River City Change

Albert Dock Panorama

The city of Liverpool is dear to my heart, and in twenty years of visits there I have seen the impact of investment and development. Between the modernism and feats of architecture there are still traces of the city’s seafaring past.

On my most recent visit I went to the central library, and there I found a glorious transformation. The stairwell is visually stunning, and the place was packed out – so much for mean spirited prejudices against scousers.

Stairwell - Liverpool Central Library

Stairwell – Liverpool Central Library

And as Liverpool has changed, so has society. I couldn’t resist the lovers on the roof:



Leaving Mina – Hajj Remembered

With the tragic, and it seems entirely avoidable deaths in Mina this year, I am reminded of the stifling heat and chaos of leaving the tent city during my own Hajj in 2011.

The story of that particular trial follows:



Leaving Mina was an emotional rollercoaster. I went from despair to ecstasy with detour through all the flavours of anger.


Shia and Sunni leaving times are separate. You might think that the fewer overall numbers of Shia would make our exit shortly after midday a seamless and trouble free affair, with the true chaos to follow. How wrong, oh my Lord, how wrong.


Someone had pinched the wheelchair. It is heavy and does not fold up into a particularly compact shape, so I found it eventually outside one of the Iranian tents. The tingle of annoyance began here, let’s call it 1 on the overall scale, although my wife might argue my baseline of irritation is about 5.


A bit of deep breathing and the reassurance of locating Mum quickly helped me regain my Hajji calm. We joined the queue to go up the concrete steps to the exit gate. The stairs were split down the middle by a narrow ramp, theoretically a plausible way of rolling the wheelchair up without trying to carry it, but in practice gravity is as inevitable as the day of judgement and the stairs were very steep. I resorted to carrying it, surrounded by Iranian women, probably from the same tent that had attempted the wheelchair theft. In any event they seemed to have some momentum of antipathy towards me, and no sympathy for the fact that I was trying to lug a large metal object up steep stairs in a crowd. There were inevitably some bumps and scrapes.


A few people helpfully pointed to the ramp as if I was some kind of moron. I tried again, to show goodwill, and more people got hurt. When two objects try to occupy the same space the hard metal one is likely to win over the soft fleshy one. At times like these I think the grey matter at the head end of the soft fleshy things should take charge. Alas it seemed the folks around me were using the very soft fleshy bits at the back and halfway down for decision making.


By the time I got the top of the steps I was probably on a 6, but the relief of getting there eased me back to a 3.


Trust me on the maths, there were about a quarter of a million Shia attempting to leave Mina through one gate a couple of metres wide. In Hajj terms this is a reasonable but not overwhelming crowd. There were also police 4x4s, policemen on foot, and importantly, a huge crowd of Sunnis trying to go the other way and get into Mina before their own official departure time.


I spotted our group flag, pointed it out to mum, who was by now a couple of metres and a dozen bodies away, and steeled myself to forge through the intervening distance. At a guess I had about twenty metres to traverse. Progress was in inches. At every step the wheelchair caught on something. That something was invariably attached to a someone.


Sailors thrown overboard in a storm may feel like this as an unthinking, unreasoning force drags them away from the tantalising sight of safety.


I went sideways, I went backwards, and rarely did I go forwards. The police looked on impassively. At one point they tried to force their 4×4 through the crowd, and then gave up. I lost mum, I got shoved and shouted at, it was insanely hot, and everyone was trying to breathe the same air and sucking in each other’s carbon dioxide. And then the red mist came down.


I was in a hostile crowd with a significant weight of pointy metal. Things could have gone very badly, but some element of the Hajj spirit remained. I wasn’t going to force my way through, but I was not going to be moved. If someone pushed and hurt themselves on the wheelchair, so be it. I planted my feet, set my shoulders and secured my grip on the frame of the folded wheelchair.


My determination must have shown in my expression. My pleading and apologies had had no effect, but looking at my clenched jaw and flinty eyed glare the crowd parted minutely. I edged painstakingly through the crowd to the group flag. They were an eye of calm in the storm of humanity around me, and I was welcomed in with arms draped around my shoulders. There was no relief; there was no sign of mum.


I asked them to look after the wheelchair while I dived back into the writhing mass of bodies and those same welcoming arms held me back. I was on the verge of panic. I looked to the heavens and vowed a day’s fast if mum made it through the crowd safely.


