Thumping Unnecessary

Of course, said Amy, thumping The Culture quite unnecessary. Cultures already thumped. Thumping necessary later when milk added.

True, I said, but it helped Kurd Maverick. It was an excuse for him to have the Valkyrie on board and later thumping helped him ease the guilt at losing The Culture overboard. You shouldn’t overlook the human angle. What happened to Kurd Maverick by the way?

I had paid him the agreed fee for the voyage. The son had agreed a tidy sum with the insurance company for the salvage and had been good enough to promise me a 10% introducer’s commission. He had also secured the long-term services of the elder Valkyrie. She was the only non-philosopher in the crew but she had turned out to be a navigational genius, including dead reckoning when that became necessary. The son told me tales of luxury motor yachts, owned or chartered by the sleazier type of investment bankers, emerging from a spot of sea mist to find the Scintilla or The Jolly Thought right alongside, the crew armed and implacable.

The other Valkyrie had slipped away – to Europe, or somewhere.

Kurd Maverick had been back in Germany, said Amy. But he return. He want sample Parrot. Pieces of eight, and so on.

Sample Parrot for his music?

Yes. One problem. Kurd Maverick passion for dairy product. More than music. He want credit Parrot as Rick Otter. Dairy product theme pun. Daughter two say no, he no Rick Otter, he Parrot.

I’d never thought of that, I said. I’m sure they can sort the credit out.

Amy persisted.

Pun good in German too. Otter same word.


Fischotter better for sea otter like Parrot but otter OK. Still good joke.


Otter mean snake too, in German.

That’s not funny though.

One more problem. Grant authority demand grant back unless Parrot finish language course. So son send linguistic philosopher ashore to Southampton.

Parrot’s a busy otter, what with creating musical masterpieces and learning to talk English. He’s also treasure-hunting on dives with daughter two. She says he has a real nose for an artefact. And of course they have become close friends. He’s moved in with her. I’m not sure what her boyfriend thinks about it.

Maybe, I thought, if Kurd Maverick samples Parrot that will be just the sort of evidence the grant authority would be impressed by. There’s a word for it that the son told me.

Your face funny, said Amy, changing the subject.

I’d just come from the dentist.

I had a root canal operation, I said, but an hour in he found that the tooth was far worse than he thought. I can save it, the dentist said, but not without risking the life of the host.

The host? I had said to him. Me? Save the host. Bugger the tooth.

He had winced. I had injured his professional pride.

Thank God he wasn’t a Catholic, I said.

We will thank Allah when there are no Catholics at all any more.

It was The Jibjab Woman, sitting in the corner. I hadn’t noticed her.

Hello, Jibjab Woman.


I heard her smile disturbing the cloth of the jibjab where it covered her mouth.

You can call me Jib, she said.

And You Can Call Me Al.

Amy sniggered. Once again I was amazed by what she knows of Western culture and what she doesn’t. She’d looked absolutely blank, for instance, when I mentioned Apa’tman, the great Golden Age Montenegrin warlord, to her. The Jibjab Woman would not of course be familiar, for many reasons, with the songs of Paul Simon.

Does it hurt? Amy said.

I used a coarse expression indicating assent.

She disappeared into a back room and returned with some dark liquid in a glass.

Drink up – but don’t go cycling after.

I thanked her and took the glass, with two hands, bowing slightly, in accordance with good manners. I said that I had always regarded Lance Armstrong as in a league of his own as regards chemical relief from this life’s challenges and hurts.

But back to The Culture, I said. Is it what you hoped for?

At first salty. Not surprising. Still salty, a little. Not too salty now. Very powerful. Very good dreams. Much better than the other kefir in London. Much better than Mr Lee’s tired old opium. Up yours for Mr Lee’s stakeholders.

Are you selling it yet?

Not yet. Soon. We have launch party. With celebrities. No more hiding. Great Secret Miss Slumber Party.

Impact, it’s called, I said, what the grant authorities like. It means cross-disciplinary; not narrow focus. And nothing’s as cross-disciplinary as our Parrot.

