and jumped, his nose would just about come up to the bottom of the mattress. Not a problem right! We'd just lean over, pick him up, and put him on the bed. But as soon as we put him on the bed he'd jump off to go and pick up his toys, one by one. Each time he returned with a toy in his mouth he'd do his little whimpering routine until we picked him up. Half an hour later we'd be ready for bed. A passion killer for sure.

Once Gizmo's separation anxiety had died down a little, and we were able to leave him whilst we went off to school, we took him back to Lee's apartment. He'd been back there for a few weeks when Lee rang me up all excited. "you won't believe this", she told me,  "he sings". "No way", I replied, "I'm not having that". So Lee started whistling, and by golly, Gizmo started to sing. Not only did he look like a cute Gremlin, but he also sang like one. This dog was proving himself to be more special by the day.

The way it works in the Korean public school system is that you have to sign a year's contract. I'd arrived 6 months before Lee, and had just signed my 5th contract. Once she decided to leave, I still had to do another 6 months of my contract before I left. In October 2013 Lee headed off back to the States via New Zealand and Mexico, whilst I stayed in Changwon with Gizmo. It was decided that I would take Gizmo to the States just after Christmas, and leave him there before heading back to Korea to finish my contract. In theory this as all good and well, but in practice it was going to prove quite difficult. For a start I had to make sure all his paperwork was in order and all his injections were up to date. Hard enough when you speak the language, but many times harder when you can't string a sentence of Korean together. But, as always, I got by. The next big problem was sorting out his flight. It came as a great surprise to me that Gizmo was allowed to travel in the plane with me. All I had to do was get him a box, sort out a flight, and we were good.  Well we would have been good if Giz was a good traveller. But we knew from experience that this was not the case. Taking him on any form of transport was a living nightmare. As soon as he's in a vehicle he screams blue murder, and runs around as though somebody has scalded his tail. Given the fact that to get him back to Buffalo he would have to endure a 5 hr bus journey to Incheon airport, a 13 hour flight to Detroit, and then a 45 minute flight over Lake Erie to Buffalo - this wasn't going to be easy. With this in mind we elected to drug him for the journey.

"I'd like something to make my dog sleep on the plane", I told the vet.

"Ah, no, not so good Andrew", he told me. "Gizmo, maybe in ....... danger", he said, after much deliberation over his choice of words.

"Is there anything we can give him to make the journey easier", I enquired. I didn't add "for me", on the end of the sentence, but I'm sure that he understood me loud and clear.

"OK, OK, maybe I have something", he informed me.

My ears opened wide in anticipation.

Before I had time to interject he disappeared into the back room. A few minutes later he re-appeared with 2 pills in his hand, one blue, and one white.

"White pill, very good, Gizmo sleep-uh for maybe 36 hours", he said, and without a pause for my response continued with "blue pill, not so good, Gizmo maybe sleep, maybe not - but blue pill............".Unsure of the right word he once again flicked through his Korean/ English dictionary, before shouting out "LEGAL"

At this point I almost burst out laughing. It was my intention to ask him about the legal status of the white pill, but I'd already made up my mind that Gizmo was having it, so the less I knew the better.

Just after Christmas 2013, and the big day arrived. I had a 2 week vacation in the States to look forward to, but first I was burdened with the task of transporting Gizmo from my little corner of Changwon (Anmin Dong), via Incheon airport, to Detroit, and then on to Buffalo.

I had a plan....

My plan was to walk Gizmo up and down the mountain at the back of my house (Anmin Gogae), as many times as my legs would take me. I'd already established that Gizmo could walk all day, so I was the variable in this scenario. The walk was one that we were both familiar with. I was blessed to have such a wonderful walk right at the back of my house, and I would walk up Anmin Gogae as often as I could. The walk took about 1 hr 45 mins to get up and down, and the summit was graced with a most wonderful vista of 2 cities. On the one side of the mountain was the industrial city of Changwon, whilst on the other was the older coastal city of Jinhae - which was famous for its cherry blossom trees.

I managed to get Gizmo up and down the mountain 3 times, taking us a total of almost 6 hours, before my legs packed in. Gizmo would have made the trip another 10 times I'm sure, but 3 times was more than enough for me. Once we returned to the apartment I sat and counted down the hours, until it was time to pack him into his doggy box (along with his cuddly toys), and venture outside to hail a taxi. Packing him into his box proved more than a little difficult though, so I elected to crush the blue pill into his food to see what effect it would have. I wasn't technically supposed to feed him for 12 hours prior to his journey, but a little food surely couldn't do any harm.

Once he'd gobbled down the food I waited in eager anticipation to see what would happen. And I waited, and waited, and waited - but there was absolutely no change in his mood. The thought of giving him the white pill entered my head, and once it was in there, there was no getting it out, until the deed had been done. I mean, I started him off with a quarter of a pill, and then quickly added another quarter, and then another, and after seeing no change, the final quarter was administered. By the time this task had been completed it was time to go. With much effort I managed to get Gizmo in his box. The pill obviously hadn't worked - well not yet at least anyway.

Fast forward 30 minutes, and we're at Changwon bus terminal. Gizmo, who'd been restless for the entire taxi ride, was now itching to be released from his box. Tentatively I opened the box and waited for him to emerge. To my amazement he was out in seconds, although his legs were more than a little worse for wear. As he attempted to walk across the bus terminal floor his legs collapsed beneath him, and he fell over. Stable he may not have been, but determined he was. The little trooper picked himself up and proceeded to wander around the terminal in a fashion not too dissimilar from a drunken Korean business man after a night on the soju (Korean liquor).

The bus journey went without incident. It was a cold night, so I tucked Gizmo into my jacket, where he made the perfect hot water bottle. Five hours later, and we arrived at Incheon International Airport, located around 35 miles out of Seoul. It was my usual procedure to go straight to the spa pools, and sauna to freshen up after the long bus journey, but short of leaving Gizmo in an airport locker I didn't really have any way of doing this. I was still a little nervous that Gizmo was not going to pass the airport inspection because, well because he was drugged out of his mind - and drugging dogs was not looked upon too favourably. However, like most things in Korea the inspection was more of a formality than anything else. Gizmo was on his way to America!

I've often been heard criticising airlines in America, but Delta could not have been any better. They treated Gizmo like royalty. "Welcome aboard sir, and who is this in the box?..... oh Gizmo, how cute! Welcome aboard Gizmo! He's adorable!"

I'd dreaded this journey for months. I was sure that it was not going to go to plan. If you'd ever seen Gizmo in the car you see that my fears were not unfounded. Using the indicators (blinkers) sent his anxiety levels out of control, and he would squeal like a pig that was about to be butchered. The problem got so bad that I elected not to use them at all, because I deemed his adverse reaction to them more of a threat than turning a corner without their employment. I was convinced that the noise that the aircraft was going to make would cause him to go berserk. Obviously, I'd underestimated the power of the white pill. For the duration of the 13 hour journey Gizmo didn't make a peep. Every now and again I would unzip his box to make sure he was sill alive.

We landed in Detroit and eased through security. By now the drug was beginning to wear off though. Slowly but surely Gizmo was waking up. As I walked (dragged him) around the airport, the spring began to return to his step. By the time we boarded the plane for Buffalo, not only had he returned to his normal self, but he seemed intent on punishing me for taking him out of the game.

