On Leaving

Of the many conversations I have had over the past few years, one sticks out in my mind, not for its length or its importance but for how odd it felt at the time. As I recall it, a travelling salesman and I had just finished a meeting and were heading to the kitchenette at work to drop our coffee mugs off when he asked: “How did you end up here?”.

Given he was white, and I am very much on the darker side of brown, it seemed at least to be somewhere between insensitive and provocative. That he needed my say-so to get his product approved only made the question, and its timing, even more interesting. Years later I would find out that he was Zimbabwean born, and that he took every opportunity to return there especially over the winter months. His question thus reflected more on the city than it did on me and my ‘rights’ to be there. As I sit here now with the benefit of time and some distance from my sojourn in that city, it seems like an appropriate time to revisit that question.

To begin, I have to return to my first days there, the enduring memories of which are of stiff upper lips, heavy overcoats and bitterly cold evenings with winds so ferocious they seemed to find their way through multiplied layers of clothing to torment my skin. What daylight that managed to penetrate the thick fog which sometimes rolled in from the sea overnight fell on dour, grey buildings, built in the main from the granite which was plentiful in the area.

After sharing a flat with a colleague for a month, I moved into the 13th floor of a council tower block, Spartan lodgings shared with a graduate student from the University a mile away, one of two which made the city a destination for students from all over the United Kingdom. Council tower blocks being what they were, it was not uncommon for the lifts to stink of stale cigarettes, for fights to break out in any one of the flats which often required the police to attend and for there to be someone stationed, permanently it seemed, on the benches next to the smoking area asking for spare change. There was a stabbing somewhere in the area, which prompted the police to visit with flyers appealing for information. Even the Receptionist at the Medical Practice I registered at made a point of warning me to be careful, once she’d seen my forms indicating I lived there.

On the plus side, on the days when the fog lifted, I could just about make out the sea in the distance, the number 13 bus stopped a few feet away from the entrance to the block which made getting about easy, and there was a football stadium a short distance away. They used to be good and counted themselves as one of a select few Scottish football clubs to have won a European Cup, thanks to the stellar talents of future Manchester United legend Alex Ferguson in the early 1980s.

I told everyone who cared to listen that this was merely a pit stop on my journey elsewhere. I was here for work and work only. “A year or two at most” was what I told The American when she DTRed our budding romance.

***


Tethered as it were to the sea, water and war have shaped the City’s identity over its more than 8,000 years of existence, enabling it to evolve from two tiny burghs at the mouths of the Dee and the Don Rivers, into its current status as Scotland’s third-largest city. Picts, Scots and the English all held sway over the city at various times and fought for it. Even the German Luftwaffe came visiting during World War Two, with unexploded ordinance being retrieved from its international airport as recently as 2018.

The sea though is not especially forgiving to those who depend on it for sustenance, the vagaries of weather and fish stocks sometimes combining to create extended periods where the catch is poor and thus food less plentiful. That and long, harsh winters which are not conducive to non-essential, frivolous activity perhaps place into context the people’s reputation for being grim and miserable.

Oil – also inextricably linked to the sea – has come to define the city to outsiders more than anything, as does its reputation for terrible weather, stark, grey granite city centre buildings and gruff people. All of this makes for interesting conversations with outsiders, who are wont to consider it a backwater of sorts saved only by oil revenue, the nouveau riche of cities perhaps.

To reduce the city to oil though is to do it a great disservice and minimise the tension between the old and the new which are visible beneath its façade. Wandering through the city centre, it is difficult to miss this in the smell of processed fish and the old derelict processing plants towered over by gleaming office blocks along Palmerston and Poynernook streets. Even the Torry suburb across the Victoria Bridge with a reputation for being rough has ceded significant swathes to the new, most recently a new housing development which replaced Craiginches, the now-closed, notoriously overcrowded prison. In pivoting to oil and gas the city has merely traded one fickle source of sustenance for another, big oil’s boom and bust cycles meaning periods of significant purse-string tightening and job losses are always around the corner.

