When I was young my parents would take us on holiday to Europe. This was relatively rare then. Flights were expensive, so we drove in my father’s elderly Daimler. Only once did we fly and that was an impossibly romantic stagger across the Channel with the Daimler in a Bristol Freighter, from Lydd Airport to Le Touquet, a service also employed by James Bond in Goldfinger, with, if memory serves, his 1930s Bentley. Lydd Airport is now called London Ashford Airport, because it is not located anywhere near London or Ashford, and it is no longer impossibly romantic.

We drove south and saw things that our school friends didn’t. We saw Naples when it was still controlled by deep-died ruffians, as opposed to Berlusconi-like smoothies. Indeed they broke into the Daimler as we were having a picnic and stole our passports. My identity was later used by a quite important assassin.

The only problem was the sun and the sea. My parents were sure that both were good for us. The sun burnt my pale post-War flesh. There was no such thing then as Factor 50, only some dubious and runny cream that you got from Boots. My parents were convinced that you couldn’t get burnt after three in the afternoon, and the sea into which they drove us washed even the dubious cream from Boots away. It was pure agony the first day. You knew that the second day it would mutate into a fierce itching, worst on that bit of the back that you couldn’t quite reach to scratch, and on the third the skin would come away in sheets; but this was usually academic as the second and third days were always renewed bouts of the first.

When I left home I resolved that whilst Abroad would still have its place in my life I would never again go on a beach or in the sea. I kept to this resolve until quite recently.

The better half prodded me into returning. On a visit to Amelia Island in Florida (as it happens) she was able to demonstrate that Factor 50 actually worked. I rolled up one trouser leg (rather like my Uncle Edgerton through with very different motivation) and she applied the lotion to my knee. I walked in a gingerly fashion up the beach for ten minutes and then back and was astonished to discover that, afterwards, nothing hurt.

The sea came next. First it was at night, and I still do like the reflections of the town lights in the waves as they break over me. Then I tried it in the daytime too.

Of course there was a setback. We were in Oman and staying at the Chedi. This is one of the most elegant hotels in the world and our friend Rob, who then lived in Oman, had persuaded someone to let us have rooms at an absurdly cheap rate, so cheap that the bill passed muster when eventually presented as an expense to my then law firm. Anyway, at the Chedi you felt immune from all danger, and that was where I went wrong. I let down my guard.

I wandered into the Indian Ocean. It was the temperature of momentarily neglected soup, which is how I like it. The water lapped about my thighs. Suddenly there was a fierce current and I was pulled under. I couldn’t locate the sea bed or the surface. I breathed in water.

His Highness Sultan Qaboos appeared to me. He was hovering there, shimmering, neither in the water nor out of it. He was fingering his khanja just the way he does.

Have strength, my boy, he said – or at any rate appeared to say.

Bugger me, a vision, I said to myself. Things are worse than I thought.

And with a last superhuman effort I broke surface and found myself once again knee deep in the benign and sultry waters that abut the Chedi’s private beach.

No one had any sympathy at all, but after that I steered clear of the sea again.

Rob, confusingly, now lives in Portugal. If he were fictional like Uncle Edgerton he would stay put but he isn’t and he doesn’t. Last week we stayed with him there – with him and his excellent terrier Joca, who kills snakes.

It was outrageously hot. The first day I accompanied Rob and the better half to the beach and got burnt in spite of Factor 50. They both discouraged me, as if I needed it, from swimming. The breakers came in from the Atlantic, they said and were big and cold.

For a couple of days when the others went to the beach I stayed behind with Joca, musing over some of the intractable problems of philosophy while he killed snakes. But on the last day I thought I’d try again. There were apparently compensations that the beach afforded above the intractable problems of philosophy. Portuguese woman are often sturdily built and dark-skinned. They lie on the beach, Rob and the better half reported, with gaily coloured string covering, more or less, their private parts – the latter accommodated as often as not in generous and well-oiled flesh. There were two in particular, I was told. They lie close together fingering each other’s gaily coloured string and laughing softly; we call them Bi and Large, Rob said.

Joca and I resolved to investigate this interesting phenomenon. As it happened, we never did. As soon as I got to the beach I got the feeling that Stuart Broad sometimes gets when presented with a row of Australian batsmen or Luke Skywalker when he turns off the machine. I would not fear the sun that burns or the wave that chokes. I would let the force be with me. I stripped to my togs.

Just going in, I said.

It was not cold. The waves broke about me in a manly way and in a manly way I faced them down. Suddenly the better half was at my side.

Do you need help at all? she said.

