Wednesday, 29 October 2014

Mobile Money, Apple Pay And Disintermediation

Credit cards Français : Cartes de crédit Itali...
Dead. Yeah. Dead.
Funny, I started yesterday with a post about mobiles and ended it talking about disintermediation. Hence a new post.

Disintermediation is what the Internet does to people who are selling privileged access to things. The Internet destroys privileged access. So, for instance, if you are in PR and selling media relations, I can use online tools to access journalists and I don't need you. If you're an ad agency selling creativity (it can be crowdsourced) or media booking (click, click hellooo), I can DIY, thanks. If you're a journalist selling me access to events (all my pals are filming it and sharing the videos on Twitter, thanks). Or a travel agent selling me airline tickets (click), a bookshop (click) or any other number of people taking my money for giving me something I can do using the Internet, you're dead meat. Perhaps not today or not tomorrow, but soon enough.

I was talking about it in the last of the Bookshop DIFC writing, editing and publishing workshops (thanks, chaps, I had a lot of fun and nobody's sued, so that's good) last night. I was trotting out my old catechisms - "Quality is irrelevant when technology improves access" and "The Internet destroys privileged access" - in relation to the ongoing destruction/transformation of the booky book publishing business.

The mobile's done the same, of course. I remember with painful clarity being at a Motorola PR klatch in Vienna in the mid '90s as we discussed maintaining the relevance of radio paging in the SMS era. The answer, of course, was flee for the hills. The invitation to fight to the last man in an epic stand against overwhelming odds with no possible gain in sight is one I will always respectfully decline.

Guess I'm not made of the stuff of heroes.

The mobile hasn't just done for the radio pager - it's done for the bedside clock, too. It's killing the iPod, iterative technological destruction at its best. The digital camera's not looking too pleased, the dictaphone is a relic and taxi companies aren't far behind. Telcos are being reduced to faceless providers of wholesale bandwidth - and they don't like it.

Who'd have thought you could do so much with a telephone, eh?

Apple Pay is the new toy from The Church Of Jobs. It's an NFC based payment system based on your Apple Store subscription that lets you pay for things by waggling your mobile at a terminal. It's causing some issues in the States right now where a group of retailers, including Wal-Mart and Gap, are prevented from accepting it because they've signed up to a rival NFC payment scheme that's not got off the ground yet. They're going to have to rip up that MoU fast if they're not going to alienate millions of iPhone-toting punters wanting to waggle their cash across.

And so the mobile is going to do for credit cards. We're not going to need that wee piece of plastic anymore. Which is interesting, because we arguably don't need what's behind it. We're paying 2.5% of every single transaction for the privilege of moving our money from our account to credit someone else. Sure, the retailer pays the 2.5%, not us. But if you think they're gladly absorbing that cost rather than passing it on faster than you can say antidisestablishmentarianism, you've got another thing coming.

Apple, Amazon et al can move money for nothing. And we trust them - we've already given them our credit cards. What if they tell us we can have what we want without having to use the card? Pay the 2.5%?

Banks will never allow it, surely?

Yeah, but wait until they realise they don't own the customer anymore. They're just virtual money stores at the backend of our more important direct relationship with the retailer. By inserting itself in the transaction, the mobile displaces the payment facilitator and renders it faceless. It's just a redundant transactional layer and technology removes redundant transactional layers rather neatly.

There's not a thing they can do about it. It's already game over.

Tuesday, 28 October 2014

A Question Of Mobiles

It's a long story of no interest to anyone but myself, but hell, this is my blog and if I want to be a boring old git, nobody can stop me. Bwaa haa haa etc.

I bought my first mobile - in 1994 - under enormous pressure. I hated the idea of carrying a phone around with me and loathed the sort of people you saw hefting the things around - all blue suits, white socks and green ties. Dom Jolie and so on. But then I started publishing a weekly and needed to be available in case anything happened at the printing press.

I got an Etisalat 'HudHud' - a rebadged Nokia - and the extra life battery pack. I'd been covering telecoms in the Middle East since the days of the car-phone, so the HudHud was quite impressive. It was a portable rather than a luggable, but the extra battery pack was the size of Luxembourg. Apparently a HudHud is a desert bird. Who knew?