To sense and understand these tensions is to take the first tentative steps in falling in love with the City for which I had The American to thank. We split up in April of my second year there, which made me accept that my lot was firmly tied to the city for the foreseeable future and opened my eyes to all the ways the City had been reaching out to me. I discovered a church family through the one person I knew in town and met a few others from work.  We still only grabbed lunch somewhere in the only decent mall we had, Union Square, or went out for evening drinks at Malone’s, an Irish bar just down the road from the office but what was clear was that a sense of being in it together was slowly building.

I learned to make small talk: gripe about the weather, the latest failing of the local football team and the ineptitude of the city council. I learnt to enjoy a full Scottish breakfast, dig into haggis with gusto, down a neat Scotch and to ken the difference atween smirr, dreich and drookit. Even the sea and the fog it brought was useful, lengthy runs by the beach became a staple of my exercise regimen.

***

In the days before I leave the city for the last time, it seems only fitting to revisit the people and the places it brought my way in my time there.

V, the precocious six-year-old who I have claimed as a God-daughter, bursts into tears when her father tells her I’m leaving town. I met them when I lived in the flat after the squalid council block in a season of loneliness and enjoyed their hospitality on many a Christmas day. The entire family and I spend a leisurely Saturday at the only amusement park in town. We have dinner together after which I get a handmade card as a memento. There are more tears and then a group hug and picture.

R, with whom I shared an office for six years, and I meet up for lunch the day before I’m due to fly. Between handling vendors and packing up my life into boxes, I arrive two minutes late just after he has fired off a typically acerbic text message wondering where I am on my phone. It’s our first face to face meeting in over a year but slightly more grey hair and slower movement apart, not a lot has changed for him. In many ways, he embodies my relationship with the city; simmering not sizzling, steady but close, more curmudgeonly grandfather than delectable damsel of interest.

Between sips of Turkish beer and bites from the koftes we order, we muse over the past ten years and our lives before that. “It’s the longest I’ve been in one place,” he says and then proceeds to reminisce on his life before coming up to Aberdeen. Madras, Delhi, Goa, Aden, Perth in Australia, London, Perth in Scotland all come up, and it shows in his accent which I imagine is a unique amalgam of all these places. Although retired, he’s opted to remain in the city even though somewhere warmer is ostensibly an option. “Aberdeen feels like home now”, is his explanation for not exploring other more exotic locations. Elsewhere for him, there are only vague, tenuous links to extended family to cling on to.

There is a faint nostalgia in his voice that I can relate to, seeing as I have now spent just over a quarter of my life there. This is a city that grows on you. At first brush, there is little of note to see but with time the city clasps you in a tight embrace. You get to know the city, delve into its innards and fall in love. It becomes home. And in leaving I find myself feeling like a prodigal turning his back on home, trading it for the lures of a far country.

I’ll be back.

Stripping, (TV) Binges and Thinking About Thinking

dav

***
By some unexpected twist of fate, I found myself heading into Central London on the hottest day of the year, a fairly tropical 37 degrees Celsius, and that for the first time since last December. The destination was the Nigeria High Commission on Northumberland Avenue, the plan to get my expired Nigerian passport renewed. To get here I had had to jump through several tortuous loops, not helped by the fact that my trips down to England are scheduled months in advance with impromptu trips being aggressively minimised due to the costs. My takeaway from my dealings with the appointment’s system was that the (re)scheduling system could be significantly improved  – first, you sign up via a third party web service, pay the booking fees and then get randomly assigned a date, one you can only change to a more suitable one by emailing back and forth, no less than six in my case – which meant in addition to the heat I very much had my mind prepared for a terrible experience which could potentially take the whole day. It might have been my low expectations, but the experience was far less stressful than I expected, sans the slow pace at which things trundled along from picking a ticket to getting called for an initial review and then submitting my biometric details. If there was a silver lining, it was that the slow pace of things – and the very many other Nigerians there for similar purposes – increased the likelihood of running into people I had not seen in a long time; 20 plus years and two kids in one case. That the most unsettling thing from all of that was wondering what the scrawny lad I ended up sitting across from on the tube from Charing Cross to Waterloo was up – to whilst reading from 2nd Corinthians 1 in a huge bible – is a miracle of sorts (events at the High Commission didn’t leave me mentally drained as they have in the past) or perhaps only the symptom of my low expectations.

