Planning

tshirt

A proper writer recently asked me… “oi ‘O’, why don’t you try your hand at fiction for a change?”

To which I replied…

“ha ha, once upon a time I wrote business and marketing plans for the phone company, so I’ve got that T shirt… I’ll stick to nonfiction nowadays thanks!”  However, although people moan about plans and planners, it’s worth considering that often the process is just as important as the outcome, especially when teams of people are involved.  Formulating plans encourages people to think about what they are doing and the value of their contribution.  A simple integrated plan with a clearly defined set of targets, developed by the people responsible for delivering against those targets is a powerful tool that can work wonders for team moral and get everyone facing the same way.

Doing What I’m Told

Some years ago I concluded that life was easier, less frustrating and just as fulfilling if I simply did what I was told.  This is not to say that I abandoned trying to make things better through dialogue and practical contribution; it’s just been a case learning to recognise when the point has come to shut up, knuckle down and get on with it as prescribed by those in authority.

And, not only have I stood on both sides of the authoritative fence, at times I’ve been ‘the fence’.  I’ve argued vehemently with authority about plans that I deemed were wrong, but having had my crack at influencing a decision, when the time came I ‘sold’ that decision to my team with absolute conviction; after all, that was what I was paid to do.  And, sometimes, it transpired that ‘management’ were right in the first place and it all turned out okay.

Freediving With Whales

When you scuba dive the whoosh of inhalation coupled with the rush of expanding bubbles muffles other sounds. Freediving brings a different perspective; the scraping from parrot fish browsing, the rattle of stone disturbed by tide. And then, if you allow yourself to drift into the abyss, total silence.

Freedive in the vicinity of whales though and ‘sound’ isn’t the word to describe the sensory experience. Their high pitched trills may be a simple musical composition, but their deep powerful murmurings engulf your body with something that soaks into your very soul.

It is hard to believe that the ‘Right Whale’ is so named because whalers considered it to be the ‘right’ whale to hunt. Despite mankind’s sophisticated evolutionary path, we still commit heinous acts of cruelty through ignorance, greed and expediency.

This is a difficult song to sing…

AK-47

ak47

Exodus

P1000336The team consisted of two old gits and a couple of youngsters.  The plan was to take part in a banger-rally across Europe in a beat-up old Citroen, dressed as the cast from ‘The Young Ones.’  Jeff took the part of Mike (cool dude),  Young Graham was Vyvyan (psycho), Matt played Rick (attention seeking anarchist) which left me ‘Old Graham’ as Neil (the henpecked housewife).

We met at Jeff’s in Milton Keynes and then went for a few beers.  The atmosphere was a bit tense; the endeavour was going to be challenging, and although Jeff and Young Graham were well acquainted, the four of us needed to gel, otherwise the trip was going to be a trial.

We decided that I should drive the first leg to Dover as I needed to relearn how to use a clutch and forget how to left-foot brake; a challenge that would be best addressed whilst driving on a familiar side of the road.  We got as far as the first roundabout before the engine management light came on (it stayed on for the rest of the trip), which caused me to have a lack of concentration on the gear front, so with my left foot ‘pushed to the boards’, we coasted out into the traffic.  Full credit to the Milton Keynes rush-hour drivers who swerved expertly around us.  And, full credit to my co-drivers; we escaped unhurt and no one uttered a word, although a nasty smell did emanate from the vicinity of Matt.

The Trip

The trip went according to plan.  We completed all sections of the rally via prescribed routes, undertook various mental challenges along the way and arrived in Prague feeling fairly fresh and ready to party.  It was a great trip; the team gelled… all good then?  So far so boring… well, stay with me.

