Decluttering

Photo by Lindsey LaMont on Unsplash

**

I finally got round to migrating my contacts to my local phone, the process of downloading them from one account to a new one the last grudging act of acceptance at being here, a signal as it were of the finality of moving. It felt great to be able to do all I use my phone for – WhatsApp, podcasts, ebooks and all – from one device. What I did not bargain for was the trip down the rabbit hole of memory that exercise would be.

If you had asked me, I would have said I was great at moving on, never letting the detritus of the past hang around too long – this exercise put the lie to that. There were contacts from my Eket days, from Newcastle and every pit stop in between; with a few very dead people in there. The longer I think about it, the more I suspect that finality is difficult, and keeping phone numbers of lost or atrophied connections is one last stand for hope against hope. It is a false hope of course. Although I haven’t called H’s number in years, P did a few years ago and found out the number had been reassigned to someone else, which given the time that has passed is reasonable.

One could argue that with the undead, the situation is much less nuanced. There seems to be little benefit to keeping contacts for people I haven’t spoken to in many years, especially in situations where the spheres and cycles we live in have significantly diverged. Sentimental attachments make the decision less clear cut for some though, not least because there is at least one such person who I have the (fortunate or unfortunate) coincidence of sharing a birthday with.

I took the opportunity to clean up my contacts and remove a number of these dead and lost connections. H, E and F remain. Ridding my contacts of their numbers – even if those might have been reassigned to someone else – seemed a bridge too far this time. Maybe someday in 2030, I’ll finally bring myself to do that.

Speaking of the dead, I found this interview with Fabrice Muamba on the subject of those 78 minutes fascinating, not least for his thoughts on faith and community and how it helped him pull through the dark days after his cardiac event when it became obvious his footballing career was over. Well worth a listen if I say so myself.

Got ‘Til its (Kinda) Gone

The less common variant of the “Where are you from” question I get comes from the unconventional way my surname is spelt. Family folklore suggests that my great-grandfather, whether in a fit of pique or an attempt to be contrarian – no one is certain which it is, took his rather mundane Yoruba name, replaced a couple of vowels with consonants, and declared himself unique. To this day when I ‘goggle’ myself, every reference is to someone I know and have met, bar a frankly confusing article that includes TB Joshua, Togo and Canada. Make of that what you will.

On this occasion, the question came whilst filling out a form in preparation for getting my ears tested – a hearing conservation test for work. The chap in question, from a South East Asia country I shall not name, wondered where I was from, as he had not seen a name spelt that way before. I gave him the short answer – The UK, but when that clearly did not provide the clarity he required, I explained the Nigerian great-grandfather connection. That put paid to that line of questioning and allowed me to take the test. The good news is I have the hearing of a twenty-five-year-old, whatever that means. I would much rather have the metabolism (and thus the mid-section) of a ripped sixteen-year-old, but then the one about wishes, horse and beggars comes to mind. We revisited the subject of where I was from as he wrote up the test results. From that conversation, it transpired that he was waiting on a response from the High Commission on an application which would enable him to move there. His eyes seemed to light up at the opportunities he looked forward to, ‘ a lot of travelling’ he said in addition to working in a London hospital and potentially offshore in the future.

A few months ago, the vistas that greeted my eyes were the verdant greenery of the Surrey countryside, a corner of the world crisscrossed by canals, streams and protected forests. At the time, the uncertainty of what direction the future lay clouded my mind, preventing me from truly appreciating all that great nature. Now that I have swapped that for the sterile, over-engineered badlands I am now in, those days seem dim and distant. Until the COVID restrictions get properly lifted, I may not get another opportunity to enjoy them at length. I look back and miss those days, being wary of not falling into the same trap again and failing to appreciate what I have got now (‘til its gone again). The irony in all of that is perhaps that it took going halfway around the world and meeting someone excited about going to the place I left with nary a shed tear to remind me of some of the good things about it.

