Saturday, 26 October 2019

Dubai, the Good Old Days and Sundry Confessions

Okay, it's a fair cop, I'll come quietly. It was me. I done the blag.

We had a bit of a clearout yesterday - chucking out bags of that cruft that seems to assemble around life: old user manuals, bits of laptops that had long been consigned to the inexplicably green 'general waste' Bee'ah dumpster outside our villa. The blue one is meant for recyclable waste, which is a novel idea to implement in a place where there is absolutely zero awareness of recycling, let alone which materials are recyclable (actually depressingly few plastics are actually recyclable) and which are not.

I digress.

We found, as usual when you do this sort of thing, some old treasures. My pair of 1995 'Emirates Internet' 3.5" floppy disks, for instance. Eudora and Netscape Navigator, anyone? The edition of Paris Match featuring an interview with British Expat Alexander McNabb hanging out at the luxurious boutique Park Hyatt hotel, which got me into trouble with France Telecom, with whom I was working in Jordan at the time. "We are paying you too much!", their outraged CEO bellowed at me when we met. He'd read the magazine on the plane over. Oops.

But I digress.

The Internet in just two disks! Marvellous!

One of the things we unearthed was a tatty manila file. And inside it was evidence of My Great Crime, perpetuated the very year those two disks were first clutched in my sweaty hand as I danced out of Etisalat's Sharjah HQ with my Emirates Internet subscription confirmed.

You see, I am - was - TE Chapman.

Not unnaturally, you will be puzzled. That is likely because you won't recall the Emirates in pre-Internet days, when the Gulf News letters page was the nearest thing to a forum or chat room, Facebook or Twitter, you could get. It was all very charming. You'd fax (fax, eh?) your letter in and the next day it would be printed. Then the day after, you'd get a reaction to it. Quaint, no?

The pastime of writing stupid letters to Gulf News was popular before we had electrons to play with. The trick was to write something so blindingly stupid that only a drooling idiot would fail to realise that nipples were being tweaked and toes pulled. But to pitch it just right, so that the letters page editor would let it pass. It was a skill I was to hone over the weeks and months.

I recall one particularly mad thread developed around the issue of plant pots on apartment balconies. One prominent expat got away for weeks with a correspondence based on his keen interest in scatology and wondering if there were any other like minded scatologists interested in grouping together to found a society. It was a common thing to find, expats writing in to say they were interested in Scottish history from 1814-1826 and wondered if there were etc etc. It was, literally, weeks before the GN letters editor was apprised that scatology is the study of faeces and the correspondence abruptly closed.

We had more time back then, alright?

Anyway, I digress.

Many of the contributors to the GN Letters Page back in the day were (arguably) unduly concerned with British imperialism, colonialism and any other ism you care to name. It seemed to be the work of just a few seconds to conceive a character who would be a rabid colonialist and set about baiting various hapless victims who had otherwise been passionate about exposing the evils of orientalism and the like.

TE Chapman was actually one of the various names adopted by arch colonialist, hero figure and shortarse Thomas Edward 'TE' Lawrence (Ronald Storrs, the British governor of Mandate Palestine, referred to him as 'Little Lawrence') AKA Lawrence of Arabia. See what I did there?

For quite a while, the GN letters page lit up with fiery denunciation and towering polemic. Chapman incited controversy and thundered away, enraging his audience with joyful consistency until, one day, a foolish young colleague 'outed' him as a nom de plume and Chapman's career was brought to an abrupt end.

They're all in that file. Yellowed, stuck to the daily faxes that went off to GN, a record of my undoubted glee at being quite so successful in being a right royal pain in the butt to so many people.

I was younger, back then, m'lud. That's me only defence.

But yes, it was me alright...

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