Tag Archives: Sultan Qaboos

Phrase Error

‘Oh, suck my nipple, please’ said Amy.

It was spring at Great Secret Miss. In its progress across the street and up the outside walls, the late-afternoon sun had just reached the windows, and His Highness Sultan Qaboos’ benign face, in the large print that I had presented to Amy when the place opened and which hung on the wall opposite a similar representation of our Queen, was dappled by the beams venturing (if pathetic fallacy is permissible in relation to a bunch of photons) past the more or less Oriental junk in the window. The Sultan’s khanja, which he was fingering characteristically, was still in shadow. In about twenty minutes, I knew, it too would be bathed in soft London light.

Amy and I were sitting in the front room drinking and talking about green tea. Not surprisingly she prefers the Chinese varieties and whilst I agree that there are some very fine green teas from China I don’t think that anything can touch Assam Green, which is grown, of course, in northern India. Assam Green has a taste that is full and deep and as satisfying as a good red wine. Unfortunately it is hard to get hold of and I have had to resort to Kusmi Tea, from Paris, which is by no means cheap, largely on account of the packaging. Darjeeling Green can be found more easily but it is not the same thing at all.

Other people were lounging or working in the room. Some minutes before, we had been brought a bowl of the crispy things that taste of rainwater, but they were so far untouched. Three musicians were deep in conversation and two poets were rolling on the floor tearing each other’s hair out. I would report their names to you but they escape me; they are quite well known, I believe – for poets.

For all these reasons Amy’s remark surprised me. It was a robust intrusion into a moment of deep peace – poets apart. I allowed one eyebrow to arch.

‘Surely not,’ I said.

Our relationship does not admit of such things.

Amy reached for her iPhone. She has assembled on it a database of her own frequently used phrases, Mandarin to English and English to Mandarin, and she checked this. She coloured.

‘I’m sorry. It was an error. I meant, ‘Please refill (or refresh coll.) my teacup’.’

Let me make it clear that I do not blame Apple’s software for the mistake. As so often it was probably a case of ‘rubbish in, rubbish out’, or just Amy’s memory. Nevertheless one follows the conventions.

‘Bloody iPhone,’ I said, to spare her blushes.

‘Ah,’ said Amy.

I refilled or refreshed her teacup from the black iron pot, and we resumed our discussion about green tea.

I could not however help reflecting on what she had so innocently said. We all I suppose have our stock of frequently used phrases, although most of us do not hold them on our mobile phones. I sometimes regret that people use such phrases without considering the semantics of the component words. Politicians are particularly prone to this. At a more personal level I could not help musing on the circumstances in which Amy’s phrase had been required, and why, presumably after the event, she had jotted it down on her iPhone. I wondered on what private occasion she might have cried out, affectingly but erroneously, ‘Please refill (or refresh coll.) my teacup’.

I wondered to whom she had addressed the remark, whatever it was. Was it her husband in Kettering, if such a person existed at all: a matter of increasing doubt. Was it even one of the poets? They are passionate people, I’m told. As if to illustrate this, a clump of hair, with quite a big bit of scalp attached, flew across the room and landed in the bowl of the lovely crispy things that taste of rainwater. I recognised it as the forelock of one of the poets, a man, frequently and notoriously tossed but never before so radically. The names still escape me. They are both members of The Poetry Society, if that helps. I wondered what I thought about Amy engaged carnally with one – or indeed the other – of the poets. Was there the merest frisson of jealousy?

Not at all.

‘Do you see anything of Alfredo?’ I said.

What made me think of him?

‘Of course we agree,’ said Amy, ‘that add dead flowers a no-no.’

‘It is often a way to disguise that fact that the least tasty, and therefore cheapest, leaves has been used.’

‘Not often. I believe his rehabilitation as far progress as possible. Give him his own kefir. Off he goes.’

‘I hope he isn’t wasting it on Lesbia Firebrace, or the other one.’

Amy laid her hand decorously on my elbow.

Kefir is for the world,’ she said. ‘Even Lesbia Firebrace and the other one. We are only agents, you and I.’

‘Speaking of which,’ I said, and gestured vaguely towards the back rooms.

Amy summoned one of her girls, I took a couple of the crispy things that taste of rainwater, for, as they say in those advertisements on the television, the journey, and soon I was asleep, gripped by visions. They were unusually violent, but since this is not the sort of blog where we describe our dreams I won’t.

I emerged a better man. Amy was still there, proprietorially engaged.