* Originally posted in A Prodigal Abroad, my (usually) Friday evening letter from the edge of the world… You can subscribe here.

Forty-One

Photo by Nick Fewings on Unsplash

**

It was my birthday the other day, and in keeping with what is becoming a tradition of sorts, I spent the morning wading through a flurry of WhatsApp and text messages before a fairly lengthy video call with the niece who I almost share a birthday with. The rest of the day was spent off-grid, which has become one of the more enjoyable parts of the day. I don’t remember when the need to unplug on the day first came to the fore but I am finding that in the aftermath of all of that mental stimulation, some downtime is helpful. As I have reflected on here before, the five weeks between the 8th of July and the 15th of August tend to be emotionally draining ones. Dealing with a move – which is quite frankly a culture shock of sorts – has only added to that this year.

Turning forty seems significant, to be the onset of an important phase of life and a milestone (never mind it also being a magnet for slander on the interwebs :)). Forty-one, on the other hand, seems like an afterthought, just another notch on the pole of life occasioned by yet another spin around the sun of the earth. Having spent the first twenty and some in the Nigerian state of my birth, the next ten making my way in the world in Nigeria and the next eleven in the UK, it very much feels like a third phase of life. Interestingly, each move has taken me away from the safety of the cocoon in which I grew up, complete with all the trappings of the evangelical industrial complex. My focus this year is Delve Deeper, I suppose there is no better place to test one’s depths and roots than in a far country – to use the metaphor of the prodigal – with all the trappings of having to build credibility all over again. There is certainly no room for coasting. There are also the challenges of living and thriving in a post-oil world which, given the current source of my livelihood, I need to focus on, using today’s opportunities to create the tomorrow’s ones.

In all of that, I am finding the lyrics of NEEDTOBREATHE’s Hang On particularly fitting:

So hang on to the light in your eyes and the feeling
Hang on to your love drunk original reason
So hang on to the small town you love but you’re leaving
‘Cause you won’t be a fool for so long

Economists suggest I am a few years from hitting the bottom of my happiness u-curve. An uptick in happiness is at least something to look forward to, and the enduring tension of leaving the small town I love but which I’m leaving…

Vices, Spices and A Question of Identity

Photo by Timothy L Brock on Unsplash

**

For all S’s protestations to the contrary, it is my contention that there are far worse vices than playing Football Manager. On the odd occasion, when I am caught off-guard, I’ll admit the arguments for this can be tenuous at best but I sincerely believe there is a cachet attached to being this particular brand of a connoisseur.

Home, families and when spouses and children will get moved out here are typical subjects of conversation whilst waiting for the bus, which was how I ended up having such a conversation with a fellow commuter a few days ago. Time zones and staying in touch were the twin topics of interest on the day. My two-hour difference is hardly the sort of stuff to sweat over but in his early days, he had an eight-hour time difference to manage, difficult given the need to balance that with getting enough sleep and waking up in time to be on the bus at 6.00 am. Things were a lot simpler for him now he said, thanks to his family’s move back to their home town of Plovdiv. Perhaps my eyes lit up with recognition at the name, but somehow he figured out I recognised the name. I did, of course, thanks to some obscure Football Manager save, in which I ended up taking Brentford from the English Championship to the Champions League group stage via a two-leg qualifier against Botev. Inspired by all the football kicking about of late, I thought I’d reinstall it and have a few turns. The 821 hours I have apparently spent playing the 2015 version was an awakening of sorts (refusing to upgrade is the one act of self-discipline I have allowed myself in this regard). 821 hours seems like a lot of time to spend in a make-believe world of pretending to be Klopp, Nagelsmann or whoever is the latest managerial wunderkind, but on this evidence, some real-world value is there to be had, the geography of weird and wonderful places.