A succession of Nokias followed. The houbara bustard sized HudHud got smaller over the years - as did the outrageous phone bills. Going from writing telecoms magazines to handling the communications strategies for telcos, I soon had a pocket full of SIMs and a deep-rooted sense that telcos simply didn't understand data. 

Telecomms people used to look down their noses at datacomms people. The telephone was mightier than the modem. I'm serious. And it started to become clear that the world's dominant handset maker had the same legacy attitude. The Nokia 6310 - I would still argue the company's brightest moment - remained resolutely mono, mini-screened and app-free. It never transitioned to a new generation, Nokia failing to understand technology adoption models and so lurching from inflection point to inflection point rather than offering users a smooth transition through iterations of an evolving platform. In technology, discontinuity invites disloyalty - users have an incentive to switch platforms if their investment in your new new thing compared to their investment in your old new thing is the same as the investment required to adopt your competitor's new new thing.

It's a thing thing. Trust me.

And the 6310 was where I got off. I clung on for ages, but nothing happened. No new model, no colour screen, no data evolution. No clear upgrade path. Time to get a Sony Ericsson, then.

What do you get when you mate an oyster and a brick? The Nokia Communicator. This was the 'future of the smartphone' and I wasn't buying. But then the Sony Ericsson experience was awful, too. Back to Nokia, which by now had colour screen 'smart' phones such as the N86 and N93. But the store (to become the ill-fated 'Ovi store') had nothing in it. No backgrounds, ringtones, apps. Nokia invented the smartphone and invented the ecosystem. It's just they didn't 'get' that an ecosystem needs to be populated, otherwise it's just barren terrain. They were a phone company playing at computers.

Boy Jobs, of course, coming at this from a computer perspective (one of those dirty 'datacomms' people, don't you know? Absolute parvenu, dahling) got it in spades. Nokia was still laughing as the water in the bath warmed up and his scalpel sliced through their sleepy carotid.

Which left me with a dumb smartphone. I stomped off and went for Google's Android. If I'm honest, I was probably a little bit angry with Jobs for killing 'my' mobile but more angry with Nokia for not understanding (them and the telcos, too) what he understood - that a mobile is a computer, not a phone. An access point to an ecosystem full of super toys and fun things. The terminal device in a rich data-driven world of high bandwidth always-on gloriousness.

It was after I'd flung my incessantly-crashing HTC at a wall that Nokia got in touch and slipped a canary-yellow Lumia my way. I loved the handset - still do. I don't like Microsoft, never really have. I hated them as a journalist (I still treasure 'official' letters of complaint from them) and never really learned to love them as their Middle East PR guy (I was, for something like five years). I tried, Lord knows I tried. But behind Barney lies an arrogant, mean, machine.

I wanted Nokia to win, to come back and show us it had worked things out and understood what was happening. I wanted there to be a third way, an alternative to Google's Moonie-evangelistic ubiquitousness or The Church of Jobs.

It's no use. It's game over. Microsoft has deleted Nokia and it's now clear that any innovation in mobile applications isn't going to be starting with Windows. Developers can't be bothered to port their apps to WinPhone and every other kid in the playground has shinier toys than me.

Now I'm in a real pickle. I can't make my mind up and it's been killing me for weeks.

Android or Apple?

Sunday, 26 October 2014

The Passing Of The Tracks, The Pressing Of The Mountains


I wrote in the summer about the 'passing' of the Hatta/Al Ain track. It's inevitable, both the passing of the wadi tracks that have enlivened so many of our weekends and my old gittiness resulting in much 'I remember when that was all sand' whinery.

And yet, painfully aware that progress doesn't need the railing of old sticks in the mud to mark its march, there's a certain poignancy to it all. The landscape of the mountains is not only being altered, it's being literally smashed apart.

Time was when there was only one road through to the East coast of the UAE from the west: the Sharjah/Dhaid/Masafi road. It, too, started life as a track - the old route up from Fujeirah, past Bithnah and into the Wadi Ham before coming down from Masafi to the plains and through the desert to Dhaid. Running alongside it were aflaj (the plural of 'falaj'), underground aquifers dug out by ancient hands to create long waterways dotted with wells that snaked down from the mountains to desert oasis towns.

