Saturday, 8 December 2018

Empty Quarter

Oh, dear. Three months have passed and no post at all.

Is the Fake Plastic blog dead?

As Hemlock pointed out the other day, most of the other old UAE blogs have died. Do all blogs die one day? I suppose so - people get bored, move on, grow up, whatever. You realise that the volume of effort that goes into posting is increasingly indefensible. And that your 'hot take' on the world may well amuse you, but it's hardly worth sharing every day. As the lovely young things of Instagram are only just finding - and we found years ago - that whole sharing everything starts to become an end in itself and it doesn't really make much sense in real life.

The Fat Expat Blog was a lot of fun, for instance, but it just took too much out of us. Other UAE foodie blogs rose up from more talented people with more time on their hands.

And, increasingly, I've found I don't need to vent on here so much. I don't really need an audience (I never thought I needed one, but in reality I liked having one. A bit like Geekfest, that one - if it becomes important to you, it's probably time to stop doing it). It's not that there aren't things to vent about - my last visa renewal was a little shop of horrors, but then we all have horrible visa renewals, no?

I've got a new book in the offing, so it'd be nice to do that whole sort of 'It's important to keep the blog going as an author promotion platform' thing but then that makes you, the reader, the tool for my ambition (I'm using you, in other words, to promote my book) and it also doesn't work very well (a few, a very, very few people have read my books because they've liked my blog. It's likely in the tens, though. This is not a book promotion panacea, you understand. I'm not Boris Akunin, for instance, whose blog can pull six or ten thousand comments per post!).

I could blog about my book writing, publishing and production experience of course, but then a) it's not very interesting and b) see using people point above. I have issues laying out my content stall because I want to make people behave in a certain way ('Buy my book'). Yes, yes, I know I never had issues with that before, but I'm a different person now. Honest. No, really. I swear.

Also, please note, book posts have always been a HUGE downer on the blog. I post about whales having belly buttons or the awful shite that Tim Horton's put in their 'coffee' and you're looking at multiple thousands, even tens of thousands, of page views. Book post? A thousand or so if you're lucky and a LOT of tumbleweed knocking around.

As eny fule no, a thousand views put into the formula proposed by McNabb's Law of Clicks means a picobook is sold. It's hardly worth it, really, is it?

Anyway, I may well post again if and when the fancy takes me - but I'm clearly no longer in the 'post a day' league, as we can all see.

Meanwhile, you can always find me, of course, on Twitter!

Wednesday, 5 September 2018

HSBC. The End Is - Finally - Nigh.

Customer service paradigm

Went to Spinneys the other day to buy stuff for dinner and get some cash from the ATM. The ATM she no work. The credit card she no work. I pay using my Lloyds UK card (expensive, but what to do?) and call The Bank That Likes To Say EOWRUTABABA to find out what's gone wrong.

They've blocked the cards. Without warning, without telling us. No phone call, no email, nothing. They just blocked them and then went home. No, the call centre can't unblock them. No, you can't have access to your own money. No, the branch is closed so you've got no money at all tonight. Mafi faloos, baba. Not a penny. Despite having thousands lodged in your account.

Why? Because they had asked me for a 'salary letter', the latest in a long line of insane documentary requests made in the name of 'compliance' and 'Safeguard'. Apparently, having a scan of the updated utility bill of a guy who's been your customer for 25 years makes us all safer from fraud, scams and Osama Bin Laden.

I queried the requirement for a salary letter by return email, because it strikes me as a tad silly that I - a company owner - would want to write myself a letter confirming I paid myself. In fact, I found out from a letter I got by Aramex on Monday that I could upload my trade license instead and so I did that the very same day. Tuesday they blocked the account.

Wednesday they replied to me with an email explaining I could upload a trade license in lieu of a salary letter. Bit late...

We don't have any loans, or any outstandings. We're in credit. Big time. And we can't use our money. We are, oddly enough, stony broke and cash rich at the same time. It's the last straw, I've finally had enough. This camel's back - after 25 years of abuse and idiocy - is broken.