An agonising minute passed, I scanned the crowd desperately, trying to see over the heads for her diminutive form. A second minute passed, bodies surged away from us and deeper into Mina. She would be carried back by the incoming Sunni tide as far as the Jamaraat before the crowd thinned, and that would be the best that I could hope for.


Raza’s wife emerged from the inexorable press of bodies. As the men at the outer edge of our group parted to let her through to safety, she said: “Ali bhai, I’ve found Auntie, she’s with me.”


Sure enough there was mum. I closed my eyes for a moment to give thanks and ushered her to safety too. I did not begrudge Allah the two minutes of panic. Any less than that would have required a more overt miracle of the moon splitting variety.


As the group slowly coalesced we moved en masse towards the main gates. I was at the edge with Raza and still towing the wheelchair when a lady from another group collapsed near us. It was a moment of real danger. Falling in a Hajj crowd has a high probability of ending in death.


I opened out the wheelchair as the crowd struggled to make some space, and the people with the lady helped her sit in it. Raza, with great presence of mind popped out a couple of glucose tablets which they gave her.


I realised then why I had fought to bring the wheelchair through the crowds, this lady needed it. I gave it up then. There was a man with the lady, he could have been brother or husband. I used hand signals to tell him to take the wheelchair. After demurring several times he accepted, only for the lady to surge to her feet, and decline the help. The glucose tablets had kicked in, and her momentary faint in the press and heat had passed.


We settled mum into the wheelchair, which was decidedly the worse for wear, and then began the long walk back to Azizia.


My Hajj diary is available here

Further extracts here

Honour Over Love – Cluster Wars Vignette

For those of you following my Cluster Wars efforts, here is the the response to Luis’ letter telling Sebastian he is off to investigate a death, and clear his own conscience.


I have propagated the appended message through all the fora and media I can think you may encounter. I hope you will recall how to access it.

Your friend, Sebastian

My dearest friend Luis

If you are reading this letter then my hopes are greatly lifted. That you remember the cipher we developed all those years ago at the seminary is a sign that some part of the man I knew survives. Your letter, and your recent behaviour, have left me deeply concerned. Rest assured that I have covered your tracks fully and if you return immediately you will find your leave papers have been properly filed, and Carolina will think you have been away on a mission. This much I have used my influence and my access through military intelligence to achieve. It is now for you to return to your senses and return to us.

You claim to have developed an obsessive interest in that junior officer from the action at Vennkiser, and that perhaps through the myth you have woven of his redemption you can find your own. You are not alone Luis. All of us who were part of the tragedy of the mines of Caorramoor have been left scarred by it. You were first on the scene, sent to be the force and presence of the military there, and you arrived too late. I have pored all through the reports, I have traced every step largely to aid my own reconciliation with what happened. You followed all the ordinances except those that would cost you time, and yet you were too late. What else could you have done? The man I knew had a great sense of responsibility, but was not so arrogant as to hold himself accountable against the laws of nature. Nothing could have saved those miners. And so I am lead to the conclusion that Damian and Caorramoor are a smokescreen, one you have thrown up to hide your true motives. Moreover I perciveve this was a smokescreen you intended me to pierce. You know your actions to be wrong, base and beneath your honour, and your letter to me was not to excuse your actions and make your excuses to your wife and children, but to save you from yourself.

Thr truth lies with Carolina, who frets for you day and night, and the woman you now know as Felicity. You say she reminds of the girl from the seminary, the one we both believed could be an Absolutist of the Atenaeum, I do not doubt it. You are not the only one who was much taken by her, although for different reasons. My friend, don’t doubt that I love you, but be assured I know you, and I understand what motivates you. You were always destined for greatness. Son of a war hero, and with the dashing good looks of a hero in the making. Far from being a burden for you I think the deaths at Caorramoor only added a shade of tragedy and depth of torment to your burgeoning reputation. Biut I get ahead of myself. At the seminary your exemplary scores and prowess in the courts martial marked you out. And in our midst there was this beguiling, mysterious and mind bendingly attractive woman. You were drawn to her for her own sake, as were we all;  and the danger we suspected she represented; and also because that was how the story of our seminary years should be told, The fated and tragic romance of Luis and Amanda.