Sorry, I said, for interrupting.

Are you interested in Great Secret Miss Slumber Party or not?

Of course. I’ll be there.

With celebrity?

Dame Jenni™ Murray?


the persistence of metaphor

What is it about the adherents of organised religion and their inability to cope with metaphors?

First, there is the business of the literal truth of Genesis. Nobody who wasn’t pathologically incapable of recognising a metaphor – nobody that is until the belated arrival of the American bible-bashers and Richard Dawkins – would think that the stories at the beginning of Genesis were ever intended to be taken literally.

Then, the other day, I was talking to my son, the philosopher and privateer, about transubstantiation.

Do Catholics think that the chemical properties of the wafer change at the critical point of the Mass, he mused. Does it taste differently?

He was in philosophical rather than piratical mode at the time, obviously, but there was a brief interlude as he needed to cross to the other side of the deck of The Jolly Thought and assist his ethicist First Mate who was in difficulty with a Somali, whom my son transfixed through the foot with his sabre, leaving the ethicist to administer the coup de grace.

If that had been an epée, he said, I would have got double points. For through the foot.

I thought that you spat on the epée.

I do. Even so. Double points is double points.

I said that to me the idea of transubstantiation seemed to be a metaphor – more than simply a sign or brand but not amounting to a description of fact. It was what Jung called a symbol. Warming to my subject I touched on the homoousion/homoiousion riots in Alexandria so scathingly described by Gibbon.

I was of course showing off. So would you, if you’d just had to watch your second-born skewering a Somali to the deck of his own pirate ship.

(I know that he is a privateer and not a pirate, but in the terrible summer heat of the Straights of Hormuz with death one’s constant companion, the sharks coursing through the water to port and starboard confident that we will soon make it worth their while, it is hard to mark the distinction.)

My son looked more than usually thoughtful. Gibbon is at the extreme edge of his expertise.

I thought of it all again last Sunday, attending our local church with daughter three and her Alex, who are shortly to be married there. The twenty-third psalm formed a theme to the service, the one that starts ‘The Lord is my Shepherd’. We sang it, we sang a hymn based on it and the sermon turned on sheep, their particular characteristics and how remarkably – vis-à-vis shepherds – they resembled us, the congregation, vis-à-vis Jesus.

It’s a point of view, certainly, or rather it is a metaphor. I don’t feel like a sheep. For a start I am uneasy with gender transformation; sheep with few exceptions are girls or babies and I am neither. I don’t experience Jesus as guiding me into or through green pastures, metaphorically or otherwise. But many do. I would be the last to carp.

(I apologise if the carp introduces an unwanted level of faunal diversity. I will try to minimise the implications but can see no present alternative.)

What I do find regrettable is the lack of rigour with which the metaphor is applied. Here we are, after all, with the number one psalm in terms of popularity and a visual image that has graced a generation of Sunday-school books. A bit of care might have been expected of the church fathers. What we have, however, is lamentably sloppy.

Here is the hymn that we sang, based on psalm twenty-three:

Not for ever by still waters
Would we idly rest and stay;
But would smite the living fountains
From the rocks along the way.

Are we still a sheep at this point? I have an inescapable image of an elderly bovid, on her back legs coping bravely but inadequately with an unexpected gusher at the side of the road. Her fleece is soaked, her dignity impaired. And where is Our Lord the Shepherd who got her into this mess? Further up the road smirking, that’s where.

Well, Mrs L M Wills (1864), who wrote the words, never so far as I know claimed infallibility as to the persistence of metaphor. Even Homer nods, and the last adjective to which Mrs L M Wills (1864) aspired was ‘homeric’.

But let us go to the source, the living fountain as it were. Let us address the words of the psalm itself. At the end of verse three we are undoubtedly still a sheep. ‘Thy rod and thy staff they comfort me.’ It is a clear reference to the shepherd’s crook. Straight on to verse four:

Thou preparest a table before me in the presence of mine enemies: thou anointest my head with oil; my cup runneth over.

There is only one reason to anoint the head of a sheep with oil. It is that you are about to cook and eat it.