We're closing the account. I can't trust a financial institution that would do that to its customers. God knows, I couldn't trust them to issue a cheque book, meet a cheque, make a transfer, issue a credit card, operate an ATM, manage a call centre or generally do anything else you'd expect a bank to do.

I mean, it's not like they haven't been trying to get rid of us. Oh, no, they've been trying REAL hard. Even a cursory glance at the Fake Plastic Archive gives us some idea of the treats they've been doling out over the years:

Here, back in 2008, I posted precipitately about my joy - glee, even - at opening a new account with Lloyds UAE and getting rid of HSBC. It was not to be, alas. Lloyds blew opening the account so badly that we gave up. It didn't matter, as it happened, as Lloyds UAE got taken over by HSBC anyway. So it was a case of out of the frying pan into the frying pan and over to the frying pan. It didn't end there, of course.

The howls of pain recorded on this blog alone (bear in mind it started in 2007 and I started banking with HSBC in 1993, so there's years of silent screaming out there)  are testament to a bank that's really, really getting things wrong in a big way. There is NOT ONE aspect of banking service they haven't screwed up over the years. I kid you not, not one aspect.

I have happily accused them of drooling incompetence and gleefully pointed out their legion failings. I have accused them of operating potentially the worst call centre in the world (and defy you to identify a worse one) and charged them with ineptitude of the first order - which is being mild about it.

I have glibly compared their staff to badly trained macaques of below average capability, particularly when they quietly added a requirement for an IBAN number to make transfers and failed to include that field in the onscreen transfer form - then rejected the subsequent transfer AFTER it had gone to the UK and then booked the consequent - and considerable - exchange rate loss back to me.

I have also accused them of lying in their advertising. I have stood by as they have bounced my cheques, screwed up my transfers and generally shook me up like a wasp in a bottle. I have called them useless bastards in the past and I must say I do so very much stand by that accusation.

"Why do you stay with them?" People asked me. Well, it was usually because every time I went to get shot of them, everyone told me the other banks were just as bad. Now I don't care any more. Any bank that will unilaterally cut you off from access to your own money without warning - and that because of their own desire to enforce their unjustified procedural requirements and total incompetence - is not fit to have charge of my funds.

That's it. Game over. I'm sure they'll be glad not to be getting the abuse anymore as much as I - I can faithfully report - have an enormous sense of relief at the prospect of getting rid of them forever.

I only wish I could hurt them more to make the idiots responsible for doing this feel the impotent fury, frustration and considerable inconvenience their thoughtless, pointless and draconian actions have caused us.

I'm not sure what's more remarkable - that we've stuck with them for 25 years or that they just burned a customer of 25 years' standing. As I told the snobby wee girl in the branch today, I can remember when it was the British Bank of the Middle East and there were bedu guards with Martini rifles at the door - and when the paying in form asked for your company stamp or 'chop'.

Goodbye, HSBC, you legendary screwups.

Sunday, 22 July 2018

Rain Room Sharjah (#RainRoomSharjah)

I can't remember how we heard about Rain Room. But we did and a glance at the Sharjah Art Foundation website was intriguing, to say the least. It was the work of seconds few to pick a day and time and book (you have to book an 'appointment' online, there's no point just rocking up and expecting to get in - more on this later). That was us sorted - a trip to Rain Room for our 15 minute 'experience'.

What is Rain Room? I hear you asking (unless you've been, in which case yes, I know, you've got the t-shirt*). It is an experiential art installation originally conceived by an London-based art collective/company called Random International, back in 2012. Rain Room toured the Barbican in London, MoMA in New York, LA's LACMA and other august artsy locations, to rave reviews. It has found its permanent home in Sharjah, and is open to the great unwashed in return for Dhs25.

It's a giant, black rain shower. You walk into it and sensors clear you a 6-foot dry patch as you wander around. Clearly, if you walk too fast or move suddenly, you get wet.

So here we are in Sharjah and it's late July. It's hot, the mercury at times nudging 50C. It's humid, too. Nasty, muggy, dense humidity that gets so thick and cloying a goldfish swam past my head the other day. The very idea of spending a little time in the rain has a certain appeal, no?

