Poohsticks

It’s only about forty minutes drive from Brighton to Winnie the Pooh land. It’s near the Ashdown Forest where I went to that boarding school for sad tiny people back when Thatcher was PM. I once played Poohsticks on the bridge near Pooh Corner with my father, in the faraway times when none of the cracks had started to show.

Life hasn’t taken me back that way really. I let myself forget those trees and little comfortable English lanes and streets. Lou and I found our way there this afternoon.

We had just successfully got into a National Trust garden without paying. Buoyed up by our terribly English disobedience, we elected to blow the money we might have given to help maintain the property on English food with a Winnie the Pooh theme. Pooh is on my mind a fair amount these days, and not just because I’ve bought Lou her EAU De Pooh oud.

Pooh Corner in Hartfield will show up on your Google maps. It’s a little Tea Room with a Pooh gift shop and a Pooh menu and very cheerful staff who don’t have to dress up in silly clothes and seem to genuinely enjoy the pleasure they give to the punters by being associated with the childish joyfulness of Winnie. Pooh goes deep. Think of The Tao of Pooh. We’ve all noticed the life lessons buried in this ostensibly childish selection of literature about a hungry friendly bear of very little brain and his friends.

We happen on the table that gets the sun latest in the day. It is still shining on our faces as we finish the last hot meal out of the kitchen. Most of the rest of the afternoon diners are in shade, and the shade is cold. The warmth of this falling sun helps cut through the fact that I’m still not recovered from plunging back into winter again from the desert. Nevertheless we drive as close as we can to Poohsticks bridge. It’s also on maps.

The bridge has had to be rebuilt a few times from sheer volume of footfall. It’s not the same bridge I stood on with my father before the world got harder. Nevertheless, Lou and I played Poohsticks. It’s compulsory – so long as you can find a naturally fallen stick, but it’s been a stormy winter. There’s a car park on one side. We approached it from the wrong side, where there’s no official parking. We went past tons of properties with “PRIVATE” written everywhere. People had stumped over their lawns with big boots and hammered stakes into the good turf in order to repeatedly order us hoipolloi to “Keep off the Grass”. We kept off it. I guess there’s going to be coach parties in the summer with armies of tourists throwing wrappers wherever they can and eating the roses. It felt like unnecessarily shouty signage for the two of us. But we still went the wrong way for a moment and ended up in somebody’s farm.

Nice step into the world of Pooh for a day. It’s a big franchise and it has given so many people so much pleasure. We had a gorgeous day in the cold. Now I’m exhausted. Lots of walking. Lots of fresh air. Cold cold fresh air.

Buffalo shit

On my last night in Saudi I was out following my final drop off and I stopped in a little commercial area to get a pizza. I didn’t want to wait in the pizza shop so I went exploring and found this little place, unerringly translated atrociously by Bixby – the compulsory joke of a “personal assistant” app that Samsung foists on all its users whether they like it or not.

I find Bixby Translate is good for a laugh from time to time. You won’t get sense out of it though. And it’s not worth the wasted button on your phone. For those who missed it, here’s its attempt at the menu in the coffee shop opposite my hotel. It made me howl.

You’ll have to zoom in on this. It’s worth it.

Anyway this isn’t a blog about how hilariously crap Bixby is. This is a blog mostly about the result of my visit to “Pill Stick”. This is actual Pill Stick without the crap translation overlay.

Pill Stick sells oud. There are lots and lots of oud shops in Saudi. Scent is powerful and strong in this culture. Oud is a range of scents made from the Agarwood that grows naturally in Saudi – specifically from a resin produced by Agarwood infected with mold. It’s mushroom and wood together. Two things I like. I went in to buy some for Lou.

The guy behind the counter had no English and I had no Arabic. That was an interesting start. We made do with grunting and gesticulation. I knew I was gonna buy some no matter what. He was going to sell some no matter what. Our needs aligned.

I didn’t know what I was buying though. It was all so arcane and he was excited but not particularly helpful. Trying to ask him questions like “What is the oil for, burning or perfume” resulted in the response “Yes! Yes, oil. Yes.” So I thought I’d just buy some and work it out.

I sat with Lou just now as she opened a little box he had made up containing both oil and wood. She put some oil on her arm and rubbed it. She sniffed like and connoisseur. Rubbed it. Sniffed again. “Hmmm. I like it. It smells of Camel shit.”