Are you surprised after all these years that I have remembered her name? You should not be. I was caught in her web as much as you, but for different reasons, I grew up in the orbit of Carolina, and more than anything else Amanda reminded me of her. They both bear the aura of great strength and wondrous fragility. They were of similar build and carriage, their hair mimicked each other’s perfectly in how it fell and caught the breeze. You now see the same reflection in this Felicity, and who is to say they are not the same person. The Absolutists wield strange powers, and have gifts we cannot comprehend. But I was reminded every moment that I saw Amanda of my childhood love.

Does this surprise you? I wonder if the realisation ever pierced the legend you were weaving about yourself? You left the seminary for training on my home world, and I went to the intelligence academy in the Cluster Edge. When I returned the story had run its course, the suave junior officer had won the heart of the belle of the planet.. I had two dozen messages from her when I came out of my deep immersion. Two dozen messages without reply before she fell into your arms.

Had I asked her, before the boys were born, I think she would have left you and the reflected glory of your career for the shadowy world of an intelligence officers wife, and all the scandal be damned. Yet once she was the mother of your children she showed more dedication than you have. Does it shock you to think she would have left? Only once did she indulge in the most chaste of infidelity, and yet it held more meaning than any depths of sordid adultery.

Do you recall the ball held at the end of the NIsker action? I forget which of your medals you were awarded then, but you held the attention of every socialite and debutante, while husbands and lovers glowered from the bars and card tables. You did not notice your own wife was not among them. I found her watching from the shadows by the double doors into the cloakroom. It was a cool and solitary place and I saw her shiver, her pale, bare shoulders rendered ghostly. I took off my dress jacket and put it around her shoulders. She did not flinch, nor did she back away as my hands rested on her. Then, very slowly she leaned back into my body. Through my uniform and her ball gown I felt her trembling and then as the minutes passed it subsided and she relaxed into my arms, her forehead resting on the short hairs of my beard. All the while she did not take her eyes off you as you regaled your adoring audience, oblivious to her absence.

We never spoke of it, and a decade and more has passed since. Your sons have been born and yet that moment remains as a mute reminder that she made a mistake falling into the grand narrative of Luis, and losing her own voice in doing so. I did not have the courage then to save her from it, and now it is too late.

I love her still, but I will not be the agent of her abandonment and misfortune. I have told you this hidden history so that you may know what it costs me to call you back. And yet I have opened all the doors I can to lead you safely home. Leave this madness on Bruyne, or wherever it is you truly are. Remember the vows and the honour of your calling. You have fled on the strength of a fantasy, you have gone to keep alight the flame of your heroic tale. It is not so. All you have done is abandon your duty and your promise in lust, wherher it is for adventure or just this fey creature Felicity, who may be Amanda. Come to your senses man and come home.

I will know if you have opened this letter, respond swiftly my dear friend, for lives whose happiness is your responsibility hang in the balance.

I remain your friend and comrade,



More Cluster Wars material, and Luis’s original letter to Sebastian here 

The Half Life of Chips


They’re everywhere. You’ll have seen one. You’ll probably have smelt one. You may even admit to having entered one. I won’t judge you, I know what it’s like. There is a time when nothing else quite hits the spot. The Fried Chicken Spot.

Here in the UK we know no one does the fried chicken thing like the Americans, and no American does it quite like the Colonel. Sadly branding comes at a price, as does pumped and piped sugar based liquid refreshment. Free trade in the EU and cheap Lithuanian Pepsi resolves the latter problem, the former needs some creativity.

Undeterred by not being American or wealthy enough for the KFC premium we have become a nation of chicken shop keepers. The names follow a certain pattern. The purists style themselves on KFC and take name along the formula <insert US state of your choice> Fried Chicken. The obvious one is taken of course, but calling yourself Minnesota Fried Chicken still has that essential sense of Americaness. No matter if Minnesota has no heritage of flash frying battery farmed water and hormone infused poultry. No matter if most Brits could not separately identify any US states on a map. It’s an American state and it’s got Fried chicken in the title. Order up a hundredweight of cardboard food boxes from Cost Co and lets do business. The only one I haven’t seen is Milwaukee, possibly because it is so hard to spell.