A lot of my free time over the past month has been spent catching up on TV which, admittedly, is hardly the stuff of living intentionally  Be that as it may, all that TV watching did manage to throw up something to relish. The movie was The Upside, a comedic look at the relationship between a wealthy quadriplegic (played by Bryan Cranston) and his ex-convict Life Assistant (played by Kevin Hart) with the sub-text of his relationship with his devoted assistant who it would appear hs feelings for him (played by Nicole Kidman). In one of the surprise birthday scenes, the opera assembled for a private performance began to sing a tune which I thought was very familiar. My first thought – borne out by events in the end – was that I had heard it on an episode of Rhiannon Giddens’ Aria Code. one of my favourite podcasts from earlier in the year. It was indeed, a portion of the Queen of The Night Aria from Mozart’s Magic Flute. The downside was that it led me down a YouTube rabbit hole which swallowed up the rest of that Saturday.

The one book I managed to finish in July, Alan Jacobs’ How To Think, is increasingly beginning to seem like an inspired choice not least for how often my Twitter timeline has tottered on the edge of a complete meltdown over the past few weeks. Existing online as I do at the intersection of being Nigerian (with all its spiritual, cultural and political baggage) and being an active seeker of intellectual complexity at times my Twitter feed has seemed like a frothing mess of controversial tweets and retweets, 140 character takes and counter takes and the occasional link to a think piece published so soon after the event it seeks to analyse that any claim to thoroughness could only be wishful at best. Many a time, I have started typing a furious response to a tweet only to catch myself mid tweet, sigh and walk away. I would like to think that the overriding driver behind my choice to not add to the noise has been noble but the longer I think about it, the more I see that most times it has been due to a fear of sorts – that the views I am about to share might get ripped to shreds by the collective wisdom of the frothing masses – or at other times fatigue from all the digesting and engagement I am having to do. A recurring thread in the book is how our perspectives, views and memberships colour our understanding of facts and (naturally?) drive us towards thinking in herds.  Social Media and its engagement algorithms drive us further into the depths of our herds, our Inner Rings (to borrow from CS Lewis) and our echo chambers. The final chapter ends with an offering of 12 ideas – a thinking person’s checklist – which are well worth a read. A few key ones for me not in as many words: Take 5 minutes, value learning over debating, eschew virtue signalling, gravitate towards communities that can handle disagreements with equanimity, assess your repugnances and be brave, one I can certainly use more of I suspect.

Coming Up For Air


Photo by Zen Photographer on Unsplash


Eat-sleep-work-walk; wash-rinse-repeat. This just about sums up the past six weeks for me, travel down south being one of the few brights spots in an otherwise humdrum existence. In that state the days blur into each other – the weekend when it comes offering scant relief – before being quickly subsumed by a new Monday morning and the start of a new cycle of drudgery.  It is that time of the year when the final reports from last year are being reviewed and finishing touches made to the detailed plans for the new year’s work so there is little scope for escape.

The various iterations of the  Beast from the East have also had their say, ice and snow being so serious that for the first time in a while those who live in the sticks were permitted to work from home. Being a centre dweller, I managed to make it into work regardless, the main impact of all that snow and ice being to put paid to my practice of lunch time walking and my running. That at least is my excuse. The one upside has been the opportunity to load up on the reading – the small matter of six books being downed from the twenty five I plan on reading this year.

Away from proper books I have been doing a lot of web-based reading, which is how I stumbled onto Tom Chritchlow’s Small B- blogging post (via Om Malik’s link). Tom’s premise is that purposefully crafting content for a small deliberate audience provides more value to both the writer and the reader than the content market approach that larger networks seem to favour. It is a sentiment that has been kicking about in various forms in the networks I float about in, a piece on the ‘demise’ of the mommy blog and one by Ethan Zuckerman being the examples that come most readily to mind.  Although the Zuckerman post is a plug for gobo.social,  it raises a number of points which, in our very own Facebook inspired 1984 dystopia, are particularly relevant. For what it is worth, I believe I read and follow a number of solid small b-blogs; Caitlin Kelly’s Broadside Blog, Elizabeth Adams’ Cassandra Pages and the aforementioned Ethan Zuckerman’s My Heart Is In Accra all come to mind.