‘And Augustus Sly?’ I said, affecting, as we like to do, she and I, that no time had passed at all. ‘Does he come around?’

‘Never. Never come here. He thinks Great Secret Miss is like magic toyshop. He thinks I am a metaphor.’

‘So you are, Amy.’

She laughed harshly.

‘I’ll have a fiver each way,’ she said.

‘No. Close but no.’

Out came the iPhone.

‘Sorry. I meant, ‘Speak for yourself, buster’.’

‘You have to laugh,’ I said.

‘Ha!’ she shouted.

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A Lovely Surprise

Alfredo said, “The ending of parties is often more troublesome to neighbours that the parties themselves.”

Alfredo is staying with us. He arrived unexpectedly. We are quite a house-full as our friend George is also staying: his flat is under the builders. Anyway, one minute George was explaining to the better half and me the sinister influence of the Man in the Moon and why it is regularly overlooked by the newspapers (the reason is influence) and then there was Alfredo in the midst of us.

George, who has some accomplishments in the foothills of karate – he does not have a black belt but a lesser sort, possibly, I forget, a gingham belt – went into an ungainly but oriental crouch

Hello, Alfredo, I said. I thought the door was locked.

It was, he said.

Double-locked.

Yes.

It’s very nice to see you nonetheless.

I introduced him.

I hope, I said, that you’re not carrying.

My Beretta (the cardinal’s friend)?

Yes, that.

I was disarmed by your doorkeeper. Little chap from Waziristan.

Ah.

I’d always wondered what function he fulfilled.

Astute readers will have noticed that my first meeting with Alfredo, recently reported in these pages, took place some fifteen years ago, and here he is immediately translated to the present day. What I say, how time flies.

Even more astute readers will have noticed that that last sentence – ‘What I say, how time flies’ – is my homage to the great Elmore Leonard, who died a couple of weeks ago.

Wheels within wheels, as Alfredo is given to remarking.

Anyway, Alfredo said: The ending of parties is often more troublesome to neighbours than the parties themselves.

This was in the context of a discussion that we were having about the final years of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. It was a metaphor. I hesitated a minute before replying as there was a real party all-too-evidently taking place elsewhere in the building. It was still some hours before the party-goers would disperse and the bass from the music could be heard, or rather felt, relentlessly thumping through the fabric of the building.

I wonder, I said, pretending to take him literally. Random shouting and the slamming of car doors are louder, but you are forced to listen to the bass lines of the music. They may be quieter but they are much more intrusive.

Thinking back later, I realised that this was equally true, at a level of metaphor, of the final years of the Austro-Hungarian Empire.

Let’s go out to the front door of the building and see what’s going on, Alfredo said.

I don’t smoke.

No reason to be deprived of fresh air.

So we walked down together to the front door. A group of people from the party stood around smoking, including a young West Indian woman who was the host. She wore a clinging lemon-yellow dress. She was strikingly attractive. She was smoking something non-conventionally wrapped.

I made a quiet comment about her to Alfredo. I hope that it was non-patriarchal, respectful and did not objectify her as a woman.

Yes, he said. So would I.

Why aren’t you capering then, I said to him, mildly surprised.

He looked at me kindly.

Not Italian.

Indeed as the evening progressed I never saw him caper, either bandily or straight-legged. On the other hand I heard him use the word rassclaat more than once, with aplomb, and, given the word’s troubling etymology, with apparent semantic conviction.

But that is to jump ahead. Triply astute readers will realise that this is the second anniversary of my first post to this blog, Randy Belgians and French Roadside Whores. Last year, the first anniversary was marked by some gratifying – indeed humbling – attentions by various celebrities, friends and fans. I never expected that the second anniversary would be the same. Second anniversaries are so much more routine. So it was nice when Hassan arrived in the morning with a note of congratulation from His Highness Sultan Qaboos of Oman, and some chocolates.

The dear old bugger, I said to Hassan, inviting him in. But how did he find you?

I had forgotten all about my anniversary when the woman in lemon yellow advanced on me and took my hand.

You’re coming with me.

I looked at Alfredo, who had a cunning face on.

So you are, he said. So am I.

The sound system got louder as we approached her flat. Around the outside of the door were neighbours wondering how to start a conversation about the volume, but we went straight in and she took me to the centre of the room. At a signal from her the music was turned off and they all started to sing:

Happy birthday to you
Happy birthday to you
Happy second birthday http://www.alablague.wordpress.com
Happy birthday to you

Then they all clapped. I was so moved that tears came to my eyes. I wondered if I should say a few words but she gestured to the Mickey Rooney figure in the corner (Let’s make a sound system, right here!) the music came back on at full volume and she turned to me.

