Tag Archives: ENTERTAINMENT

Location Scouting for Bunkers

24 Jan

In the last few days I’ve had a bit of a locations ‘mare, in that I’ve got action happening in a government establishment that’s strictly off limits to the public.  Unless you’re a really well known author with connections, how do you write about such a place without ever having been there?

Grrr! Communications, Soho Square

My locations scouting for the Ferret Files to date has consisted of Google Earth, Google Maps, public transport and my legs.  I’ve set the majority of the action in London, with some of the defence industry shenanigans taking place in Bath.  Having worked in London on and off for most of the last 20 years, I know the place really well, above and below ground.   I had a mental list of places I wanted to use, well before I began the project, some of which are well known, others not so.  I have a keen interest in architecture and that includes burrowing, as in the creation of underground tunnels and complexes.  If there’s a London tour which takes in tunnels, chances are I’ve been on it.  My fundamental belief is that it’s not possible to get the vibe of a location if you haven’t been there.  And by been there, I mean recently.  If you don’t experience the vibe firsthand and lock it in, chances are your readers will notice, especially if they follow your characters around.

boris-bikes

A Boris Bike Yesterday

I live in Bath and have done for 12 years.  I’m just nutty enough to commute to London on a daily basis, which is OK for a short period, provided the end destination is near to Paddington.  Last year, I spent 8 months in the capital, living in hotels.  That allowed me to revisit all of the places I wanted to use, in my spare time.  One day, I needed to check out Regent’s Park, and let me tell you – it’s a long walk around the perimeter.  That’s when I used a ‘Boris Bike’ for the first time.  As an author wanting to get the feel of an area, the Boris Bike is an absolute boon.  It’s faster than feet, allows you to cover an area quickly and when you’re done, the bike is no longer your problem!  Thanks Boris!

My method of working, then:

  • Get a general feel for an area using Google Earth or Google maps
  • If there’s a building of interest, research it on the net, especially its history.  What was there before?
  • Go visit and employ your author senses to spot those interesting details that others miss.
  • If you can get inside, do.  These days, with security, it’s a lot more difficult than it used to be, but a mixture of cheek and charm works wonders.  I’ve been really fortunate, in that I work in IT and often get sent to random locations.  If I end up at one that’s interesting, I’ll use it.
  • Take a paid tour.  The London guides are really knowledgeable and they’ll show you things you’d otherwise miss.

The Secrets of Porton Down

Back to the original question: given that I’m an eyes on sort of guy, how the hell do I get inside of Porton Down, in order to write about the chemical and biological weapons research that took place there?  The answer is to use your imagination.  I’ve driven past Porton Down many times, but never actually been inside.  I have been to a dozen military bases scattered across the South West and Salisbury plain, during my time working in Defence, on a 6 month contract that lasted 12 years.

I love being around the military, they have a great mindset and an insane sense of humour.  They work on the premise that being underfunded, stuff will break or fuck-up – that’s life, get on with it then communicate the fix.  For Porton Down,  I know the sort of people who work there from my visits to DSTL in Portsmouth, I know that stuff broke or went wrong.  So I’m going to concentrate on the historical screw-ups that got us to where we are in the story, rather than precisely how it all looks.  All of the military bases I’ve visited in the South West are similar in design, so a generic bunker will do.

When all is said and done, I’m writing a conspiracy novel.  Anyone wanting to locate the exact bunker where the chemical experiments into psychic phenomena took place won’t be able to find it on a map.  Surely, that’s because the government buried it?  Or could the real reason be that I have secret inside knowledge of a black project, communicated to me by a scientist who worked on it and I’ve purposefully moved the location from nearby Boscombe Down, in order to throw the reader?

You’ll have to make your own mind up on that…

The Day I Met George Best

15 Jan
commodore64_grande

A Commodore 64 Yesterday

Back in the eighties there were many things that were cool and the Commodore C64 was one of them. At the height of its popularity I was busy working for Commodore Business Machines, where one of the highlights of the year was the annual Commodore show which took place at the Novotel in Hammersmith.

Showtime

Commodore always premiered at least one new games title at every show and this year it was the turn of Astronomy and International Soccer. Roger, the rising star of Marketing decided it would be a brilliant idea to get Patrick Moore on board for a bit of interactive planet spotting and quickly signed him up. Not to be outdone, his pal Dick set off in hot pursuit of George Best. However, during negotiations he failed to explain to George in plain English what was required of him, and George being George, simply forgot to ask.

The show lasted three days, with the first day pitched at business and each of the weekend days aimed at the consumer. Saturday and Sunday were each split into two sessions – the morning and the afternoon. On Saturday morning, George was up first; his job was to challenge all comers at International Soccer for a full thirty minutes. Marketing imagined they’d get at least five games out of George, a slew of publicity photos and a sackfull of autographed footballs. George had an entirely different agenda – get the one game over as quickly as possible, grab a pair of the tastiest models he could find from the promotions agency and squat the bar until closing time.

It was about halfway through game two when George realised he’d been had. By now, a sizeable crowd of over enthusiastic dads had gathered around him and there was no way he could sneak off without causing a scene. So he put on a brave face, smiled sweetly and leaked goals like Lichtenstein away, losing heavily to a succession of kids who had never even seen International Soccer until that day, let alone played it. A string of embarrassing defeats later and George was not a happy man, having conceded 50 goals yet scored only 1. Onstage a perfect gent, backstage he had a sense of humour failure and absolutely refused to go home until he’d had a damn fine drink and was as damn well drunk as it was humanly possible to be.

Ten thirty in the bar, my boss collared me. “This George thing – it’s out of hand.”
“Is he still here?”
“He’s just left for a nightclub with three of the models. But he’s refusing to come back tomorrow unless his list of demands is met.”
“Which are?”
“Put it this way, it’s going to be a long old night for those idiots from marketing while they try and think of a solution. They’ll come to me eventually for answers, they always do, but as I owe them big time for misdemeanours past and I want them to sweat like a fat lass scoffing curry in a sauna before I let them off the hook. Meanwhile, I want you to assemble your boys and getting cracking on a fix. And if anyone asks, deny everything. This conversation didn’t take place. You know nothing.”
“I do?”
“Good lad.”