You could go north from Masafi to Dibba by following the deep bed of the wadi, but a road was blasted through the rock so that Masafi became the knot at the head of a lasso that stretched out from the giant hand of Sharjah to loop through Dibba, down the East coast along past Bidaya (the oldest mosque in the UAE sits here like a little meringue) and Khor Fakkan to Fujeirah before looping back to Masafi.

The road to Hatta was first constructed by Sheikh Rashid in a search for cheap concrete and stone to fuel the breakneck development of Port Rashid. As in so many other things he did, he was to set a precedent of tremendous proportions. Ever since, the Hajar mountains have been providing the concrete, gravel, stone, aggregate, hardcore and rock for the coastal towns' expansion.

After the Hatta road was extended down to the Omani coast, the epic journey through the precipitous passes into Wadi Bih was the Third Way. It never became blacktop - has, in fact, been closed by the sealing of the inland borders with Oman and, in any case, superceded by the Truck Road from Dibba down to join the Mohammed bin Zayed Road (the E311) as it touches Ras Al Khaimah's southern border.

The Mileiha Road was the first of the new road networks to smash their way though the mountains, at first blasting its way through the rocky promontory that gives us Fossil Rock south of Dhaid, then darting through the plain to the mountains where it drills through to twin exits in the mountainside above Kalba like a vampire's bite.

The Munay/Huwaylat track used to wind its way North of Hatta, taking you eventually to Fossil Rock (passing through the lovely wadi/oasis of 'The Sultan's Gardens'). We were wadi bashing one day when we suddenly found ourselves in a building site and then snooping our way up a smooth tarmac surface that halted in the middle of a mountainside, blasting underway ahead of us. Today that road is dwarfed by the new road from Hatta to the Sharjah/Mileiha/Kalba road - a route so new that it was still un-numbered when we drove it at the weekend. The mountains around it are gashed with tumbles of freshly hewn grey rock contrasted against the sunburnt browns and purples of the undisturbed peaks. Mountains have been flattened, hacked into by slab-sided quarries. Lorries rumble out of the crushers to weighbridges down the road towards the plains.

There's a new road being built from Daftah (a couple of kilometres East of Masafi down the Wadi Ham) to Khor Fakkan, as well. It's going to take five tunnels to make the final crossing, the longest of which will be 2.6km (it will be the longest tunnel, when it's finished, in the UAE). Only the first is complete, the road punches its way through the mountain and then peters out, joining a recently built track tumbling down into the East Coast mountain village of Shis. Where before you had to climb up the wadi to reach the legendary pools of Shis (the village is lit by lamp posts in the wadi, each of which has a switch on it), now you can drive down alongside them. Shis is partly Omani - straddling a strange doughnut-shaped enclave of Oman called Madha, nestled in the UAE and itself containing a little bit of Sharjah, the village of Nahwa. It's a rare example of an enclave and counter-enclave.

As the roads open up new fissures through the ranges, so the crushers are grinding them down, one peak at a time to feed coastal construction. It's a strange movement of matter: as the mountains are diminished, so the cities of the Gulf rise.

And as the roads open access to mountain communities, they are drained of their young people moving to the towns down those new roads that let them back at the weekends to visit their ageing relatives...

Thursday, 23 October 2014

Dubai World Trade Centre Hosts A Very Literary Lunch

This is a photo of Dubai World Trade Centre on...
(Photo credit: Wikipedia)
Back in the days when men were men, women were interested and dinosaurs roamed the earth, the Dubai World Trade Club sat atop the tallest building in the whole Middle East. It was an invitation-only members gaffe limited to CIPs (commercially important people) and they kept a tie in a drawer at reception in case you, for some inexplicable reason, had forgotten to wear your own.

If you got lost in Dubai (a frequent occurrence for me in those days), you just used the Trade Centre tower as a landmark. It was instantly visible from anywhere in the city.

Of course nowadays the Dubai World Trade Centre tower is tiny, a 33-floor dwarf nestled amongst giants. It's made of good old fashioned poured concrete, none of yer modern high tech skyscraper construction techniques here. If you flew a plane into this trade centre, it'd just splat on the outside - a parabellum fired at a Chobham armoured tank - before sliding down like Wile E. Coyote hitting a canyon wall.