We booked for Saturday at 5pm. Get there 20 minutes early, says the email that followed my booking. Present this registration code when you arrive. And please use the hashtag #RainRoomSharjah. And so this is precisely what we do. Parking isn't a problem, there are reserved spaces alongside Al Majarrah Park with the blood-curdling threat of a Dhs1,000 fine if you park and aren't a guest of Rain Room. How do they know?

The building's totally plain - funky, for sure, but unadorned by any text that proclaims it to be Rain Room or, indeed, to be anything. It's all concrete, glass and steel and the floor is not only laid with the same blocks as those out on the pavement, but they're matched so they form a continuation with the outside paving. There's a Fen Café, just so's you know you've arrived in funky town. For those that don't know Sharjah's 'signature' art café, Fen is on funk. So much so that it actually aches, like eating too many ice cubes. We get our tickets printed and settle down to wait for our turn.

We watch people coming in off the street and expecting to get their 'experience' right here, right now. The chap on the front desk seems to spend 95% of his time explaining things and turning very entitled-feeling people away. Do you know who I am? Yes, and you haven't booked, mate. We're holding tickets and booked in for 5pm, the next available booking is 7pm. We briefly consider setting up in business buying tickets up online and sitting in Fen touting them to walk-ins. They only let six people in at a time and slots fill fast for popular times like weekends and evenings. Putting up a sign to this effect would save a great deal of very repetitive explaining. Our man stays calm and patient and we admire his stoicism almost as much as we admire Fen's jars of funky cookies and display of hipster cakes.

At just before 5, the security guard asks if we're the five o'clock crowd. Yup, that's us. Go to the waiting area, please. It's around the corner, a long concrete wall with bench seats set into it on our left and a great glassed vista looking out over Majarrah. It's a bit odd, looking out onto Sharjah backstreets from this cool concrete monument to contemporary chic. We wait. Nothing happens. 5pm comes and goes. I go to see Security Man. We're aware we're getting 15 scant minutes and that's our lot. So what happens now? We are waiting for people in the toilet, apparently. I ask if we're getting to stay in there until 5.17, then? The security guy giggles nervously. The man on the ticket desk intervenes, no, go on just go ahead. To be fair, they could have been a bit more precise with the old directions, there...

We go back down the corridor and turn a corner into a long passage that descends into the very bowels of the earth. We can hear water. A lot of water. At the bottom of the ramp, a local gent greets us and then we walk into a massive black room containing a single brilliant white light and a enormous cube of rain. It falls from tiny spouts high up in the ceiling, spattering and disappearing into the black grating which covers the entire expanse of floor. We walk into it and are consumed, enveloped in rain. The light picks out the droplets and they shimmer and scintillate as we turn and swoop. We're both laughing. There's a group of three Emirati girls in there with us and they're more nervous than we are, picking their way slowly and wonderingly into the big wall of constantly falling drops.

It doesn't smell of anything. There's no reek of chlorine or even musty damp. There's no sound beyond the hiss and spatter of rain, no hum of machinery. It's just the falling water and the shadows picked out by that single brilliant light. We get our mobiles out and start photographing ourselves not having a great time because we're so busy documenting the great time we're having. To be fair, you can't help yourself. It's deeply photogenic.

We throw shapes. We walk too quickly (and are punished). We're dancers, now, exaggerated slow movements as we carve our wee swathes through the curtain of bright droplets. We play like the big children we are. Our fifteen minutes flash by in subjective seconds and we are politely ejected through a curtain to wander back upstairs, blinking and giggling. It's all a bit intense, really. You feel bereft afterwards. I prescribe a nice cup of coffee and a Fen cookie.

*I said earlier that if you've been, you've got the t-shirt, but that's one trick the Rain Room misses - no merchandise. Sharjah of late has been quite good at merchandising its attractions, but there's not a Rain Room branded goodie in sight. Which is a missed opportunity, IMHO. Yes, yes, I'm sure art transcends base considerations of merchandise and all that...