The Mafia

shitroenOne of Jeff’s many preparatory tasks had been to work out how we were going to get rid of the car.  Dumping it was out of the question on both ethical grounds (honestly!) and the fact that we were almost certain to get found out and fined.  Matt had suggested parking it overnight with the doors unlocked and the keys in the ignition, but this plan would fail on two counts.  The car was a bloody eyesore; Jeff had done his best to make it look attractive and although I have a lot of admiration for his abilities, artistic flair isn’t one of them; no one was going to steal the car for keeps.  No, the Shitroen was only likely to be stolen by a joyrider who would dump it somewhere in Prague and we’d still get found out and fined.  We elected to do the right thing.  Jeff contacted a scrap dealer located on the outskirts of Prague who agreed to take the vehicle off our hands and then drive us to the airport.  It sounded too good to be true, and you know what they say about something that sounds too good to be true…

The final night of celebration in Prague was a joyous and noisy affair.  The ‘Young Ones’ had concentrated on the tasks set by the rally organisers well enough to earn them second place and one hundred euros.  We drank the prize money in less than an hour and emerged into the warm evening, slightly unsteady on our feet.  We were immediately accosted by a dubious looking character clutching a mobile phone in one hand and a fist full of euros in the other; he was offering to buy the cars.  Jeff explained that we had already made arrangements and that this involved a lift to the airport.  As Jeff politely declined and the man turned to leave, I asked him for his phone number just in case.

During breakfast the next morning, Jeff received a call from his ‘scrappage’ contact.  Evidently the venue needed to change; the car would be processed separately from their usual wrecks as it was registered in the UK.  This sounded a bit odd, but plausible, so Young Graham programmed the new location into his phone and off we headed, out of town, to find the scrap dealer.

I envisaged a typical scrapyard on the edge of town, but in the event, we drove into the countryside and ended up at what looked like a derelict barn.  During the previous evenings celebration I had drunk the least and so was once again behind the wheel.  As I drove towards a pair of large derelict barn doors I became very uneasy; this just didn’t feel right.  There didn’t appear to be any vehicles, scrap or otherwise, and no sign of life.

As I glanced up at the rear-view mirror I could see dust kicking up from a vehicle following us at speed down the track… uneasy quickly turned into shit-scared.  “We’ve got company”, I intoned, trying to sound calm and failing miserably, “and it looks as though they’re in a hurry”.

We were getting close to the barn doors now, close enough to slow down, so I shoved my left foot on the first pedal that presented itself and crashed straight through the doors with my co-drivers screaming “BRAKES” in unison.  My right foot eventually found the brake and the Shitroen stalled about ten yards inside the empty barn.  The following vehicle, a black Merc with blacked out windows, executed a near perfect handbrake turn and came to a halt blocking any hope of a quick exit.  Three Slavic looking blokes jumped out and one of them was carrying a rusty AK47… I noticed that smell again.

As they approached, Matt wound down his window and threw out a general question, “hey mate, how are you going to get all four of us plus luggage into that?”  Matt had a good, but given the current set of circumstances, entirely superfluous point.

The bloke with the gun waved it at us, clearly indicating that we were to get out of the car.  We complied and I asked “what the hell is going on here?  We were supposed to meet a scrap dealer; who are you and what do you want?”

The bloke with the gun was slightly built, in his mid-thirties, fairly fit looking, but only properly scary due to the AK.  His companions however looked bloody evil, over six foot with the physiques of body builders.  All three of them were adorned with various tattoos that looked as though they meant something.

The bloke with the gun was probably the brains of the outfit.  From an inside pocket he dragged a pristine looking book.  I could make out Cyrillic script on the cover and the words ‘INGLISCH/FRANCHE/JERMON’ in bold capitals; a phrasebook, and from the look of it, not a very good one.

Mr Gun cleared his throat and spoke clearly “ve av her grand batteau commink” he paused and flicked a couple of pages “yous await or me shoot yous”.

I said “oh fuck!”

Mr Gun said “does whas weez says or weeez fucks yous.”

I smelt that smell again.

Jeff’s phone rang.  Mr Gun walked quickly over, drove the muzzle of the gun into Jeff’s midriff and as my mate slumped forward, he brought the gun smartly up under his chin.  Jeff fell backwards, clearly hurting and clearly shocked.  Mr Gun held out his hand for the phone.  Jeff handed it to him.

Mr Gun answered the phone but said nothing; he just nodded a couple of times and It became clear that someone was giving him instructions.  He walked up to each of us in turn, looked us over and then spoke.  Although we didn’t have a clue what was being said, it seemed clear enough that Mr Gun was describing us to whoever was on the other end of the call.  After he had completed his explanations, he handed the phone back to Jeff, indicating that Jeff should listen.

