dubiously true stories and cartoons

Thursday, November 16, 2017


I am a geek, and proud of it. I always have been and I always will be.
          Let me explain:
I returned home to Blackpool on leave in the spring of 1971 after six months apprenticeship training at RAF Hereford. It was my second home leave, the first being at Christmas and New Year, where I spent two weeks catching up with old school friends. When I left home to return to RAF Hereford everything seemed normal, nothing seemed amiss or out of the ordinary. I was surprised then, after ringing the doorbell on that bright April afternoon, to be greeted by a man with a mynah bird perched on his arm standing on the threshold of the house that I’d lived in with my mother and brother and baby sister before I signed on the dotted line and promised my undying loyalty to Queen and Country. My mother was divorced and, although I thought it odd that the man should answer the door with a mynah bird perched on his arm, I naturally assumed that he was a new boyfriend that she hadn’t told me about. I wrong. I stood on the doorstep in my No. 1 uniform, staring at the mynah bird, my kit bag slung over my shoulder, with a confused and stupid look on my face.
“Errm,” I said, “Is my mum there?”
“I don’t think so, son,” he replied.
“Is she out?”
“No, son, I live here by myself.”
And, of course, his mynah bird.
“But my mum used to live here.”
“Oh, you must mean Margaret. No, son, she moved about two months ago.”
“Where to?”
“No idea,” he said, closing the door on me. I stood on the doorstep for a few moments before I turned around and walked down the path toward the gate. As I reached the gate I heard a squawk and a high-pitched “Bugger off!” I assumed it was the mynah bird, unless the man inside was a ventriloquist.
My mum had sent me half a dozen letters prior to my return home on leave and not once had she mentioned that she was moving house. I was sixteen years old and I tried not to cry as I desperately attempted to recall my grandparents address. They had also moved. After selling their three bedroom house they had moved to a ground floor flat in North Shore. They had had the foresight to tell me where they had moved to and after a few panicky moments the address came to me.
“What the hell are you doing here?” Grandma asked. She looked surprised to see me.
            “Mum’s never mentioned that she’d moved in any of her letters to me. I didn’t know anywhere else to go.”
            “Oh, the daft bugger,” Grandma said, “She’d forget her head if it were loose.”
            She told me that mum had moved to Mereside, which was on the other side of Blackpool, and after two buses and a short walk I finally arrived at the house.
            After ringing the bell two or three times, mum opened the door and looked me up and down. “You found us, then,” was all she said, before ushering me into her new home.
            Mum showed me to my bedroom which had a sign on the door that read: SUSAN’S ROOM. “I’ll go and put the kettle on,” she said, and went downstairs. After dropping my kit bag on the floor I started to scan the room for the things that were precious to me, but after an extensive search I found they weren’t there.
            I went downstairs and into the kitchen, where mum was pouring me a cup of coffee. “Where’s my comics, mum?” I asked.
            “What? Oh, those things. I gave them to a jumble sale. They were just cluttering up the place. And besides, I thought you’d grown out of them, you being in the RAF and all.”
            Now I’m not talking about a small pile of dog-eared Beano and Dandy comics here. I’m talking about a huge collection of pristine Marvel and DC comics that I had bought with the hard earned money from my paper round and the time I’d spent as a pan scrubber and trainee commis chef in the Stuart Hotel. I’m talking about early to late 1960s DC and Marvel comics. I’m talking about the No. 1 of The Amazing Spider-Man! Not only that, mum had also given away my complete sets of Topps bubble gum cards that I had feverously swapped with my mates in the school playground: Batman, The American Civil War, The Outer Limits and Mars Attacks! The loss of my Mars Attacks! cards was the most devastating of these sets as I had managed to collect them all two days before they were banned and withdrawn from all the shops following complaints from parents associations concerning their lurid and violent content.
            The bitterest blow of all though was the loss of my comics. I’ve managed to replace some of them but because of their ephemeral nature they began to soar in price. The Amazing Spider-Man No. 1, which cost me mere pennies when I first bought it with my pocket money is now worth an estimated one and a quarter million pounds!
            Of course, I wasn’t aware at the time that the comics I had in my collection would one day fetch unbelievably high prices. What hurt me the most was that I loved them. They were mine.
I’ve been a fan of American comics since 1961. I was seven years old when I held my first Batman comic in my grubby little mitts. British comics at the time offered nothing remotely comparable because every page within the shiny covers of their American counterparts was in full colour and the panels of fast-moving action and dynamic storylines were brilliantly drawn and executed. My first comics were DC’s Superman, Batman and Detective Comics, but after them came Marvel’s Fantastic Four, Spider-Man, The Incredible Hulk, Iron Man, The Mighty Thor, The Uncanny X-Men, Sgt Fury and his Howling Commandos and The Silver Surfer. But Batman was, and always has been, my first love.
I have never grown out of them.
            I have all those lost comics in digital form now and although I get great pleasure from reading them, it’s not the same. There’s something wonderful about holding one of those early comics in your hands, touching those shiny colourful covers, feeling the pulp paper pages inside, bringing them up to your nose and breathing in the 1960s American optimism.
            I dread to think what my girlfriend must have thought when she entered my flat over two years ago now and was confronted with, what can only be described as, a shrine to Batman.
            I know quite a few men (and women) of my age who are still into comics. We are a select band of brothers (and sisters) who live in GeekLand and speak fluent geek whenever we meet. One of my friends, who has a vast collection of DC comics, was in a serious relationship and he and his partner were on the verge of moving in together when she politely said: “You know you’ll have to get rid of all your comics when we move in together.”
            “Well,” he replied, “it looks like we won’t be moving in together, then.”
            We’re a strange bunch.