No thank you very much.

You can stand here, she said.

Yes, I said, I am.

A note came into her voice.

A wave, she shouted, pointing.

I gave her a look, infinitely loving but at the same time infinitely assured. I breasted the wave and swam some way towards Morocco.

A ghostly voice sounded in my ear.

Well done, my boy, said the Sultan.

Or at least I think that’s what he said: of course it was in Arabic.


World Leader Salutes Blog

The dog woke me with his barking just after dawn. There was someone at the door. It turned out to be a young man, bearded and wearing a dishdasha, his right hand resting lightly on his khanja and his left proffering an envelope and some flowers. I scanned his face but this time it was not my son.

From His Highness Sultan Qaboos, the young man said, so I asked him in.

I recognised the flowers. They are the intensely red desert irises that grow in the wadis near Nizwa in the rainy season. If you have ever spent time in the wadis near Nizwa in the rainy season you will know with what feelings of pleasurable nostalgia I took them and placed them in a suitable vase – glass, with the words ‘A Souvenir of Northants’ etched (or possibly marked by a process equivalent to etching) into the surface.

How is His Highness? Well, I hope.

Open the envelope, said the young man, with suppressed excitement.

First I extracted a press release. This is what it said:

World Leader Salutes Blog

His Highness Sultan Qaboos of Muscat and Oman has congratulated Mr Alablague on the occasion of the first anniversary of the initiation of his blog http://www.alablague.wordpress.com. He wishes it be known that the site is bookmarked on all the royal computers in all the palaces and even some tents and that there is nothing that His Highness enjoys more than reading a new instalment of the adventures of Amy, Aubergine Small and Uncle Edgerton (and the dog but less so) in the company of a young friend or two.

His Highness has enjoyed every step of the way from mendacity to outright fantasy. He feels that it has been a “Journey” that he and Mr Alablague have, in a very real way, shared.

His Highness commends the site to all well-meaning people – except those living in Oman, where internet access is restricted for their own good.

His Highness commends the struggle of The Jibjab Woman to beat the shit out of the enemies of Islam.

In recognition of the anniversary of the initiation of the blog http://www.alablague.wordpress.com His Highness is pleased to make two orders.

Mr Alablague’s son is freely pardoned from the open charges of piracy (well, privateering) and stealing a Lee Enfield rifle plus bullets.

Mr Alablague himself is admitted to the Order of the Falcon’s Tail, Third Class, and is welcome to collect the insignia personally at any of His Highness’s palaces, any time, whatever.

Mr Alablague said, “I’m chuffed to bits. I salute the benevolent rule of His Highness Sultan Qaboos, his encouragement of the enjoyment of the light classics and his aspirations to democracy, and I shall wear my gong with pride.”

All enquiries please to the Superintendent of Police, Muscat.

Contact details followed.

There was also a card and a personal note which I need not reproduce here. The picture on the card, incidentally, was a reproduction of a painting by our friend Julian Barrow of the goat market in Nizwa.

I gave the young man a cup of tea and a piece of fudge left over from daughter three’s wedding and returned to bed. Hours later the parcel post came and again the dog woke me. I signed for a tiny parcel and opened it feverishly. Inside there was a small piece of dried pasta. It was in a rather personal shape.

There was also a card. Its front read:

A Wish for You

And inside:

I hope that this stops you writing your sexist patronising patriarchal filth for at least six months.

Best wishes

Dame Jenni ™ Murray

“at least” was underlined twice.

It was nice of her to take the trouble. Naomi herself hadn’t.

Actually it was probably one of Naomi’s, left over.

Other people have also been very kind. You only have to look at the hundreds of touching tributes on the alablague Facebook site. It’s that sort of thing that gives you the strength to carry on.

His Highness calls it a ‘journey’, which is an idea that (much as I revere the man) I hate. Like Amy, I prefer the idea of ‘good unsought experiments by the way’.

Enough of that. When I went up for my after-lunch nap there was a message in soap on the shaving mirror:

Many happy returns! Good show!


How on earth could he tell?

Aubergine Small and Amy

We were due to go out together the other night, but as it turned out the better half had some tatting to do so I went by myself to the opium den. As soon as I got through the door (unremarkable, as you’d imagine, in need of a coat of paint and with an almost illegible plate bearing the name of a company in the fruit importation business) it was clear that something was badly wrong. Mr Lee, the General Manager, took me quickly to one side.

There was no opium left. Apparently there was discontent among the Lascars who brought it into London on the great airliners. Some had threatened coordinated action. Houses such as Mr Lee’s, but unfortunately not Mr Lee himself, had stocked up. As a result there was none left.