I didn’t get out of that shop for cheap. Oh no. Reading up on it, it seems I inadvertently bought one of the most expensive materials in the world. Worth it for the lady to smell of camel shit. “It’s alright,” she adds – “camels are vegetarian…”

A bit later she sniffs it again. It has settled now. “Oh actually you know what this reminds me of?”

“I dread to think.”

“I was in the Himalayas.”

Ahhh exotic.

“It was a hot day and we’d walked up a mountain, and there was this cold beautiful waterfall. I just went and stood under it.”

Beautiful. Hot water. Steam. Nature.

“Then this woman came up the hill and she had this buffalo. Great big thing it was, and you know how buffalo go where they please – well it went and lumbered under the waterfall with me.”

I don’t like where this is going.

“It was hot. It probably hadn’t washed for weeks. All this steam was coming off it. Buffalo musk and sweat and shit. It smells like that.”

So there’s the oud oil. It might be for burning, of course. If not I’m gonna be pursued by the scent of hot buffalo shit. Still, it’s the thought that counts. There was wood in the package as well.

We improvised a censor and of course Lou had some quick light charcoal. We burnt some of the resinous wood. It is strangely beautiful to look at, every piece a different shape, smooth and dark and thick and hard. Burning it with a lighter doesn’t take like the incense we are mostly used to. We had to put it on top of charcoal. Then it filled the air. The scent of the wood is certainly less animal – subtler. I got some of that for myself as well and I’m glad of it. I love burning things for scent. I think in a past life I liked it a bit too much. In this one though I love the smellyburny things. I’ve ordered some of that charcoal now already and I’m wondering if maybe the oil should soak the wood before burning… Perhaps…

They also had some actual definite perfumes in that place, one of which he sprayed me with before I could stop him and which I found terribly cloying for several hours. Every time he pointed to that section I waved my hands in protest. I tried to avoid getting Lou something that sweet. Perhaps that’s how she ended up with the finest Chateau de Buffalo Humide. I like nothing more than a fine woman who smells like a ruminant bovidae.

We walked in the woods, as is our way. It’s too damn cold. Roll on summer.

Slow London

Back in good old London town. My body has gone into recovery mode after I maybe punished myself a little too hard in the quest to be willing in Saudi. When a job ends we quite frequently get the sniffles. All the little boggarts that our immune system has been fending off as we push our motivation to the edge suddenly get their moment to be processed. I was feeling great in Saudi – full of beans the whole time physically. No surprises really – I was having a summer in February and doing something simultaneously interesting and progressive. Vitamin D and accidental exercise and new experience and travel. My favourites. Well … now it’s all done I’ve had a headache non stop and the cold is making my nose run. I’ll adjust, and quickly. But right now it’s permissible to chill out and listen to plinky plonky music and play stupid games and read 2000AD compendiums. If my cleaning lady hadn’t shown up this morning I wouldn’t have spoken to anybody all day. As it is I spent a bit of money to have somebody do things I’ve got time to do myself right now. It feels profligate but without her I think I might have gone feral.

Dayjobs have started to come in. It’s nice watching them land. I’m just saying “yes” as is my habit and keeping myself open for the next bit of filming or spot of theatricals. There’s always something right around the corner, and it’s really nice to see that I haven’t been forgotten about by some of the lovely people I’ve worked alongside in unusual things over the years. The random things are landing. I sat with my diary. March is just round the corner and its not looking bare. That’s all that matters really. Filling the gaps. Funding my Deliveroo habit… Paying the ever escalating electricity bills. I need to nip the Deliveroo in the bud. I’ve had three meals brought to me since I got back and blown about sixty quid into the bargain. Sure I’ve had the chance to just chill out as a result. But it’s not a sustainable lifestyle. Besides, cooking is fun! It’s just easier to do it for multiple people.

Catching up with the news is no fun. I can’t make sense of what Putin thinks he’s doing. Even as he takes The Ukraine by force it’s not like they’ll just be loyal to Russia and lie down. It’s a short sighted power move, and it could lead to devastating consequences – it feels like he’s literally lost his mind. Imagine if we rolled into Ireland with tanks and said “We’re putting Eire back into the United Kingdom!” It would never hold. It’s ridiculous. And it is taking a huge toll on people who have done nothing but live in a former Soviet country. Horrible frightening stuff. A madman with so many nukes, and he’s talking about using them. I’ll just go back to thinking about pretending to be other people for money… What can I do other than throw hope and positivity at it. This’ll be a stretch for our idiot leader, and the Queen is sick. Strange times, still. It feels like every time we think it can’t get crazier it does.