Sorcery

george_best_manchester_united_668

Georgie Best Superstar

George’s demands, as relayed by his agent were really quite simple: George Best is a world class footballer who doesn’t get beaten by children. He’s also a busy man. Give him the best training you can, in thirty minutes, so he can defeat everyone he plays tomorrow. Otherwise no George, regardless of what it says in the contract. And he wants a special something, preferable shaped like an ex-Miss World, as compensation for embarrassment suffered today.

To the job in hand. For the price of a disk crammed with hacked copies of newly released games, myself and the aforementioned boys blagged the keys to the main hall from an obliging security guard and sat down with a pot of strong, syrupy coffee to plot how we might save Georgie Best, Superstar from public humiliation on the morrow. All apart from Mac and von Bismark, who set about locating the helium cylinder used for filling the show’s balloons and proceeded to get very silly and become a right old nuisance to low flying aircraft for the remainder of the night.

“What do you reckon?” I asked of the remaining boys.
FAB was the best games player in our gang, and as he’d been testing International Soccer exclusively for the last three months, his was the first say. “Hmmm. We could try and teach GB some sneaky game-winning moves, but the kids coming in tomorrow are all the competition winners from the promotions we’ve been doing in the computer mags. Some of them are gonna be good. Real good.”
“So how do we hamper them?”
“Not with helium, obviously – Mac’s made off with that.”
“Let’s electrify their joysticks,” suggested Rambo, the resident hardware engineer, helpfully.
“We can’t be seen to purposefully shock any children, even though some of them undoubtedly deserve it,” I retorted. “And we can’t use mantraps or exploding lemons, or any of your other favourite dangerous things.”
“Awww.”
“It’s the rules – we’re not at work now.”
“There’s only one option left” said FAB, “I’ll have to impersonate George.”
“I know you’ve had your eye on those models all day,” sighed Rambo, “but there’s no way, even with state of the art prosthetics that you could pass for such a well known star. You’ll be spotted in seconds and the dads will scrag you and debag you for heinous crimes against football.”
“Then we’ll have to use sorcery,” I concluded. “Between us we’re good at that – or at least I am, being the reincarnation of the Wizard of Frobozz. So thinking caps on, we’ve been entrusted with saving a superstar.”

Kung Fu Fighting

The morning came. Marketing, who’d spent most of the night bravely propping up the bar became ever more frantic and descended on our table at breakfast mob-handed, all shouting different demands at once. My boss simply shrugged his shoulders and denied it was his problem, until the shouting subsided and the pleading began, in pathetic, whiney voices. Only at this point did the offer of maybe, possibly some training for George materialise. As we all know, desperation is the mother of inflation, and Marketing being as desperate as an enclave of desperados watching a poncho clad Clint Eastwood ride slowly into town on a pale horse, chewing a cigar butt, capitulated, agreeing instantly to pay my boss ‘anything he wanted’.

SONY DSC

Remember these?

“Considering my price,” my boss grinned, “I hope you can deliver.”
“I know nothing about anything.”
“Good lad.”
“FAB will train George,” I whispered. “He’s the best player we’ve got. He’ll show him one or two tricks that aren’t in the manual – overhead kick, super speed mode and kung-fu fighting, although technically killing other players is a red card offence. But we can disable that.”
“Excellent. You’re going to get George all tooled-up.”
“Something like that.”

Sometime later that morning FAB, Rambo and I duly got to meet George Best, shake his hand and tell him how good he was at football, whilst he in turn paid no attention whatsoever to any us, preferring instead to pinch a couple of bums and make the odd lewd remark, which got him a breathtaking smile in return, but when I tried the same lines later that day, got me nothing but a stinging slap. Even when Mac and von Bismark turned up, with a lungful of helium each, giggling like a pair of little girls with a powder puff and a kitten, George remained unmoved. He was charming, with a certain je ne sais quoi, but what he really wanted wasn’t adulation or a conversation, but guarantees. He looked at me, grimaced at Rambo, scowled at FAB, dismissed the two bemused wreckheads with a wave of his hand and turned his full attention to Dick from marketing.
“If this training goes wrong mate, I’m sending Mel Smith and the lads round to kick your car in. Then they’ll eat your ears. Mel likes eating ears, especially in pairs, fried up with mushrooms and a little claret. Understand?”
“Yes, Mr Best,” stammed Dick, covering his ears and running off to move his Porsche into a more secure parking spot.

George Versus

In the days before the Internet and Facebook, there was a much more magical grapevine that functioned just as quickly and just as efficiently, although quite invisibly to the naked eye. Thus it should have come as no surprise that word had gone around town overnight, faster than an amphetamine fuelled cheetah with a rocket pack, resulting in half of London turning up to see George Best play soccer with a joystick, badly, and lose. Security were not prepared for the numbers that followed. At the doors, punters without tickets were initially let in, until the hotel owners began to twitch about fire regulations, after which they were turned away in droves. The guards and bouncers were doubled, trebled and then beefed up again. By the afternoon, the hall was packed, the tension palpable, the atmosphere electric.

International_Soccer_Farbe_PokalGame one started slowly, Best Vs a chap calling himself ‘Lizardman2.0’. George was a nervous bag of ticks, his hands covered in sweat. By 3-0 up, he was starting to enjoy himself, and relaxed somewhat, handing the joystick to Dick, whilst he shook himself down and cracked his knuckles, allowing Lizardman2.0 to get a goal back.
“Watch this,” he laughed, turning to the crowd and scoring a fourth with an impossible back-heel from outside the box.
Final score 5-2 to Best.

Game Two, and George was out of the traps like a bullet, scoring within four seconds against the WerePig and setting a new record. He moved, he grooved, he mesmerised the opposition, slipping past the back four with ease and scoring a couple from close range, before hammering in a belter from the halfway line. Final score 4-0 George, the WerePig retiring beaten.

