The Year in Reading 2019

It’s that time of the year again where I reflect on my reading over the course of the year. It wasn’t the most productive year of reading proper books (the web has cannibalised that for good for me I’m afraid) but a late spurt in November and December brought some redemption. For a more wide-ranging review of the year in books, check out the coverage at The Millions here. My previous attempts are linked here.

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I have Justin Brierley to thank for turning me on to N.T. (Tom) Wright, his (Justin’s) two excellent podcasts – Unbelievable and Ask NT Wright growing into staples in my weekly media consumption, as well as becoming important voices in my ongoing journey of evolving faith. Thanks to this I had N.T. Wright’s Paul: A Biography in my hands as 2018 became 2019, its weight something that I found both comforting and grounding. A lot of the ideas in the book are ones that have been reiterated on the Ask N.T. Wright podcast – Paul’s Christianity as an expansion on and culmination of his Judaism rather than a tearing up and beginning again, the focus of his ministry as being the establishment of a new way of doing community to bring heaven to earth rather than a desire to insulate oneself from the real world and hope to be taken away to name a few – as such it is a book I intend to revisit again, this time with pen, paper and time.

A desire to evolve a productivity system that works for me drew me to a number of books on the subject of habits and behaviour change. Drew Dyck’s Your Future Self Will Thank You, a more ‘spiritual’ take on the subject and James Clear’s Atomic Habits both boiled down to the same ideas, ie that change happens in the (small, daily) details and no amount of posturing and signalling of intent will lead to change. Only by building systems and routines will our larger goals be actualised. These were themes also reinforced to some extent by the other book in a similar genre I read this year, Mark Manson’s The Subtle Art of Not Giving A Fuck.

Rediscovering my local library had the unintended consequence of enabling me to reacquaint myself with Zadie Smith via three books this year. I found Grand Union a difficult read, one that I was unable to get fully into (which given how much of a fanboy I tell myself I am was surprising). Thankfully, The Embassy of Cambodia and Feel Free brought redemption which suggests to me that it was the problem was the short story format of Grand Union not Zadie’s preternatural brilliance.

Besides Zadie Smith’s Grand Union, the only other piece of fiction I read was Elif Shafak’s 10 Minutes 38Seconds in This Strange World, which I found fascinating both for its subject – the hidden lives of people on the outskirts of society – and its narrative perspective, the final memories that course through a brain in the final throes of death.

One of my goals for the year was to become proficient with Python, for which I couldn’t think of a better project than to apply machine learning techniques to predict the outcome of football matches. The Numbers Game and Football Hackers were two books I read along the way to aid my understanding of the current state of play of football stats. Though great reads, they were unable to help me towards my expected outcome. Real life didn’t help either, which leaves me still far away from developing that killer algorithm.

Alongside machine learning, Chaos Theory was an interest which bubbled to the fore for me this year. James Gleick’s Chaos: The Making of A Science was my attempt to wrap my head around the basics of the subject. A good if sometimes dense read, it left me fascinated enough by the subject to listen to several hours worth of Steven Strogatz lectures on YouTube. Alan Jacob’s How To Think and Nassim Taleb’s Skin In The Game, read at different times during the year, also challenged me mentally, particularly given my love-hate relationship with Twitter.

Questions for Ada, I’m Lying But I’m Telling The Truth and the 2018 iteration of the Best American Essays made up the rest of my 2019 reading and precipitated one uncomfortable conversation on a flight to Heathrow. If there is any value to reading, it should be in its real world impacts, on the basis of the uncomfortable conversations and soul searching my year of reading spawned, it has been a good year of sorts.

#97 – In Conversation

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On my return to my favourite eating-out place for the first time in just over a month, I find I am served by a face I don’t recognise. The accent is also one I can’t place which is why after I place my order, my curiosity gets the better of me. It turns out he’s from New Zealand – he describes his accent as having the Australian twang and the South African heft.

Apt I suppose, but perhaps more important for me is how much that conversation is an indicator of just how much I have evolved over the past year. Natter, of any sort with a complete stranger, has never really being my strong suit but perhaps this is evidence of progress of some sorts? I’d like to think it is.

#Evolving

#64 – Certainly Uncertain

Spent the entire weekend building up to a conversation with L. The arguments and counter arguments were all laid out in my head, in my very worst Ted Mosby imitation. Here on the cusp of the actual meeting, it doesn’t feel so cut and dried in my head anymore, which may or may not be a good thing… I guess I’ll know soon enough how it goes..

