Thursday, 27 November 2014

Dear Blogger

A pebble.

I have increasingly become the target of press releases and media invitations, some sent using a system called Cision, which PR companies subscribe to, and some sent using proprietary lists. I don't mind getting them, to be honest. They are occasionally entertaining albeit rarely - if ever - relevant to me in any way.

Consequently, I'll get updates when the international governing body of aviation is announcing we're flying more now than ever or when a company is launching a new wireless networking adapter for small to medium enterprises and wants me to kindly 'cover' it. At one stage I was getting a lot of press releases about uninterruptible power supplies but these stopped abruptly. I suspect the client took a look at #UAEPR on Twitter, hauled his agency out back of the building and shot them like dogs in the street.

I can't remember if it was I started #UAEPR, @TomPaye or @TheRegos but the hashtag has collected some of the more entertaining examples of witlessness and the occasional sound of a screaming journalist pushed beyond reason. It's a little like having a drum kit in the office, it's therapeutic and cleansing and probably a lot more harmless than what some would call 'direct intervention'.

As well as the almost inevitably irrelevant nature of the announcements and media invites, one can't help to be charmed by their breathless tone. 'Hi. We've compiled an infographic of the density of chewing gum on London's streets and thought it might be interesting for readers of FAKE PLASTIC SOUKS, I've attached it but can send you a hi-res file if you like.' Occasionally the mail-merges go horribly wrong and you get addressed as 'Dear ,' or some such. One highlight was 'Dear , I hope you're having a great day!'

I was until now, yes thank you.

You might think I'm hardly in a position to throw bricks, given the day job. And you may well be right, but I'm not letting it stop me. When the agency I work for used to do a great deal more media relations work than it does now (we hardly do any and we almost never send out press releases. I think we've sent out one in the past year), I like to think we worked to a slightly higher standard, that it was about respecting the people you're dealing with and working to ensure that there was an exchange of value that made the interactions we had personal, pleasant and fruitful.

Of course, being targeted as 'a blogger' or a 'social media influencer' is slightly different. It's harder to do that exchange of value thing, because you're not really helping me to do my job by exhorting me to write about your innovation in right threaded sprockets. I don't run a right threaded sprocket magazine. And all too often you just come across as a user. You want me to write about your asparagus promotion so I can 'influence' the people who read my blog or Twitter feed. Then you can show your client you have been successful promoting their interest and they will give you money. Someone in this seeming trifecta is coming across as a donkey.

Do I like asparagus? You haven't bothered to find out, you've just sent me one of your 'Dear ,' emails. Do my readers like asparagus (do I even know who you guys are?)? Do I wish to serve my readers better by giving them more information about asparagus? Not really house style, is it? You might have a chance if you do a Dubai style three hour Bolly-laden brunch in which every dish is based on asparagus, including the desserts. That'd be worth a post, I'd reckon. And no, I don't actually want to come to your hotel and eat asparagus with you and the communications team pretending to like me.

I'll give Nokia credit, actually their agency, D'Abo, for managing a brilliant intervention when I hurled my Android mobile at a wall one night. Contextually appropriate, timely and sensitively managed, they had my much-beloved Lumia in my hands within the day and handled it so fluidly I barely saw them coming until it was too late. That was something of a rarity, I have to say.

What triggered this self-serving, snotty wee rant, you might ask? I was sent a media invitation to a mobile handset launch last night which commenced with the immortal words 'Dear Blogger'.

Look, if you want access to my tiny and frequently mystified readership, that's no problem. I'll sell 'em for a pebble, honestly. Most of them are cut-purses and charlatans anyway. All you have to do is bother to read the blog. Find out if there's any commonality or relevance to what you're pitching. Work out how likely I am to bite you for calling me out of the blue and suggesting I might like to 'depute a journalist and photographer' to your office opening. Perhaps consider the fact I have a day job and a busy old time outside that because of the writing addiction and never, ever write about the thing you're selling. And then maybe, just maybe, you might decide to pass me by. And that's just fine by me, Dear PR.

I hope you're having a great day.

Tuesday, 25 November 2014

Cairo? Not.