By Game Three, George was asking for a football, which he kept up with his head, whilst running circles around Bam Stroker, seemingly scoring at will. The crowd stood transfixed, not quite believing what they were seeing. George was supposed to be past it, on the wrong end of a mauling, but the canny old master was back from the dead. Score 3-1 to Best.

Game Four saw George pitted against the Code Mangler. From the off, it was all Best. Best, Best, Bessst! Watch him dribble, such skill, see him nutmeg the goalie. Oh! Best! Unbelievable goal! George loosened up, showboating and ran around 11 players, slipping one in at the far corner and winning 4-0, to a round of raucous applause.

The final scheduled game and George was up against the Mighty Warlock, a rotund gamer dressed from head to toe in finest gothic black, with many years experience behind the stick of pleasure, and who – if rumours are to be believed – went on to become THE top level wizard in World of Warcraft. The Warlock wasn’t having any of George’s aura, and set to like the grizzled old pro he was, slipping two past Best’s defence in a matter of seconds. The crowd became silent, the Warlock smirked.
“Bow down to the true master,” he slobbered.
Half time and it was 3-1 to the Warlock. George faltered, thinking for a second that his new found magical skills had deserted him and immediately the Warlock stuffed in a fourth.
“George!” someone shouted. “We believe in you. You’re the Best.”
“Best! Best! Best!” echoed the dads.
Picking himself up, George weaved around the pitch, stringing a series of stabbing passes together and grabbed one back. 4-2 to the Warlock. From the restart, George’s man threw what looked like a Ninja star, decapitating one of the opposition. Streaming forward, over the blood spattered head, he belted it route one straight down the pitch, where one of his strikers collected, rounded the goalie and dribbled the head over the line into the back of an empty net. 4-3.
“That was cheating!” spat the Warlock.
“Best! Best! Best!” shouted the dads.
Time ticked down, and the Warlock opted for the passing game, trying to annoy George into making a mistake. George’s players backed off, a hole opened up and the Warlock drilled an unstoppable shot into the top corner. Amazingly, Best’s goalie elongated like Mr Stretch from the Fantastic Four, and made the save, smacking the ball up the pitch onto the head of a waiting striker who met it ferociously, sending an unstoppable bullet past the Warlock’s stranded goalie. 4-4, with ten seconds to play.
What happened next happened in slow motion. Literally. The Warlock’s players became wooden, Best’s became a blur. And that was that, Best hacked down clumsily in the box, penalty to Best in the last two seconds of normal time. Best steps up to take it, he sends the goalie the wrong way and taps it in low, beating the Warlock 5-4 and prompting the crowd to break into a bout of uncontrollable hysteria.

What George won during that afternoon session was more than a game – he got his dignity and self-respect back. For a while, he was George Best the legend once more, George the star, adored by millions. He took his bows, to a standing ovation, autographed everything and anything for all and sundry, posed for photos, kissed babes on the forehead, wives full on the lips and was generally just amazing, exactly as you’d expect a superstar to be. Men wanted to be him, women wanted to be on top of him and even though games would become much more realistic and absorbing over the ensuing years, the kids who were there that day knew they’d seen something ultra-special. Even the Warlock shook George’s hand, begrudgingly at first, before he too became swept up in the euphoria of the display, and then he wouldn’t let go, pumping up and down like crazy, eventually posing for a photo that made it onto Page 5 of the Sun.

The Thing

Many hours later, once everything had calmed down, the crowds had dispersed, replete, and George had left the building with a gorgeous girl draped across each arm and a couple of spares in tow for later, my over suspicious boss came to have a word.
“What happened there was incredible,” he said, “totally amazing. If I hadn’t seen it with my own eyes, I’d never have believed it possible.”
“It was quite a show,” said Rambo. “Quite a show indeed.”
“George at his best,” I added.
“Most definitely,” concluded FAB sneakily.
“I didn’t get where I am today by believing everything I see,” said my boss. He pointed. “Show me what’s going on behind those banks of computers and monitors.”
“We don’t have the key,” said Rambo, FAB and I simultaneously.
My boss glared at the three of us. “Too rehearsed. Now, the truth.”
“The truth,” I admitted, “is that we weren’t convinced George would remember all the moves…”
“…So we took precautions,” finished Rambo.
“What kind of precautions?”
“The sort of precautions you’ve spent the last two years of your life teaching us to take.”
“Show me. Now.”