Give him his due, Jeff tried to reason with the caller, but after a while he just fell silent and listened.  Then he handed his phone back to Mr Gun who terminated the call and trousered the phone.

Muscles One produced some cable ties which he used to bind our wrists.  The three of them walked away out of earshot and went into a huddle.

We needed a plan and we needed it quick.  Even though these gangsters didn’t understand any English, we kept our voices down as Jeff filled us in on some details.

“We’re seriously in the shit.  It was the same bloke on the phone who phoned me earlier with the change of venue.”  Jeff turned to me “they’re not interested in us… too old.  If we go along with them, they’ll tie us up and leave us here for someone to find.  It’s the lads they’re interested in.  Evidently Young Graham has the boyish good looks favoured by a particular type of ‘client’, which is the main reason for the kidnapping.  Matt here isn’t suitable for the KY jelly assignment, but he’s strong enough to work in a diamond mine… this is a nightmare.”

Young Graham started whimpering.

My mouth moved up and down, but nothing came out.  And then I smelt the smell again “Matt mate, how are you doing that?”

You meet some interesting characters over sixty odd years and a yarn told to me by a double-glazing salesman sprang to mind.  Evidently while this particular double-glazing salesman was fulfilling a peace-keeping role in Kosovo (in the British army, not selling double glazing… keep up!), he was confronted in a basement by an AK47 wielding local.  The local fired one-handed from point blank range and missed.  He shot several more rounds, all of which missed, although by this time he was trying to hit a moving target.  The double-glazing salesmen reasoned that one handed, the AK was useless.

An idea occurred to me.

In his youth, Jeff did karate.  He told me that he was good at it; reactions of a whippet and technique to match.  Jeff had also mentioned a method he once practised to prepare him in the event of a serious street fight.  This involved a sheet of plywood, super-glue and large grapes.  The exercise required great accuracy, both in terms of hitting pairs of grapes with index and middle finger and also applying the correct amount of force to split the grapes but avoid breaking fingers against plywood.  Jeff’s right-hand index and middle finger have distinct kinks; he didn’t always get it right.

I outlined the plan.  We needed to disable Mr Gun and Jeff and I would take him on.

We also needed to slow down Muscles One and Two.  I’d only known Matt and Young Graham for a short time.  Young Graham had a sharp mind; he was physically fit, but to be honest, when he agreed to take on the slightly smaller of the big blokes, I was seriously impressed by how readily he agreed to act as a human sacrifice.

Matt was a different ‘kettle-of-fish’.  He was clearly capable of waging solo chemical warfare, but for this exercise we’d need speed and brute force.  I suggested that he may wish to take on the big fella.  From the tenderness of a kiss in Switzerland (what happens in Switzerland stays in Switzerland!), I knew that Matt had a sensitive side, but with a lopsided wry smile, he looked down at his tethered wrists and twisted, the bindings dug into his wrists, which started to bleed.  His smile turned into a grin.  The binding snapped.  Matt said “just tell me when.”

Matt must have been in the boy-scouts, because he carefully unbuttoned his shirt and ripped out a small knife that he’d gaffer taped to his chest.  He glanced over to the group of gangsters who were by now in heated debate about something and paying us no attention whatsoever.  Matt cut our bindings.

I muttered quietly, setting out the plan.

Jeff and I had considered taking the ‘tied-up-and-left’ option and leaving the lads to a life of KY jelly and servitude, but we agreed that the story about leaving us to be found was bullshit.  They were going to kill us.  This high-risk plan was all we had.

We sat quietly and tried to calm ourselves.  Eventually the gangster conference came to an end.  They came over.  We got to our feet; not an easy task pretending that your hands are still tied.

Mr Gun reached inside his jacket and pulled out his little book.  Timing was going to be crucial.  I watched as he crooked the gun under his right armpit and moved his finger away from the trigger.  I got eye contact with him and then looked slightly to his right; OK, this sounds a bit hackneyed, but this opponent wasn’t the brightest star in the firmament, so it worked, he turned his head towards where I was looking – the barn doors.  I set off at a lick towards him, shouting “now!” as I went.  It was like a sprint race, with me just jumping the gun (literally!).  I ignored everything going on around me and concentrated on the muzzle of the AK which was swinging up to meet me.