I’m gonna go to Brighton tomorrow morning, even just for a short while, to be with Lou. There’ll be a bit of jiggery pokery about dayjobs but as long as I’ve got my memory stick with me I can cope. I’m looking forward to seeing a sea that isn’t fenced off. And Brighton is less likely than Chelsea to get nuked…

The plane flew over the city… I was playing with zoom. Big Ben (QE Tower Clock Face) is back!

If you’ve got time, I’m posting this poem by Pablo Neruda.

I’M EXPLAINING A FEW THINGS

You are going to ask: and where are the lilacs?
and the poppy-petalled metaphysics ?
and the rain repeatedly spattering
its words and drilling them full
of apertures and birds?’

I’ll tell you all the news.

I lived in a suburb,
a suburb of Madrid, with bells,
and clocks and trees.

From there you could look out
Over Castille’s dry face:               
a leather ocean.    

                       My house was called

the house of flowers, because in every cranny
geraniums burst: it was
a good-looking house
with its dogs and children.

Remember, Raúl?

Eh, Rafael?

Federico, do you remember

from under the ground
where the light of June drowned flowers in your mouth?

Brother, my brother!

Everything
loud with big voices, the salt of merchandises,
pile-ups of palpitating bread,
the stalls of my suburb of Argüelles with its statue
Like a drained inkwell in a swirl of hake:
oil flowed into spoons,
a deep baying
of feet and hands swelled in the streets,
metres, litres, the sharp
measure of life,

stacked-up fish,

the texture of roofs with a cold sun in which
the weather vane falters,
the fine, frenzied ivory of potatoes,
wave on wave of tomatoes rolling down to the sea.

And one morning all that was burning,
one morning the bonfires
leapt out of the earth
devouring human beings –
and from then on fire,
gunpowder from then on,
and from then on blood.
Bandits with planes and Moors,
Bandits with finger-rings and duchesses,
Bandits with black friars spattering blessings
came through the sky to kill children
and the blood of children ran through the streets
without fuss, like children’s blood.

Jackals that the jackals would despise,
stones that the dry thistle would bite on and spit out,
vipers that the vipers would abominate!

Face to face with you I have seen the blood
of Spain tower like a tide
to drown you in one wave
of pride and knives!

Treacherous
generals:
see my dead house,
look at broken Spain:

from every house burning metal flows
instead of flowers,
from every socket of Spain
Spain emerges
and from every dead child a rifle with eyes,
and from every crime bullets are bom
which will one day find
the bull’s eye of your hearts.

And you will ask: why doesn’t his poetry
speak of dreams and leaves
and the great volcanoes of his native land?

Come and see the blood in the streets.
Come and see
the blood in the streets.
Come and see the blood
in the streets!

Back in the cold

Oh God it’s winter. It’s winter winter. The air is cold. I woke up for the third time at about 8.30 in the morning. There was no possibility of going back to sleep from then. I opened the blind and looked into a rainstorm. I stared out across the river. Rain and cold and grey. I closed the blind again and went on deliveroo.

Paul delivered a selection of tasty pastries to me, and even a coffee. I am not well stocked at home. I had my guilty breakfast and then I looked out of the window again. Then I got back into bed.

My nose is running and I feel run down. I’ve been in dry heat for weeks. The humidity from the fountain last night and a tiny amount of time standing in a desert hailstorm … that’s all the external moisture I’ve had. I feel like I’ve been overloaded with cold and wet. I closed the door on the world.

I was lucky in Saudi because I made loose friends – I found connections with Farah and Dr Jesus and Baraa and Susanne… People I wouldn’t ever normally meet. I got on okay with the British contingent I was with as well, but they had established patterns and relationships borne out of previous events. I was – and always am – the element of wildcard. I did the things that needed doing that couldn’t be predicted until they were needed. I did fucking well at it as I always do. But some of the regulars didn’t know where to put me, and I found myself slightly squeezed out and deliberately misunderstood by cliques. There was no deep animosity. But had it not been for Farah and the doctors I would have only had one friend on this job, and he was so busy he couldn’t look after me socially.