150px-InternationalSoccer(Commodore)(Cartridge)FrontCoverThe backstage of the stand was accessed via a concealed doorway with invisible hinges, carefully hidden by the joiners and it was there that all the spare bits of hardware and software were stored away, in case of calamity or worse – theft. In between the various piles of spare cables, spare monitors, boxed computers and shrink wrapped software was a carefully placed executive chair, facing a large, precariously balanced video screen, with a rat’s nest of tangled wires protruding from its rear, terminating in a makeshift circuit board.
My boss understood what was going on within seconds. “You built your own video signal splitter from scratch, to run multiple monitors from the same source. Given the timescales, utterly ingenious.”
“Why, thank you,” grinned Rambo.
“Let me guess,” continued my boss, “FAB, you sat there. George’s joystick – was it even plugged in?”
“Fully switchable between here and there,” said Rambo proudly. “As a concept, that mess of wires is light years ahead of anything you can buy in the shops.”
My boss pursed his lips and stared hard at the three of us.
“I only helped George out when he needed it,” said the software maestro embarrassedly. “That was the plan – Pogo insisted, assist not impersonate.”
I nodded. “That I did.”
“The first game was all me, I freely admit that,” continued FAB. “But by the third game George found his stride and got himself into a rhythm. I didn’t even play in the fourth game, that was all Best. Honest.”
“Tell me,” ruminated my boss, “if I were to turn this ‘thing’ into a commercial venture – just how reliable is it?”
“Well,” admitted Rambo, “the ‘thing’ is not quite there yet. There was a moment in that last game when I had to get my soldering iron out for running repairs. There was smoke and melted wires everywhere, I was convinced we were done for. It was a good job I made two of them last night, just in case.”
“So that’s how George went 3-0 down.”
“We had to dig deep that game,” confessed FAB. “It took all my skill to get the game level. I’ve been after that Warlock for years, he’s the bane of my gaming career, a very good player indeed. Without my help, George would have been toast.”
“Just how much does George know?” asked my boss, the enormity of the deception suddenly dawning.
“What do you think?” I answered.
“I think he has absolutely no idea whatsoever that this Skunkworks exists. Outside of this room, who else is aware?”
“We operate strictly on a needs-to-know basis,” grunted Rambo.
“Absolutely,” said I.
FAB nodded in agreement.
“Have you any idea what will happen if your plot comes to light?” scowled my boss. “The press will have a field day, the company name will become mud and George will be a laughing stock. This secret must stay secret, you’re not to tell anyone what you did today. Least of all Marketing, or they’ll insist on doing it again next year.”
“Whatever do you mean?” I asked. “We didn’t do anything, did we boys?”
“Absolutely not.”
“Never dream of it.”
“One last question, which I really shouldn’t ask, but I’m going to anyway: who scored the winning penalty?”
“Impossible to say,” mused Rambo. “We overloaded a circuit and blew a fuse, just as the ball was kicked. The ‘thing’ is scrap metal, until I build another.”
“I was aiming where the Warlock’s goalie dived,” admitted FAB. “Either I miskicked the ball, which I find unlikely, or by the will of the hardware gods Best got a foot to it.”
“As far as the world outside is concerned,” declared my boss, “it was all Best – and long may it stay that way. That guy was my footballing idol back in the day, it’s a bit sad how it’s turned out for him. Hopefully though, George turned a corner today, and that string of victories put him back on the straight and narrow. We’ll let him have it, and speak no more on the subject. Now, I want your word – all of you – that none of this will out until well after he’s departed this mortal coil.”
“Done.”
“Done.”
“Done.”
Fingers Crossed“Now again, this time with your fingers uncrossed, where I can see them – not hidden behind your backs.”

Epilogue

The footnote to this tale was penned on the Monday morning after the show, when a computer dealer from Tottenham Court Road phoned Commodore to check that the Commodore 64 portable that a certain footballing legend was trying to hawk was not in fact stolen. The ‘special something’ that George was given as compensation by Marketing was not the Miss World he wanted, but rather one of only five C64 portables in the country. Weighing in at a good thirty kilos with a screen no bigger than a modern digital camera, each one looked like a sewing machine in a carrying case. In today’s money, one new would cost a good £10,000, and many collectors would kill for one. But not George. To him it had no intrinsic value whatsoever, its only use being as an instrument of barter for the money of booze.

Good old George, a diamond-encrusted inspiration to the last.

Here’s a dilema for you… What should I do?

9 Jan

Here’s a question for you:

money-bagsFour months ago I quit my job in the city to take time out and write the Ferret Files, excerpts of which I’ve been printing here.  Today, I was offered a six figure sum that doesn’t begin with ‘1’ to go back to work for a bunch of banksters doing something I regard as morally wrong, until this time next year.

On one hand it’s a LOT of money, on the other it means abandoning Ferret for the next year, which means in turn it’ll probably never get finished.

Over the last 15 years I’ve worked in Defence, Finance, Telecoms and computer gaming.  I’ve got a lot of experience in all of these areas, the constant thorn in my side being  Management Consultants, who I simply *love* taking the rip out of.

Ferret is the biggest rip of the lot, by far: he is one.  A management consultant in a defence conspiracy, with millions at stake.

So, should I continue writing, or should I take the money and run?

 

Tie Wars

30 Dec

How to tie a tieIt was when the Gripper decided that Captain Sensible had dominated the top of the department Stupid Tie Chart for far too long that events spun out of control.  Had the Gripper not gone out that fateful Saturday afternoon, clutching a wad of hard earned dosh in his Gripper fist, totally intent on purchasing a piece of weapons grade polyester, adorned with shock and awe cartoon characters, the Great Tie War would never have begun.

In a way, you can’t blame the Gripper for wanting something a little more lively around his neck. Considering the relative gaudiness of his entire collection of ties, a display of magnificence was well overdue. However, he didn’t have to transgress one of the unwritten rules of the Gang: he didn’t have to go all out for wrecking Sensible’s reputation as the man with the loudest, proudest, most bile provoking kipper collection this side of 1979.

Revoltage

It’s Monday morning and the Gripper’s in before me. This is a miracle. Not the walking on water kind, or the feeding of the five thousand kind, granted. If resurrection of the dead were the Liverpool FC of the miracle Premier Division, then this miracle would be parked firmly around the bottom of Scottish Division Two.

I eyed him suspiciously, not entirely sure what was happening.

“Morning,” said Grips.

Something wasn’t right. The Gripper was never this polite, until after lunch.

“Have you been putting beer on your cornflakes again?” I asked suspiciously.

“Siddown,” he motioned, jovially. “I’ve got something.”

My mind raced. Had The Gripper finally had prosthetic surgery, and got that long-dreamed of third leg?

The Gripper bludgeoned forward, menacingly. “Here,” he said unbuttoning his jacket. “Whaddya think?”

I was stunned. What I was seeing was horrible. Truly revolting.

“Well?”

“That’s possibly the worst tie I’ve ever seen. Appalling. Well done, mate. Congratulations!”

I stood up to shake his hand.

“Owww.”

The Gripper beamed. “Do you really think it’s that bad?”

There was no escaping the terrible conclusion before my eyes. “It’s bad. It’s horrendous and then some. There’s no doubt about it, it’s the worst tie of the year so far. In fact, it’s so bad it warrants a new word: revoltage. As in a revolting collage of colours.”

“Why, thank you.”