The Social Media as Big Brother narrative has most certainly come home to roost on Facebook’s porch,  Facebook’s dealings with Cambridge Analytical leading to investors voting with their money to the tune of $58billion and counting. That Facebook has been harvesting user call log and messaging data for quite a while only worsens the situation, discovered ironically as users have exited the service in response to the Cambridge Analytical findings. Amidst the hue and cry,  I found William Davies’ take in the London Review of Books more clear eyed than most. Whilst Facebook might currently be the most egregious example of the social-as-big-brother problem , it is one which is deeply intertwined with the very fabric of the internet. Unplugging might be a solution, except for the small matter of the fact that everyone – Amazon, Google, Free wifi on the London Underground and almost every single online media outlet (including the ones who have raised the hue and cry) all gather data on their users. That horse may have already bolted.

Loads to reflect on then – big and small over the last few weeks. For me, my love hate relationship with Facebook continues. How long this latest season of deactivation lasts remains to be seen.

Weekly Photo Challenge: Glow

42-Glow

More shimmer than glow but I suppose the view of the sea from the Beach Esplanade as I headed out to last Saturday’s Aberdeen Park Run counts.  I am only five official runs in but it is very quickly becoming a key part of my Saturday mornings, when life allows me spend the weekend in the ‘Deen.

Next step the Baker Hughes 10k next year.


For the WordPress Photo Challenge Prompt: Glow

18. Bubbles

Source: Wallpaper.com

I come upon them suddenly as I emerge from the arch on Peacock’s Close onto the parking lot. I have my headphones in as always, humming under my breath as I drag myself home, the combination of the low light , my tiredness and that they have their backs to the road being the reasons why we startle each other.

What becomes obvious when I eventually take in the scene is that they — a woman and a girl I can only assume are mother and child — have been taking turns at blowing bubbles and squealing in delight as the light wind drives them away towards the road.

I get the sense they are enjoying themselves — at least the smile that plays around the woman’s lip when I draw level with them suggests she is.

17. Anticlimax


The promised snowcaplyse never quite materialised. At its worst in my corner of the world, it deposited a layer of snow all around, the result of the intermittent dribbles of snow and gale force winds. The effect of that, and the small rise in temperatures followed by a freeze which thawed the snow for a bit, was to leave slippery layers of black ice on the pavements; treacherous for us runners and brisk walkers. A friend did fare slightly worse, the small matter of a fortuitous gap between her car and the one in front of her being the difference between safety and a minor crash when she skidded on a patch of black ice.

Out and about today for my usual lunch time walk, it felt sunny and warm enough to leave my winter coat unbuttoned. So much for the weekend from hell then I guess. Not that I am complaining though — long may the possibility of sauntering about in January without the weight of a coat continue…

Cabbie Conversations

On a typical day, the scene that meets the eye at the head of the airport taxi rank is one of barely controlled chaos – the line of passengers snaking along into the distance, two or three cabs pulling up every few minutes to whittle away at the edgy crowd and the harried dispatcher somehow managing to maintain a semblance of sanity in the middle of it all defining the mad half hour immediately following the arrival of an inbound flight. Today there is a line of taxis and no passengers waiting. Two men – and a woman – stand at the head of the taxi rank, talking. Their conversation is deep and intense – there are hands flailing about, gesturing wildly and a few guffaws here and there – such that I have to clear my throat to attract their attention. At the second time of clearing my throat, I succeed. They split up like people surprised, maybe even a little guilty. The woman – who must be the dispatcher given her fluorescent yellow jacket – waves me  in the direction of  the car at the head of the line, a jet black Audi. One of the men standing and chatting turns out to be the driver, his keys remotely  popping the trunk as I dump my bags and as he makes his way to  the driver’s side of the car.