Poor stupid trusting old thing. I can’t help seeing in my mind’s eye Our Lord the Shepherd, in the kitchen, plating up and sniggering.


We went to Portugal for a week, staying with Rob from Oman (for complicated reasons) and Keith and Marina from London. We were on the seaside. The wind howled, the rain descended relentlessly and the breakers from the Atlantic grew to ever more improbable heights and crashed onto the shore. It was just like the summer holidays I spent years ago with my young family in the west of Ireland.

The better half resolved to mount the improbably high breakers, an aspiration equivalent to the dog’s relentless desire to mount the bottoms of passing Dobermans. She hired a wetsuit and a board and took surfing lessons. It was a doomed ambition, however, although she enjoyed her time in the surf and her trainer, Vasco, has high hopes for her, when the gales have passed over.

Between squalls I saw The Jolly Thought hull down to the west. Rob had hoped to thank the son personally for the Lee Enfield. The pirate ethicist, however, acting as temporary captain, decided against attempting a landing through the uncertain Lisbon shoals. I thought he might send in a ketch but he decided not to risk it.

One day we went into Lisbon. I was last there thirteen years ago. It was the day that the great fado singer Amalia Rodriguez died. I remember driving into the cathedral square in the small hours of the morning and it was alight with candles, a queue of people stretching into the side streets, all waiting to pay their last respects. The next day I bought CDs of fado and resolved to come back one day and hear it in the clubs.

So we did. Portugal increasingly conforms to Spanish timing, and nothing really starts until after nine o’clock, so we spent the day looking at cathedrals, we rode the trams and ate and drank in absurdly cheap and friendly little bars.

There are snooty and expensive fado clubs and no doubt funky ones where tourists are never seen and we chose one in between. The patron was advertised as singing there, which seemed to be a good sign. He was a man in his middle years with swept back hair and an attitude of infinite villainy. There were also two young women. One wondered vaguely if they were his daughters. Backing them were an expressionless guitar player (or viola player as they confusingly call them in Portuguese) and a nervous performer on the Portuguese guitar, which is high and double-stringed like a mandolin, the counter-melody to the singer. He was right to be nervous, as he wasn’t very good.

One of the young women was to start. They were unamplified so she gestured ineffectively to the room to ask for quiet. The better half bellowed Shut Up, which endeared her to the performers. This was to have consequences.

The music was extraordinary, the passion and theatricality of the singing and the interplay of the melody of the song and that of the guitar. The patron and the two women all sang and sometimes the women sang together, facing each other, then shrugging apart, as the words demanded, like an Iberian Agnetha and Annafrid.

After an hour or so of this they came round and sold us their CDs. They had made one each. The CDs were on the expensive side but it was worth it as they signed them for us, ripping off the cellophane first in a passionate manner.

The patron, who was already impressed with the better half’s volume in quelling the room and was not acquainted with her occasional tonal imprecision when in song, flourished his felt-tip and demanded our names so that we could be identified as dedicatees. Marina, Keith, Rob and Mr and Mrs A La Blague, the better half said. He wrote it all down on the CD leaflet, added some affectionate remarks in Portuguese, signed it and returned to the stage for the second set.

He did not however ask which of us was which and this was his undoing.

He embarked on a love song. Raising his arm towards the better half in the pointing gesture with which Mitt Romney appears to feel particularly comfortable, he sobbed:

Ah Marina, Marina!

Then he gestured that he should be joined on stage for a duet.

It had been a long day and Marina, the apparent subject of his address, who is not (as I am sure she will not object to my saying) in the first flush either of youth or fitness, had gone to sleep dormouse-like on the table and so was unable to assist him.

The better half, his real intended subject, is aware of her occasional tonal imprecision when in song and so kept her seat. She suggested sotto voce that I should go on stage and join the patron in a duet but I thought that that would only confirm the suspicions that too many foreigners hold about English men.

It was a tricky moment but it passed in good humour and later the patron was able to explain everything to the better half while Rob and I slipped out for a quick absinthe in a neighbouring bar.