“I’m not sure about Sensible,” I added as an after thought, “I doubt he’ll be impressed.”

The Declaration

cartoon tie“It’s NOT for sale,” stomped the Gripper, adamantly. “Get one of your own.”

Sensible looked on dejectedly. “I want THAT one. If I buy one the same, I’ll be copying. No. You must sell it to me, now.”

“Sorry.”

In walked Harry the Haddock. “What’s the problem?” he asked, hanging his coat up.

I looked at my watch. 9:30. Harry’s late and the Gripper’s early. An unusual twist; the Universe must be balancing things out.

“Tie argument. Gripper’s bought the most disgusting object ever, and Sensible wants it. The Gripper isn’t selling.”

“Oh, is that all?” said Harry dismissively. “Come on Gripper, out with it. Errggh! That’s really nasty. I say, well done.”

“Sell it to me,” demanded Sensible. “You’ll regret it if you don’t.”

“Tssssphhh!” rasped the Gripper. “Do your worst.”

“Then,” declared Sensible, making for the door, “I have no option but to declare a state of hostility. I’m recalling all my Ambassadors and breaking off diplomatic relations. They will be restored only when the crown for worst tie is returned to its rightful place, on top my head. From now on, I’m advising all present to carry a pair of very dark sunglasses and a brown paper bag at all times. Expect the unexpected. This could get messy.”

“What do you think Sensible will do?” asked Harry. “I’ve never seen him get angry before.”

“Except over no beer.”

“Well, obviously.”

“His dignity’s in tatters, he’s never been out revolted before. He’ll calm down eventually, we’ll have a laugh about it, and soon we’ll be back to normal.”

Except I was wrong.

Vomit

Two days later Sensible struck.

“Prepare yourself,” he announced to the assembled office, “For an assault on the senses.”

“Do your worst,” retorted The Gripper. “C’mon.”

Sensible turned to face the window. Slowly he unzipped his coat, removed it, undid his jacket and twirled around.

“My God,” twitched the Gripper. “What is THAT?!?”

beetles“Isn’t it disgusting? While I was away in Wales, fixing problems, I paid a visit to Gran. It’s one of Grandpappy’s World Tour souvenirs, acquired in Peru. The background is woven from grilled pig’s hair, the raised pattern is sun-dried llama vomit ground with dead beetles.” Sensible puffed his chest out. “It was hand painted by dying, poverty stricken school children. So there.”

“Hey mate, that’s vile,” congratulated the Kiwi, on one of his flying coffee visits. “Yer should git a prize for that.”

“Why, thank you.”

“Yeah,” enthused Harry, “It’s even worse than the Gripper’s. Nice one.”

“You know, “ I concluded, “that tie’s so revoltage, it needs a new word to describe it. Sidelic should do it. That’s sick-making and psychedelic.”

The Gripper dropped his bottom lip sulkily. For the last two days he’d been the centre of attention in a positive way, which was a new experience for him. Ever since he’d started wearing that ghastly cartoon tie, people had taken an interest in him. Everyone wanted to know him; strangers bought him pints at lunch-time. The vile tie opened up doors which were previously barred. And now…and now…his crowning glory had been rendered insignificant by a master stroke. In the Gripper’s brain, feelings of revenge gunned the throttle.

“You know that war you declared? Well, it’s not over yet.”

“Do your worst,” retorted the Captain. “You’ll not better this beauty.”

This time, it was Sensible’s turn to be wrong.

Scratch ‘n’ Sniff

sniffBy the following Monday, The Gripper was once again the master of ceremonies.

“The realistic stains are all foodstuff,” he explained. “They’re scratch and sniff. Go on, try it.”

Harry scratched a dark brown patch and inhaled. “Je….sus. That smells like… like the gents after you’ve been on the chicken vindaloo.”

“Correct.”

The Kiwi gave it a try. “Cor, mate. Tandoori baked beans.”

“Spot on.”

I had a go. “The red one. It’s chilli burger, with something extra.”

“Think treble chilli burger with double extra garlic mayo, and one of my special pickled onions on top.”

“And the green one?” asked Harry, scratching. “Phoarrr! That smells like…”

“…Cabbage, beer and sprouts.”

Sensible refused to take part in the little ritual. His eyes became glazed; his expression one of sheer contempt.

“Hey Gripper?” I asked. “You still haven’t told us where you got this…this work of art.”

“I made it myself,” he beamed. “It took me all weekend, but I did it.”

“That’s gross.”

“Top one, mate.” exclaimed the Kiwi.

“This tie of yours, it’s so revolutionary, it needs a new word to describe it. ‘Grench’ sounds about right, as in gross stench. You’ve got the grenchiest tie ever.”

The Gripper beamed from ear to ear. “Grench? That sounds like some of the sounds that I made creating this baby. Just wait until I tell Mrs Gripper I’ve had a new word made after me, she’ll be so proud when she reads it in the Oxford English. Her suffering won’t have been in vain after all.”

Reluctantly, Sensible handed the tie crown back to the Gripper. “You shouldn’t have done that,” he said under baited breath. “You’ll regret it.”

“I doubt it,” smiled the Gripper.

He was wrong too.

Teats

Lordy me. Tuesday, and already Sensible had retaliated.

“Basically,” he explained, “You’re looking at a cross section of mummified whale penis, which has been preserved in alcohol for nearly 70 years. Grandpappy brought it back from Greenland with him, he picked it up there on his World Tour. The bumps are dried out walrus teats, an ancient Eskimo delicacy. You can try one if you like, they’re removable.”

1024px-Blue_Whale_Penis

A Mummified Whale’s Penis Yesterday

“You can’t eat one of those.” Harry screwed his face up in revulsion. “That’s completely vile.”

“Watch me.” Sensible removed one and put it in his mouth.

I winced. Stomach curdling stuff. The Gripper, not to be outdone, snatched at Sensible’s tie, grabbed a couple of shrivelled brown objects in his ample Gripper fist and popped them both in his mouth.