Mr Gun took a step back and fired one handed.  The recoil threw his aim back down and to my left, just missing my left foot.

I grabbed the muzzle just before the next round exited, wrenching the AK from Mr Guns grip.  My momentum carried me forward and to his right.  I completed a forward roll and came up still clutching the gun just in time to see Jeff deliver his signature blow.  Jeff instinctively emitted a kungfu shriek, which was swiftly followed by a sickening squelch and then a blood curdling scream as Mr Gun reacted to being blinded.

Mr Gun was disabled.  Matt was kneeling on Muscles One, pounding his fists into a face which was fast turning into a bloodied mess.  Young Graham was standing guard over his target, who was on his back nursing his bollocks.

The four of us looked at each other with ‘what next’ expressions.  Young Graham took charge.

Young Graham snatched the AK from me and ran over to Muscles Two who was still clutching his balls; Graham rammed the butt of the gun into the stricken gangster’s neck, who reacted by releasing his balls and using his hands to protect his head, thus affording an open goal, which Young Graham promptly took, smashing the butt of the gun into Muscles Two’s groin.  Then Young Graham ran over to the Merc, shot out three of its tyres, grabbed the ignition key and then ran for the Shitroen.  “Come on, let’s get the fuck out of here.”  Good plan.  Matt and I ran for the back doors.  Jeff retrieved his phone from Mr Gun and then jumped into the front passenger seat, wiping vitreous fluid from his fingers onto his trousers as he went.

The Merc was blocking the exit so Young Graham drove through the wall and away up the track.  As he was driving, Young Graham suggested that the sensible option was to say nothing and get on a plane as soon as possible.  I phoned the bloke who’d approached us the evening before and told him that if he was still interested the car would be parked in the airport car park with the keys on the nearside front tyre.  We took a chance on the documentation.

So that was that.  As we stood in the departure queue, it occurred to me that we must have looked a sorry sight.  Jeff had taped his re-broken fingers together and Matt was nursing broken knuckles.  The Graham’s were in pretty good shape, just a bit dishevelled.

Young Graham broke the silence “anyone fancy doing Monte Carlo next year?”

I smelt that smell again.

Yes… but is it art?

I was recently having a heated debate with my very good friend, Dr Phyllis Stein.  We were arguing about the validity of some ‘sculptural installations’ that were springing up in an East Devon wood.  Phyllis asserted that in order to create art, you needed to set out to create art.  And, even if the end result was a pile of pretentious junk, Phyllis was adamant that art was art and therefore worth what someone was prepared to pay for it.  Indeed, the higher the price tag, the better the art.

Anyway, this is what led to the argument…

loggers5

…and in my opinion, the photo definitely depicts an example of modern art; it’s easy on the eye and since it is a recent installation, it is… well… modern… isn’t it (?).  And, having made several visits to Tate Modern, I am well qualified to express an opinion on the subject of what constitutes art.  Indeed, Tate Modern has over the years offered a unique service, located, as it is, in exactly the right place to provide a therapeutic break during a demanding pub-crawl.  I did (only once) make the mistake of visiting this ‘temple of modern art’ prior to tucking away a few pints and the experience was, to say the least, unsettling.  Do it in the correct order though and a visit to Tate Modern after first visiting several inns, followed by a philosophical debate at a few more watering holes is a thoroughly enjoyable way to waste a day in London.

A proper painter (you can tell what his paintings are supposed to be) recently attempted to explain modern art to me, maintaining that understanding the back-story leading to a particular installation, daub, unmade bed, pickled shark, added immensely to one’s appreciation of the form, which brings me back to Phyllis’ point; to qualify as art, must the perpetrator actually set out to produce art, or, can a fortuitous accident qualify?   I only pose this question because when asked, the artless individual responsible for the woodland sculptures shown in the photograph said that he was constructing log stores off of the ground to assist seasoning prior to burning.  Furthermore, when it was mooted that what he had actually produced was worthy of the Turner Prize, he retorted with “stop taking the pxxx!”.  Anyway, someone did (innocently by the way; they thought it was firewood!) remove part of an ‘installation’.  They were however quickly advised of their mistake and asked to put it back.