One question I get asked a lot is where I am from. The most obvious answer is the United Kingdom, but quite a few people out here know enough about its structure to want to delve deeper. Therein lies my conundrum. I feel a real kinship to Newcastle and consider myself a Geordie at heart, never missing opportunities to hop on the train, going back at least once a year in all my time up in the ‘Deen. I did spend most of my time up in the ‘Deen though, and the oil industry being what it is, there are several connections and connections of connections out here which has sometimes made it expedient to flout my ‘Aberdeen links. The three months I spent down in Surrey during the lockdown endeared that part of the country to me, its shaded forest paths, canals and running spaces all adding up to a very pleasurable, becalming experience. I am from there, therefore, in a manner of speaking.

Most people default to asking if I am Nigerian, aided I suspect by the reasonably large number, and visibility, of Nigerians everywhere. I am that too of course, even though my relationship with the country is very much that of an errant prodigal. Being fortunate or unfortunate to have grown up in the corner of the country that I did, I have come away with the sense of being a minority in a minority state, and therefore feel no real kinship or connection to it. What news that filters through hardly fills me with any real confidence that my relationship with it, fraught as it is, is heading anywhere good anytime soon.

Twice, whilst self-isolating when I arrived here, bowls of extra spicy rice and meat turned up at my door from people with Nigerian connections who very kindly took it upon themselves to help the new guy settle in. It was a relief to take a break from sandwiches and all the other bland fare my Whatsapp tennis with the local diner delivered. One of my first acts, when I was finally free to go out was to head to the local shop and buy as much pepper as I could lay my hands on, without looking like someone who had lost their mind. I may or may not be many things, but I am learning that one thing is incontrovertible, I am an eater of pepper.

Getting My Finger Out

Photo by Reiseuhu on Unsplash

**

I am finding myself drawn again to the radio and to the BBC World Service- not the physical box itself but the BBC Sounds app which my VPN allows me access – and in doing so, all sorts of memories come flooding back. Many moons ago, when I was nearer ten than thirty, the World Service was my companion on many a hot, humid day with not a lot to do. Programs such as Off The Shelf, Wright Around The World, various radio dramas and the bumper Saturday sports package which sated my Liverpool fixation in the days before colour TV (never mind satellite TV) came to my corner of the world, all came to define that era for me.

The offerings have changed since then, time and ratings conspiring to sound the death knell for some of those programs, as has the advent of the internet. Death itself has claimed a favourite of mine from those days, Alistair Cooke’s Letter From America. There are new favourites to be discovered I suspect but whilst the new offerings warm their way into my heart the sound of the World Service in the background as I putter around my house brings back memories, and some comfort, if I’m willing to admit it.

The World Service is not the only thing that has become a staple in my life. Between the peculiar timing of work and travel to work, I have now taken to waking up at 4.00 am, doing a little bit of indoor exercising (in a bid to exorcise the fruit of three months of lockdown, two weeks of quarantine and good neighbours who plied me with salah meat and rice) and then preparing for work. Podcasts keep me company on the bus into work and after dinner, a 5k walk helps me get the heart rate pumping. Ideally, I would like to get back to running 10k three times a week but given temperatures in the mid-forties even at night, I suspect that will be a jaunt for winter. At work, a cup of green tea with some mint leaves has become my after lunch pick-me-up.

When I first toyed with the idea of sending missives chronicling my time out here, the aspiration was for them to come out every week. In conversation with someone the other day, the difficulty of building a discipline of writing amidst all that life throws one’s way came up. Part of the issue for me has been trying to settle on where (Medium, here, a substack newsletter), when and what to write about. On far too many Friday evenings than I would care to admit, I have faffed about, worrying over one or all of the above rather than just writing.

So in the interest of getting on with it, here goes:

  1. What: Thoughts, a diary of sorts, anything from the mundane to the otherworldly. For inspiration, I will revisit my copy of Cooke’s Letter from America collection and one of my favourite expat blog from ages ago. Obviously, I’ll be trying to learn Arabic in 1,000 lessons (if I last that long given oil and all that stuff)
  2. When: On or before 10pm my time on Friday evening.
  3. Here!