As the engines revved on the tarmac of Detroit Metropolitan airport Gizmo began to howl. It was a tiny plane with only single seats on one side, and double on the other. I'd somehow ended up right at the back on the single seated side. Behind me was the bathroom. "Fuck it!", I thought - I'm taking him out of his box. This was not strictly legal, but with only one flight attendant on the plane (who was making her way from the front to the back), there was little chance that I was going to get caught. And what if I did? It wasn't as though they were going to throw me off mid-flight.

The plane hurtled down the runway, the wheels thudding against the surface. Although I've flown hundreds of times I'll never get used to this. To say that it fills me with fear, is a vast understatement. I couldn't even imagine the fear that Gizmo was going through, as he stood on his hind legs on my knee, and attempted to look out of the window. His howling caused the man in front of me to tut very loudly, which in turn caused me to threaten him with an exit from the plane without a parachute. One thing was for sure, this was going to be a long 45 minutes.

As with all things though (whether we're enjoying them, or you are not), they come to an end. And let me tell you now, I did not enjoy this 45 minute flight over Lake Eerie one little iota. Between Gizmo's neurosis, my own fear of flying, and my ongoing argument with the man in front of me, this was the flight from hell. By the time we arrived at Niagara Airport, Buffalo, Gizmo and I were ready for a long rest. Not that he knew, but Gizmo was now a citizen of the United States of America. We still had to get him to the UK, but that was another year and a half down the line, and another story entirely.

Wednesday, 14 June 2017

My fear of birds

As long as I remember I've had a fear of birds - my mum (God rest her soul) was no stranger to this phobia either. She once told me that my dad had taken her to the cinema to see Alfred Hitchcock's, The Birds, and she'd spent most of the film hiding under her seat. I often wondered if this is where I'd been conceived, and in some macabre twist of fate I'd adopted my own fear whilst still in the womb. I remember watching the film myself late one wintery Friday night, on my 14 inch black and white portable TV. Well I say I watched it, what I really mean is that I peeped at the screen from beneath the covers every now and again. Each time I emerged from my safe haven it would seem that somebody was getting their eyes pecked out. For months after I'd watched it I was too afraid to go to the toilet during the night for fear of having my toes pecked off by the murder of crows that had somehow wound up under my bed.

The real origins of my fear lay in an equally gruesome tale which I'm about to fill you in on now...

For the first 6 years of my life my family lived in a quaint little cottage (Sykes Cottage), in a picturesque little village called Osbaldeston. Sykes cottage was located next to Sykes Farm, which was a working farm run by the farmer John Walmsley and his wife Doris. The rent for the cottage (£6) was wavered because my mum did the milk round on a daily basis. The cottage may have been quaint and all, but luxurious it was not. The only bathtub was located under the sink in the kitchen downstairs, and the only toilet was in the back yard, next to the coal shed which housed as many cats and kittens as it did coal. The only form of heating was a coal fire in the small living room, which would have been fine if the windows were not single glazed. However, for all it's faults we loved Sykes cottage, and if the truth be known it's the only house that I've ever really considered to be a home. It oozed personality from its every damp pore, and believe me there were lots of them.

Our family had to be the poorest in the village. Sykes cottage was surrounded by enormous houses, where people with unimaginable wealth dwelled. For example Jack Walker, the steel magnate, and future owner of Blackburn Rovers football club lived just down the lane. Well, I say he lived just down the lane, his house and grounds practically occupied the whole of it. We'd go for family walks down Higher Common's Lane, and gawp at the wealth as we passed by in our hand-me-down clothes, or go for cycle rides and gawp, as we rode past on our hand-me-down bikes. It was on one of these walks that I truly became gripped in the clutches of ornithophobia.

To a toddler Higher Common's Lane seemed to go on for ever, although in reality it was only about a mile long. As we walked its length there were many landmarks, the most sinister of which was a cottage which had been vacated and left exactly as it was before the owner's daughter had been killed in a fall from her horse. Of course, I was compelled to look through the window, I mean what 5 year old wouldn't be? At the the bottom of the lane stood Oxendale Hall, and beyond that Oxendale Woods. On very special occasions, usually long summer's nights, my mum and dad would treat us to a walk in Oxendale woods, and it was in these very woods where my fear of birds truly began.

As we crossed the small brook, no doubt searching for eels, my mum was stopped dead in her tracks. Her face was drained of all colour, her body became rigid, and a loud shriek exited her lips. We all turned to face the object of her displeasure, and were confronted by a large black crow which was not long dead. Just like my own fear is now, my mum's fear of dead birds was even stronger than her fear of live ones. Seeing my mum petrified was not an emotion I was used to. My response was to grab her hand, and to run as fast as we could to get away from the dormant creature. My dad's response was of an entirely different nature. Rather than doing the gallant thing and ridding us of this hideous beast, or at least covering it up so that we no longer had to witness it, he picked the stricken bird up, and charged after us with it in his hands as if he was a child, and it was a paper aeroplane. My sister meanwhile stood there and watched the whole scene unfurl.

As my mum and I headed deeper into the woods, my dad was closing in. If you've ever seen the film Deliverance you'll be aware of the fear that we felt. My dad's manic laughter echoed through the trees, as the wind resistance opened up the crow's wings, and it appeared to come back to life. The bird's neck (obviously broken) flopped from side to side, its dark beady eyes seemingly targeting our every effort to escape our fears.

As dad launched the crow, its wings totally spread out, and it flew as majestically as an eagle circling the foothills of the Himalaya. Mum and I dived to the floor just in time, the rush of wind the crow created ruffling our hair as it whistled over our heads. I looked up to see the beak of the crow stuck in the ground only inches from my face. Its eyes burrowing into my soul creating a fear that lives with me till this day.

I may have found the explanation for my fear of birds, but this doesn't mean that I've found a cure. In fact I'd say my fear has intensified over the years. And I'm pretty sure that birds prey on to this. On 2 occasions over the past 26 years I've even been attacked by creatures of the feathery variety. The first of these occasions came when I was walking the Rossendale Way in 1991. My friend Chris and I had almost completed this 18 mile hike, and our legs were feeling a lot worse for wear, when we entered a farmer's field somewhere in Haslingden. We were halfway across the field when we were spotted by a wayward turkey, who seemed intent on attacking me (not Chris). I pegged it across the field as fast as my legs would take me, but this was not fast enough. This ugliest of beasts was in hot pursuit, and about to peck the back of my legs, before I took evasive action and leapt headfirst over a drystone wall. I lay there for the best part of a minute trying to regain my breath and my composure. When I felt ready I pressed the palms of my hands against the floor and was about to push myself up when guess what I saw mere inches from my face? That's right a dead crow! Once again staring into my soul. It was as if 16 years of my life had never happened.