“That’s what I think of your tie,” he said, swallowing. “So there.”

Sensible opened his mouth and removed the brown thing he’d inserted seconds earlier. “You’re only supposed to suck them,” he said. “Otherwise, you’ll get absolutely horrible runs for days. If I was you, I’d head for the nearest hospital now.”

Harry grimaced; the Kiwi laughed.

The Gripper was not amused at all. “Just you wait. You haven’t heard the last of this.”

Asbestos

A full two weeks passed before the Gripper returned to work. He strode into the office like a man possessed, intent on reclaiming the crown he’d come to regard as rightfully his. Sensible wasn’t kidding when he said that eating walrus teats was a bad idea. The stomach bug the Gripper contracted in his moment of indiscretion was not pleasant at all; the hospital for rare and unlikely diseases had a field day with him, monitoring this, that and the other in an attempt to discover an antidote for what the Eskimos call ‘liquidbottomofthemidnightsun’.

“Come outside,” he said, ushering us, his gang, towards the door. “Come and tell me what you think of this. Oh, and Harry – grab that fire extinguisher.”

The car park was silent with an air of expectation. Slowly, with great deliberation, the Gripper removed his jacket, just as he’d done that first Monday, to reveal the strangest tie that anyone present had ever seen. Not only was it bigger than your average tie, being 18” across at the base, it also looked like a dead hedgehog. A dead hedgehog with a sky rocket strapped to each side. And the circular patterns…no…they couldn’t be.

“Let me introduce you to the Gripper Foorkes tie, MKIII,” said our host congenially. “Don’t ask about the MKI and the MKII, you don’t want to know, although you may well read about them eventually, if the RSPCA decide to sue.”

helmetThe Gripper removed a tin helmet and visor from out of a large bag he’d been carrying and put them on. “Note my specially designed asbestos shirt and underpants,” he said nonchalantly. “A significant advance from the MKI. Now, if I was you, I’d stand back at least ten feet. Harry, are you ready?”

“As ready as I’ll ever be.”

“Good then let the show begin.”

Once the blue touch paper was lit, the transformation from Gripper to human firework took less than five seconds. In every direction, sparks flew. They were certain, in their little spark minds that the safest place to be at that particular moment in time was away from the Gripper’s tie, and they were right. Following suit, the four of us backed off further than the suggested 10 feet, unsure any longer of what exactly constituted a safe distance.

Cath WheelSparklers sparkled; bangers *banged*; screechers screeched; roman candles shot out flume upon flume of bright red and green. The catherine wheels, once they’d begun twirling made standard issue paisley look very ordinary indeed. Actually, come to think of it, the display on offer wasn’t actually that dangerous after all. Granted, the tie we were looking at could never be lit in an office or a Comms room due to stringent fire regulations, but apart from that, it hardly appeared life threatening.

These thoughts were soon dismissed, as the first of the rockets ignited.

Melons

There was a fizz and a whoosh, as a stick whistled past Sensible’s left ear hole and arced over the road, navigating its way around several parked cars, onwards towards the local superstore, where it was stopped dead by a revolving door. Or not, as we found out later. The door was away being repaired, allowing the rocket to smash its way into the store and embed itself in a pile of melons, where it exploded, showering the staff in cantaloupe. As we watched, the store’s fire alarm began to ring.

color-fireworksRocket number two shot off in an equally ridiculous horizontal trajectory, down the street and through the open window of a Fish & Chip shop.

Fortunately, due to the hour of the day, there were no customers present.

Unfortunately, the owner had left all the fryers on slow heat, while he nipped out the back for a fag.

Fortunately, the rocket missed them all, as it hurtled through the slender opening.

Unfortunately, it found its way into the kitchen, where it thumped into a cylinder of butane, striking the ‘ON’ button for the gas flow. A flash of flame was swiftly followed by a wall of broken glass; unsurprisingly, a second alarm bell began to ring.

The third rocket would have gone skywards as planned, but for the overhang on the Gripper’s helmet. As the rocket took off, it glanced off the helmet’s rim and became entangled in the camouflage netting, wedging itself solid. At first, The Gripper just mouthed obscenities. Then he began to panic.

“Harry, put me out.”

“What’s it worth?” asked Harry, cautiously.

“Hurry up. This rocket’s packed with Gripper strength gunpowder, it’s the grand finale.”

Reluctantly, Harry obliged. The Gripper removed his goggles, spitting foam from his mouth. His helmet continued to smoke. In the distance, the dulcet tones of a fire engine could be heard.

“May I suggest,” said Sensible, “that we continue this inside, where we won’t look so guilty?”

“Done.” The Gripper removed his helmet and tossed it aside, into a nearby rubbish bin.

“I have to say Gripper,” I said as we climbed the stairs back to the office, “That that’s the scoudiest tie ever.”

“Scoudiest?” enquired Sensible.

“It comes from the word ‘scoud’, meaning scary and loud.”

“Sorry I asked.”

Vampire Bat

Guiltily, we crept back to the Support Desk, fearing the worst. The rest of the office were too busy looking out the window, pointing at the fire engine to notice.

“So, waddya think?” The Gripper held up a shrivelled piece of burnt cotton, still attached to his neck. “Do I get the tie crown back?”

“Yes, you get it back, “ conceded Sensible. “Now, we must stop this nonsense before it gets any more serious. As I’m not prepared to risk life and limb over my appearance, I concede defeat. From this day forth, I shall no longer wear silly ties.”

“You can’t do that,” gasped Harry. “Think of your reputation.”

bat

The World’s Scariest Bow Tie

“My boy, I haven’t quite finished yet. The Gripper has shown us that he is the King of silly ties. His devotion to the cause is exemplary, and I take my hat off to him.”

Outside, there was a loud bang, which sounded like a tin helmet detonating in a bin.

Sensible continued: “From now on, I’m only going to wear bow ties. Yes, you heard me: bow ties. Beginning tomorrow with a stuffed and jewelled vampire bat, which Grandpappy acquired in the depths of the Borneo rain forest.”