Sorted

A Lift off of sorts…

Image Source: Rajab Guga on Unsplash

**

According to the Book of Proverbs King Solomon, who knew a thing or two about hope and despair once said – whether in despair or merely noting in a manner of fact way – that Hope deferred makes the heart sick, and for the last three months and some I feel like I have known just that; lurching — sometimes several times a day — between the delirious joy of looking forward to an adventure and the deep depths of despair. COVID-19 was the culprit, as were the not entirely unconnected issues of an oil supply glut and oil price wars leading to sub-zero oil futures pricing. That there was a clear cause-effect relationship did little to tame the perennial desire to find wider meanings in things that is our forte as Nigerians, cue warfare prayers from my near and dear ones, a la Mountain of Fire and all.

The call to suit up and boot up came out of the blue late one Thursday, which set off a series of throat swabs, trips into central London to hand in passports and pick them up and all the not entirely fun stuff of packing up a life and moving continents in a week. Part of me wondered if it was entirely sensible to be jumping onto a flight, cooped up with others for six hours and some, but given I had waited three months for this chance, I was not about to let it slide over the small matter of a lengthy flight. I felt like a guinea pig through it all – one way systems at the airport and all the rigmarole that came with those, unseasonably warm weather, and lengthy queues. Thankfully, I had my friend O for company, and copious amounts of hand sanitizer to slather my hands in. It might have been the weather, or plain old tiredness, which made someone drop in a faint was our queue slowly inched its way towards the check-in desk. We all had to physically check in our bags, which made for an interminably slow and painful process, exacerbated by the fact that people were flying with tons of bags, returning home after being stuck away from home I guess. Once through security and on to flights, it seemed like the plan was to send us through as quickly as possible – a quick turn around in Dubai and then onwards to our final destination being the plan. On arrival, we were whisked through security, on to the meet and greet folks and then in a taxi towards my final destination, reached at the ungodly hour of 3.30am, at which time I was barely lucid.

The price to pay for moving to the edge of the world in these difficult times has been to self-quarantine for 14 days, days which alternate between speeding past and dragging on interminably. The glorious gift of the internet is not something that is bestowed on us out here without any strings, so one has had to make do with a mobile wifi device and a pre-paid plan, a far cry from the unlimited fibre-optic broadband I enjoyed for the past three months. As such mindlessly watching Netflix or Amazon Prime has not been an option. Shades of living in Nigeria in the dark days before proper internet arrives you could say.

For food, I have had to ping WhatsApp messages back and forth with the chap who manages the camp diner, iteratively arriving – via pictures and explanatory texts – on a semblance of dinner. Bread and eggs have been a salvation of sorts. The downside to all of that though is the blandness of everything which led to me retching over a toilet bowl one afternoon after one too many meals comprising of bread and eggs. The small Nigerian community did come through several times though, bowls of soup turning up one weekend, rice on an another and then two trays of salah meat to cap it all off. Weight is something I am refusing to look at at the moment, not helped by the heat discouraging any attempts to running outdoors.

New routines are needed for this new life. One had best get going.

The Diary: Jacqueville By The Sea

This has been sitting in my drafts for several months, so I thought I’d try to finish it off and post it here as a means to making use of the time I have on my hands.