Even the lobby reminds me of Dubai in the 1980s, staying at the Dubai Hilton* and going to bloody GITEX. Meeting the girl who was to become my wife. All that sort of stuff. This is a building that has always had tremendous resonance for me.

So it's going to be interesting (for me if nobody else) to go there on the 8th November and discuss the sense of place and its role in novels. This is a place, one of only a few in Dubai, I'd argue, that truly reflects the synthesis of place and time. This is where Rashid started the march to a global city. If you were to ask me to name three key monuments to Dubai's remarkable recent history, I'd show you a tiny treadmill crane on the Bur Dubai creekside, the World Trade Centre and Port Rashid. I'll cheat - I'd probably take you for a walk around Shindaga and Ghubeiba too.

Although the 33rd at the Trade Centre no longer keeps a tie behind reception, it's just as swanky today as it ever was. The private dining rooms are still there, the old prints on the walls and lavish furnishings remain. It's been dickied up and modernised. And the kitchen still whisks together culinary marvels - the food here has always been stunning.


Dubai's Sheikh Zayed road photographed from the Dubai World Trade Centre in 1991. 
Yeah, tell me about it...

Why the 8th? Together with writer of Cornish romance novels Liz Fenwick, I'm joining moderator Lara Matossian for a 'Literary Lunch' event at DWTC. You're more than welcome to come - a three course lunch and 'beverages' can be yours for Dhs175, as well as the joy of listening to the lovely Lara trying to get me to talk some sort of sense. The idea is to discuss, as I said earlier, the concept of place in novels, Liz with her Cornish fascination and me with a clear link to a rather murderous Levant (which I'll soon blow nicely by finishing a novel set in Ireland, but that's a worry for the marketing team, right?), what with Olives and Beirut and Shemlan and all that.

The gig starts at 12.30pm. To book, you just pop an email to wtc@dwtc.com or call 04 309 7979.

On the same day, from 10.30am to about 4pm, I'll be at the ExpatWoman Festive Family Fair over at Arabian Ranches together with scatalogically challenged kids' author Rachel Hamilton (she wot got a contract as a result of the Montegrappa First Fiction competition at the Emirates LitFest) and we'll be signing - and selling (natch) books there all day. How I intend to clone myself is the subject of another post.

They asked me for my preferences when they were composing the menu. I don't know what they've done with the resulting feedback, but I can't wait to see. A chef of genius led by a dolt will sometimes create something different and entertaining.

See you there!

*The Hilton Dubai used to be a four-story building linked to the DWTC tower and was more '70s than Pink Floyd. It was demolished in 2007.

Wednesday, 8 October 2014

A Dubai Writer's Workshop - Book Writing, Editing And Publishing

The Brand Spanking New Bookshop at Dubai International Financial Centre (DIFC)

STOP PRESS
Last session tonight - 28th October - at 6.30pm sharp! So far it's been busy but there have generally been enough seats/tabletops to go around. Tonight (more below) is about how to find a publisher or, alternatively, do it yourself!

So you think you might have a book in you and you want to let it out, a little like the icky scene in Alien. You know, that one. A book is born! Pop! Squelch!

Well, I might be able to help. Then again I might be of absolutely no use at all. It's one of those gambles you have to take in life.

On Tuesday 14th, 21st and 28th October 2014 respectively, from 6.30pm until 8.30pm, I'll be running a series of workshops at Bookshop - the funky new book sales outlet in DIFC from those lovely (if perhaps just a little potty) people at BrownBook.

We did a vaguely similar series of workshops at Archive early last year at which people appeared to have fun, but then they were maybe just being polite... And if you miss this lot, you can pay good money to come along to the writing and publishing workshop I'll be holding at the Emirates Airline Festival of Literature next year.

But these ones are... shhh... free!


How to Write a Book

Tuesday 14th October
Bookshop Dubai (DIFC) 6.30pm

I've written blog posts on this very topic if you want to mug up or just avoid having to spend two hours glued to a seat with me screaming abuse at you. At the actual workshop, we're going to look at the history, nature and purpose of narrative, and then delve into what makes people write books, how you can save time by thinking through some key stuff beforehand, structures of narrative and why you need to mull six honest serving men before you ever tap a key. Then we'll be lurching into how to structure your book and tell your story in the most compelling and exciting way. We'll look at nasty stuff like POV and characterisation before we zoom into writing techniques to help you make the most out of your story, including stuff like crafting dialogue and building brilliant exposition that flies rather than plods. If you survive that lot, you might make it on to...