Tuesday, October 24, 2017

Inebriates of Arabia

The take-away burger that was picked up for me each day from the Mall of Dhahran usually had the consistency of hessian mixed with reconstituted corrugated cardboard. The only thing in it that tasted like something resembling actual food was the gherkin and I never ate that anyway. With no nutritional value, the burger was an edible time-bomb and as I chomped down and swallowed a chunk it would hit my stomach like a hammer striking an anvil and once there it would release its daily dose of delayed-action constipation. The half-gallon bucket of coke that accompanied the burger was packed with so much sugar that if I finished it I would most probably have been sent tumbling into a diabetic coma. Sugar was in everything in Saudi Arabia. The diet coke over there contained more sugar than a regular coke in the UK. And I suspect that even sugar itself had extra sugar in it.
I didn’t mind the constipation because it was usually short lived because the home brew wine and beer I drank in the evening counteracted the effects of the burger and gave me the runs.
Living on a compound in a dry country forced the men (and women) to be every bit as resourceful and creative as the POWs in Stalag Luft 13. Almost everyone made their own wine on the British and multi-national compounds throughout Saudi Arabia. One option available to satisfy the average Westerner’s raging thirst for alcohol – unless they wanted to run the risk of buying the real stuff in Bahrain and smuggling it over the King Fahd Causeway into Saudi Arabia (something that was not recommended) – was to make their own. In order to make this dream a reality, a team of anonymous dedicated drinkers from the Aramco compound produced a secret underground ‘cookbook’ that contained recipes, complete with the ingredients required and comprehensive instructions, on how to make every kind of alcoholic beverage imaginable.
Those that didn’t make their own bought it from people who made wine on an industrial scale and sold it with their own labels attached. Others made sidhiki (or sidh, as we called it), a locally distilled moonshine that tasted a bit like rum when mixed with coke. To make whisky they infused the sidh with Jack Daniels Wood Chips for about three months and then filtered it. I remember a party I went to at a friend’s house one night. He had constructed a Heath Robinson-like still out of a 20 litre water container, a heater and some lengths of plastic tubing. I, along with the other men, naturally gravitated to the kitchen. The still was positioned on top of a fridge-freezer and every time the door was opened and closed the still would vibrate and a small amount of distilled alcohol would run down the inside of the container and deposit itself, via a plastic tube, into a receptacle underneath. We were transfixed, amazed at this magical transformation, and we looked on like children in wide-eyed wonderment as our friend turned water into whisky, and all we could think of as we gazed in awestruck amazement was, “We are not worthy! We are not worthy!”
An American doctor from one of the large oil companies used to make and sell his own sidh throughout the Eastern Province. I met him at a party one night and he explained the process to me. “Most people tend to filter the sidh two or three times. That’s why a lot of it is rough and makes your heart race. If you drink enough of that stuff you’ll go blind. I filter my product seven times before I take it to Saad hospital to have it tested.”
I was intrigued. Saad hospital was run by the Saad Group, who owned the compound I was living on at the time. It covered a vast area in Al-Khobar and was decorated inside with marble floors, fountains and fish ponds. One floor of one of the buildings was a ‘Ladies Centre’, a female only area where ladies could relax without wearing their black abaiyas, and where they were offered manicures, pedicures and massages by women from Thailand and the Philippines on less than minimum wage.  
“I take in a sample of each batch I make and test its purity,” the doctor told me.
“Isn’t that a bit risky? Aren’t you worried you’ll get caught?”
“No. Most of them don’t know what it is and the rest either don’t care or they want to buy some from me. You’d be surprised to learn just how many of our Arab friends drink the stuff. There’s underground bars all over Saudi. They’re like the speakeasies in prohibition times.”
Making sidh on an industrial scale could, however, often be a dangerous business. One man on one of the compounds in the Eastern Province converted his store room into a micro-distillery and supplied the entire compound with his home-made hooch. One morning he received a phone call from his wife complaining about a strange smell emanating from the store room. He assured her that it was nothing to worry about, but asked her to check on it anyway. When his wife opened the store room door the still exploded, setting fire to the house and killing her instantly.
Making wine was easier and safer. All the equipment you needed was an empty 20 litre water container, a length of plastic tubing, 20 x 1 litre bottles, a balloon pricked with a pin and a cork large enough to securely fit into the neck of the water container. Here’s the recipe (or at least what I can remember of it):