London is full of friends, but it’s cold here. I managed a pint with Tom this evening – the creator of Christmas Carol. Now I’m hoping I can persuade Jack to come play with me. If I’m gonna be in London I want to have the things that make it worth being here. I need to be with my friends again. I’ve been totally fine in Saudi, but its mostly either been new friends or coworkers who tolerate me. A second time with this lot now I know the deal, and they’ll get me as I’ll get how to be with them.

I’ve been visible but visibility comes with disadvantages. It’s easy to bully the visible. I know that because I’m bullyproof now and just observe the people who try to go there. There was only one person with the bully instinct on the job I just finished, and if I’d called them on it they’d have realised and stopped. Mostly it was a joy. Crazy. But a joy.

Until the theatres wake up… Unless the Netflix or the Disney tapes cash in… Bring on more like that please… My agent is wonderful. My industry often isn’t. Acting will always be my primary concern. But there’s life in these thar events. And unless the UK industry gets off its ass and realises what an asset it has in my continued availability for it after all these decades, then sure I’m gonna moonlight in races.

Jeddah Layover

With eight hours in Jeddah overnight, and a hotel room booked, I still didn’t want to waste an opportunity. You need a visa to go to Saudi, so short of more work – which might happen – the best way for me to make sure that I have some sort of a touchpoint for the place was to stay up late and see the sights.

Joe and I came off the plane tired, and my travelers instinct was wonky. I approached one of the guys who shout “taxi”. “Ahh he’ll do. It’s just a broke guy with a car. Let’s give him some business.” Our mutual linguistic understanding was not good enough for us to reach an agreement. We realised before we got into his car that he was going to scam us, and we still got in. That’s how tired we were. It was a fraught journey.

We followed his route on maps and when he started going completely the wrong way we tried to make him understand that he couldn’t just take us to any hotel – we had a booking. Eventually after much tension we arrived at the back of The Airport Clarion, and had a row over money. It’s a familiar row – I once had it in Peru before I realised it amounted to fighting over pennies and gave in. When you’ve been somewhere a while you start to know the worth of things. Travelers bring money though, and we all need cash these days. This was a good fifteen pounds overcharge though, so I paid him much more than it was worth and stood my ground about the rest. It turned into an unpleasant interaction – lots of shouting in Arabic and me trying to say things in Google form translate. I felt jacked with bad adrenaline by the time ai checked in. Another reason to get more of Jeddah. I wouldn’t want my only memory of the town to be of that guy. After all, Dr. Jesus told me it was his favourite city.

I showered, changed my clothes and took off my hat in case cab guy was looking for me, and at one in the morning I jumped into the back of an uber. A much better transport idea. Mariam drove the car, and had good enough English that she understood my intentions. She took me to the waterfront, driving and conversing in English. I knew much more about the town by the time we got in sight of the fountain.

She took me to a bay with the imposing edifice of the Ritz Carlton overlooking it. I would’ve booked there for my layover had the last minute rooms not started at £350. At the back of the bay, across the water, the King Fahd Fountain jets salt water up at over 200mph to a height over 800 foot, and is reflected in the sea below. The air in the bay is wet and humid, perhaps partly because of the mist from that jet. It runs all day and all night, floodlit. It’s certainly imposing.

I walked down the strand taking in the alien smells and life and heat, trying to remain invisible and to just observe. The thing I couldn’t quite compute was the fact that the sea is out of bounds. The fence is continuous, and the perimeter is patrolled. Small huddles of animated young men and women were sitting at intervals on the pavement, as close to the water as they could get. They were mostly segregated by gender – this is the case with loos, prayer rooms, waiting rooms, security queues – there are no polygender loos in Saudi.

Many of the people I saw had ice cream. It was a warm night. Occasionally a breeze would waft the scent of stagnant water to me, occasionally the scent of mist. Taking a lovely deep breath over the sea was a calculated risk. Mud and talking and a surprising number of children considering it was past two in the morning. Considering the Ritz complex is just the other side of the road it is still pretty run down on the lawns, but it gets a huge amount of use here even late at night. The moon was at its mid point, filled at the top, empty at the bottom, unfamiliar, hanging over the Ritz.

It’s an amazing hotel, and well located. Were I to come to Jeddah again I might try for a night there just to see the complex.