How to Edit a Book

Tuesday 21st October
Bookshop Dubai (DIFC) 6.30pm

Editing is a vital skill for any writer, not least because the less work your editor has to do on correcting your sloppy manuscript, the more quality of thought and deed you'll get from the edit. Trust me. We'll be looking at the power of words, at the importance of word choice in various situations and then getting all down and dirty with different types of edit, from the big picture right the way down to the line edit, where all those commas are left quailing in the dark corner of a dank cellar as you wave a shotgun at them. We'll review techniques for creating a synopsis and a book blurb before wandering around the (huge) range of common writing errors you can purge from your work before anyone else gets a chance to see 'em. And then it's on to...


How to Publish a Book

Tuesday 28th October
Bookshop Dubai (DIFC) 6.30pm

We're going to take a look at your two most likely routes to publication: traditional publishing (finding an agent and a publisher who want to invest in your work) and self publishing (finding an audience who might want to buy and read your book). We'll look at how to prepare your manuscript for both eventualities, the process of publishing - from how to construct query letters through to how to find your audience online. We'll look at appointing an editor, getting an ISBN, printing, creating ebooks and all sorts of other stuff, including online book sales platforms and how you can promote yourself as an author - whether you're traditionally published or self published.

Who the hell am I to be doing this?

Nobody, really. I'm a publishing, digital media and communications consultant by day. By night, I'm the self-published author of three Middle East-based spy thriller novels: Olives - A Violent Romance which caused quite a controversial kerfuffle; Beirut - An Explosive Thriller which landed me a literary agent in London whom I finally dumped and Shemlan - A Deadly Tragedy, a novel I'm deeply proud of, but which has so far left the bestseller lists untroubled. I'm currently working on my fourth serious novel, A Simple Irish Farmer. Like I say, yer takes yer risks...


If you'd like to come along - or have a friend who's interested in writing and thinks they might just have a book in them, there's no money or registration or anything involved - but if you'd like a seat, I'd suggest you RSVP by leaving a comment on the blog, hitting me up on Twitter (@alexandermcnabb), facebook (/alexandermcnabb), using the contact form on alexandermcnabb.com or emailing me at alexander@alexandermcnabb.com. I'm sort of easilyreachable...

For location and so on, you can hit up Bookshop here.

I'm also at the excellent ExpatWoman Family Fair on November 8th AND co-hosting a 'Literary Lunch' at Dubai World Trade Centre on the same day. I am clearly in the process of cloning myself...

Tata for now!


Monday, 29 September 2014

The Great Dubai Razor Rebellion.

English: Hungarian razor blades - 1950's year ...
 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
The Gillette website is a hoot. One of the sections of the site, richly packed with relevant content, is titled 'how to shave' and has some highly useful video demonstrations suitable for any educationally subnormal macaques who might find the advice useful or indeed inspirational.

That says more about modern life, society and stuff than it perhaps intends. I'm waiting for Clarks to catch on and include a 'how to walk' section on their website. The London Rubber Company's contribution to the debate is perhaps more eagerly awaited.

I've been building up to a minor rebellion for some time now. The price of razor blades has been steadily rising, from where they didn't really hit the radar to the point, now, where Spinneys keeps them in a cabinet behind the till and Carrefour puts them in those annoying sealed boxes I only otherwise encounter when buying printer ink. I'm forced to the realisation: We've Gone Too Far.

The printer ink security box issue is no coincidence: the business model is the same. Mobile operators will also recognise the trick. Sell the punter a base product that will only accept your configuration of consumable and then gouge them heftily for the consumable. HP printer ink, coloured water, costs more than Chanel No. 5. Sarah starting at a new school has meant I've just spent three times the cost of the printer on ink. I don't begrudge her a penny (although I do wonder why schools are increasingly relying on their underpaid teachers to resource classrooms with their own personal educational paraphernalia), but I do begrudge HP for the cost and profligacy. When a company sells a wasteful little plastic cartridge full of overpriced ink and then has the colossal cheek to sell the same cartridge with more ink in it (the 'XL' cartridge) for double the price and THEN blither on about how 'green' it is, I despair.