Hours later we woke Marina and went home. It was one or two in the morning and we drove through villages of whitewashed houses, silent except for the occasional brightly lit bars. Along the roadside staggered telephone poles and beyond them were little fields. It was just like I remember the west of Ireland, slipping home from gigs, towards the sea.

amy cleans up and aubergine small cuts up rough

There is some strain at the opium den. Supplies have been resumed, but there is something obscurely disagreeable about the quality. I woke with a splitting headache the other day after a session there. Amy has continued the availability of kefir as an alternative to opium. More than that, she is presuming on her success during the crisis of supply to make a few changes. The floor has been hoovered and the kitchen surfaces scoured. There are cloths and candles on the tables now and the bare boards of the benches, on which the opium user lies and from which he derives the sores on his hips that are his mark of pride (giving rise incidentally to the word ‘hipster’) have been covered with cushions from John Lewis.

Mr Lee is not pleased. I remarked amiably that Amy had been making herself useful.

Bossy cow more like, he muttered.

I am in two minds. I suspect that the clients rather like the spartan surroundings that we had before. Of course it is hard sometimes to guess their background when they are silently nodding over a pipe, but I imagine that they are old China hands of course, Tory MPs from the libertarian wing of the party, judges, barristers rather than solicitors, some bankers, no accountants.

(I once suggested to an accountant going there together. What’s the percentage in that, he asked.)

Anyway, they are almost exclusively men rather than women and they seem to be public school men on the whole, to whom doing it in public, the bare boards and the real thing – even if a temporarily second-rate real thing – are more likely to appeal than chintz and kefir, even if the kefir is to be administered by Amy and an increasing number of attractive Chinese girls whom she appears to have recruited, sometimes in the private rooms.

I think that Mr Lee suspects that she is manoeuvring herself into a position where she can make some kind of bid for power. Ultimately of course it will not depend on Mr Lee, who is only the general manager, but on the owners, and they, to judge by the hideous expression that fleetingly crosses Mr Lee’s face when I mention them, are capable of enormities that can only be guessed at by those outside the trade.

I hope that she knows what she is doing.

Meanwhile Aubergine Small is also in the soup, and also for reasons of over-enthusiasm.

Since the wild dash across the Omani desert, the son has rather taken to perching on his shoulders as an alternative to walking. He has sometimes in the past had issues around laziness and I remember when he was very much younger charging around and playing hide and seek at a children’s party with him on my shoulders, as he didn’t want to get his own feet dirty. None of the other children had this problem and all the other fathers could be seen at the end of the garden enjoying a gin and tonic.

For some reason now forgotten he was dressed as a spaceman.

That of course is water under the bridge now (not that there is water anywhere near the bridge of The Jolly Thought if the word ‘shipshape’ has any meaning) and, besides, in those days the son still had his twin careers as philosopher and privateer in front of him.

The surprises that life springs on us!

Anyway, they were beating up the Channel when they were accosted by a Revenue cutter. A Revenue man wanted to challenge a tax treatment to which the son had claimed entitlement. Tragically, there was no doubt about the matter. The son was right. He was so entitled. It was all part of the special dispensations allowed to privateers (the son is a privateer and certainly not a pirate) by the present Coalition Government to revitalise industry. The Revenue man had not done his homework, and this had gruesome consequences.

But for them, the encounter would have been farcical: the Revenue man, out of breath having clambered up the side of The Jolly Thought and facing Aubergine Small’s enormous bulk, with the lesser bulk of the son perched on the latter’s shoulders, having a discussion about an HMRC statement of practice.

Small, unable to contribute to the conversation in the conventional way, cut this short by unsheathing his cutlass and cutting the Revenue man neatly in two through his waist. The son told me later that the best medical view is that this is impossible, although a common feature of cartoons. That is really beside the point, which is that the authorities, looking as always after their own, have made it very clear that Aubergine Small is persona non grata on the mainland, for at least the time being.

The son is irritated at having to walk, at least until a taxi comes along, on his infrequent visits to London.