#Pensive

Bait and Switch…

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My father, very much like me, is not a great talker- the sum of our conversation over the course of the year is little more than fifteen minutes. In the main these – 3 minutes here, 2 there, and 5 there have mainly come about as intermissions, snuck in between typically lengthy conversations with my mother – if her constant probing and interrogating can count as conversations. When I wake up to find a couple of missed calls from him on my phone , a whatsapp message from my kid sister, and a BBM message from my brother – all relating to the fact that my father has been trying to get hold of me- it sets the alarm bells in my head off. After arriving from my weekend trip to the middle of nowhere (link) I ordered the largest, most decadent pizza I could from PapaJohns – with a barbecue chicken side- devoured it and promptly fell into my bed for sleep, which was how I ended up oblivious to the clamour for my attention.

Resigning myself to whatever it might be, I call him, bracing myself for whatever it might be. It turns out, it has to do with a conference down south he wants to attend- he wants guidance on visa applications, money transfers and all the associated arrangements required to smoothen his first trip out of Nigeria in a while. it was from my. Not quite any of the urgent, life threatening things my mind had invented then. we chit chat, a bit after that, work at mine, failed driving test and all get a mention, and then an uncomfortable silence. My unease increases exponentially.

So…. He begins, have you called K yet? I haven’t and really don’t intend to. She is the doctor daughter of a friend of a friend of Mum’s whose folk perhaps as agitated by the lack of visible progress towards marrying as mine are have somehow dreamed up this match.

I explain, I’ve had a lot on my plate- offshore, work, eyeing a job change and the like. I assure him I have it on the front burner though..

My father disagrees, by his estimation, if I had even a hint of seriousness, I would have placed the phone call to K, and or being on a flight to nigeria already. He thinks I’m overly focused on progressional development .

You know, people are worried too, they ask me what’s happening all the time.

By now my irritation has built up a head- the people who are worried won’t be in a marriage with me I interject. I may have overdone my curt ness as he falls silent, our little attempt at detente dying as quickly as it rose…

The resignation in his voice is palpable. It’s alright, just call her, OK?

I mumble a response back, just before I terminate the call… Bait and switch, classic…. My folks are getting better at this!!!

An English man abroad… Of sorts

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Seems like you’re having a ball for one, the ginger haired man who had seemingly popped out of nowhere said to me as I attempted to retrieve my cup of tea, and turn around at the same time.

Epic fail. I managed to do neither, very nearly tipping my life giving cup of tea over in the process. I had been waiting on our epileptic coffee maker to finish pissing a shot of hot water into my cup, passing the time by whistling to myself and looking out with longing for the clear, sunny day that was out there, just beyond my reach for the next few hours.

The most I could do for a reply, given how startled by his sudden appearance I was, was to mumble something about TGIF counting for something at least, at which we both smiled.

It had been a relatively quiet Friday up until then – Fridays in the summer months tend to be like that on this current work gig as half the team takes alternate Fridays off. Thanks to the sunshine I had slipped into a reverie of sorts, mentally gearing myself up for a long and lazy weekend – hence my whistling – until said ginger haired man popped up and ruined my little party.

We ended up at the coffee table, I leafing through the Times Sports pages and he the Press and Journal. That was the little accident of happenstance that led to him asking me what part of Africa I was from.

Nigeria, I replied to which he flashed a satisfied, slightly smug – I thought – smile.

I very nearly guessed that! You seemed to have the two things I’ve come to expect from Nigerians – a great, happy personality and good English.

I laughed at that – pointing out that having to learn an official language does wonders for your ability, more so if it is the formal language of discourse between people from 252+ ethnic groups.

He nodded. Must be something having to manage all those ethnicities in a country that size.

I nodded in agreement, mentioning that in my home state of Edo, there were at least seven fairly distinct ethnic groups with numerous language and custom delineations within them.

It turned out that he’d never worked in Nigeria, despite having worked across the African oil patch from Algeria’s Hassi R’Mel, via a number of stints in Libya, Egypt and Angola to Esso’s Doba development across the border in Chad.

Missed opportunity pal! I told him. His response was a smile and then a slip into a slightly more reflective mood.

Nigeria never did work out for me. Had a few opportunities to work out of Calabar and Warri. Pay was great but the wife never was comfortable with the security situation.

We were quiet for a few minutes. Until he interjected, again.

I did work with a Nigerian bloke once – offshore Angola.