But I am meandering, clearly a lost, ranting old lunatic wandering through the fields in his shabby greatcoat, gibbering and raving to himself.

Employing HP's evil printer cartridge model has been good for Gillette (and others, no doubt, but it's Gillette's razor I have sitting aside my sink). They're charging something like ten quid for four of those plastic cartridges, which cost pennies to manufacture. I've found the blades generally good for a week or so. The 'high end' cartridges are anything up to £3.50 a pop. We are, ladies and gentlemen, having a laugh.

Over two pounds fifty a week. You're looking at something upwards of 50p a day. Have I gone MAD?

In India a while ago, there was a problem with the harried Rupee, which had devalued to the point where chaps were melting them down to make razor blades because the retail value of the base metal when converted into blades (one Rupee was being turned into five or so blades - 35 Rupees' worth of blade) was higher than the value of the coin. It caused a national coin shortage. Seriously. I can see that working here or in the UK these days with a razor blade costing between Dhs 10 to 20.

I'm not even starting on the question of why I would need to put a battery in my razor. I have so far avoided vibrating razors. If God meant us to have a vibrat... never mind.

The razor companies will say they have to invest in innovation, with Gillette spending $750 million in developing its popular Mach3 razor alone. How you can spend that kind of money coming up with a razor is frankly beyond me. It's stupid. But not as stupid as paying over £2.50 for a razor blade.

So I have rebelled. I've gone off and bought an old-fashioned 'safety' razor, the type my old dad used to use. You buy single blades and they are pressed into the head of the razor with a screw that runs down through the handle. The blades are the fashion ornaments so beloved of teddy boys (they used to sew them into their lapels - them, or fish hooks - in case someone tried to use the cloth handles to grab and 'nut' them. Pal Mai assures me Egyptian street thugs conceal blades in the roofs of their mouth to whip 'em out to 'do yer' when the occasion arises) and punks alike. I once had dinner at the George Cinq wearing a black Therapy? t-shirt with a massive day-glo green razor on it. The waiter was unbelievably, delightfully, pissy. And yes, 'Monsieur' is indeed a guest - thank you for asking - and there's very little you can do about him, mate...

And guess what? Basic Razor works just fine. Better, in fact. It's a tad more dangerous, takes a little skill and more caution. It's by no means forgiving of those little facial bumps that life throws at us. But I'd say that's because the shave's way, way closer.

I know this doesn't quite make me Edward Snowden, but we must take our rebellions where we find them as old age and conformity press ever heavier on our heads...

Saturday, 27 September 2014

Book Review: Desert Taxi

English: Sahara desert from space. Русский: Пу...
 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
You'll find it hard to find a copy of this. Amazon's selling one - if I were you, I'd rush over and snap it up. It's out of print - a gem that deserves SO much more than oblivion.

I love this book. It's a treasured possession. My copy's not worn well, the paper's yellowed and brittle, dried out to the point where one page has simply cracked apart and is nestled loose, torn from tip to toe by an unknown hand - likely that of of gravity or being boxed up for a house move.

Anyone selling a mint copy? Hit me up - I'm a buyer.

I've just re-read it. Yes, I even put my Kindle aside to read a booky book. Having finished Alexander Frater's Beyond the Blue Horizon, I was ripe for another travelogue. And I slid this out of the shelf as I realised I hadn't read it in 20 years.

And what a read it is.

Mike and Nita embark on a madcap journey from London to Nigeria, where he has a posting, using an 18 year old Hackney Carriage. The kicker is this book was written (and the journey undertaken) in 1956. So the taxi's a sort of pre-war Model T sort of thing, not the Black Cab we know today.

Marriott writes brilliantly, observant and wry with a glorious command of language and an engaging style. The challenge they take on is clearly insane and his account of trawling through the Sahara in an ancient cab is peppered with scenes in which Foreign Legion and Touareg alike are left open-mouthed by the mad dogs and Englishmen puttering through their midday sun.