The Gripper gave his smuggest smile. “I’m the King of the ties. So there! And don’t you lot forget it, because if you do, I’ll start work on the Gripper Foorkes MKIV.”

“No problem,” said Harry warily, backing away.

I nodded in agreement.

Then the Kiwi spoke. “Say, me old mate, I quite fancy one of them Gripper Foorkes ties myself. Being a Kiwi, I don’t need none of that asbestos stuff, though. Do you think you could knock me one up for Saturday? We’re playing the Aussies at rugby, and me and the lads are off out drinking in Earl’s Court. Imagine a packed Aussie pub, they’ve just lost to the All Blacks, and I set light to me tie. Them wallaby boys won’t know what hit ‘em.”

“Consider it done, mate. Consider it done.”

A Carry on with Camels

27 Dec

As a Christmas bonus, here is one of my older pieces that originally ran in a Reed Publications magazine some years ago.  Enjoy!

Occasionally you run into an IT manager, who for some reason unbeknown to anyone other than themselves, a deft salesman and perhaps a nosy waiter has bought a right old donkey of a system, which, no matter how hard it’s pushed will ever perform the service for which it was intended. Even if we were to allow a bit of leeway, like the odd millennium or two, the donkey would still be a donkey: long eared, lonely and unhappy, but available for long summers on Blackpool sea-front, in return for lodgings and a bale of hay a week.

DonkeyQuite often, the manager in question leaves before his donkey is discovered. Or, as in my last equine experience, the company folds due to one donkey mouth too many to feed. This leaves said manager none the wiser as to his mistake and ready to install donkey #2, the ‘Son of Donk’, come the next job. It’s sort of sad for donkeys without aspirations, especially when they’re both bought and sold as something they’re obviously not.

But enough of donkeys. We’ve all seen one before now. A donkey is a donkey, game, set and match; end of story. I’m not here to moralise about Ee-haws, but rather to relate the tale of the project manager who was sold a camel, in order to fulfil what seemed like a perfectly reasonable requirement at the time, but which when put under scrutiny later, left many people scratching their heads in dismay.

Tag

“You should see what they’re ordering to support the new Fabbo billing system. Oodles of hardware and more bits besides,” one of my colleagues confided. “I even saw a camel on the spec sheet. Is that some kind of super-duper UNIX box or what?”

“No, a First World War biplane,” I replied sarcastically, ”as in Sopworth. One propeller, no humps.”

Colleague number two looked up from his desk. “I think you’ll find that it’s actually a real camel – one hump, no propeller. I was in the strategy meeting yesterday, when they decided to buy it as a value added option.”

“No, you jest! What do we know about camels?” my first colleague asked suspiciously.

“Sod all and then less.” I wasn’t really in the mood for a joke. “You two will just have to go on a camel intensive training course, probably in Saudi,” I added. And then as an afterthought, “Fortunately, they don’t let unqualified contractors anywhere near new kit, which means that I’m as safe as houses.”

Which was a perfectly reasonable mistake to make, given my relative camel naiveté. It’s a shame I didn’t manage to keep my mouth shut later, when the technical director collared me down the pub and asked me if I’d ever ridden a camel. Thinking the whole camel thing to be one huge joke at my expense, I was non too guarded in my reply.

“Of course I have. Rode for Britain once, in a race around the Pyramids,” I replied, failing to add that there were only two of us racing and the other party was so smashed on palm wine that he fell off within twenty yards of the start, thus presenting me with an automatic win.

“That’s good,” he replied. “It means I’ll only need to book someone on a mucking out course. Congratulations!” he offered me his hand. “By the way – you’re now officially on Camel Team as the riding consultant.”

Have you ever felt as though you’re ‘it’, in a game of career tag? I did, at that moment in time. In accord with my new found astonishment, my jaw began to do press-ups. “So it’s true then? We’re really getting a camel?”

“Yes, several actually. Management have already approved the budget. It’s all part and parcel of the new Fabbo billing system. I’m not sure exactly what the camels do yet, but rest assured they’ll become an important part of the architecture. We’re building systems for the future here, for years down the line. We might not see any immediate benefit, but it’s there.”

Oh, boy. Squirm as I might, I couldn’t change the technical director’s mind and get him to take his riding cap back. There aren’t many times I can think of when a contractor has been given the opportunity to train in a useless skill for free. Normally you have to pay good money for useless training. But nevertheless, this was about to be one of those instances when your real skill set increases whilst the experience you admit to on your CV decreases. Camel husbandry was not about to become one of my marketable assets. Goodness, no. Admit to something so specific and before you know it you’ve become so specialised that you’ll never get a job doing anything but.

Leapfrog

By now you should be asking yourself ‘Why exactly does an IT department need a camel?’

The answer is simple: because everyone else is still only thinking of buying one. Get in there first and you’re leading edge, lighting the way. Anything else is middle of the paper, or god forbid if you’re really out of date trailing edge, which just won’t do when you’re an IT Vice President boasting to your IT Vice President mates about how good and solid your IT strategy is. And therein lies your business justification, signed and sealed. Leading edge is cool, trailing edge isn’t.

“The installation of the Fabbo billing system at this point in time will allow the Company to leapfrog the opposition and take significant strides into uncharted territory.” said the IT VP at the departmental monthly brief some days later. “We’ll be the envy of every other IT department in the industry, as we become the first Company in the UK to implement this new and exciting technology. Camel Team are go! The eyes of the industry are upon us.”

All of which gave me no option for quitting straight away. There was however, one important decision which nobody had yet made. As with LAN technology (Token ring or Ethernet dear chap?), there are two different options available. Two types of camel to choose from. Do we go for Dromedary or Bactrian? One hump or two? It seems that the ISO committee haven’t finished beating each other up yet, so there’s a bit of a risk involved. There’s only a 50% chance that whoever makes the choice will get the standard right. Careers are made and broken on decisions like this. Which is it to be?

name_in_lights_banner“As I’m not fully briefed on the technology and it’s still very new, I’ll let Camel Team make that choice,” said the technical director. “Of course, I shall take the glory if you get it right. My name will be in lights forever. Should you, ‘erm, choose unwisely, I doubt you’ll ever manage to get gainful employment again. Any of you.”