I looked up as he proceeds to reel off a tale about some bloke called Boma. They’d been drilling offshore Angola back in 2003 – Boma the drilling engineer aboard had shown up to a morning meeting late one day. The drilling supervisor had had a few choice words to say about him in his absence but Boma, ever the jovial, friendly chap had shrugged it off.

The drilling supervisor wouldn’t let up, leaving Boma with no choice but to pull a sheaf of papers from the side pocket on his coveralls.

You know, if I hadn’t stayed up late correcting your English, he told the drilling supervisor, I would have been here earlier. The man across the table from me swears the report was riddled with red ink. That definitely shut the drilling supervisor up for good he swears, to everyone else’s satisfaction. Said Supervisor had a reputation for being a right twat, apparently.

We fell silent for a few more minutes with only the rustling of the turning pages breaking our moment of introspection. After a while, he stood up, stretched and yawned.

Have to run off mate.

He extended his hand for a handshake as I made to leave also.

Iqbal’s the name. Yours is?

Seni, I replied, taking his outstretched hand. He must have spotted my furrowed brow as I tried to process the unspoken question – how did a very English man have a Muslim name, and live and work in Scotland.

Long story, mate. Short version is  I’m English and Muslim, the wife is Tunisian.

I nod as it finally sunk in. That might just have explained why after all his interest in African oil, he did not make a pit stop in Nigeria.

West End Conversations

She taps me on the shoulder, seemingly after several attempts to get my attention. In my defence, I have my earphones plugged in, cranked up to the maximum as usual, and have my hands in my fully done up jacket, braced up for the nip in the air, a far cry from the fairly balmy weather we’d had for all of three days that week.

I am waiting for the Number 5 bus from Seafield Shops to Union Street, at a little before 20 minutes to 5pm, and besides the slowly lengthening line of cars on the opposite side of the road queuing up to get off Seafield on to Springfield road, there is an uncertain quietness to everything. At the time she tapped my shoulder, the only thing on my mind besides the cold was clearing my head of PRENs, Carbon equivalents, hydrogen embrittlement and all the other buzz words my ears had been filled up with at the training course I was on.

The bus can’t have left yet? She asks, when it is clear she now has my attention as I pull my earphones out of my ears.

I want to respond with a retort along the lines of I’m still here, silly, but one look at her wrinkled face peeking out from beneath the scarf she has on head and tied up beneath her chin, slight stoop and thick  blue jacket perishes the thought from my mind. My grandmother would roll in her grave if I so much as disrespected this woman I think.

It doesn’t leave till ten minutes to five, I finally respond, just before she shuffles over to the bus timetable and traces the next run with her finger. Finally convinced she lets out a whiff of pent up breath and seems to relax a little bit more.

We share a few moments of uncomfortable silence where it seems she sizes me up. I must cast a sorry picture – overgrown bushy hair, dirty brown moccasins, blue jeans and a knapsack.

You don’t live around here, no? I respond with a shaken head and explain that I am only in the vicinity thanks to a training course I am at, at the hotel across the street.

Ah, I see. You’re Nigerian though?  I nod in the affirmative. Uncomfortable silence broken we share a moan about the cold weather and how summer only lasts two days in our corner of the world. Somewhere in the midst of our idle chatter she lets on that her son worked for Shell in Port Harcourt in the mid 90s.

He’s away to Australia now though, she adds. Left in 2006, she lets out a sigh, evocative in my mind of a pining mother, much in the way mine might bemoan my seemingly lack of application in delivering a daughter in-law to her pronto.

Labour’s sold the country down the river, she adds. I maintain silence. These are dodgy waters to be treading. Presumably Labour’s selling the country down the river has something to do with their less than glorious record, the perception that is, on immigration and border controls.

We are saved by the appearance of the Bus down the road, Two stops away. Here it is she says. I nod, surreptitiously plugging in my right ear bud back in. The bus arrives, and I let her get on first inspite of her attmepts to wave me on first.

I plant my bum in a seat in front, just behind the driver. She seats in one of those reserved for the elderly and promptly whips out a Sudoku book

Twenty minutes later, we’ve snaked our way on to Union Street. I am dropping off at the last Union Street stop, just before the bus goes up Union Grove. She presses the bell and shuffles off three stops before mine.

As she gets off, she waves when she goes past me.

Stay happy son..

I have no riposte for that.

About Town: The Essential Guide to (Aberdonian) Cab Conversations

There are only so many taxi rides that you can take before you begin to pick up on the subtleties of maintaining inane conversations. And if your default mode of transport is a taxi, you have no choice but to cultivate the art, unless awkward silence is your forte. Here then in no specific order are the non threatening things that keep coming up for me in my journeys in the Aberdeen area.