He's English - the sort of English of Empire and Evelyn Waugh. Nita - pretty and clearly possessed of a saintly demeanour (or a love of lunatics) beyond reason, is as bashed about in the journey as Bertha the taxi - but our self-deprecating and potty author makes everything come alive; you end up consuming the pages, rooting for these idiotic, impossibly hardy and resourceful people.

It's a book that deserves to be re-published, enjoyed and shared as a classic of travel writing. And it's been lost in the cruel mist of time - what a shame.

If you can find a copy, snatch it up. This book is charming, delightful, gripping and - yes - inspiring.

I wonder where Mike and Nita are today. If they've made the longer journey, they'll be in their eighties. I would so love to sit and sip a snifter and listen to them, creaky and smiling-eyed, tell me where their lives went next.

This book so deserves to be in print again...

Friday, 26 September 2014

JW's Steakhouse, Dubai


When it opened, something like 20 years ago, JW's Steakhouse was the place to go in Dubai. I kid you not. People flocked to the joint, they had to put tables outside under the staircase. You'd have to make reservations weeks in advance. Every weekend, it roared with the voices of diners, jangled with the clangour of crockery and clink of holloware. Harried staff plied the packed tables - and if you ate there often enough (or were just unbelievably important), your name was engraved on a brass plaque and glued to the top of a table.

I reviewed it for The Fat Expat seven (!) years ago:
Consistency is the true high point of this, Dubai's oldest and most established steakhouse. It's just consistently damn good, time after time after time. There are flashier joints, there are more expensive joints. But nowhere will you find a safer pair of hands.
Don't worry about the slightly naff 'brass' plaques on the tables with regulars' names on them: it's just part of the 'gentleman's club' atmosphere: dark woods, deeply studded green leather high back club chairs and beef bone napkin rings, along with the steer decorated underplates, are all part of the Texan Men's Club feel. This is not a place to take vegans, although they might serve you one if you agree to have it done rare.
I loved it then, and I love it now. We went there last night with friends. We sat at the bar and did drinks - they make a fine Martini, served in a conical, stemless glass placed into a wee glass bowl of crushed ice.

The studded leather chairs have gone, for some reason, to be replaced by a more staid green plastic upholstery, but they still nestle you like an astronaut's jumpseat. The napkins are still buttonholed and threaded through un-PC bone rings. The tablecloths are still runners. The Swan pub has gone, a terrible shame.

An amuse bouche of warm foie gras slides in front of me. Oh my word. Golly. Kapow.

The lobster bisque is still on the menu. Let's face it, there'd have been a major outbreak of senseless violence that would have made Grand Theft Auto seem like a LaLaLoopsy convention if it wasn't.

It's served to you with cream dropped in it: a dark, textured and rich soup marbled with cream and dotted with delicate little dots of lobster meat. Flambeed brandy is poured over it. And on the side are parmesan shavings, marie rose sauce and flat croutons to bear the combinations of stuff you choose to precede/antecede each spoon of rich soup. My Last Meal would include this soup.

Mind you, my Last Meal would make Mr Creosote blanch.

They have a wine that has long amused me - and which I order every time I go there without fail: Goats Do Roam. It's a South African Plsssp to the French (I looked the word up, you have to pronounce it properly) and it's a fine drink, too.

That went - as it always does - nicely with my 7 ounce fillet (medium rare), onion rings, gratinated potato (they used to do dauphinoise, sadly now lapsed), baby spinach in garlic, spring vegetables and asparagus in cheese sauce. Others had 16oz T-bones (glorious) and stuff.

They do a 32oz T-bone. One day. When I'm bigger.

All this richness and finery comes with bearnaise and pepper sauces. Order extra, you get piles of extra. This is a good thing.

The steak's perfect. It's just stopped mooing, it's tender and it tastes like a dead cow. The other stuff is bang on - hot, crispy, juicy, green, fluffy, crunchy, sweet, piquant, unctuous. Umami is in there too, but it better get to the back of the queue.

There's a lot of nomnomnom going on at this point. The place is 75% empty, the table next ours consists of three noisy Levantine ladies, all 'I swear to God you don't know me if you have seen what this guy did next' bluster. They don't even manage to cut through the food bliss going on.