Now we dance.

I got home very late. I missed the random shouting and the slamming of car doors altogether. Finally, Alfredo took my arm like an unwanted Virgil.

Time to go.

We picked our way between the bodies; then down the stairs to the front door.

Some fresh air please, I said, and he agreed.

Well, I said, what an evening. What a night. And how much of that was your doing?

He shrugged, but not convincingly.

How did you know about my blog? How did you know about my anniversary?

Come on, he said. Research. An assassin who is lazy is an assassin who is dead.

Well I think that it was a lovely and thoughtful gesture and I’m very grateful.

Rassclaat, said Alfredo.

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Swimming

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.

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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!

E

How on earth could he tell?

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flora for the judge

Amy’s place is different every time I go there. It started as an opium den without opium – or at any rate a place where opium was only for those for whom kefir didn’t altogether do the trick. Then it became a place of more general resort. There was a bar – after a fashion. There were divans with cushions. Then food became available. When you enter through the very discrete front door you are greeted by the aroma of green tea and of Chinese and Japanese delicacies. There is nothing however so vulgar as a menu. In the front room, you can usually depend on meeting people you know and spending an agreeable half hour with them, and then there are the back rooms for more recondite pleasures, like the private rooms of a New Orleans brothel or the library of a Pall Mall club.

There is no name over the door. In one window, facing the street, there is a portrait of Amy’s provisional head of state against a red, white and blue background. It will remain there at least until the Olympics are over. Inside is a rather bigger photographic portrait of His Highness Sultan Qaboos of Oman, benevolently fingering his khanjar. That was a gift from me.

You can get anything you want, at Amy’s restaurant.

Excepting Amy, quoted the dog, showing off.

After a rocky start, things were looking up. Late one night, however, she telephoned me. I was to go straight round. It concerned the Court of Appeal judge, and Amy, who is never entirely unsettled, was clearly far from settled.

This, as will be seen shortly, is probably the man’s last appearance in these chronicles, and he deserves more than the generic description – ‘the Court of Appeal judge’ – that he has received to date. Unfortunately however the circumstances are far too delicate to admit of his being named. Professionally he would be described as ‘Lord Justice’ – followed by his surname. He was not acting professionally at the time though, so he would properly be known in this context as Sir J- K- (as it might be), having been knighted when he became a High Court judge and not yet made (indeed, as we shall see shortly, never to be made) a life peer, as would normally be appropriate on his acceding in the fullness of time to the Supreme Court. I shall call him Sir J-, like a provincial town in the stories of Chekhov.

Anyway, he was dead. Amy tried to prepare me with ineffective circumlocutions but I went straight through to the private room and the position was beyond doubt.

A stroke?

He choke on he own kefir.

That much could be seen. The man’s face was such as I hope never to see again, his slight body distorted with horror, his tweeds awry. The intestinal flora had got him in the end.

He can’t be found here, I said. Not just for your sake, Amy, but his family’s. We have to get him away.

How? she said. Who can help us? Aubergine Small he at sea. On Jolly Thought.

I hadn’t, I admit, thought of Aubergine Small. Brute strength was not required, but we had to get the man unseen through the streets of London to a place suitable to leave him. I had a brainwave. I called the Jibjab Woman on her mobile and fortunately she picked up.

Come at once. Amy needs you. Bring spare jibjabs.

What a star she is! She soon arrived, took in the scene with a shudder and got straight to work: off with the tweeds and on with the jibjab.

You too, Amy, I directed.

There being a fourth jibjab, I also put it on, and there we were, although mine was a little small for me, to all appearances four modest Moslem women about to go shopping; one of us increasingly less pliant than the others.

We were convincing enough, but no likely match for a London cabbie. It was then that I had my second brainwave. Our friend M, it may be recalled, does not trust public transport, and always uses a contract driver. This man – let us call him Igor – speaks no English, lacks basic familiarity with the geography of London and is of unparalleled venality. So I called him.

He’ll never tell about us. He probably won’t even notice.

There was of course a delay while Igor found us and another as he manoeuvred the Bentley down the street, which had been designed only to take two lanes of traffic. I think that he found my accent confusing – probably it was the falsetto – but I’m confident that he never guessed that I was English. I directed him, in Russian, to take us to Sir J-‘s country place, the address of which, in Hampshire, I had located, using Google.