  • Moan about the weather: If it’s nice and sunny, complain that it might rain and ruin your plans. If it’s rainy, moan away. One of the guys at work, who’s been up here since like forever once told me joke about the city. On his first day up here as an offshore construction engineer, he was chomping at the bit a little, wanting to get some materials delivered offshore. His older, wiser boss took him aside to a stretch of land overlooking the harbour and asked him what he could see. As he recalls, it was a clear bright day with only a little cloud, and he told his boss so. The boss’s answer – when it’s clear, know that it will rain tomorrow, if it is not, then it’s raining already!
  • Be prepared to discuss holiday plans: Perhaps it is due to the general consensus that the weather is lousy, but I find that cab drivers are keen to discuss holiday plans. The last cabbie I hired had a trip planned to Tenerife. I had to oblige him with a spun-on-the-fly tale about my holiday planned to Houston this year over Christmas.
  • Be prepared to talk about ‘where you’re originally from’: You will be asked where you’re originally from – and if you’re Nigerian like I am you’ll likely hear an anecdote about the country. Thanks to the length of time the likes of Shell, Sparrow and OIS/Oceaneering have been involved in the industry in Nigeria, more often than not I run into cab drivers who have pulled a stint in Port Harcourt, or who know someone who has. There is also a growing Nigerian community – current students, ex students and staff on International postings also swell the complement of Nigerians, which makes for good banter with cab drivers.
  • Be prepared to hear a moanful earful about the City Council: Scotsmen have a reputation for being miserable sods. ‘Legend‘ – and I use that as loosely as possible –  has it that copper fire was formed inadvertently as two Scotsmen fought over  two pennys in the street. My favourite moan has to be the one where the cab drivers complains about having to pay a 500 pound registration fee to be able to pick up custom from the train station. In the interest of  keeping the conversation flowing, I usually hum and ahh and toss in a word of mock outrage from time to time. In reality, I probably don’t care.
  • Know your football:  Once in a while, I have had to entertain football questions, from Scotland being lousy at the game to how dire the Aberdeen team are.
  • Have an opinion on Sir Ian Wood and the Union Terrace Gardens project. More recently a key moan topic has been the botched city centre revamp, bulk of peeps detest the plans

It’s not all doom and gloom, on the odd occasion you will run into an Ian McEwan lover. Savour those moments!

On My Return to the Middle of Nowhere

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I seem to have the knack for choosing the shittiest days to go offshore. Last November I end up stuck for an extra three days, thanks to Ambisagrus going berserk and my helicopter flight getting cancelled. Speaking to the heli-admin late on Monday as I confirm my booking, I have her take a quick look at the weather forecast; she confirms there are no extraordinary weather events forecast for the rest of the week. Satisfied, I confirm my check-in time and head out to pack my bags and plan.

When I wake up the next morning, it is to gale force winds and rain. Steaming cup of coffee in hand, looking out from my kitchen window, the streets  – and Pittodrie in the distance – are a distant haze, shrouded in a fine mist with leaves and twigs tossed and blown around like meat in a giant cooking pot over wood. By the time I get dressed and jump into the cab I have called, it is a little quieter but the aftermath of the storm we have been battered by remains – bin bags floating around King’s and boughs ripped off trees onto the road the least of my worries.

It might be the weather, but the cab driver has the heater on full blast and has the radio tuned to the weather report. He is atypically taciturn; the one thing he does say to me as we hit the long tail backs on the final turn to the airport is ‘You’re nae going anywhere today pal’. Given the weather conditions – I secretly hope he is right.  What he doesn’t know then- and what I get to find out eventually – is that by some quirk of nature, the weather’s a whole lot better up in the Shetlands and any doubts about the trip are quickly dispelled when I am called up to check in and screened.

It turns out that the flight up north is actually the smoothest I remember – so much for my having second thoughts about the trip. Safely landed on the platform, glasses off whilst trying to divest myself of my immersion suit, someone taps my shoulder. In the hazy, barely there, seeing men as trees world that is mine without my glasses, I make out the silhouette of the platform’s head honcho. He is a bloke I have previous history with – we once argued opposing ends of a decision a few months into my current role, and our relationship has been frosty at best (at least to me). Sensing my discomfiture, he stretches out his hand for a firm handshake and proceeds to welcome me  on to his turf.

– You’ll stop by the office for a wee chat when you’re settled in, aye?