At Dhs 2,300 for four, the bill's half what you'd pay - and we did not stint, I can assure you - at the priceless Traiteur (Park Hyatt), let alone cruddy places like Rhodes', Pierre-White's, the Rivington or The Ivy. The meal was utterly faultless, the service flawless. We were at home, fed like kings and totally comfortable throughout.

We didn't do dessert. There was no point. Chocolates arrived in a steaming dry-ice laden bowl. And in an instant we're upstairs in Hofbrauhaus.

And that, my dears, is an entirely different story...


Wednesday, 24 September 2014

Stalled. A Writer's Nightmare.

I've stalled on the new book. I've written not one word since before the Summer hols. I made some notes and stuff in Belfast and Newry, I sat down for a long chat with a 'Shinner' MP and former IRA man while I was in 'Noori', that fine town in 'Norn Iron', an engagement organised by my lovely Sister in Law and fascinating in so many ways. But I haven't actually been, you know, writing.

'So you served 15 years of a 27 year sentence in Long Kesh. The Maze.'
'That's right.'
'The H Blocks.'
'No, before them. It was Nissen huts, then, segregated on sectarian lines. We used to pass notes across each others' huts. So even the Unionists would pass our notes, and we would pass theirs.'
'Did you get time off for good behaviour?'
'I doubt it. We burned the prison down.'

It's not 'writer's block', that's something different altogether. It's a bit like work on Shemlan - A Deadly Tragedy, which was stalled by my decision to publish Olives and Beirut myself. While all that went on, poor old Shemlan took a back seat, unfinished at around the halfway mark. But I went on going to Beirut and visiting the village, the Mountain and other locations in the book. I just didn't write anything.

When I finally sat down to finish Shemlan, jacked into volume 11 death metal and Estonian plain chant, it flew like a jet-propelled Teflon coated flying thing in a vacuum. Hang on, how do things fly in a vacuum if there's no pressure of air or gravity or other opposing force? Help!

So I'm not really angsting about the lack of progress. Things happen in their time and this one obviously needs to 'bed down' a bit before I go on. I trust my instincts well enough by now not to try and keep pushing if my head won't be pushed. The novel's at a crossroads and I need to go back over it, test it against the stuff in my head and correct it before starting construction work again.

I'll know when I'm ready. Life's busy, there's so much going on, distractions are flying like Teflon coated flying things gravitating towards a large body.

In the meantime, any time I get a few moments to sit down to write, I'm ending up scribbling blog posts instead. The paucity of such posts testifies to the lack of time in general.

Where does it all go?


Tuesday, 23 September 2014

Reminiscences (Apropos Nothing)

English: Organic bread rolls in Brugge, Belgiu...
(Photo credit: Wikipedia)
So we are taken from gin pahits to fags to reminiscing in general. It's been a strange week all round.

This memory hit me today as I chatted with the feared Grey Havens Gang - the first such convo in a while, actually...

For a long time, I worked with a deeply eccentric person, something of a savage genius.

Highly-strung, he was suing his dentist because of a bothersome crown cap and was at the time constantly fiddling with little wads of crown fixative, a latex-gel sort of substance. (He was highly litigious, as I'm sure we'll learn if he ever stumbles across this post).

We took an important client out to expensive lunch and our hero was portentously pontificating about the parlous state of technology in Saudi Arabia or some such when he stopped dead in mid-flow and turned puce, glaring at us as if he had just been hit in the groin by a high speed sea urchin. One of the spiny ones.

As we watched in horrified fascination, he slid down the banquette and disappeared under the table.

A short while later, as we were still gawping at each other, a pale hand flopped onto the other side of the table, a little like a scene from the film 'The Hand', if you've ever seen that. It clawed around for a time, eventually snared the client's bread basket, and whipped it away.

There was absolute silence during this entire performance. With much huffing and puffing, our man restored himself to his seat, looked around at the wide-eyed assembly and cheerily said, "Well! Dessert?"

It was only later we learned the errant tooth had flown out under the pressure of his oratory and landed square in the client's bread rolls.

(Channeling Somerset Maugham, the gin pahit* man, and so squaring the circle.)

*I find the fastest way to add links to the gin pahit post is to Google 'Gin pahit fake' which phrase I now Own The Internet for. As Frankie tells us: Search. Huh. What is it good for? ...