Cairo Tower by day.
(Photo credit: Wikipedia)
I guess I was asking for it, posting this. Cairo's not happening, the team at The Townhouse have postponed the event until January.

Why? This here slice of madness.

Pal Mai told me the Salafist Kickoff was going to happen, so I got in touch with conference organiser Dina and we changed my flight to the morning so's I'd get in before the Friday mosques emptied and it all went batshit. But it turns out that wasn't enough.

It looks like downtown's going to be a mess of barricades from Thursday night and the increasingly frenetic tone of what's expected to go down on Friday meant that not only were overseas and local speakers looking at how they were going to make it safely to the venue, but whether there'd be an audience there waiting for them if they did.

In fact, anyone with any sense in downtown and even wider afield will be sat at home watching endless re-runs of 'Friends' or whatever boiled grey dross MBC's doling out rather than venturing into the streets.

So that's it. Game over. Watch this space for some Cairo-inspired fuss in January. I was looking forward to seeing the city again, catching up with friends and doing the Conference Thang.

Next year...

Tuesday, 18 November 2014

Emirates LitFest 2015 Author Lineup Shock Horror

They've been and gone and done it. Last night in a glittering gala event with thousands of sizzling gypsies, the LitFest gang announced the 2015 lineup of authors who'll be workshopping, talking, panel sessioning and generally bringing books, poetry and literature in general to life.

I will, as usual, be infesting the event. The full list of authors is here, so I'm not going to attempt to list them here or pick favourites, but I will point out that Yrsa Sigurðardóttir is my top name of the whole wild and wacky bunch.

One of the things I've been tasked with at the MENA.Online.Literature.Today conference in Cairo (Did I mention I'm going to Cairo?) is talking about the LitFest and its impact on literature and publishing in the UAE and that'll be a sheer pleasure. I've made no secret of the fact I think the Festival has been transformational and has been responsible for the creation of a growing community of writers and people who think they can actually make something of the book they thought they had in them.

It's an important event, as well as a highly anticipated, lively and, well, jolly one. So now you know, block the 3-7 March and save up for the sessions you'll be attending.

I'm thinking of hiring a signing line this year. I've had enough of the sitting by yourself next to a chattering excited stream of people clutching someone else's books as they wait to have it scrawled on by the smiling, relaxed person sat next to me. Last year it was Lynda LaPlante. The press of punters stretched to infinity. I tried to get my queue to shuffle around and look longer, but they got fed up with me shouting at them and the man left while the young couple realised they were in the wrong line...

Sunday, 16 November 2014

Headed For Cairo

English: View from Cairo Tower
(Photo credit: Wikipedia)
It's been over seven years now since I was last a visitor to The Mother of the World (and, actually, that trip was itself my first for eight years. So you could say I was a little out of touch). A lot has happened since - Tahrir and all that for a start. I used to spend more time there than in Amman; we had an office in Garden City, the serene and beautiful area of old French colonial houses just off the Nile. I used to spend a great deal of my time shuttling back and forth. I was always fascinated by Cairo - its vicissitudes are the stuff of fairground rides: the highs and lows are never less than dizzying.

I remember being at Amman's QAIA, transiting on my way to Dubai back in the '80s, listening to a group of Christian tourists headed to Cairo. They were a snippy, ancient little lot and two or three of the men were jostling for dominance in the way only the English can: "With the greatest respect, Jolyon, I think we should be better rewarded worrying about quite where our luggage is..." and all that. They settled down to pray and I listened in, marvelling at their strange, Pythonesque faith. "Oh Lord, take care of us as we set out for Cairo, particularly Phyllis who is having trouble with her feet. Let us not have our bags stolen or drink anything with ice in it or otherwise get upset tummies."

Not that the risk of the latter is anything to sneer at. I have been miserably ill thanks to Cairene food, which is (unless something has changed in all those years) almost always 'interesting' at best. My constant travelling companions were always Immodium and Buscopan. I remember one Comdex Cairo a chap out from the UK who had brought an attaché case (I kid you not) of Jacob's Cream Crackers which, together with bottled water, is all he would allow past his lips for fear of The Cairene Revenge. All went swimmingly until the last day of the show when he injudiciously allowed a business partner to buy him a Pepsi. It had ice in it.