Just like the petrol tankers, I volunteered.

Mr Lee’s face suggested a total lack of interest in petrol tankers.

You wouldn’t get it with the crack houses, he muttered.

But I have something for you, he said, that I think you won’t regret.

I could hear the desperate sounds of the salesman in Mr Lee’s voice, but I went along with it. To be honest, I have never felt that the opium is the be-all and end-all of an opium den. I go as much as anything for the company and to get me out of the house. (I was about to say that I go for the crack, but you know what I mean!) I am also aware that Mr Lee will always look after me, for reasons which I will now relate.

My son, the privateer, was recently in the South China Sea. There had been an embarrassing outbreak of slaving there and he had been asked to stamp it out.

Turned gamekeeper, I see, I had said.

Nonsense, was his reply. It’s a contract like any other.

Needless to say, the slaver had been located. He had been smoked out of the remote and apparently impregnable island where he had his secret headquarters and his operations had been dismantled with a precision that one might describe as surgical if one had never actually met a surgeon. My son had put the slaver over the side of his ship, by means of the plank, and he described to me his pleasure at the sight, seconds later, of the black fins and the sluggish water temporarily threshed into turbulent activity. My son is not an unforgiving man, but he is a philosopher as well as a privateeer and the practice of slavery offends every idea that he has for the freedom of thought and action of human beings.

When his men went ashore at the slaver’s island they found a dungeon full. They tore off the slaves’ manacles and shipped them without delay to the nearest office of the social services, which manfully reflected the gravity of the situation by staying open after the regular closing time of 4.30 pm, and making Care Orders on them all.

Two however he kept back, and when he put to sea again he could be found, having negotiated the shoals that surround that particular harbour – shoals that might be described as treacherous had they ever expressed a preference one way or another and then gone back on it – in the captain’s cabin of The Jolly Thought having tea with Aubergine Small and Amy.

Aubergine Small has since assumed great importance in my son’s life. He is immense in size and strength, and mute. He has lost his tongue. His loyalty since his rescue is total. He has become indispensable. My son told me of an instance in Oman, as they returned from the South China Sea. They went ashore for an engagement that went wrong. It became necessary to escape the forces of the good but in this case misadvised Sultan, His Highness Sultan Qaboos. There was fifty miles of desert between them and The Jolly Thought. Aubergine Small seized my son, flung him onto his broad shoulders and charged, piggy-back-fashion, across the sands, making the vessel minutes before the forces of Omani law and order. Not all the men were so fortunate, in spite of not having to carry a philosopher on their shoulders.

Anyway, Aubergine Small is not part of this story, except that second only to his loyalty to my son is his devotion to his fellow slave Amy, and it was he who convinced my son, wordlessly but effectively, that Amy should also be kept back from the attentions of the social services.

Amy is as tiny as Aubergine Small is huge. Her real, Chinese, name is unpronounceable for my son – he has no gift for languages – but she insists that Amy will do. The question, when they returned to England, was what to do with them, since clearly a place in the Cameronian dole queue was not an option. Aubergine Small would of course stay by my son’s side, but there was no place for a woman on the fighting machine that is The Jolly Thought. My son consulted me and I thought of Mr Lee. The upshot is that Amy now works in the opium den. I have not quizzed her on her background, but she clearly has a feel for the drug, she assists the sometimes elderly clientèle on their way to happiness, and the takings have gone up substantially.

And that is why Mr Lee will always look after me.

And Amy will look after you, he said.

She took me to a private room.

No opium, I said, conversationally.

This very good, she said.

She made me take my shirt off and lie face down. She worked her fingers into the muscles of my shoulders. After ten minutes or so she handed me a small porcelain cup with a milky fluid in it. Drink, she said, very good.

I drank.

It’s kefir, I cried. I know this.

This very good, she said.

It’s made from the intestinal flora of sheep, I shouted.

Very good dreams, Amy murmured.

And so they were.

Privateering in Oman

We went to Dubai and then on to Oman. Dubai was for the annual conference of the International Bar Association, at which I was speaking. The city is unlike any other that I’ve visited. Nothing seems to be more than a few years old, but in those few years there has been an orgy of building. There are more sky-scrapers than most other capital cities put together, all of them bar one larky, restless and post-modern. They are in jolly colours and at night little lights scamper over them. The one exception is the Burj Khalifa, currently the tallest structure in the world, which rises over everything else, cool and elegant and of course impossibly high.