In short, GO! You can get tickets to Rain Room Sharjah here at the Sharjah Art Foundation website. There's even a pin for those of you that don't know Sharjah or  where to find Al Mujarrah Park (or Al Majarrah park. It's a sort of movable feast, that spelling). The traffic's fine right now, so stop being a lily-livered Dubai type and make the journey North. Swing by the Heart of Sharjah while you're here and take a wander around some real souks. Or visit the Museum of Islamic Civilization (just around the corner from Rain Room) or even Sharjah Fort and its museum or discover the Imperialistic joys of Mahatta Fort, the site of the first airport in the UAE.

Go on, treat yourselves!

Saturday, 16 June 2018

The Dead Sea Hotel

I've gone and done the book thing again.

I finished my fifth serious novel, Birdkill, in February 2016 and that was lovely. I messed around for a while doing nothing in particular and then around May or June I started playing with a scheme that had first occurred to me back in November 2014, when I was in Cairo for a conference on the future of publishing, which took place at the Townhouse Cairo. The Goethe Institut was kind enough to fund my trip and stay and they put me up at the Windsor Hotel. To call this a fascinating place was to completely understate things. It hadn't been touched since the British had left, back when it was used as the officer's club. It was a gift, really.

Krikor Manoukian is the proprietor of the run-down Dead Sea Hotel. His beloved wife Lucine is dead, his daughter Araksi is in love and Manoukian is in debt up to his eyeballs. The last thing he needs is a dead Englishman but that’s just what he’s got. Worse, the man turns out to have been a spy who has left a valise in the hotel safe. When guests start arriving and Manoukian’s hotel fills up for the first time in years, he’s delighted: less so when they all embark on a murderous hunt for the valise. And then the devil checks in...

The idea of an Armenian running a hotel just as insanely old fashioned and decrepit as the Windsor but set in Amman, Jordan struck me as rather fun, but about 10,000 words in I stopped and put it away. I just wasn't enjoying it anymore and I had many better things to do. Two years later, I blew the cobwebs off it and started work on it again. I wasn't sure if it was genius or nuts, which is always a good sign. I sent off the first scrap to writer pals Annabel and Rachel. What did they think? They liked it. So I set to and got stuck back in. That was at the start of Ramadan. Now it's Eid, four weeks later, and I'm done. The story took over my life, the characters refused to lie down and be quiet, I was caught in manic bouts of writing; I thought about nothing else. My waking moments were little revelations, a new scene here, a quirk there.

And now it's all edited. 75,000 words of gibbering insanity and a foray into magical realism, a change of direction which you would probably understand if you had read Birdkill. I am very happy indeed with the end result which almost certainly means it's unreadable, unsaleable and unlovable. Remember, I'm the bloke that thought Space (First Amazon review: 'this book is not funny') was funny.

It's with beta readers. It's going to a few agents. And then, as usual, it'll get self published.

Sunday, 29 April 2018

British Expat Detained In Dubai (Well, Shacked Up In Sharjah, Really)

(Image Credit: Wikipedia)

The car was down at Al Futtaim, going through the process of leaching several thousand dirhams from my bank account, so I had a bit of time yesterday to take on a Quora question asking about the 'Dark Side' of Dubai. I occasionally give in to temptation these days and take a few minutes to correct the bias and willful ignorance you find in people's attitudes towards 'here'. I know, I know, it's bad for me and I shouldn't, but just one now and then couldn't harm. I can control it. I'll know when it gets out of hand, trust me.

Anyway, yesterday's post reminded me of the time I was nicked in Sharjah. It's not quite 'Brit Expat Jailed in Dubai', but it'll have to do.

It was back in the early '90s and it had been raining. A lot. So much so that mate Matt and myself went out for a Friday mooch around with our cameras and snapped the wildly unusual spectacle of cars sloshing through huge puddles anything up to a couple of feet deep. This was prior to the great Sharjah Drainage Project and we are really talking pretty impressive puddles or, as Dubai's RTA likes to call them on its traffic information screens, water ponds. I mean roundabouts where you can't see the round to about. (Charmingly, BTW, all roundabouts in Sharjah are called squares. Who knew?)