The second occasion I was attacked by an avian creature was only a few years ago in 2014. At the time I was on a trip around South America, travelling with my Australian friend Annie. We'd just spent a horrible night on a bus between the Bolivian towns of Sucre and Uyuni. Uyuni is the start/end of the Bolivian salt flats route that has become a right of passage for any travellers travelling around South America. You've probably seen the photos that people take with people seemingly sitting on  outstretched hands, popping out of arses, or with their contorted bodies spelling out rude words. Despite the excitement of our forthcoming trip Annie and I had literally frozen our bollocks off on what has to be the coldest bus journey I've ever undertaken. The cold was so bad that it even penetrated 3 layers of clothing, including the gloves that we wore on our hands and our feet. By the time we arrived in Uyuni we looked like we'd just escaped from a cryogenics laboratory. It was only a few hours until the trip was due to begin, but despite our desire to budget we decided to book into a hostel just to get a few hours warmth and sleep.

Suitably defrosted, although still tired to the core, Annie and I headed into the market square at 9 am to get some supplies for our forthcoming trip. The sun had risen to a nice level by this time so I chose to close my eyes and bask in the heat it was radiating, whilst Annie went into a store to complete her shopping list. To me these moments are what travelling is all about, sat in a Bolivian market square, surrounded by people going about their everyday business, whilst finding great pleasure in the sun's rays. What could be better? So you can imagine my shock when I felt an almighty smack on my head. At first I thought it was kids kicking a football at me and I spun around with the aim of challenging them. But guess what I saw? A freshly dead pigeon that must have spotted my bald head glistening in the Bolivian sunshine, and decided to dive bomb it (and it fucking hurt). More than a little stunned, and in too much shock to move I took a moment to observe the stricken bird. My observation complete, my fear kicked in. I was about to run away when a scruffy street dog casually sauntered over to form a triangle between me, the bird and himself. The subservient hound stared me in the eyes with a pathetic expression upon its face, before turning to look at the bird. Once more the dog turned to me, as if asking for acceptance, before digging its teeth into the carcass, and devouring it with the vigour of, well a starving dog. By the time Annie emerged form the shop the market square was a mass of blood and feathers, and my head was smarting from the blow that the creature had dealt me. My fears had once again come back to haunt me.

Sunday, 11 June 2017

Grozette are you better, are you well, well, well

When I arrived in the small village of Harmelen, The Netherlands in September 1996 I could barely speak a word of the mother tongue. Not that this is a necessity for an Englishman moving to the Netherlands - the Dutch are so well versed in the English language that they put most British people to shame. In the run up to my arrival on Dutch soil, I'd bought a book called Teach yourself Dutch, which I'd used to teach myself the basics. The first sentence I learned to say with confidence was "Ik wil vijf aardbeien alstublieft " - I would like 5 strawberries please! Quite why I chose to teach myself this sentence is beyond me now, but if it was 5 strawberries you were after, I was your man. Realising that my employment choices would be vasty increased if I took some time to learn the language I decided to absorb myself in the book before going to the job agency to try to gain employment. Within weeks I was armed with enough words to feel brave enough to go to the supermarket to try out my new skills. This proved more difficult than I'd anticipated because upon realising that I was English, the guy behind the till insisted on having a conversation in English with me. A pattern that was pretty much repeated throughout my entire 5 year stay in the country. However, I persevered, when people talked English back to me I spoke Dutch back at them in a louder voice. This often ended up in a battle of the languages until the recipient of my Dutch skills realised that I wasn't going to give up.

Within a few months I deemed my Dutch skills good enough to approach one of the agencies in the nearby city of Utrecht. When the lady asked me what type of job I wanted I told her in Dutch that I just wanted any job, I didn't really care what kind of job it was. This is probably why I ended up working in the Mona yoghurt factory on the nightshift when one of the machines had broken down, and it was all hands to the deck to try and get yoghurt supplies on the supermarket shelves before the next morning. I'd been used to factory work so the environment didn't really bother me. This was my first step on the ladder of Dutch employment, which would be ascended at an accelerated rate depending on how fast I learnt the language.

Over the next year I had a succession of jobs of similar ilk, packing flowers for Alber Heijn, stacking enormous lorry tyres for Kargro, loading magazines onto a conveyor belt for Albrecht, order picking garden furniture for Blokker, and eventually loading parmesan cheese pots onto a conveyor belt for Grozette. It's this last job that I want to focus this story on.

The Grozette factory was located in the nearby town of Woerden. To get there I would ride my very nippy Honda Camino (complete with pedals) moped down the bike paths and through the fields for 8 miles, whilst being treated to the wonderful odour of baking bread, as I passed by numerous bakeries. Needless to say, the ride to work was the best part of the day. But once I'd clocked in I was in for 8 hours of sheer misery.

From the moment I was introduced to my new team I knew that we were going to have nothing in common. Albert (the line manager) was OK, sweet enough, but nothing much really going on upstairs, if you know what I mean. His English skills were limited, so our conversations were limited to very basic Dutch. How are you? Nice weather today? etc etc. Not an ideal situation for me, because I like to chew the fat all day long. It was Albert's job to oversee the machine that I was to work on, a rather large conveyor belt which it was my job to keep loaded with enormous cardboard trays of pots. Each tray probably held a couple of hundred pots, and the trays were stacked 5 high onto the conveyor belt. If the trays ran out, I had to run as fast as I could, across the factory floor, up some steep wooden steps into boiling hot loft room, which housed a seemingly endless stock of new pots on trays. I'd then have to grab 5 trays at a time (so a 1000 pots) before running back down the stairs and loading them onto the conveyor. Those few precious seconds I spent in the red hot storeroom was the only time I got to myself in the whole shift. However, I couldn't linger in there too long, or the fully loaded pots of parmesan would fall off the other end of the conveyor belt. It was also my job to unload the full pots at the other end, and stack them into new trays.

Along with Albert and myself, there was a girl working on the potting line by the name of Dafne. Now, if Albert didn't have much upstairs, he was positively a professor in comparison to Dafne. Don't get me wrong she looked OK, all her parts were in the right place (apart from her brain). She'd apparently missed out on a few evolutionary jumps, and was stuck somewhere between the primate and the caveman. Any attempts for me to speak to Dafne were met by a vacant stare and an inarticulate "uggghhhh", as she tried to decipher my Dutch. It was Dafne's job to sit on a stool, directly opposite me, at a distance of a few feet, and to feed blocks of cheese into a mechanised cheese grater. She would literally sit on her arse all day, usually filing her nails, whilst reluctantly bending down, every now and again to pull another block out of a box and load it into the cheese grater. The lazy fucker didn't even replenish the boxes of cheese when they were up. That was left to me, in-between running from one end of the conveyor to the other, loading and unloading pots of parmesan, and legging it upstairs to the store room to retrieve more trays. When Dafne ran out of cheese, she would tap me on the shoulder and point at her empty box. Obviously my internal dialogue was saying "go and get your own box you lazy bastard", but in the end I always politely smiled and got a new box for her. Whilst I was gone, she would file her nails with renewed vigour, whilst making no effort whatsoever to pick my pots off the floor as they inevitably spilled off the end of the conveyor. Albert would then intervene by shutting down the machine, whilst irritatingly saying "Chonga yongen yongen" -or the Dutch equivalent of "boy, oh boy, oh boy". Every time Albert had to shut down the machine, a giant of a man called Theo would come storming across the shop floor, donned in a pair of denim cut offs and a massive pair of jackboots. I'd hear his jackboots coming across the floor and cower, for I knew that I was in for a grilling. Theo was the factory floor supervisor, but to be honest he would have looked more at home in a wrestling ring. The guy must have been around 7 ft tall, and built like a brick shit house. My only salvation was that my Dutch was far from perfect, and I was not therefore able to fully understand the tirade of abuse I was being subjected too.