Aubergine Small is my legs, he says, and I am his tongue. Together we make a considerable man.

There’s nothing wrong with your legs, my lad, I replied. And don’t go all Ben Hur on me. I have seen it ten times now and I know it much better than you do.

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.

Christmas in London

On Christmas Eve we went to midnight mass. Throughout the day the house had been full of family: daughter one with her Alex and the granddaughter, the son (who had left The Jolly Thought riding at anchor near Rochester, just outside territorial waters, under the temporary command of a pirate ethicist), daughter two, and daughter three, with her Alex. Daughter three, her Alex and their Bentley are staying for a few days.

I bonded with the granddaughter. We went upstairs together to my study and she walked unerringly to a jar with change in.

“Money,” she said, taking a handful of it.

“My money,” I explained, and she put it back.

She is very advanced.

We ate Uzbekistani pilaff, which the better half cooked, and honey cake and then chocolate, which the son brought, and mince pies, made by daughters one and three but, this being Christmas, not the subject of invidious comparison, and we drank wine and then the family left and the better half went off with her friend R to drink more wine, with the result that when midnight arrived the last thing anyone felt like was church, and certainly not the dispiriting preliminary business of singing carols in a big draughty building with the organ playing at half speed and pausing altogether when the organist comes across a hard bit.

Before the mass started we met a nice priest called Father Milo. The better half insisted that Milo was not a real name, but he said that it was and that he was a real priest. He proved this by indicating his collar. To change the subject (and also because in a fit of enthusiasm I had said that I was the Archbishop of Canterbury, but in disguise) I told him that in the City there was a priest called Sue who was charged, appropriately, with the spiritual care of lawyers.

“All women in the Church of England are called Sue,” he said.

Later he preached, quite well, so he must have been a real priest.

The service as it progressed had different effects on the better half and me. She kept up a monologue about the stupidity of religion punctuated by requests to identify the place that we had got to in the service sheet. She hated the incense and coughed delicately behind her hand. Admittedly there was a lot of it; we have one of the most muscular thurifers in London. She enjoyed the sign of peace though and kissed a surprised Chinese couple and our vet. When it was time for carols, she contributed a sort of howl, atonal but full of verve. The dog, banned from church on the grounds of health and safety, would have approved.

I was overcome by nostalgia for Christmases long past, something to which the better half, who encountered the Anglican Christmas for the first time only ten years ago, is immune. I love the idea of heaven descending to earth, the old golden land with its angels, all in white standing around, divided from us by a mere membrane and visible through it. I love In the Bleak Midwinter, Christina Rossetti’s imagining of Palestine in rural England: snow had fallen, snow on snow, snow on snow. I love all the bits and pieces, the three priests in their sacerdotal best bobbing up and down in unison, the muscular thurifer, the clank of the old bit of silverware, donated, no doubt, a hundred years ago by a pious parishioner, as the chief priest drizzles the Bambino, as High Anglicans call the baby Jesus in his crib, with holy water.

What does that have to do with Dawkins and Hitchens and their plodding demolition of the idea that Genesis Chapter One might be a literal account of the creation of the world? Absolutely nothing, of course. Only a scientist, and an unimaginative one at that, would think that a belief on God had anything to do with logic, let alone scientific theory. Hitchens, a writer, should have known better. Someone once said, as if it were a criticism, that Evelyn Waugh was seduced into the Roman Catholic Church by its language. Why ever not? And if not the language of the liturgy, why not the music of Tomas Luis de Victoria (which would have left Waugh cold) or the creak of the Bambino-drizzling silverware, according to taste?

The better half’s resistance to the magic of it all, on the basis that it is not, after all, magic, is a better riposte than the new atheists’ arguments from logic. And there is also the much deeper question of whether it all actually helps…

On Christmas Day we opened our presents. Daughter one had given the better half gold, frankincense and myrrh. The frankincense, freed from the industrial scale imposed by the muscular thurifer, gently suffused the room and the gold (leaf on truffles) went down a treat. The myrrh, of course, awaits us all

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.