Sir J- would be discovered, re-tweeded, among his familiar shrubs and gazebos, having passed away unexpectedly but peacefully.

We fairly bowled along. Once we hit the main roads out of London it was a smooth ride. I was very tired and I confess that I dropped off. So I believe did Amy, for whom it had been a trying day, and the Jibjab Woman must have slept as well.

I awoke too late. We were not at Sir J-‘s country seat, we were at Farnborough Airport.

Gompshire! Gompshire! shouted Igor.

Too late I realised that ‘Hampshire’ meant only one thing to him: the private airport that delivered his clients to him and bore them away again.

Across the field a Lear Jet was taking off.

She very stiff; she go at Novosibirsk, said Igor, lapsing unexpectedly into English.

It wasn’t at all what I had intended, but perhaps it was for the best. There would be puzzlement in England about Sir J-‘s disappearance but the arrival in Novosibirsk of a dead English judge dressed as a modest Moslem woman would probably go unremarked. A contract killing, they would no doubt conclude, and leave it at that.

Anyway there was no more that we could do.

The stress lifted, Amy, the Jibjab Woman and I were suddenly attacked by giggles.

I thought, These jibjabs are too good to waste.

Harrods, my man, I said to Igor in my most authoritative falsetto voice. And step on it.

I was confident that although shaky on central London and fundamentally confused as regards Hampshire, Igor would know how to find Harrods.

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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.

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The Revenge of the Jibjab Woman

I have a treatment for a television series. It’s called The Revenge of the Jibjab Woman™.

Our heroine is a Moslem woman, of modest demeanour and covered in her attire. But when she meets an enemy of Islam she beats the shit out of him. For each episode there will be a new enemy of Islam. In the pilot that I am working on it will be Santa, to give it a Seasonal feel, but for the future I have in mind Colin Powell, Richard the Lionheart, the Danish Prime Minister, maybe Henry Kissinger. I’m hoping that the more sporting among the enemies of Islam, if still with us, will be prepared to play themselves.

The Jibjab Woman™, who as I say will be modestly attired, will Transform™ when she encounters the enemy of Islam. Her attire, whilst remaining modest, will suddenly become the Jibjab ™, a combination of the traditional hijab and the jilbab suitable for her brand of Islamic martial arts. The hijab preserves the modesty of the top half and the all-important face and hair; the jilbab that of the bottom half. When the modest Moslem woman is engaged in anything more energetic than shopping, such as beating the shit out of an enemy of Islam, it’s essential that there is no clenching of the muscles of the buttocks, for instance, visible through the cloth, or jutting thighs.

So the five star Islamic scholars whom I have engaged have developed the Jibjab™. The long skirting Transforms™ into trousers, which, though baggy and of sturdy and by no means translucent material, will be suitable for kicking. The flowing upper garments will become restrained by something like bicycle clips, or rather sleeve garters, but with tasteful and devotional decoration.

The Jibjab Woman™ has a mentor, a kindly old imam. There is some back story here, possibly to be explored later in a Christmas Special. Maybe he rescued her as a baby. Anyway, when she encounters an enemy of Islam, the kindly old imam says that it is OK to beat the shit out of him – in accordance with Sharia law. I haven’t worked out how he does this. Maybe he appears to her as if in a dream; maybe there’s just a voice-over with a bit of echo.

Obviously this will all have to be sensitively handled, and I have faith consultants who will ensure that it is not offensive in any way. I have also applied to His Royal Highness the Sultan Qaboos of Oman for seed funding, and his blessing, and I am confident of success.

This is a project which is win win all the way.

It’s a TV series, suitable for the crucial children’s market.

The commercial tie-ins are obvious. There are the usual figures, sticker albums etc, but there is also the clothing market – not just t-shirts, but the dress that Transforms™, the Jibjab™ itself. For kids whose parents can’t afford the full Jibjab™, the Islamic bicycle clips will hopefully be an acceptable substitute.

There will be no nonsense from the actress who plays the Jibjab Woman™. Like Robocop, although in this case for spiritual reasons, you never see her face, so if she cuts up rough she is replaceable.

But I also look at this at a deeper level. At a time of strife such as ours, as the Archbishop of Canterbury has said so often, we desperately need meaningful dialogue between our faith communities. And the Jibjab Woman™ is all about inter-faith dialogue – at its most visceral level.

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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.

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