Having glutted myself with sensation and cheerful late night ice cream from the stall, I ubered back to the hotel and hit the hay for another short sleep. I’m in the cat nap pattern so I woke a split second before my alarm.

The morning uber to the airport was more than seven times cheaper than the amount the “Taxi” guy was trying for. It made me feel a bit less of a dick for not just giving it to him – I don’t like leaving any human interaction with a sour taste. Who does?

I’m back in London now. What a strange place Saudi is to me – it is already taking on a kind of dreamlike property, and I woke up there. I’m going to miss the heat. But at least I got Bergman back intact. Now I can plug myself back into London and all the friends and strange things I’ve built here. First, though: a hot bath. A beer. My own bed… Oh joy. Oh joy. Zzzzz

Desert walk

Today I walked into the desert. Very quickly the quiet descends. I only walked a few kilometres from the road. This is inhabited desert here. But it is still peaceful. The tracks of 4x4s through the sand and vast quantities of casually discarded plastic are a constant reminder of the extent to which our species ought to be wiped off the face of the earth. We haven’t yet managed to completely ruin the peace and the beauty here though. But it’s harsh. The sun beats down hard. I’m glad of my hat and cravat, and of course my flask.

My footprints are still there now until the rain and wind obliterate them. They go weaving through the stands of camelgrass, unusually green from the rain, rife with rustling lizards. They go between the tall sea carved mesas, eroded into eloquent shapes that stand in sharp relief against the blue sky. They pick their way past the bleached skulls of camels and goats that lie where they fell – or where they were dragged. Often there’s a cloven hoof still shaggy – picked clean above the knee and just lying in the sand.

The desert is a place of death, even here so close to the road. Small silver birds twitter and wheel in the air. Maybe part of their diet consists of those oafishly discarded chips and bits – but mostly it will be the beetles and the insect life that has been here forever.

So much plastic though. My eye frequently catches movement, expecting a lizard or a scorpion, but getting instead a band of thin plastic caught in a zephyr. I’ve seen the window go down so many times from somebody’s car, and a handful of junk discarded. I wonder how far I’d have to go to find a trackless part of this wasteland without bleached plastic, slowly reducing to microscopic particles that go back into the food chain.

Here in local desert the mesas are often partitioned with scavenged barbed wire – a different, threatening type of homelessness. Concentrated piles of bones near fenced off mesas denote feeding grounds but for what? Dogs or people? I don’t go under any of the fences even though they might have been made decades ago.

I find a Geocache stashed in a hole in the rock in an unfenced area. It is part of why I chose this direction. A little bit of something familiar and now I have a smiley face on a digital map in The Middle East. Just one. That’s all I wanted. More litter. Just directed litter.

Having done my technology thing I put the phone away and go into a ceremonial spiritual place.

I am led to a thornbush located far from the tyre tracks. I sit for a long time in the heat of noon and I say my farewells at length to this powerful beautiful hostile place. I fill a glass with sand, thorns and bones. This will come back with me and join the international oojie-boojie strangeness that is accumulating on my altar at home – so long as it doesn’t get poured out by a bewildered customs official. (I checked my bag in. Unusual for me, but there’s stuff in there I don’t want to have confiscated.)

Now I’m in the air, heading to Jeddah. It’ll be late when I arrive. I’m going to try to get to the Red Sea, even just for an hour, to connect with that body of water before I head back to London.

An unexpected trip to Saudi. A good one. I’ve been hopping about recently. I’ve learnt things. Now to consolidate before more hopping…

A 9 hour layover in Jeddah. I made the cardinal error of saying yes to one of the guys who say “taxi”. An argument later and we are followed as far as the security guard by a shouting man who understands numbers far more now he wants way too much of our money. I embarrassed Joe by holding firm. Now I’m gonna hit the red sea before 2 hours sleep and the flight home.

Pig wee

Adblue…

There’s a tractor on site. Great big thing it is. Six wheels on the back. Came all the way from England and arrived looking shiny new. It proved very useful in the sand, lifting wrecked cars and moving things around. Unfortunately it’s diesel powered, but surrounded by strong attempts to minimise and reduce emissions. And its own emissions are reduced by Adblue.

Adblue is urea mixed with water. I’ve written about it before. You can manufacture urea, and I’m sure some of it is manufactured scientifically. But pig wee was a big problem shortly before this stuff started showing up. Purify it to urea and flog it to diesel users, and you solve the pig wee problem and reduce emissions at the same time as making a bit of money out of piss. Delightful.