So, although I already know the answer, I’ll throw the question open.  Yes, the random log stores are indeed things of beauty and they demonstrate the dedication and hard work that is going into restoring an area of woodland, BUT…

…is it art?

Lucky Geoff – Virtuous Circle

Geoff and Cyril were neighbours.  Geoff completed National Service after the war.  As a POW Cyril took part in the infamous ‘Death March’ across Europe.  Nothing phased Cyril.

When Cyril’s wife died, Geoff comforted and looked out for him.  Cyril recovered.

When Geoff’s wife died he was inconsolable; dementia soon followed.  Cyril looked out for Geoff and kept him safe.

Geoff moved to a care home and as Cyril’s health deteriorated Jenny moved into Geoff’s old home.  Jenny looked out for Cyril; she smartened him up, prettied his home, gave him hot food and became his friend.

Cherish your neighbour.

Fate and premonition or luck and coincidence?

Forty years or so ago, it would be true to say that I had nothing to do with holiday planning.  Indeed, I could best be described as my wife’s ‘excess baggage.’  On this occasion, she’d seen an advert for the little island of Gozo off of Malta.  There must’ve been some debate, but the reality was that I didn’t care where I went as long as it wasn’t to work, so she booked it.

The problems started on the way to Gatwick when the brakes on our old MGB failed.  We made it to the airport on the handbrake.  I recall someone in the check-in queue asking me if it was the flight to Malta; I didn’t have a clue.

The plan was to fly into Malta and get a taxi to the ferry.  We arrived at the ferry five minutes after the last sailing but noticed a little boat bobbing on the rolling sea, making its way towards the dock.  Father Brown informed us that he would take us, together with another British couple and a local with a dog to Gozo.  The dog threw up on my young wife before we’d left the dock; it was a rough crossing.

We were holidaying on a shoestring, so I was unnerved when the local mafioso was waiting by the dock on Gozo with a set of car keys.  I protested; he insisted; I asked how much; he said “don’t worry about it, we’ll sort it out before you leave.” I protested; he ignored me, explained where our hovel was, hopped into his black Merc and drove off.

Dr Robbie (we didn’t discover what he was doctor of) latched onto us soon after we arrived.  Robbie, an Indian gentleman carted us around his regular haunts introducing us as “my very good friends from London.”  The last time we saw him was in a bar where he had asked us to meet him for dinner.  We’d finished the meal and I asked Robbie about paying; his response… “I never have to pay here; these are my very good friends” … came just before a couple of nautical looking men took him away.  We were then joined by another couple of matelots.  It transpired that Robbie liked to gamble and that their ‘associates’ were ‘helping’ him to pay what he owed.  My wife asked what they did for a living and was informed that they owned a fast boat.  We tried to pay the bar owner for the meal before leaving; an offer that he flatly refused.

It was day three when we bumped into the other British couple.  We went for a coffee and related our story so far.  Ron and Betty decided to adopt us and we were delighted to be their ‘kids’ for the week.  We remained friends, although sadly, Betty has been a widow now for many years.  It transpired that both Ron and I worked for BT at the time; Ron was a field manager based in Reading.

There are two odd elements in this tale.

Added to the fear of the local mafioso/pirates/smugglers, was the unease about how we were going to get home from Gatwick.  One night I dreamt that I’d walked into a house full of car-spares and emerged with a set of 1972 MGB brake pads.  Next morning, I was relating this dream to my wife as we strolled along a residential street when a door opened and a couple of blokes came out lugging a back axle.  I peered into the room and saw all sorts of bits piled all over the place.  In I went, and sure enough, emerged with a set of dusty MGB brake pads.  A few days later, back at Gatwick, the carpark watchman fixed up a couple of spotlights for me, I changed the brake pads and we drove home.

Years later one of my engineering field managers happened to mention that he’d worked in Reading.  I asked him if he’d known Ron and was astounded to learn that Ron had indeed been his guv’nor many years previous… it’s a small world full of bizarre coincidences and I’ve only just started on my list!