**

If there is a silver lining to being a terrible sleeper it is that I usually manage to wake up in time for things, typically before my alarm rings. The blips on that record are increasingly regular –  and spectacular – like this past weekend when I slept through multiple alarms. When I finally woke up (having failed to do so to the alarm on my phone and on my watch), it was ten minutes before my taxi was due, cue half-brained rushing about to splash some water on my face, brush my teeth and grab my travel bags. By the time that was done, there were already two missed calls from the taxi driver and the company on my phone. There was, I thought, a hint of irritation on the driver’s face when I finally emerged. All of that disappeared once we were on the way, and speeding, to the airport.  The usual chit-chat revealed he had passed through the corner of West Africa I was headed for many years ago, and that he was Latvian, not that anyone could have guessed from his near-perfect Aberdonian accent. Scrambling for change at the airport, he waived the additional £1.20, helped me with getting my bags out of the car trunk and then promptly disappeared for the next gig. Bag drop and security took ten minutes at that time of the morning, by which time I was barely lucid and grateful for the cup of black coffee I poured myself once I was into the lounge. I was the first of my work party to arrive, which gave me some time to settle in and breathe a little, before the incessant chit-chat and mindless prattle began. It was a good thing I managed to catch my breath because the chit-chat, when it began, focused on the prospect of my leaving for greener pastures – being a traitor to the cause was the good-natured accusation thrown about. In those days before the oil price tanked, there were stirrings of growth and opportunities and I was only the latest in a long line of folk who had either left or were in the process of leaving. To cut costs, we had somehow engineered a tight connection at Charles de Gaulle, our turn around time being a grand total of ninety minutes plane to plane which left us hands full, running almost full pelt through the airport. We made it with some time to spare in the end and were delayed by a further hour for reasons unknown to us, all of which left me internally cursing the necessity of the awfully early start. We found out in the end that the delay was due to a deportation order being served on someone, cue police and immigration and all the malarkey that comes with those.

The flight itself was unremarkable, except perhaps for the opportunity it provided to catch up on some sleep and a small moment of which I am ashamed in which I relocated a very pregnant woman’s bags to ensure I’d have access to mine during the flight. Not my finest hour I’ll admit, though I’d point to my being less than mentally optimal from the loss of sleep. There was food, some movie of some description to pass the time and then podcasts to drown out the noise around. The Bamako pitstop was just that, though it added an extra hour to our travel, meaning we arrived at Abidjan just after 5.30pm local time. Customs was a breeze, the one advantage of arriving on a flight that disgorged the majority of its passengers in Bamako, which meant in just under an hour we were through customs bags in hand searching the gathered crowds for our assigned driver. H and I were at our hotel by 7pm and having dinner by 7.30pm, before turning in for our early morning helicopter flight offshore. That set the tone for the week: early starts, late nights and plenty of helicopter flights, meetings, getting frogged on and off remote platforms, and largely being visible. By the time Thursday came around, the days had begun to blur into each other, the situation not helped by terribly slow internet which was the result of issues with undersea cables off the West African coast.

These trips take me down memory lane, to a time and place in which I was the young, exuberant national engineer with expatriate advisors doling out dollops from their vats of wisdom. Back then, I felt like I was kicking against a glass ceiling and would never really hit the heights I wanted to. There is after all, a perverse incentive structure here; the expatriate is by definition highly paid – better remunerated than in his (and it typically is a he in these parts) own country, waited on hand and foot and holds a lot of power by virtue of his perceived expertise. His approval is thus something of great significance in the local power structure, and when given sparingly can drive behaviours of subservience in the local engineer. There is also the small matter of the expat boys club and the propensity to err on the side of supporting the hegemony in the event of a potential threat to that power. After all, every member of the club benefits, and the more the perceived requirements for their expert service persists, the more the local engineers are made to feel and look incompetent. Nationalisation schemes attempt to address the skills gap by demanding quotas for nationals in these companies – whether they work is a different matter altogether. The irony is not lost on me though, I too am out here because of a perceived superiority of expertise – I too have become part of the White-Saviour industrial complex, to borrow a construct from Teju Cole.  I can only hope that with time, at least some of the bright, young people I meet on these trips can hit the heights their exuberance and energy deserve, and opportunities to grow and learn come their way.