Your diesel engine runs fine without Adblue. It doesn’t need it at all. But the manufacturers need to be taxed as lower emission, and the farmers need to get the wee taken off the farm without them having to pay for disposal, so they make Adblue compulsory. Your engine won’t start when the urine tank is empty. It just won’t let you drive without that darn pig wee.

The tractor, out in the middle of the desert, is about to run out of Adblue. I’ve run out on a rental before and been stuck. I can see this brand new incredible tractor having to be left in the desert at Neom. Because nobody can find Adblue in this town.

I find a place in Jeddah online. I ring them and they say it’s the wrong number and they sell food. I go online. It is all delivered from the UK and the USA. I message Samwell the interpreter. “There is no Adblue in Tabouk,” says Samwell. “Bullshit”, I think. “Somebody will have some”. I go hunting.

I just looked in my Google maps history. Today I drove 112 miles. I was driving for five hours and forty minutes, in which time I made 22 stops. Each stop was an area where I could cover a number of auto shops or similar. There is no pig farming in Saudi. Nobody really cares about emissions. None of the diesel engines take Adblue because there isn’t a pig wee problem and they don’t really care about the atmosphere yet. Adblue is cheap and the container is big. It takes up too much space for too little profit for something that will sit there for years. Still… Somebody will have it.

I give up three times and send emo messages back to site. Most people I ask about it react so sparely that I can’t tell if they don’t have it or they haven’t heard of it or both. They react to my Google translate question in such a way that I don’t usually know if they’ve understood it. Sometimes they then walk away and start talking to a friend in Arabic, glancing back at me. Sometimes I’ll wait thinking they are asking their friend about Adblue only to realise they are just hoping I’ll leave.

I scour the shelves of so many places that look like this.

The day is hot, and if there is anybody local in front of me or behind me they will be served first.

(Thinking back on it I must have spoken to a hundred people, and maybe received about 3 smiles. The rest were behind masks and their eyes were often hard. Translation anxiety, I think. I had it too. I wished I could speak better Arabic.)

A breakthrough happens late morning when I discover that it might be called DEF or diesel exhaust fluid. I am momentarily buoyed up with hope before being met with the same blank stares as I had been when asking for Adblue.

“There is no Adblue in Tabouk,” goes round and round in my head. But I find a promising district just after 2pm. Loads of Auto shops. I also find a Saudi description of Adblue with a picture. Still mostly blank looks, but one guy becomes animated. He points up the road, but then gestures a prayer and points at his watch. 4 fingers. Pray pray watch 4, point. I think he’s saying they have it up the road but they are praying until 4. I’ve been told they have it up the road often enough today to assume that it usually means “go away”. I go away. I give up. I send more emo messages.

But no. I’ve started so I’ll finish. I find another area and scour it to no avail. Evening is coming. I find myself back in the area from before, trying a Japanese garage a few blocks down where I am totally ignored for more than twenty minutes. The guys with headdresses keep getting served from behind me. I can’t see it on the shelf. I decide to go back and try the guy I spoke to before. He takes my arm at the elbow and walks me outside his shop. He points at a garage a bit further down and he says one word: “Adblue”, before miming a heavy thing to carry. I can’t believe my eyes or ears.

I walk to the garage and into the shop. There, on the floor in front of the counter, is a great big box of Adblue. They are expecting me. Everybody in Tabuk has met the foreigner who wants Adblue by now. They are taking the piss. “This is the only one in Tabouk,” one of them says. “You buy it now and must collect after a week,” he says, fucking with me.

It’s not overpriced. It goes into the back of the car. It would have at pretty much any price.

That was a long beautiful warm day pretty much entirely sunk into the procural of pig wee. At one point I very very very very nearly got side ended by a car. I was just quick enough and avoided it by a whisker. Closest I’ve ever been. But that’s to be expected when you drive almost six straight hours on these crazy streets.

I’m off to bed. The wee is in the boot. Tomorrow I’ll take it out to the desert and say goodbye to the wee and to the desert. Home soon. Sleep now.

Military hospital

Rain all night last night. It hasn’t happened for years. The morning felt fresh and rank with petrichor. I drove through huge puddles on the way to the desert. Occasionally little disconsolate groups of men with mops worked hard at the roadside in order to do nothing to affect the flooding.