The heretics pour scorn on this. No US aping for them. Theirs is the new religion, the one that looked across the road at Pizza Hut and thought “now there’s a way to name your restaurant: the food it serves and some form of dwelling.” The acolytes of this radicalism are the Chicken Huts, the rectors and preachers are the Chicken Villas, and top of the tree, king of the hill, father of them all is Chicken Spot.

You know the feeling. Bad day at work, dinner with friends that love to experiment in the kitchen, a day with a “y” in it, something happens and as you walk past the door out wafts the smell of stuff cooked in oil. Drowsy neurons in your head make a sudden connection, by passing your memory centre of every other time you ate there, and you walk in.

There’s chicken. There’s burgers, but don’t waste time on them, they take longer to cook. There’s chicken. It is currently the year 28 AN (After Nando’s) so there is probably peri peri chicken too.

Twenty minutes later there is grease on your fingers and on your chin. Your arteries are holding a strike ballot, it could go either way. Somehow the napkins are never quite strong enough. The oil has a particular chemical quality that turns it from lubricant to glue. You ask the surly guy behind the counter who can barely speak English (he might be native born, but he can still barely speak English) for one of those wipes that smells like Toilet Duck lemon. You succeed only in smearing the grease a little thinner and reminding yourself that sometime soon a lavatory is in your future because one way or the other this is not stopping in your system.

And no matter how vehemently and passionately you swear you won’t be back, you will.

Accepting the inevitable I have decided to improve the lot of man by setting out a quality measurement system for the purveyors of supposed gallus domesticus frixus.

It has nothing to do with the chicken itself. That all comes from the same chick to chook, pumped and plucked production line. The Colonel may have preserved the secret of his recipe but somewhere someone has made a fortune selling a KFC-esque coating. It satisfies some nosmic pareto rule of being close enough to the real thing, without triggering the memory that visits to KFC, like dreams of what you should have done, also leave you with a lingering sense of regret.

No. The key to quality is in the potato based accompaniment. The French fry, the chip, the wedge, whatever your poison (and chemically some of them may be), therein lies the true test of your down-at-heel eatery.

At the moment of provision, as they land on the plastic tray with its paper flier, they always smell heavenly. This time, they promise, this time you won’t leave the premises feeling a little dirty. Now you face a dilemma. Hell hath nothing so noxious as cold cheap friend chicken. The coating comes away and the oil, emulsified with the water used to bump up the weight of the bird, oozes out over the surprisingly small amount of actual meat.

Now you are India Jones facing the leap of faith. Can your chips survive the waiting? If you’re having a burger it is a no brainer. You pour out the chips into the other side of the polystyrene box, load up on ketchup and munch fries three at a time, the burger will bear the waiting. But the two piece chicken with chips meal is where the rubber hits the road. You have to go chicken first, but the clock is ticking.

Behold the half life of chips.

When they land in your tray the chips are a passport to unearthly wonders. The potatoes have been skinned by rolling them gently on the thighs of dusky maidens. Unicorns cut and sliced them with their horns, and they have not so much been fried as bathed in soothing unguents. That phase only lasts about twenty seconds, and if the chips have been sitting in the metal jobber for any length of time before serving then forget it. Don’t feel aggrieved. Even if the chipista has made them fresh, unhurried by the queue behind you, you won’t make it to your seat before the peak of taste has passed. Eat them en route or never know this pleasure.

The next phase is the crucial one. The chips are still hot, but they seem to be very poorly insulated. The temperature drops rapidly. During that second phase the ubiquitous red sauce will see you right with a thin swipe.

Phase three comes all too quickly. The texture has gone from light and fluffy inside, to a cardboard tube wrapped in a condom. Ketchup can still save you but you had better hurry because in Phase four a hod carrier will arrive to ask if he can use your lunch to build a wall.

It’s not called fast food because of the speed with which it is served, but because of the speed with which you have to eat it.

How long it takes to get through the phases tells you all you need to know. If you are in phase four by the time you get to the table from the counter then get up and leave now. No good will come of this. Take the lesser pleasure of having bought fast food, and be content with that.

If you are still in phase three by the time you finish the chicken then you’ve probably found a keeper. This is your local every bit as much as the pub.

And if you are in phase two by the time you are consuming the chips then enjoy life while you can, because sooner rather than later you will choke to death from eating chicken too fast.