Needless to say, I was not cut out for this job. However, it wasn't for lack of trying. I probably worked harder at that job than I've ever worked in my life. But the repetitive actions that was my job, was not something that my brain could handle too well. It would go OK for a while, but then I would drift off into a daydream, and before I knew it the floor was knee deep in parmesan pots. This was always followed by a gorilla of a man shouting in my face.  Even when I thought things were going well Theo would walk past me and shout "TEMPO, TEMPO" -"Faster, faster". Sometimes I'd retaliate and shout back at him in English, "fuck off you knob end!" - only I think this was more in my head then out of my mouth. Theo could have no doubt picked me up with one leg and dropped me into the grating machine.

In Holland (at that time at least) every temp worker had one eye on the holy grail of a permanent contract (or vast contract in Dutch). These usually came around the 3 month mark if you were deemed capable enough of doing your job. In hindsight I have no idea why, but at the time I was hanging out for a permanent contract at Grozette, and when I managed to last for the first 2 months, I thought that I'd eventually become a permanent employee of the factory. It would seem that the management of Grozette had a different idea.

My hatred of everything to do with the job was building by the day, even the sound that the clocking in machine made was grinding on my nerves. This wasn't the only sound that irritated me. Theo's jackboots storming across the factory floor, Dafne's incessant nail filing, Albert cursing me under his breath, and the sounds of pots falling off the end of the conveyor were all contributing to my misery.

One Wednesday afternoon sometime in August of 1997 it all came to a head. To be honest I was ready to flip, tensions had been building for weeks, and I'd reached the point where I couldn't take any more. All it took was one tut out of Dafne's mouth, who was showing her disdain at my apparent incompetence, and I totally saw red. Grabbing a handful of pots from the conveyor belt I proceeded to throw them at her. Dafne, who was taken by total surprise and spontaneously burst into tears as pot after pot of parmesan crashed into her head. Until this point I'd don't even think I'd ever seen Dafne leave her seat (apart from breaks). But in her attempt to get out of the way of the projectiles I was launching at her, she dived off her chair, and crawled out of view on her hands and knees. But that wasn't going to stop me, I jumped onto the conveyor belt, and from my elevated position I continued an arial bombardment of my enemy, whilst shouting "kutwijf, teef, and stomme koe" - "cunt wife, bitch, and stupid cow". Kutwijf, is by the way a very popular insult in the Dutch language - not something I made up.

By the time Albert had noticed what was going on, and hit the off button, I had practically exhausted the whole supply of pots, and was already searching for the next thing to throw at her. It was at this point that I heard the jackboots of Theo storming across the factory floor. Before I had a chance to escape Theo he had me in a headlock and was marching me away for the scene of destruction that I'd just caused. I thought that they were going to get rid of me there and then, but I guess they needed the work doing so they kept me working. Dafne, who was hysterical by now was given permission to go home, and Albert reluctantly sat in her chair to feed cheese into the shredder for the rest of the day. It was during those few hours working with Albert that he chose to reveal a better level of English to me. This was largely because he took great delight in informing me that Dafne's boyfriend was enormous, hard as nails, and would probably be on his way around to rip my head off.

I did contemplate never going back to Grozette, but the next morning I jumped on my Honda Camino, road down the bike paths, through the fields, and past the lovely smelling bakeries, to the place I considered to be hell. As I entered the building I was petrified that I was going to get pounced on by Dafne's fella. I walked over to the conveyor belt, half expecting Dafne to have taken the day off. But there she was (filing her nails). We continued as if nothing had happened, and I began to think that I'd got away with my outburst. But at 4 pm, just as I was about to go home, I was summoned into the office to have a meeting with the big boss.

"I don't think you're cut out for this job", he told me. 

"You're obviously heard about what happened yesterday!", I replied.

"No, what happened", he said.

I have no idea whether he already knew or not, or whether I'd let the cat out of the bag, but by the time I'd given him my account of the tale there was little chance that I was ever going to work at Grozette again. I got my stuff, walked out into a perfect August afternoon, jumped on my moped and rode off like easy rider. I would never have to load and unload parmesan cheese pots again.

Monday, 29 May 2017

Spike Island

By 1990 the Stone Roses were massive. Their eponymous first album had been stratospherically received and there was lots of talk being thrown around that they were going to be bigger than the Rolling Stones. At the height of their fame they announced that they were going to play a massive concert on Spike Island. From the outset this gig was being dubbed Woodstock for the chemical generation. But hold on a minute! Where the fuck is Spike Island? Was a question that everybody wanted answering. I mean, Hendrix and Dylan (amongst many others) famously played the Isle of Wight festival, and the Isle of Man was hugely famous for its TT motorcycle races, but Spike Island!- nobody seemed to have heard of it. And that was for good reason. Spike Island it turned out was a tiny island in the Mersey river, separated from the mainland by a short bridge, and situated close to Widnes in any area dominated by chemical factories. Not as glamorous as it first sounded. But that didn't matter it was all about the event, and specifically the timing of the event. It tapped right into the zeitgeist of the nation's youth with their penchant for acid house music, the drug ecstasy and the desire to be liberated from Thatcher's iron clasp. It was a great time to be alive especially if you were from Manchester, with a glut of bands originating from the city dominating popular music. When the Stone Roses and Happy Mondays both featured on Top of Pops in November 1989, the nation woke up to the fact that Manchester was the place to be. Everybody wanted a piece of the action. During this time there was an astronomical increase in university applications for Manchester universities. The secret was out, Manchester was officially the centre of the universe.

In May 1989 I'd returned from my first spell of travelling, and after a few months of searching I'd found steady employment in a printed circuit board manufacturing company in Whitefield (on the outskirts of Manchester). 1989 was a long hot summer, and to a 20 year old, who loved his music it felt like anything was possible. I distinctly remember Wiggy (Sharon) coming out of her office to inform me that the Stone Roses had announced that they were going to play a massive concert on Spike Island. Ripples of excitement made their way around Manchester Circuits as the news broke. That was it, I had to have a ticket, and when one fell into my path for the mere price of £10, I was like the cat that got the cream.

In October 1989 I'd met a girl called Karen at my mates house party. Karen was also a fan of the Stone Roses, in fact it was her that got me into them. Imagine how many brownie points I won when I managed to secure a ticket for her too. We counted down the days until the gig, and before we knew it the time had come, May 27th 1990. We jumped in my little blue Mini Clubman, and headed off down the M56 in the direction of Widnes. I know this may seem a little strange and all, that I was off to a concert in a car, and I wasn't even camping at the event. Wasn't there going to be loads of drugs there? And what about alcohol? Well, I can't even imagine it right now, but to my 20 year old self it was Ok to drive there and back without even partaking in anything apart from a few glasses of wine spread throughout the day.