Out of the mosque behind us emerges a small fat man with big fat beard, wearing a Sharjah police uniform, who promptly nicks us for 'taking photo of lady'. I kid you not. Within twenty minutes we find ourselves down the cop shop facing charges of photographing ladies. It very quickly started to look very serious as our man, let's call him Abdulla, runs us in and proceeds to start arrangements to charge us. His colleagues clearly think Abdulla's taking things a bit far and there's quite a lot of joshing and good-natured beard pulling going on in Arabic. Meanwhile,  Matt and I are starting to realise this could go very, very pear shaped indeed and we are becoming sore nervous.

Now I have to explain something. In the old days, cameras used stuff called 'film'. This is a strip of coated plastic which is exposed to light by a thing called a shutter. Each time you take a photo, a square of plastic is exposed and then you wind it on so that a fresh square is ready to expose. When you've done this 36 times, you unload the canister of film from the camera and take it to a shop and pay money to develop it, which is a chemical process that makes prints of your photographs.


So eventually I break into the excited chatter and address myself to Abdulla's colleagues and say, basically, 'Look, he's gone too far. We were just taking photos of the puddles. But I can sort this easily. Take my film from my camera and develop it. If you find one lady, fine you can arrest us and charge us and throw away the key and everything. But if there is no lady in photos, Abdulla here pays for the cost of developing the film.'

This is generally considered to be a beezer scheme and therefore adopted by all present with a great deal of laughter except Abdulla, who fights a brave rearguard action in the face of logic but eventually - with incredibly bad grace - gives in to the prevailing sentiment. We have to sign a chit affirming that we will never again go to the Al Faya area of Sharjah and photograph the ladies. I was all for protesting this clear injustice but a very hard kick on the shin from Matt cured me of the temptation. We signed and fled.

I can't remember ever encountering a situation here that can't be managed with a little grace and humour - I have found wit and wisdom are greatly prized (mostly by observing others, clearly). And, generally, I have found the police are more interested in arbitration and settling things without filing cases. They have a healthy aversion to paperwork. And every time I see a 'Brit Arrested in Dubai for Playing Tiddlywinks' I look beyond the headline and 99% of the time, I get a 'hang on, it's not that simple. There's something missing from this here story' feeling.

Recently, they've got to the point where even the comments on the Daily Mail have started to question the 'man banged up for eating marshmallow' stories. And the comments on the Daily Mail, as eny fule no, are usually a litany of nail 'em up, a fair day's work for a fair day's pay etc etc. (The world's most popular news website, racking up over 250 million monthly views, the DM is actually considered to be too unreliable a source to be cited as a reference on Wikipedia - didja know that?)

The problem is not that these stories are all so easily taken in and amplified by media with vast bias and little or no 'journalism'. It's that they potentially cheapen and obfuscate real miscarriages of justice.

Saturday, 28 April 2018


I can justify that headline. A man called Books reserves his, Books', books of books. There.

Meanwhile, adding to yesterdays frankly amazing news about Birdkill going on promo and being FREE yes FREE for the next four days (it was five days but you wasted a day dawdling), I can now reveal that A Decent Bomber is ALSO FREE for the next five days.

And if that weren't already enough, Beirut - An Explosive Thriller is ALREADY permafree. So now you're looking at getting THREE of my novels for nothing.

AND now Shemlan - A Deadly Tragedy is on promo for £0.99 with a deal through free/bargain books promo website!

I mean, gosh, it's like a bargain book basement around here!

Let your friends know. Hell, let your enemies know. Here be free books aplenty!

Friday, 27 April 2018

Birdkill And Book Promo MADNESS

Of all the reviews on Amazon for my books, my favourite of the lot is for Birdkill: 
"This is a cynical negative, depressing book. Everyone decent died. I'm sorry I read it."

Well, it's been a very long while indeed since I did anything about promoting books around here. So I might as well make up for it with a mad raft of book promotions all taking place at the same time.


Well, no particular reason other than I've neglected things over the past couple of years. Beirut - An Explosive Thriller is 'permafree', which is driving a steady wee trickle of sales of the other books and generating the, very occasional, odd review or so on Amazon. These are generally very positive, occasionally sorta negative but, overall, customers have been provided with satisfaction. But it's generally a wee bit quiet and I'd like it to heat up a tad. SO...