We spend the last day back on land, a day visit to Jacqueville being the objective. It is one of those little outposts big (or medium-sized oil in this case) manages to find, the small pump station on the edge of the town being the most important thing of economic significance in the area. The road there, usually impassable in the heights of the rainy season, has recently been graded and is thus somewhat passable. Graded or not, it is a bumpy ride, our convoy of 4×4’s leaving dust in our wake as we bounce along the final stretch of earth road. Palm trees line the earth road, tricycles dot the roads and in the distance, boats bob about on the sea as fishermen go about their daily business. At our final destination, we carry out an impromptu inspection of some work which is planned for completion in early March with several strong words exchanged at the state of preparedness (or not). Part of it is a manifestation of that industrial complex, and the resultant lack of agency of the national engineer in charge. Lurking beneath the surface for me is that it is my last time out here. Although, I have been involved in this place for all of three years. I’d like to think I’m leaving it in a better state than I met it. Even out here, in the middle of nowhere, plastic shrouds the roots of the trees.

Hitting Reset: Some thoughts on adapting for a post-oil world

Photo by Jose Antonio Gallego Vázquez on Unsplash

**
When I reflected on life at the turn of the year, and wondered what the year would be for me, Delve Deeper came to mind. Behind that was the understanding, inspired in part by the Parable of the Wise and Foolish Builders, that everything worth its salt is tested, and only those which had roots sunk deep would survive. I was also on the cusp of quitting my job up north with the prospect of the move of a lifetime looming. Whatever your particular take on COVID-19 is — elaborate hoax, a pretext for instituting a new world order or a symptom of a broken world — what is incontrovertible is that in its wake has come a seismic change to the world and what we know of it. For all the preening, posturing and the facade of strength the world economies have presented, 2020 has shown it all up like an edifice built on shifting sands to use a biblical metaphor. The Emperor’s new clothes, for all we can see, are anything but a covering.

Within the wider context of the shutdown of the world’s systems, the latest iteration of oil’s boom and bust cycle hit close to home, the precipitous dive in the price of oil, particularly the Brent benchmark, from just under $70 to a low of $18 and change the latest trigger in the latest race to trim the fat by companies all along the oil supply and value chain. To be fair, COVID-19, the global shutdowns and the resulting supply glut were only the straw that broke the back of camel increasingly hassled by headwinds such as the continued rise of green energy and their activists, US shale and players (read Russia and Saudi Arabia) only too happy to throw their weight around in an attempt to eke out more market share. A perfect storm perhaps, but all told it is a sequence of events which leaves some (full disclosure like me) who are invested in the industry for their livelihood concerned about the future and what it portends.

With projects no longer economic at current pricing levels, job cuts at majors and their key suppliers are inevitable with BP looking to trim up 10,000 job globally and Saudi Aramco looking to do the same for about 8,000 jobs. Job losses in my old stomping ground in the North Sea were estimated to be in excess of 4,500 in June. Across the pond in America, the first bankruptcies have occurred with surely more to come, all symptoms of the highly leveraged low margin environment the oil patch, at least in the West, has become. Of course, one has to take the good with the bad, and roll with the punches, although it does significantly impact the prospects for attracting future talent into the industry. That, and improving the gender balance and the average age of those in the industry, have been stated objectives for the UK sector of the North Sea with various diversity and inclusion initiatives been fronted as recently as last week. There is also the slight worry that the boom periods between bust (and slash and burn) are getting shorter. Change is afoot in many ways than one.

Change they say is inevitable, it is those who are able to adapt who survive and thrive though, all of which has left me thinking long and hard about the future, and what it portends. The obvious response is to consider a career reinvention, one which untethers me from the tentacles of big oil. Three criteria come to mind in determining what sort of direction such a move might take: the development of domain agnostic skills (to ensure I don’t get stuck in a different version of the big-oil problem), a non-zero entry point( to ensure some or all of my current skills are transferable) and a high ceiling (to ensure there is scope for growth). My oil and gas niche, with some retooling, lends itself to some level of cross-domain application, being relevant across a number of high hazard industries where corrosion and asset integrity is a concern (nuclear, wind, buildings/ infrastructure and even automobiles) as do the quantitative and analytical skills which practising as an engineer have also developed. Risk analysis and management skills are also useful, as are project management and coordination skills.