We didn't know at the time but we were heading to one of the most highly revered concerts in British rock history. It was a time of great political change. In the UK Thatcher's reign was drawing to a close and something new was about to happen. Further afield in Eastern Europe communism was crumbling away with the wall, and dictators were being deposed at a rapid rate of knots (in the case of Ceausecu brutally assassinated). Whilst in South Africa apartheid was being rejected in perfect style with the introduction of a black Prime Minister. But more importantly rock music had a contender to its throne in the form of electronic dance music in its many forms, techno, acid house and drum and bass, to name but a few. The Stone Roses were still a guitar band, but heavy influenced by what was happening in the clubs around the UK (specifically the Hacienda). When they released the single Fool's Gold on November 13th 1989, the union of rock and dance music was complete.

By the time we arrived at Spike Island I was in possession of a farmer's tan. As we blasted down the M56 the sun blasted down on us. It was one of those perfect British summer's days, the kind of day that makes you wonder why people go abroad on holiday. It didn't matter if it pissed it down with rain for the rest of the year, on Saturday May 27th 1990 the day belonged to us.

We arrived in the vicinity of the island around 1.30 pm, and then took a further 30 mins or so to negotiate the bridge to get on to the island itself. It didn't matter though, all around us were young scantily clad people buzzing with (amongst other things) adrenalin. An ocean of white fisherman's hats were being worn to pay tribute to their hero Reni - arguably the best drummer of his generation. I stole a moment to look around, and take in the enormity of the event, before taking a mental snapshot. An image that will stay with me forever. Young lads and girls in Joe Bloggs flares, dancing like they were possessed, out of their minds on speed, ecstasy and a combination of the 2 drugs. A plumage of marijuana smoke offering sweet relief from the putrid stench of chemicals that permeated the entire island. To a young lad that had never done a drug in his life it was like I'd landed on another planet. And that planet could well have been called Planet Bez, for the dance of choice involved arms and legs flailing around like a rag doll whilst the dancer moved backwards and forwards in an haphazard manner. This was a dance that had been perfected by their hero Bez, the dancer and talisman of the Happy Mondays

As we wandered around the island it soon became apparent that I was only semi involved in the world around me. I mean, I was there and all but I wasn't sharing the same plane of existence as the vast majority. I found their contorted faces and dance moves comical, yet I was transfixed, and longed to be fully submerged in this subculture that I had thought I was part of, but in reality had totally passed me by. Even their language was different "nice one", "top one", "sorted". I kind of understood what they were trying to articulate, but they were using terms unfamiliar to my ear. I attempted to join in with their dance moves but I felt too wooden, if you've ever seen Mr Bean dance you'll know what I'm talking about. To the drugged up kids I must have been as much a source of amusement to them as their dance moves were to me. I was approached en masse, hugged, massaged and kissed, whilst all I could offer in return was a formal handshake as if I was about to be interviewed for a job.

Karen and I found a spot on the grass and sat down to sip our wine. By this time it was only 2pm and entertainment in the form of bands didn't seem to be happening. Don't get me wrong the DJ would pump out some classic tunes (Adamski, Killer, and Beats International, Dub be good to me etc) and the kids would go wild, but I was there to see live music. It was a grave disappointment to both me and Karen that nobody was taking to the giant stage that dominated the landscape. "Happy Monday's in the area", the MC shouted over and over again. This created waves of euphoria with the crowd, intensifying their Bez-like moves. When they'd calmed down a little the Dj would shout it again "Happy Mondays in the area", "Happy Mondays in the area" -and off they went. The crowd were convinced that it was going to happen. "They're definitely here", "not long now" and "I'm buzzing for the Mondays kidda", were sentences being passed around. There was a genuine belief that the Happy Mondays were going to take the stage - the perfect Madchester (as it had been labelled) moment. But as the DJ after DJ took to the decks (many of which I'd never heard of), it became apparent that the crowd were giving up on this expectation, and for that matter the expectation that any live band were going to take the stage. I was growing tired fast, without the aid of uppers I was ready to go home to watch Casualty by 7pm.

At 9 pm precisely our heroes took to the stage. We'd been teased by the MC all day, so it wasn't until the unmistakeable sound of Mani's bass rumbled through the stadium that the crowd exploded. And there he was Ian Brown with the world in his hands. No really, he entered the stage holding a large inflatable globe. "Do it now, do it now!", he urged the spectators. To an overexcited crowd who'd been waiting for months for this moment it was all too much. 30 000 people surged forwards as though they wanted to be on stage with their heroes. Karen and I were carried along with them before she went down in a heap. As those behind us trampled all over her I was forced to jump into action. Like a knight in shining armour I pulled her to her feet, held her tight and fought my way through a sea of the drug addled youths, who cared for nothing apart from the Stone Roses. "I wanna be adored, I wanna be adored", Ian Brown bellowed from the stage. "Give me a minute Ian, and I'll be ready to adore you", I thought to myself. "Right now I'm trying to prevent my girlfriend from dying in a stampede". Karen and I had been situated pretty much in the centre of the crowd before she'd been flattened. Our fight to the periphery was always going to be long and arduous. To the masses of people I either pushed over or punched in the back of the head that day I'm truly sorry.

Once we got to the edge of the crowd (and we'd both stopped hyperventilating) we stood back and attempted to listen to the rest of their set. I use the word attempted because whoever had planned to have the concert on an island in the middle of the Mersey had not taken the acoustics into account. The wind whipped in from the Mersey river taking the sound with it. From where Karen and I stood we could barely hear any singing at all, and we were so far back that the distant figures of the band were virtually unidentifiable. But it didn't really matter. Everybody at the gig knew that this was going to be a day that went down in history, one of those moments that we were going to watch documentaries about 25 years later. It was all about being there. It's 27 years almost to the day that the Spike Island gig took place. I've been to a lot of concerts in those years, and seen some far better performances, but as I sit here on my sofa in Liverpool, only 11 miles down river from where the event took place, I swell with pride that I was there at a gig that defined my era.

Wednesday, 17 May 2017

It's a small, big world - part 2

This is when the small world experience (SWE) goes off the scale.

After travelling though Asia for 8 months my 2 year global trip was coming to an end. I saved the best for last, a 4 month trip through India and Nepal, during which time I decided to go tee-total and vegetarian - mainly because I didn't want to get sick, and I wanted my money to last. By this time I was travelling alone, although I was never alone for long as I met many characters along the way. One of these characters was a lad from Worcester called Richard Stokes. It didn't take long for me to realise that Richard was a bad lad. In fact he was on the run from the police after battering a lad in the face with a glass ashtray. Needless to say when I left Richard a little over a week after I met him, it was with a sense of relief. However Richard was to re-surface again (in conversation at least) some 6 years later in the year 2000.

By the year 2000 I was living in the beautiful city of Leiden in the Netherlands. After a failed relationship, and a spell of living in a caravan on the outskirts of the village of Zoeterwoude, my apartment in Leiden came as sweet relief. But a new adventure was long overdue. Unfortunately my salary did not afford me this luxury, but when a largish tax rebate fell into my path there was only one way that it was going to get spent. I'd heard great things about Guatemala through the traveller's grapevine, so that's where I decided to go. A flight from Amsterdam to Guatemala City, with an overnight layover in Houston, and a return ticket from Managua, Nicaragua a month later would give me ample time to see some of Central America. Once again I was off to see the world.