The atmosphere on site was tense but expectant. Race day. All these hard-working teams were about to go all out for a result through the damp bumpy sand under the warming desert sun. Some of them had lent engineers to the team with the damaged car, and they had worked all night though an electric storm in this hostile desert just to get the machine up and running again. They managed.

I started what I thought would be a peaceable day in accreditation telling people they couldn’t get in. A small unexpected pick-up happened but nothing out of the ordinary until at about lunchtime when a mild voice on the radio asked for me to drive my car round the back of the compound. That’s a new one on me. On to the compound I go, very quickly, curious but not really thinking I’ll be off site for the rest of the day. I’m expecting to be asked to get some fuel and be back in twenty minutes. No flask. No coat. No water bottle. Laptop just sitting in an open fronted shipping container halfway into that desert.

Next thing I know I’ve got a car full of people and I’m going in convoy with Samwell the interpreter, pedal to the metal back to Tabuk, heading into the restricted zone – the Military City – chasing a helicopter.

I think I can say this by now. One of the drivers had an injury. That was who was in the helicopter. I was carrying two of his family and two people close to his team. After triage, Dr Jesus sent him off to the King Sultan Military Hospital in the militarised zone. I have been curious. I’ve driven round the edges forever. Now I’m going through the gate. Samwell is in front of me. The guard just waves him past. I’ve got a car full of westerners and I’m wearing a trilby. His arm sticks out. We are stopped and turned around. Bugger.

Not to be deterred we try another gate. There are loads. It’s like York with guns. These guys at gate two are just as dour but not as busy. Samwell works his magic. They confiscate two of our passports and give us a piece of card. “No photos!”

We drive into the military city. It’s heavily monitored, like everything else here but double. I keep expecting to have people in uniforms jumping onto us but we get to the hospital unscathed.

The driver is already being scanned to see what the situation is. X-ray and MRI. We are ushered to a waiting room but his mother is told she can’t wait with us because she is woman so she must wait in woman room. We all wait in the courtyard instead.

Time passes and eventually we are ushered up in a lift. We find ourselves in the Royal wing, in the royal suite. A secure door opens onto a few rooms, only one occupied, with dedicated security and nurses. The occupied one is for the driver. He is wheeled in and expertly deposited on the bed.

These men and women are sportsmen at peak fitness. Injuries will be taken very seriously indeed. There’s a tension as we wait for the results. Somebody comes in on a helicopter and Samwell and I shake his hand on the helipad at military city. It all feels very secret agent all of a sudden. We all crowd into the king’s suite. It seems the news is good.

I witness a debrief. The whole team is in a hospital room, talking animatedly about the community they are part of here, adrenaline and relief loosen tongues and flood endorphins for positive outlook. I really like these racing driver people. We share an addiction to adrenaline. I leave smiling, having caught their excitement and relief. I join everybody for an exhausted communal meal. I leave my hat in the restaurant. Shit. Somebody picked it up, or so they told me when I got back.

That’s this event over for now. Tomorrow we start to dismantle it. Then I’m back home. It seems a long way now I’m used to the desert.

Desert storm

Rain. Here I am in the desert, thinking I’m going to escape the mess of storms we have in London. It’s a long way to Tabuk, but the thing with this globe is that it all connects together. Rolling clouds in the morning and the crack of thunder led to a downpour.

“I’m worried about dust,” said my late night pick-up last night before I showed him the forecast. 90% precipitation.

The dunes were flattened down and made more bumpy – moguls instead of powder. Watching the drivers on their onboard camera, you see them fighting to keep control of the steering wheel, using all their strength. It is true test, this Motorsport. Having never really understood my father’s great love for Formula 1, I’m beginning to understand it now. It helps to see it from the inside. This week I’ve met the mechanics, some of whom will be working all night in the freezing desert to try and patch up machines that have taken huge hits. I’ve met the drivers, one of whom is probably full of some of the opiates I helped pick up last night. I’ve met the contractors who build the infrastructure, and the catering, and the hospitality. The people who do security and who make sure there’s water and who pick the litter and who make sure there are people who pick the litter. The people who build it, who talk about it on camera, who respond in emergencies. So many people all sharpened to tomorrow. And I have started to see what is riding on it. This is brilliant and goofy and fast and fun. These teams are pushing the frontiers of electric vehicles while racing in absurdly tough conditions with even weight on female and male drivers and an event focus on the environment. I feel like I’m in on the ground floor of the future of motor racing. And I care about it. I have my feelings about the teams, based on details of behaviour and contact between them and me – and I’m still the flatfish at the bottom of the ocean in terms of rank here. I’m not aspiring to be anything else. I like people.