I am betting on data, as it ticks all three of the criteria above with the added bonus of enabling remote/ flexible working practices and being applicable in my current role. It will take some retooling – for all my flirting with Python, there is a knowledge gap to be plugged there, as well as a time requirement to build the confidence and skills that deliberate practice brings. I may have missed planting this tree 20 years ago, the bigger mistake would be failing to plant it today.

The Diary: The Joy In Small Things

***
Seemingly like in the blink of an eye – like play like play in the pidgin English of my youth –  we are somehow at the end of May!  Summer is finally here, bringing in its wake the realisation that if I had stayed up North, the first of my Nine Fridays of Summer would have just gone past. As it is though, I find myself in an intermission of sorts, loitering in the space between a past life and the future in which an adventure in the sun hovers just out of reach, 70 days late. There are of course worse things than swapping grey granite for verdant green or being cooped up with family, like dying or very nearly dying like so many people, including a few closer to home for me, have over the past few months of this pandemic.

The reality of the lockdown first hit on a personal level sometime in late March, when my flight out was cancelled. My initial reaction is to take it as an extended holiday of sorts, cue extended hours of Football Manager but as time passes, each day blurring into the next, I find life without the tether of routine somewhat disconcerting. Its the first time since the autumn of 2009 that I have been in this place where there is plenty of time on my hands. Six weeks of a creative non-fiction writing course and National Poetry Writing Month do provide some structure and help mitigate the sense of floundering, the result of decisions taken earlier in the year as part of fleshing out what My Year of Delving Deeper would look like. It is thus only in May that the desire to stay creative and productive kicks in, no thanks to the reminders of the supreme productivity of Newton and Shakespeare in similar times from the Twitter productivity gurus.

One of the bigger impacts of all the time everyone suddenly has is a significant regression in the quality of my Whatsapp messages. Being Nigerian, with loads of older, Christian folk in my contacts, I find my inbox something of a ground zero for conspiracy theories of all flavours, from the 5G one peddled by a certain Nigerian MOG through a raft of others suggesting it is all a ploy to foist some religious or moral imperative on the rest of us. Elsewhere in my wider (Pentecostals) network, the miracle of hindsight manifests itself in various names – both well known and lesser-known lights – claiming some sort of prescience or other in having prophesied that a pandemic of such a nature was coming. What those who forward those messages on to me fail to answer is why, if these prophets were that certain, they didn’t shout louder for those of us at the back as Nigerian Twitter likes to put it. Those who cling to conspiracy theories do so as an attempt to find certitude and assert control of what is fundamentally an uncertain state, at least so says Skye Jethani who is a lot more clued into the Christian sub-culture than I am.

In retrospect, the things that stand out from the past 70 days – and some – are the little unplanned things; a picture from 2016 which brings back memories of Lagos and hanging with the old gang, an impromptu WhatsApp video call which segues into a three-way call that drags in A, I and C and dredges up fantastic memories of life, youth and friends that have become closer than brothers as it were.  I find myself measuring time in the small things and new routines, Mondays as bin days, Wednesdays as my Alpha Online days, Thursdays for joining the line that snakes around my local Tesco to stock up on food and water and Sundays for lengthy phone calls to friends and family around the world. Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays have become portals of exploration, as my runs take me along paths which weave their way around the River Wey navigation paths. The bucolic sights that greet one’s eyes these days belie the fact that as recently as the 1960’s these were functional navigation routes. Private boats and yachts now line the waterway in places, a nod to the relatively well off folk who are our neighbours out here. Even those lie quietly, all furloughed in their own way, more than a few clearly showing signs of age and disuse, a metaphor for pausing to smell the roses and to enjoy the whispers of nature the world would otherwise have drowned out.

This is what my days have boiled down to; Reading, Writing and Running, and finding Joy in small things.

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.