He says it in the manner of a half question, half statement – implied request laced with more than a hint of a threat that my interests might best be served by having the chat. I nod my acceptance, as he moves off, before he tosses over his shoulder almost like an afterthought.

 -The galley’s staying open longer, you’d better hurry and grab lunch.

We had arrived around 1.30pm, a full hour after lunch had been served. A skeletal lunch had been laid out, but given the state the motley crew of the new arrivals were in, it was very likely that the food would be gone in next to a flash. By the time I run through the safety video and all, my worst fears are confirmed, the dregs of the food left do not appeal to me and I end up being extra thankful for the bacon roll I grabbed whilst waiting for the second leg of my flight earlier in the day. It is not till 3.30 pm before I get to see the head honcho again. It is the very much more relaxed setting of the coffee table. As per custom, the guys lay out a modest spread of roll and biscuits to go with our tea and coffee during the regular breaks. I find myself seated right next to him to the right. We make small talk, my primary contact is on hand to ease us into conversation, and we hit it off much better than I ever recall. He has a few concerns over the small project I’ve taken a decision to defer to next year and he minces no words in telling me so. Thankfully, I have my ‘we’re all in it together‘ speech at the ready – about how I am as much an underling in the overall scheme of things as he is and merely executing orders. Whether he buys it or not is unclear, but all told we have a much more amiable conversation than we have had in a while.

 At dinner, I share a table with a couple of the lads – one is ex Royal Marines, the other is an ex (Music) school teacher who took his chance at reinvention a mere fifteen years ago. Several NDT tickets down the line, he’s now one of the lead techs, earning way more than he would have as a teacher. On the odd occasion he still thinks back wistfully at what might have been had he remained a school teacher, usually when the subject of wives and their shopping sprees comes up, which is often a lot on these trips. The ex Royal Marine, Dusty Dan, named for the extra layer of grime his coveralls tend to pick up regales us between sips of tomato soup and bites of bread of his ordeal at the hands of the wife at an Ikea shop. Dragged out early one Saturday morning ostensibly to shop for furniture for an upcoming baby, he ends up being dragged to each and every corner of the Ikea, criss-crossing every square inch multiple times as his wife meanders her way through the items on display. Three hours later, still no closer to any major purchases and almost dead on his feet, he is allowed the one bit of respite he has grown to look forward to on these interminable trips – 10 meat balls and mash at the Ikea restaurant.

Oh the bliss of married life!

 

Sunday delights, deconstructing the Nigerian conundrum and difficult work moments

An altogether forgettable weekend – and at my age they all are – is bookended by a pit stop at Union Square for lunch with a friend of a friend. A random conversation a couple of weeks ago about (yet another) mutual friend and my lack of proactivity had ended up in a challenge of sorts being issued in my direction. Three phone calls later – with a few text messages thrown in – I end up making my way up the stairs towards the safe bet that is Nandos for a quick bite and chat. I arrive early – knowing Union Square,  getting a table can be a hassle on sunny Sunday afternoons – the added advantage being that I get to see her first, and the satisfaction that she fits the image I have of her in my head. We order simple food – lime and herb flavoured chicken with a mixed leaf salad for me and a ratatouille for her and bottomless drinks and make small talk over the course of an hour and a half.  All told it is a pleasant afternoon, and but for the fact that I have dodgy genes, and family history I would already be inventing scenarios involving white picket fences and 2.1 kids in my head. 🙂 Given the choice, I would most certainly like an encore by all accounts.

My friend O arrives at my house a few minutes after I get home. His wife has visitors from church – all women- and he takes the opportunity to make himself scare. Being just around the corner from him, I end up being the default host. We settle in to catch up, and the subject of Nigeria inevitably comes up. The shambolic showing at the Olympics gets our juices agitated especially, and we end up throwing in the mis-use of federal character and the educationally less developed state criterion to water down academy entry requirements in Nigeria. The one thing that this guarantees is that it leaves us unduly agitated and down right depressed at the cesspool that is Nigeria.

All too soon, between grocery shopping, church and marathon football manager saves, the weekend runs away and it is 8.30pm on a Sunday night – inevitably bringing the spectre of Monday morning front and centre to my mind. It’s the second week since the paths of Ms Bitchy Boss from my Nigerian assignment and mine have crossed again, almost five years apart. It turns out that I am not the only one with whom she has history. It has been a quiet return so far, deep down in my mind, her return is just another more incentive to take that PhD search a tad bit more seriously.