For the next five days, psychological thriller Birdkill is a FREE ebook, saving you the trouble of parting with $4.99, the usual asking price.

Birdkill is about a teacher, Robyn Shaw, who suffered a massive trauma while she was at a school in Lebanon, in a town up in the mountains called Zahlé - it's a very lovely town, home to - among many other things, the very lovely wines of the Chateau Ksara.

Robyn's mind has shut down and she remembers nothing of the events at Zahlé, but she nearly died up there and goes through extensive physical and psychological rehabilitation in the UK. Back on the road to recovery, she gets a job teaching at a research institute for exceptionally talented children and it's there things start to go pear-shaped and Robyn's mind appears to start unravelling.

She realises she's losing her sanity and in desperation calls journalist friend Mariam for help. Mariam has to rush to uncover the hidden secrets in Robyn's horrific past before her friend loses her mind.

"McNabb's story of weaponized children and disastrous drug trials astounds and horrifies.."

"Has a visceral effect on you after having read it, the imagery is so vivid and real."

That sort of thing from the reviewers, thank you very much. So why wouldn't you a) download it FREE NOW for your own delight and b) TELL ALL YOUR FRIENDS ABOUT IT!!!

You might have guessed b) is the payoff line. Do it now before you forget, there's a good thing. Tell them all before it's too late...


Monday, 16 April 2018

Madam Ghost Village Pano

Google being brilliant or scary, you call it. If you have an Android mobile and you're online, then take a number of snaps by rotating yourself, Google will generally recognise it's a panorama, stitch it and send it back to you. The shot above was from our weekend fossicking around Madam's 'Ghost Village'...

They did this stunner when we were a-hiking up in the Mourne Mountains a few weeks back. If you think about it, the processing power to analyse the volume of images uploaded to every Android mobile in the world and determine which ones would make a pano is alone a stunning thing...

Google's like Kate Bush's yoyo that glowed in the dark... what makes them special makes them dangerous...

That's all folks...

Saturday, 14 April 2018

Ghosts In The Desert? Madam!

Blog posts are like London buses or policemen. You don't see one for two months and when whoosh along come thousands of the swine.

I found myself down the usual wormhole in the Internet the other day and discovered an odd location in a map when I was looking for something else entirely. It caught my eye as I scanned the area and I zoomed in again to check the distinct impression of a strange label flickering on the map.

I'd never seen it before and it was oddly fascinating.

Sure enough, it was there: 'Ghost town'.

I checked it on Google Maps, where it was labelled 'Madam old town'. We went there - to Madam old town or Madam ghost town, depending on which source you believe - today.

Just south of Madam, (I still can't say that without thinking about Frankie Howerd and his 'Ooh, madam!') you turn right off the road and head into the sands. And there you'll find this:

It's all protected by a sort of berm of sand humped up at the village entrance, you have to take something of a leap of faith and just drive up over it. The sand's pretty soft, what with so little rain this winter.

What is it? Why's it there? Was it really Madam before the road brought strip development to this little inhabited area of Sharjah made famous only because it was on the road to Hatta, now blocked to all but Omanis, Emiratis and permit holders? It looks like corpo housing. The sand's reclaimed it in the main. There are neon light fittings but no sign of power or other infrastructure.

All in all very odd. A little mystery...


Wednesday, 11 April 2018


Look, I've been busy. It's been crazy busy with the day job, I got loads of admin work for things 'back home' and we just spent a week in Northern Ireland for Easter.

You ever wanna take a hike somewhere beautiful? Try the Mourne Mountains...

Anyway. That's it. I've been busy. I'm sort of writing, but taking my sweet time. I'm not really taking much notice of 'Dubai life' beyond work. I'm not very interesting beyond perhaps my abiding loathing for the weevils who staff Budget Ireland and my deep rooted hatred of Skoda Rapids.

Nothing to see here, folks. Move on...

From The Dungeons

Book Marketing And McNabb's Theory Of Multitouch

(Photo credit: Wikipedia ) I clearly want to tell the world about A Decent Bomber . This is perfectly natural, it's my latest...