From Guatemala City airport I boarded a bus to Antigua Guatemala, which I'd heard was stunning. The rumours were not wrong, Antigua Guatemala was incredible. Everything that I'd expected it was going to be i.e. beautiful Spanish Baroque-influenced architecture, set against a mountainous background, with the Pacaya volcano dominating the landscape. After booking into a wonderfully run down hostel, I headed to the hostel bar to sample the Guatemalan beer (Gallo) in case you're interested. Beer in hand I headed out to the hostel courtyard to see who was around. It was here that I met Posh Josh, a well-educated, handsome fella from London. Josh had been in Antigua for a few weeks, and had a solid group of friends in the city, who were there to learn Spanish. We drank a few Gallos in the courtyard before Josh asked if I wanted to go to a DVD bar to watch a film (The Beach), and to meet up with his Dutch friend Marielle. Given that I lived in the Netherlands I enthusiastically agreed.

Marielle was typically Dutch, I'll leave this description to your imaginations. She'd been in Antigua for nearly a month, and had a group of fellow Spanish learning friends who she agreed to introduce me to the next evening.

The following evening a bunch of us met up in a bar called La Chiminea, where we downed an obscene amount of gin. As promised Marielle introduced me to her fellow Spanish learning friends, and one girl particularly caught my eye. Her name was Sarah, and as we engaged in conversation it emerged that she was from Worcester. Remembering my travel companion from 6 years earlier, I blurted out "Ah, I met a bloke from Worcester in India 6 years ago, he was on the run from the police because he smashed somebody's face in with an ashtray!" Sarah stared at me in amazement and said "was it Richard Stokes?" Not only did she know Richard Stokes, but she had a bizarre story to tell me about him, and here it goes.

Sometime prior to 1994 Sarah had been at a party in Worcester, and at some point all the booze had run out. All the booze that is apart from her bottle of wine, which she hung on to for grim life. In fact her desire to have the bottle all to herself was so strong that she hid under the kitchen table so that nobody could steal it from her. As she was selfishly consuming her bottle the table came crashing down on her, closely followed by a poor bloke that had just been hit in the face by an ashtray by none other than Richard Stokes. To add to this, a year or so later, when Sarah introduced me to her mate Polish Dave for the first time, I told him the story of how Sarah and I had met. In another bizarre twist of fete Polish Dave's dad was the dentist that had fixed the poor kid's teeth.

Our lives it turned out we're even further intertwined. Sarah had not only lived in Holland, but had lived in the same village, Zoeterwoude Dorp. There was I thinking that I was the only English person for miles around, and unbeknown to me she was there at the same time. I'd heard a rumour that there were a group of Irish people squatting the old thatched roofed bakery, although I'd never bothered to investigate this further. Had I done this I would have met Sarah years earlier (although she definitely wasn't Irish).

Sarah had left some money in her Dutch bank account and she was eager to retrieve it, so given that I spoke Dutch, and it gave us a good excuse to meet up again.With this in mind we exchanged email addresses. By the time we met she was living in Manchester and studying at Manchester Uni, so it would be easy for her to get a budget airlines flight to visit me in Holland. After spending a week together in Antigua and then in San Pedro (Lago de Attilan), Sarah and I parted ways.

After parting ways with Sarah I met a German girl by the name of Helen. The chemistry between us was laboured, but we were both heading in the same direction, and shared the same musical interests, so we hung out together on the banks of Lago de Attilan for a few days. Amongst other conversations one of the conversations we had was about a rock festival in Holland called Pinkpop. She loved to go and I intended to go in the following year. Well guess who I bumped into the following year, whilst in the swirl of a mushroom high?- none other than German Helen herself (and the chemistry was still shite).

Once my Central American trip was over I emailed Sarah, and thankfully she replied. Over the next few weeks the emails started to become increasingly more frequent, until a point when we decided to start ringing each other. When ringing was no longer good enough Sarah decided to come and visit me in Leiden, under the pretext that I would help her release her money from the Dutch bank that held it. Her trip was successful on all fronts. We managed to liberate her money from the bank, and our relationship became firmly cemented. Over the next year Sarah would fly over to Leiden many times, and we would meet up several times in the UK.

One of my good mates in Leiden was a Scottish fella by the name of Del. At the time Del was living in a tent on a campsite, so I used to let him come to stay at mine from time to time to watch some television, and generally chill out on my sofa. One day the door bell rang and when I went down to answer it, there was Del with another lad that Del introduced as Max. "Hi Andy, this is Max, do you mind if he comes up and watches some TV with us?" Of course I didn't mind, I love to meet new people, because as far as I'm concerned new people mean new stories. So Del and Max came up to my apartment, and as I often do I hit the new guest with a barrage of questions. The answer to his first question totally aroused my interest.

Me: Where are you from?

Max: I'm from Worcester.

I bet you can see where this is going, can't you?

Me: Really! My girlfriend is from Worcester!

Max: What's her name?

Me: Sarah Blake.

Max: You're kidding me! Is she small with blond hair?

And, yes she was, but Max didn't know her from Worcester. No, things are never that straightforward! Max had only met Sarah in a hostel (The Office) in Tel Aviv Israel. Sarah had been working there a number of years earlier, and Max had been a long term resident. I couldn't wait to tell Sarah  about this. This is off the scale nuts. She was coming to visit in a few days so I waited till she got there. Somehow in the midst of the excitement of her being in Leiden I totally forgot to mention it to her. That is, until we were in the Albert Heijn supermarket in Leiden centre. As we weighed some apples in the fruit and vegetables section I suddenly remembered about Max. "You'll never guess who I met in Leiden last week!" I said to her. And when I told her she couldn't believe it. Max it turned out was always drunkenly half in and half out of bed, as Sarah (the Chambermaid) attempted to clean around him. So she's telling me the story of how she knew Max, when we turn around to go and pay for the apples and lo and behold there is Max at the other set of scales weighing his own apples. Now if that is not bizarre, I don't know what is!

Well, actually I do... and here it is.

After a year of our long term relationship I decided that I was going to move back to England. Sarah had convinced me that I was never too old to do a degree, and I somehow managed to get myself onto a Geography degree course at Liverpool, John Moores University. I say somehow because I left school with an embarrassingly low amount of qualifications. But anyway I digress! After 5 years in The Netherlands it was almost time to go back home. Sarah decided that she would get one more trip to Leiden in before I left. It was going to be a sad farewell to Holland. I'd come there for love, and I was leaving for love, some 5 years later. It must have been sometime in April 2001 that Sarah came for our final weekend together. On the Sunday afternoon I caught the train with her back to Schipol (Amsterdam airport), and as we were getting off the train I experienced the most weird feeling I've ever felt. It was as if I'd been plugged into the electricity supply. My whole body started tingling and I felt hyper alert. It was a feeling that I'd never felt before (nor ever again), and I knew immediately that there was somebody that I knew in the airport. I have no idea how I knew this, I just did. I turned to Sarah and said "there's somebody in this airport that I know, I don't know how I know them, or why they are important to me, but I just know that there's somebody here." Sarah (who was in a rush), said "Yeah, whatever I really need to get this flight." So we rushed through the departure lounge and I kissed her goodbye until the next time we met up in England. You're never going to believe this but as I was making my way back through the airport to the train station, who should I meet but Marielle the Dutch girl that had introduced us in Guatemala- spooky, or what! Spooky it may have been, but it all made sense.