Traffic is light as we make our way off the taxi rank and join the road towards town. At first we ride in silence, me fiddling with my phone, he keeping his eyes trained on the road. When he speaks, his choice of ice breaker is to ask where I have come in from. He guesses London – I correct him  – Manchester. I add that it was boiling hot, almost summer-ish out there. He smiles – a neither here nor there version that reeks of resignation. Through the windscreen, the sight is one of grey clouds, overcast. The road itself has the slight sheen that can only have been from a light shower.

Hasn’t really been warm up here, he says, in response to my question as to how it has been up here. Not that I would know, he adds. He goes on to explain that he is the designated carer for his 86 year old mother. Taxi driving – this gig – is his diversion, his chance to escape he says, to get air and space. Feisty woman she is though. Between her and my wife, I get all the orders I need to obey.  I nod sagely through it all and laugh out loud at the gag about getting orders. We moan mutually about wives and being ordered about – my imagination standing me in good stead.

Weather gripe done, we move on to our next favourite subject – holidays. I explain Manchester wasn’t a holiday for me – exams, I add. Corrosion and Materials – when he probes further. That brings a glint to his eyes. His son works in the rust business too, or used to, before decamping to the subsea projects world. The bugger is well paid from the looks of it he says. One senses a slight element of resentment beneath the pride.

We talk a bit more as we inch forward through the traffic towards the Huadagain round about, Aberdeen’s best known traffic bottle neck. Over the course of the next ten minutes he muses about his early offshore career – pressure testing subsea modules for the Brents 30+ years ago, being involved in a few other commissioning projects before returning to the tried and tested fishing boat. I might have made a ton of money myself if I’d stayed working offshore, he says a hint of regret in his office.

I mention that the Brents are being prepared for decommissioning as we speak – end of life and such like. It’s a life time since his days. By now we are parked outside my flat. I thank him, pay the fare, £17.20 – he gives me change back unlike his compatroiot down south – and get out to grab my bags, life, death and re-birth taking centre stage in mind all over again.

Goings on – A few quick hits…

chicken

In line at my GP’s, waiting for an audience with the receptionist who I want to confirm an appointment with, I find myself growing impatient despite being only the fifth person in line. It looks, and feels, like everyone and their dog opted to stop by today. It is a warm day and there are at least ten people in various stages of repose on the chairs scattered around the waiting room. Inwardly I am cursing myself and my daftness for choosing lunch to do this. At the head of the queue, a large-ish woman engages the receptionist in a conversation of sorts – if speaking two unrelated languages can be classed as a conversation. She, like me, has an appointment to confirm, unlike me she needs an interpreter to pass her query across. The dour, matronly receptionist seems to be at a loss, unable to determine what is an appropriate response besides saying repeatedly ‘The nurse is not in yet, she’ll call for you when she has an interpreter on the line’. Six times and five minutes later, she has made no headway, and the woman has held the line up for all of that time. Our saving grace is the nurse calling out ‘Olga”, allied with a name I can’t recall. Recognising her  name, she makes her way to the consulting room to be attended to. Needless to say, I am not at my most gracious at the delay – unnecessarily so.

The GP visit has been occasioned by an unexpected bout of malaise. By my standards, four hours and some of sleep is plenty, but over the last few days even that has been about as attainable as a snow storm in the Sahara. I am hoping to have a chat with the GP, get all my vital signs checked, particularly my blood pressure and gain reassurance that nothing major is amiss.

That malaise ends up being unresolved, at least up until Friday when I get dragged out by my friend Q. for peri-peri chicken at Nandos. On a slightly positive, it provides ample material for my return to the3six5NG

hillsong.countdown

In other,  even more positive news, it is 8 days to the Hillsong Conference Europe, and I am preparing –  by listening over and over to Louie Giglio’s message from Passion 2013 as well as Judah Smith’s and bobbing along to Glorious Ruins. Over the weekend, I got confirmation that my friend E who I haven’t seen since the back end of last year will be attending, even more incentive to look forward to some time away from the ‘Deen since my quick trip to Nigeria in February.

#Can’tWait