·        18 litres of Danya red or white grape juice
·        3 kilos of sugar
·        1 pack of instant Yeast, preferably wine yeast bought from Wilco in the UK and smuggled back into Saudi.
1.     Heat 3 litres of the grape juice and add the sugar. Stir until all the sugar dissolves. Once dissolved pour this into the 20 litre water container. Add the rest of the grape juice and top up with a little cold water. Sprinkle in the yeast and give the container a good shake. Make a hole in the cork and feed a short length of plastic tubing through it. Attach the balloon to the end of the tubing and place the cork into the neck of the water container.
2.     Leave for 10 days in a warm place. The balloon will inflate as the sugar turns to alcohol. Once the balloon stops inflating, syphon the liquid into the bottles, taking care to leave any sediment behind and secure the tops.
3.     When bottled, start another batch.
4.     It will be ready to drink three weeks after bottling.

Parties on the compounds usually started on Wednesday at about 6 in the evening and went on until the early hours of the morning (weekends in Saudi ran over Thursdays and Fridays) and it was standard practice to bring along three or four bottles of your home-made wine. These were required not just for the process of getting inebriated, but also to involve yourself in the impromptu wine tasting sessions that went on throughout the evening. Wine makers were justly (and sometimes unjustly) proud of what they produced and took any and every opportunity to show off their products to their fellow vintners. Red wines were the most popular because they were more consistently drinkable. White wines were more difficult to get right and were therefore produced by the more experienced wine makers, whereas any idiot could make a decent red wine, even on their first attempt.
These party-going wine connoisseurs swapped recipes with each other and marvelled at the quality of each other’s products. I overheard one woman say, “I like my red wine sweet, so I add a bottle of concentrated Ribena to the grape juice.” Others would proclaim that their wine was better than any you could buy in the UK. This was, of course, blatantly untrue, as any trip back to the UK would prove. Drinking wine in the UK is a pleasurable and relaxing experience, designed to tickle the taste buds and excite the palette, whereas drinking home-made wine in Saudi took a certain degree of effort – the first couple of mouthfuls often turned your face inside out – and was designed exclusively for guzzling and the singular pleasure of getting completely pissed.
Making sparkling wine was even easier. All you had to do was buy bottles of apple juice or grape juice with the Grolsch type stoppers from the local supermarket, flip up the tops, sprinkle a few grains of yeast into the bottle, replace the tops and then wait three weeks. The sugar in the juice (remember – everything in Saudi has sugar in it) would turn to alcohol and you had a perfectly drinkable, strong-ish cold beverage. The only thing you had to be careful of was not to put too much yeast in each bottle otherwise they tended to explode!
After eighteen months of being out there the team I worked for was moved to another compound that was run by a well-known British aircraft manufacturing company. I won’t mention the name of the company. Instead, I will just refer to them as ‘the company’. The new compound had something that the old compound didn’t have.
Bars that sold everything, including the real stuff, although many of the ‘old-timers’ stuck to drinking the home-made sidh and wine. Business for these bars boomed. Industrial scale home-made wine manufacturers prospered by selling their products to the bars in huge quantities.
There wasn’t much to do on the compounds and therefore drinking became the primary pastime for a good percentage of the Brits in Saudi Arabia and, considering that it’s a dry country, I have to admit that I think I drank more alcohol there than I did all the time I was stationed in RAF Germany in the 1970s.
The problem with indulging in this pastime was that you tended to put on more than a little weight. It was called the ‘Saudi pound’ and the beer bellies on some men grew exponentially with the number of years served, especially if that was exacerbated by a lack of exercise. I must admit that I was guilty of this and drank far too much than was humanly acceptable and consequently had a belly that could have doubled as a shelf.
Many of the wine-makers were so proud of their creations that they would often talk about continuing their illicit hobby when they returned to the UK. Personally, I doubt that very much. I left Saudi Arabia three years ago and, as well as losing all the weight I piled on over there, I can categorically state that I’d much prefer pay £4.50 for a decent bottle of Shiraz from Sainsbury’s, which I could fully enjoy rather than have my face turned inside out by the first gulp of the sub-standard home-made hooch I used to make in Saudi Arabia.
I took a £4.50 bottle of Shiraz to a party, where someone asked me what life was like in Saudi Arabia.
“I don’t know,” I replied, “I was drunk most of the time.”