But that's not the end of the weirdness, the final part of this very strange period of interconnected times came a year later whilst Sarah and I were in Dahab on the Egyptian, Sinai peninsula. I'd been to Dahab back in 1989, and how it had changed since then. When I went there originally it had bee nothing but a small village with a few guesthouses. When I went back in 2001 it was a fully developed resort. It still retained and element of charm, but it was definitely not the hippy hole it had once been. That was OK though because we were there to scuba dive. Sarah was doing her dissertation on coral erosion, and given that she was a dive master, and I was open water qualified we were able to hire equipment and dive without any further supervision. We were there for around 5 weeks, diving, drinking, eating and partying. This was to be my swan song before knuckling down to some hard academia, so I was eager to make the most of it. It was whilst we were out partying in a ship themed bar called Tota that I suddenly hear a voice from my past. My head spun around to eavesdrop on a couple who were sat at the other side of the bar.  I've know idea how I managed to recognise the voice because I'd only met him for a week at the most in Adelaide back in 1993, but there he was Sander the Dutch man, and the name I told you to make a note of earlier. It took a lot of explaining for him to recognise who I was, I must admit, but then again I'd actually had some hair back in 1993, and my belly didn't look like Homer Simpsons. But in the end he fully remembered who I was.

So it seems that it is true, you are only ever 6 steps (or less) away from somebody who knows you. I'm unsure why these SWE's seem to reveal themselves to me more than your average person, but maybe it's because I travel so much, ask lots of questions, and generally throw myself into many situations.

But in any case I hope that they continue to happen.

Monday, 15 May 2017

It's a small, big world - part 1

Whether it's bumping into your neighbour whilst visiting a different town, or a chance encounter with an old friend years after you last saw them, we've all had a "small world experience", I'm sure!

Being somewhat of a globetrotter I've had more than my fair share of these experiences, which I'm going to share with you in this account. I've probably forgotten as many as I'm going to write down, but the most outlandish ones are about to be recorded in this story, for time immemorial.

I'll start this account with my first recorded memory of a "small world experience" way back in 1977. A year clearly defined by the Queen's silver jubilee, and associated street parties that took place in most streets up and down the country. My family had not long moved to the lovely little village of Helmshore, where I'd started Broadway County Primary school the previous year. Every weekend my sister and I would go to my grandma's house in Burnley for 2 nights, so that my mum and dad could have some "alone time". One particular Saturday afternoon we were taken to Towneley Park, where lo and behold I bumped into my class mate Steven Bentley, who was cycling around on his Raleigh Commando bike. Now from an adult view point and in this connected world, this seems like a minor thing, but to an 8 year old kid back in 1977, this literally blew my mind. There I was in a park a full 10 miles from home, and there was my classmate Steven Bentley showcasing his new bicycle whilst I was there to show off my own new pride and joy - a maroon Raleigh Tomahawk, complete with a shiny blue horn (beep beep).

I've started off small so lets up the stakes. The next "SWE" I'm going to tell you about happened some 11 years later in 1988. I'd not long got back from a lads holiday to Callela, Spain, where I'd met legions upon legions of people. Amongst these people were a group of lads from Liverpool, who if the truth be known were a bunch of tossers. Anyway I digress! A few months after the trip had ended my mate Dave Grime and I decided to head to London in my Ford Escort Mk11, whose big end had gone (the cars not Daves). On the way down the car was going so slow that I started to fall asleep at the wheel. The small amount of pragmatism that we had between us led us to a pit stop at Watford Gap services, where we decided to park up and sleep for the night (it was OK to do so back in those days). The next morning Dave and I were rudely awoken by a group of lads banging on the car windows whilst giving us the wanker sign. A situation that was very scary until I realised that the offenders were the same lads from Liverpool that I'd met in Callela a few months previous. They hadn't even realised that it was me until I woke up startled and looked straight at them. What were the odds of that? The lads by the way were off to see Liverpool play one of the London football teams.

Right, so things are starting to get a little bit weird, lets hit you with another one from later in the same year. Since my little trip to Spain I'd decided that a "normal" life in a dead end job was not for me, and after hearing about my mate Jim Corrigan's brother's adventures on a kibbutz in Israel, I decided that this sounded like the life I wished for. Having just come out of a 3 year, awful first love, with a highly jealous girlfriend, I'd lost touch with all my friends. Something prompted me to ring my mate Luke, out of the blue, to inform him of my plans. You'll never believe this but he was about to ring me because he'd come to the exact same decision to go on a kibbutz. The deal was sealed, we went to a meeting, bought our tickets, and were on our way - the beginning of my wanderlust.

I'd been working in a circuit board manufacturing company before I headed to the kibbutz, and I'd started working there on Bonfire Night 1986 (November 5th) - the same date as my now longstanding friend Ian. Ian also decided that travelling was a life he desired, and was eager to come to Israel with me and Luke. However, as we had already been given our start date, we were reluctant to wait around. We left without him and were placed on Kvustat Schiller, one of around 500 kibbutzim, spread around the country. By February 1989, Luke and I had been on the kibbutz for a month, and our daily routine of early rise, pick 10 (massive) crates of oranges, finish work at lunch, before heading into the nearby town of Rehovot, had become firmly established. One afternoon we got back from Rehovot to be informed by our kibbutz volunteer mates that somebody from the neighbouring kibbutz had been looking for me. Having my suspicions that this could be Ian I crossed the orange fields, wandered through the banana plantations, passed Shiltex (the kibbutz factory), until I eventually arrived at Givat Brenner. And there he was my mate Ian, who had randomly been placed on the next kibbutz to my own. It's all getting a bit Twilight Zone around here! How can this get any spookier?

Well I'll tell you! After returning from the kibbutz with a few months in Egypt and Italy/Sicily thrown in for good measure, I found myself working in another circuit board company, this time on the outskirts of Manchester. This was a good time to be in Manchester, with the Madchester scene (Stone Roses, Happy Mondays, Inspiral Carpets, Hacienda nightclub etc), going off in a a big way. I worked at Manchester Circuits for 3 years, and they were 3 of the best working years of my life. But it was time to move on, my itchy feet once again got the better of me. I'd met somebody at Cairo train station who had just done a season at an American children's summer camp. The conversation had struck a chord with me, and 3 years later I was on my way again, to experience this for myself. Once again Ian (who had incidentally also been working with me at Manchester Circuits) decided that he wanted in on the Camp America action. And once again it was not possible that we could get placed on the same camp.

On June 9th 1992 I headed to Crane Lake Camp, on the state line border of Massachusetts and New York State, where I took up my role as kitchen assistant, along with 13 other mainly British people. The nearest big town being Pittsfield, which was home to the Berkshire Mall. I can't imagine it now, but to my 22 yr old self a trip to Berkshire Mall was an exciting prospect.  However, I'd been on the camp for 3 weeks before this became a reality. As a group of my camp mates and I were wandering around the mall for the first time, taking in all the new fast food joints such as Wendys, Arbys and Taco Bell, who should we bump into but my mate Ian. He'd only randomly been placed on Camp Winadoo, one of the neighbouring camps. Now take a minute to think about this! America is huge, and there are literally thousands of camps, spread across every state. We'll come back to Crane Lake Camp for the next "SWE".