It has been hard today, for everybody really. The cold moved in with the rain. All the locals were so happy to see that rain, but I was swearing. I stood out there in the car park finding it almost impossible to believe that I was being hit in the hat by hail in this desert that has cooked me and tanned me and dried me out. But that skywater? It’ll be good for nature. The stray dogs are going to have puddles. The camels can top up. We might even see rare desert blooms. Does this usually happen in February here?

As I write, a warning has come over the WhatsApp. Electric storm, coming over the site. Stay in your vehicles. I could never have predicted that this would be the conditions on race weekend. I’m hoping for a good day tomorrow all round. I’m hoping nothing blows away in the night. I’m in bed, exhausted with cold and general fatigue. I’m gonna pass out so I’m fresh tomorrow to go back into the fray.

Mumtaz

Well this is an interesting sensation. I’m parked at a shopping mall in the centre of Tabuk and I’m waiting for the doctor. He came in on the recent flight and he wanted to go to the mall. I didn’t have anything I needed to do so I took him. But first he picked up his supplies. Twelve signatures and a huge amount of paper, and I’m sitting with a huge supply of strong opiates in the back of the car. All the stuff you need in case of an accident. Morphine. Ketamine. Tramadol… Some others. He’s a doctor. But if the police randomly searched my car right now without him in it, I would have some serious explaining to do. And then I’d probably get flogged or something. I dunno if they still do it in public, but I guess if they do I’ve got the chance to go viral. “British guy squeals like a piggy.” If I grab a few handfuls of whatever is in that bag it might delay the pain for a few days at least…

I got myself into helping accreditation today. That’s another hilarious clusterfuck as so many people in the local area have extremely similar names. There’s still a strong family name tradition of taking the place where you’re from, and there’s a devout tradition of taking the name of the prophet. It makes it very tricky to know who has come in and who hasn’t, and add to that the wild variant possibility in the translated spelling of Arabic to Roman and you’re looking at a whole load of worry.

I reckon the doctor will emerge soon so I’m gonna drive round the front and check.

Ahhh Doctor Jesus. It seems I’ve made a friend. He took me out on the Saudi equivalent of that bender that the celebrity takes his driver on in Vegas. No gambling or strip joints. It starts with chicken. Fried chicken. THIS ISN’T ANY FRIED CHICKEN THIS IS AL BAEZ. The queue is round the block three times. They’ve had to make one of those snakes like you have in passport control to fit all the traffic. The desert wasteland has been organised with bollards. At the end there are four outlets like toll booths. We got the chicken and we shoved it into our faces. Just what the doctor ordered. A cultural touchstone.

Then two more airport pickups and then once more Jesus appeared as if from nowhere. The two people who have been asking me to do random things at unusual hours jumped into my car with him in the reception of Hotel Mena after a pick-up, and suddenly I was taking three friendly people on a hunt for tea around the late night streets of Tabuk – and that strange fist of loneliness in my chest unclenched, and the car filled with laughter and suggestions for the things I should do while I’m still here, and the local delights I should sample. There’s a whole list now. But for tonight I have had Mumtaz tea and COMPANY. Even if just for a short while.

Mumtaz means fantastic.. It’s also the name of the shop. You get to keep the glass.

That’s all I was missing really – and these guys are easy friends to me. They say it takes time to find your people. They’re honest and slightly geeky humans. One of them was artlessly trying to solve a Rubik’s Cube in the back of the car. I felt welcome and I felt part of a group. I need that sometimes. Other people make us happy. Yay.

I’ve always known that the best way of seeing an unfamiliar place is in the company of those who know it. These good fun humans took me on a little jaunt tonight and now I’m waiting for my final airport pick-up with a smile on my face. Sure, I won’t sleep much tonight… 2am down, 6am up. Enough sleep though. I had a long one last night. Tomorrow night I’ll be gummy headed by this time. Hopefully I’ll be fast asleep by then though frankly… Unless somebody suddenly announces that there’s a party in the desert… There won’t be. Everybody is gonna be smashed tomorrow. Me first among them. Coffee will be my friend.