BLAM. He went down faster than a goat hit by a Pajero.*

I'm going back at the end of the month, thanks to a kind invitation to attend a conference taking place at the famed Townhouse Gallery, 'MENA. Online. Literature. Today.' The nice chaps at Townhouse seem to be under the misapprehension I have something to do with literature, can string together a coherent sentence in public and won't burn the place down.

They're clearly in for a terrible shock.

The conference aims to review the state of Middle East publishing, from the structure of the current publishing market to disruptive effects such as self publishing, small presses, ebooks and online publishing platforms. It'll also look at areas such as online governance, activism and censorship. It's a fascinating initiative and I, for one, am looking forward to encountering the various players and their viewpoints at the event.

I'm looking forward to it tremendously, wondering quite what I'll find compared to the city I knew and loved/loathed way back then.

* You might think that's a strange, Dan Brown-like choice of metaphors, but I have hit a goat with a Pajero and can assure you they drop fast, baby.

Saturday, 8 November 2014

A Day In The Life

English: Ian Dury in concert.
English: Ian Dury in concert. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
Please note: this post is best read from the bottom up.

What happened?

Setting out to live blog a day when you're clearly in the poo for time and have a brand new Samsung which you don't know how to use and haven't yet downloaded key apps for was never going to be quite the breeze it appeared at 9am. Boy did I time out.
We had starters, mezze thingies and hot fatayer. I love mujaddara. Just saying.
Main course was a rich North African style lamb thingy with couscous and vegetables. I couldn't tell Rachel this for obvious reasons, principally the fact she had a cold shawarma at her side when I finally got back to her at 4.30 just as the ExpatWoman Festive Family Fun Fandango was shutting down for the day. She'd been too busy to eat lunch.
After the main course Lara got up and moderated. Liz talked. I talked. We answered questions from the audience. People bought books and asked us to sign them. I sold out of copies of Shemlan which was kind of nice.
For my part I talked about MECAS and Shemlan, the magic of Beirut and the shittiness of sectarianism, both in Beirut and in Northern Ireland, where my next book is set. And where Gerald Lynch the evil spy is more than comfortable because he understands the sectarianism that binds these two magical countries.
It was late in the afternoon as Gerald Lynch hopped along the uneven paving that lined Gouraud Street, the heart of Beirut’s bustling Gemayze area. He wore jeans and a leather jacket against the chill spring air, his hands in his pockets as he squeezed between the parked cars.
Gouraud’s bars, as ever, welcomed those who wanted to party and forget the woes of a world where violence and conflict were a distant memory but a constant worry. Orphaned by Belfast’s troubles, Lynch appreciated Beirut’s fragile peace and sectarian divides, the hot embers under the white ash on the surface of a fire that looked, to the casual observer, as if it had gone out. Lynch scowled as he passed a poster carrying Michel Freij’s smiling face, encircled in strong black script: ‘One Leader. One Lebanon.’
From 'Beirut - A Deadly Thriller'
So, what with eating lunch and all that talking, the afternoon flew by and I abandoned Rachel like the low cur I am. I rushed back to the Ranches, but it was too late. We had a chat about our respective afternoons and wandered our respective ways home. We're doing it again at Repton, but more about that later. I missed The Goat, but appreciated his kind gesture in leaving behind a security camera picture of him emptying my cash tin.
I finish by driving home, exhausted and elated. Raucous: Blur's Caramel, Kaiser Chiefs' In My Life, Chili Peppers' Californication.
It's very odd to spend a whole day rushing around talking to people about your books and then taking money from them. But it's one of the best ways of spending a day I know of.
So a heartfelt thank you to the ExpatWoman team for hosting the Author's Corner and to Jane Northcote and the team at Dubai World Trade Club - and Lara, the moderator with the mostest.
And now to a Djinn and Tonic...

Going in for lunch now. It's all glittering tines and starched white linen around here. Chattering, unsuspecting audience members are having drinks poured. I'm trying not to think of the blazing sun and poor old Rachel flogging books to the hordes. I'm dealing with it.