The chef on our camp was a despicable human being by the name of Al. Al spent the entire summer intimidating the male kitchen hands, whilst trying to sleep with the female kitchen hands. He preyed on the fact that we only got our flight tickets bought for us if we completed the whole summer. As he regaled us with tales of how he'd slept with many of the kitchen hands from previous years. He even bragged to us that one year the entire kitchen staff had been fired. None of us really believed him, instead electing to tolerate his bullshit for the sake of an easy life.

When I left Crane Camp in late August of 1992, I travelled around the States for a few months by train (Amtrak). This was followed by a month in Fiji and New Zealand, and 3 months of living in Sydney, Australia. After a terrible bout of irritable bowel syndrome, and a week of hospitalisation on nil by mouth, I decided that I'd had enough of Sydney, and headed west for the grape picking season in Mildura. Before the season started I stayed a few days in Canberra for a bit of rest and recuperation before the hard labour began. And it was here that I met a nice bunch of English fellows who were also on a world trip. But what happened to the SWE story I hear you cry? Well, get on this! I'd been hanging out with the guys for a few days before realising that one of them had spent the summer of 1991 also working on a summer camp. The conversation went something like this.

Me: Nice one! So did I, where were you?

Lad: I was in Massachusetts.

Me: Me too, where about's in Massachusetts?

Lad: It was called Crane Lake Camp.

Now hold on a minute, let's rewind. Remember that there are 50 states in America, and a I said earlier there are literally thousands, upon thousands of camps littered across every state. The chances of this happening are microscopically slim. As it turned out the lad (whose name I have long forgotten) was also (spookily) working in the kitchen, and was one of the kitchen staff that had been fired by Al. It wasn't a lie after all. But hold on! If you think that this in itself is a crazy coincidence just wait till you hear the next part.

Whilst I was working at Crane Lake Camp I was sharing a room with 2 other kitchen staff, Hugh and Daniel. Our room was right above the kitchen and was tiny, just about big enough to fit a bunk bed and one single bed. We flipped a coin to see who got the best/worst bed, and I ended up with the top bunk (which I fell out of on 3 occasions), with my face literally pushed up against the ceiling. Inches from my face was some graffiti of a huge face labelled Harry the Hood. Harry the Hood being the a cartoon character that was emblazoned on milk cartons. I spent the entire summer of 1992 eyeballing Harry the Hood. But what's this got to do with anything? I'll tell you! In fact I'll do this in the form of a conversation.

Me: Which room did you sleep in?

Lad: Do you know where the top of the stairs came up from the small dining hall, next to the kitchen?

Me: The far stairs or the near stairs?

Lad: Near stairs. If you went up those stairs and turned left, walked down the corridor and turned left again, I was in the small room on the left.

It took me a minute to follow his directions, but upon doing so, I realised that he must have been in the same room as me.

Me: No way! That's the room I was in! And which bed were you in? (in my head, I'm saying please be the top bunk, please be the top bunk).

Lad: The top bunk.

Me: You've got to be kidding, that's the same one that I slept in.

And then both at the same time we shouted out "Harry the Hood", before grabbing each other, and dancing around the hostel common room like a pair of loons. The chances of that happening have got to be so incredibly slim, that a higher force has to have been at work. But once again, if you think that that's bizarre just wait till you hear my next SME.

After the grape picking season I spent a month in Adelaide partying at the Adelaide City Backpackers, where one night on a journey to the cinema to watch the plane crash movie Alive, a large bunch of people bumped into each other at a crossroads. Bizarrely, everybody seemed to know each other from different places - but this is not as strange as you may think on the backpacker circuit. It was at this crossroads gathering that I was introduced to my now good mates Andy and Danielle, who I was to spend lots more time with years later when I move to The Netherlands. I was also introduced to a Dutch guy by the name of Sander. Take a note of that name he's going to crop up again 8 years later.

From Adelaide a group of us headed off up the red centre of Australia utilising our bus passes on the way. It was on one of these bus journeys that I got talking to an English girl that had also travelled around the States the previous year. This next story is going to blow your mind.

During our conversation the girl and I talked about our experience Amtrakking around the States, and we eventually fell upon the subject of an Amtrak bus that you could take for free from Seattle to the Canadian city of Vancouver. Ian and I had taken this bus during our trip, and found ourselves to be the only passengers. Our bus driver, a man by the name of Jerry, had convinced us to get off the bus for an hour in the city of Bellingham, where he was knocking off a married lady. According to Jerry he had a log cabin in the woods, which he used to take women back to for a bit of carnal pleasure. Before going off for his surreptitious meeting Jerry took Ian and I into the bar, and introduced us to the barman, "you don't mind looking after these 2 British guys do you?", he asked him. "Of course not", came his reply. And with that Jerry took off to meet his chick. The barman meanwhile went above and beyond the task of looking after us, and introduced us to practically everyone in the bar - who were all heading to a house party. By the time Jerry came back an hour later, Ian and I were having the time of our lives. To cut a long story short, Ian and I ended up going to a house party, whilst Jerry took his woman off to his log cabin. The next day he arranged for his bus driver mate Sanjay to pick us up on the next Amtrak bus that blasted through Bellingham. An adventure in itself one might say, but it's the next part that makes this story all that more bizarre.

So, I was telling the English girl the story about our night in Bellingham, when all of a sudden she went quiet, and a little awkward looking. Something inside me told me that she'd also been a victim of Jerry's philandering. Not being one to hold back I came right out and asked her "you didn't get banged by Jerry did you?", and of course she did. The girl had found herself in the same situation as Ian and I, but instead of meeting up with his married woman, he'd taken the girl back to his log cabin. Could my SWE's get any weirder? Well yes they could!

Later on that year in the November of 1993, Ian and I found ourselves travelling through Indonesia. Starting off in Bali, we travelled through Java and into Sumatra. It was here in a place called Bukit Lawang that my next SWE experience was to take place. After a fun packed day rubber tubing down the Bohorok river, our group of travellers were more than a little tired. The others went off to bed for an early night, whilst I decided to go for a drink in a real cool jungle hut bar. The bar was practically empty apart from a few youngish Sumatran lads and one bespectacled English fella. I approached the English chap, and as per usual when you're travelling our conversation revolved around travelling. The English bloke had been travelling around South America for 6 months, but had returned home for a friends wedding in London, before heading off to travel around Asia for 6 months. By the time he reached Bukit Lawang he was a month into his Asian odyssey. During the flow of conversation I asked him what he did in England, and he told me that he'd just finished studying at Cambridge University. "What were you studying?", I asked him. To which he replied "electrical engineering". "Oh, my best mate's bird was studying electrical engineering at Cambridge", I informed him. "Her name is Sarah, Sarah..... Sarah" (shit I'd forgotten her surname). "Sarah Neale", came his reply. And by Jesus, he was not only friends with Sarah Neale, but he had also been out 5 weeks earlier in London, not only with Sarah, but with my best mate Dangerous Dave. I'd not seen Dave since I left for America 18 months earlier. The odds of bumping into somebody that even knew Dave were slim enough, never mind somebody that had been out with him in a bar in London 5 weeks earlier, and was now the only other white guy in jungle hut in Sumatra.