The people are anxious that you should like their city, they are unfailingly helpful and yet nothing ever quite works properly. Massive gateways give onto waste land; premium hotel suites have nowhere to put socks. Our hotel sent me a questionnaire and I planned to mention the missing sock drawer, but the questions were all along the lines of “The GloboSuperbo is a brand I trust 110%: Strongly agree/Agree etc”, and you can’t communicate with a hotel that looks at the world in those terms.

With the recession, the offices are rumoured to be only half full and some famous developments have ground to a halt, but it is a vigorous mercantile city and I’d guess that it will sort things out. In ten years time the larky sky-scrapers will look awfully vieux jeu but maybe they’ll just build some more.

Someone said that Dubai is fuelled by cocaine, and that makes sense.

We drove from Dubai to Muscat, four hours through the desert, over the mountains and then along the hundred miles of seaside suburbia than lead you down the coast to Muscat: four hours plus the two that it takes to get through Omani immigration, about which the less said the better.

Gertrude Stein famously said of Oakland – a city that in other respects resembles Dubai not at all – that there is no there there. There’s no there in Dubai: no places to hang out, few restaurants outside the hotels, no little squares, only malls. Muscat has a lot of theres, but has no there to put them in.

It is a strange city, spread along the coast. For miles there will be nothing but rocks and then there will be a bit of a souk or a luxury hotel, a palace or a police station. Nothing but minarets is allowed to be more than eight storeys high so it is engagingly modest. Whereas Dubai’s rulers glare aquiline from the posters that clutter the city, Oman’s Sultan Qaboos smiles kindly and reminds one inescapably of Captain Birdseye. He is undoubtedly an autocrat (our first day, while the world’s financial markets trembled, the main story in the newspaper was that the King of Saudi Arabia had telephoned Sultan Qaboos to wish him enjoyment of the holiday of Eid) but he does seem to be a benevolent one, and, unlike his father, whom he deposed and exiled to London’s Dorchester Hotel, sane.


One day we drove into the mountains to Nizwa. We wanted to see the fort, our friend Rob wanted to buy a Lee Enfield in the souk and I needed a haircut. Haircuts are a leisurely affair in Oman, involving the application of numerous unguents, massages and a shave with a cut-throat razor, so Rob and the better half went off into the souk. An hour or so later my barber was putting the final touches to my rejuvenated head when there was a flurry of activity. Half a dozen men rode into town on fine Arab horses and reined them in in a cloud of dust in the main square.

“Corsairs on a raid,” murmured my barber. “Look down. Then we will be safe.”

But the leader was striding towards us, attired in boots and a dusty dishdasha, a vicious-looking khanja in his belt, his face weather-beaten and deeply bearded. I saw to my horror that he was making for me.

“Hello, Dad,” he said, removing the beard.

It was my son, the privateer.

“What on earth are you doing here?” I said. “I thought that you were operating the home waters.”

He called for a couple of chais and sat down next to me. The barber had by this time scuttled off, and indeed never returned to claim his fee.

“Do you know,” he said, “they talk a lot about easing the burden on privateers, making it easier for them to carry on business, but that’s all it is, talk. There’s so much red tape. For example, if you catch a banker you can’t just make him walk the plank, you know, there is a whole rigmarole you have to go through.

“You have to tell them that they have been provisionally selected for walking the plank, that they have the right to make representations at a future meeting as to whether they have been discriminated against in being provisionally selected, and why some other banker might be preferred in the walking the plank department, and that they have the right to bring a companion to the meeting, who may or may not be a banker. The companion may even be a pirate. Having told them that, you throw them into the dungeon in the hold. Only after the second meeting can you actually make them walk the plank.

“You knew where you were with the black spot,” he said, reflectively.

“So I’ve come out here for a bit of gun-running.”

“Just like Rimbaud.”

The son looked pained.

“With a ‘D’”, I explained.

“I don’t know anything about French poets”, he said, huffily.

“You wouldn’t have a Lee Enfield that my friend Rob might buy inexpensively?” I started, but the son had vanished. His keen ears had caught the sound of the Omani police car, throwing up more dust as it screeched to a halt in the main square, and he’d melted into the crowds of the souk.

I was confident that he would be safe, with the false beard.

We did a little shopping and then set off back to the hotel. Halfway down, in one of the most inhospitable parts of the mountain range, I saw a rider deliberately allow himself to be silhouetted for a moment on the horizon, against the setting sun. He raised a hand in greeting and then vanished.

The next day, there was a package for us at the hotel. Rob was pleased. The son had remembered to include the ammunition too.