Oh wow. Placebo's Bulletproof Cupid and Foo Fighters Burn Away seeing me on the pell-mell dash from the Ranches to the Dubai World Trade Centre. Dury's Apples still haunting the edge of what passes for my mind. Got here on time, bit sweaty and over-excited but I'm good and the calm, monied halls of the World Trade Club are taking the edge off the Hunter Thompson vibe.
Rachel's got a wee stock of signed books and I actually feel sorry for her (now I've sold a tranche of books) in the sweltering heat while I loll around talking to the leisurely classes in the air conditioned luxury of Dubai's oldest members-only club.
It's going to be fun getting back to the Festive Fair, it was packed as I left, parking spaces only available out as far away as Studio City.
And now to lunch...

I have to dash to Trade Centre now. Books have been flying out of the door, which is lovely. I've been teasing Rachel about how much more money I make per sale than she does and she's pointed out that she only has to write 35,000 words to finish one of hers.
I'm working out how to do for her. Seriously.

Golly but it's hot. The sun's out, the smell of BBQs in the air and the crowds are out, people milling around and much chatter. The catering's a disaster, grinning staff who don't understand the words tea or sugar makes for an interesting service experience. Dhs 10 for an Aquafina, 18 for a coffee. Rachel's sold thousands of books, I haven't sold a thing. I hate her but have to be nice to her because she's looking after the stall at lunchtime. When I get back this afternoon I'm going to kill her and hide her body behind the clubhouse.

Guy at the gate stops me. I announce I am an Expat Woman but he doesn't crack a smile. He tells me there are new rules and I can't have pets or feed the horses. That's fine, then.
I meet the team behind Eva Lilly and the Three Toed Snooch. They have t-shirts. Rachel has brought a big yellow pop-up stand with The Case Of The Exploding Loo on it.
I feel I am building well on my positioning as a serious author of Middle East spy thrillers.

I'm on the road, having wiped out ADNOC's cash reserves by emptying their ATM and then buying a bottle of Masafi. They're going to go bust now but I've got a cash float and I don't care. Spiritualised's Broken Heart helps to erase Dury's Apples but it's going to take more than that. Feeder and System of a Down, Placebo and then Blur. That's done the trick. The MBZ road is clear and I'm flying along - I'd allowed an hour for the drive and I'm at the Ranches by 9.30.

The idea of noting down the day comes to me. I've got Ian Dury's 'Apples' in my head and Sarah has just handed me a tin cashbox. It occurs to me that I'm actually going to handle money today. True to form, I've double booked myself. I'm selling and signing books at the ExpatWoman Festive Family Fun Fair AND I'm doing a literary lunch event at the Dubai World Trade Club. Kids' author Rachel Hamilton asked if she could pitch in a couple of weeks ago which was fine by me. And then I realised about the double booking thing, which made her my lunchtime stand-in. For two hours or so today she gets to be me and speak all gruff.

Tuesday, 4 November 2014

ExpatWoman Festive Family Fair Fun

I might have forgotten to mention this (I didn't? Oh, goodie!), but kids' author Rachel Hamilton and I will be on the Terrace at the ExpatWoman Festive Family Fair this coming Saturday (the 8th November) over at the Dubai Polo and Equestrian Club.

Let's face it. This is the only way a polo club is going to let the two of us in.

I'll have bright new freshly printed copies of Shemlan - A Deadly Tragedy there, as well as Olives and Beirut in case you've been living in a box for the past three years. Rachel will be signing copies of her nuanced, piquant investigation of human folly and revenge, The Case of The Exploding Toilet.

Between us we intend to have a great many laughs and sell you all some books. Rachel clearly one for the kids, me clearly one for mum and dad. That's, like, four books for each average family.

We are going to CLEAN UP, I tell you.

I'll be skipping for lunch 'cos of that Dubai World Trade Club Literary Lunch fingy I've been batting on about. I'll have to owe Rachel for looking after things.

Mind you, she'll probably nick the takings, her...

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 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.