I made a mental note not to extend my contract once it expired and then got stuck into the business at hand, namely the specification of a camel standard. As I became more involved in the camel scenario, it became apparent that all was not quite what it seemed.

Pin the Tail

A salesman from the Blue Star company had persuaded the project manager in charge of specifying the new Fabbo billing system that it was in the Company’s interests to purchase an additional camel module for each of the new Systems boxes. That’s three camels in Head Office for the pilot system and one per remote site once the system begins to roll out proper. The project manager, who was a busy man with far too many golf meetings for far too few days in the week duly signed the initial order and then passed the responsibility for evaluation onto the technical director.

As the technical director was an unassuming sort of chap who was relatively new to the job and none too technical, he saw the job he’d inherited primarily as one of ‘installation dynamics’. In fact, he decided that as the project manager knew absolutely what he was doing without question (the project manager is God after all; his experience is unimpeachable, his vision unpollutable; he’s also costing the Company a small French Chateau a day, so everything he says must be right), there was actually no need for any kind of evaluation to take place. The IT Vice President had said the Fabbo new billing system is leading edge, which means that the camels must also be leading edge by dint of association. Therefore they’re extremely important and must be treated accordingly. What was originally only an add-on option had sneaked in the back door as a definite purchase and there was no going back on it.

My sarcastic comments were responsible for securing me the job of camel jockey, ready and raring to go. Which in turn made me the only recognised camel expert on site. Suddenly, I found I was not only responsible for riding – my knowledge had somehow elevated me to the status of ‘camel guru’ overnight, which in turn secured me the job of recommending which camel we invested in. And finally, as an afterthought I was also lumbered with the job of housing the wee humpy beasties when they arrived and making sure that no health and safety regulations were breached in the process.

Knowing the futility of trying to extricate myself from the whole mess, I decided I might as well ring around a few suppliers and get a feel for which type of camel to go for. It wasn’t easy, as both had their merits and pitfalls and the more people I talked to, the more the water became muddied. In the end, I stuck my finger in the air and pinned the tail on the Dromedary, which ate slightly less, and therefore left less residue.

Good for the computer room, but not so good for the mucking out team, who had been practising hard with anything sloppy that they could lay their hands on. This caused a minor fracas, which resulted in the technical director authorising the purchase of a fourth camel for head office, to keep the muckers happy.

Bummer! I’d spent a week re-designing the computer room and I’d not envisaged any camel expansion plans so early on. The only way to fit the extra camel in would be to extend the computer room by another ten feet and this would take time and money. I had an idea.

“How’s about we rack the camels sideways,” I suggested to the Blue Star Salesman. “That way we can fit four in without a problem.”

“Sorry mate,” he countered, quick as a flash. “Our horizontal camel racks won’t be ready for another six months. Here, what you need is a bigger computer room. Tell you what, I’ll do you a deal. Call my brother – he’s a builder; he’ll do you a nice price. To make it worth your while, there’s a curry and a crate of beer in it for you.”

None too soon, the hidden costs of camel technology were starting to wake from their heady slumber.

Three Legs

Due to the high profile situation, the computer room extension was signed off almost immediately. The salesman’s brother found himself on the end of a deal which was worth a King’s ransom and then some, which didn’t seem to bother him somehow. The building work was finished in near record time for a hefty bonus worth as much as the contract itself and the vertical camel racking installed.

Delivery day dawned. There was much excitement around the department, as the Dromedaries arrived in a big truck. It had been decided in advance by my colleagues that the camel with the lowest serial number would be called ‘Sopworth’, to remind me of the error of my ways during that initial blunder. As if I’d forget. It’s not the sort of mistake that passes you by just like that. Grrr.

The truck parked up and the camels were led in rather hastily by a heavily bearded Camel Specialist, whose payment terms included four FA Cup Final tickets, simply for holding a piece of old rope. Without a sound he extracted payment, checked his tickets to make sure they were genuine, nodded and left rapidly. There was no ‘please’, no ‘thank you’, nothing. Training? Forget it. It was left to Camel team (i.e. me) to take stock of the situation and figure out what was happening.

Camel2“Here,” remarked my first colleague, checking serial numbers. “Sopworth has only got three legs!”

“So he has,” I said embarrassed. “We better check them all thoroughly, to make sure that nothing else is missing.”

I supposed that one faulty camel out of four wasn’t a bad failure rate, although I didn’t really know for definite. I called the supplier anyway, as you do under such circumstances.

“A missing leg? No! You don’t say. I’ve never seen that before in my life. I knew we should have had them in here before sending them out.”

“You mean you didn’t check them first?”

“No mate, we were in a bit of a hurry. They were shipped straight from the Gulf see.”

“So they’ve not been tested at all?”

“Here look, it’s not a problem – you’ve got my word.”

“And the missing leg?”

“Don’t worry about it. The camel will still work fine without it.”

“That’s not the point. It’s damaged.”

“Yeah, you’re right. Look, I’m smack bang out of camels at the moment.”

“So what do you suggest?”

“I’ll send you a new one when the next shipment arrives. Bye.”

Sack Race

The camel thing – that was ages ago now, but it still seems like only yesterday. It was a bit of a nightmare towards the end, when everything became rather too frantic for my liking. I wasn’t sure at one point whether I was competing in a scorpion filled sack race or a marathon over broken glass.

You know, I’d almost forgotten about the incident, until I overheard two people talking on the train the other day.

“My friend has just started working for a new company and guess what?”

“What?”

“They’ve got camels in their computer room.”

“Really? I didn’t think anyone bought any.”

“Not many people did. They were only popular for about two months and then the industry standardised on monitor lizards.”

“Yes, I remember that now. Anyway, these camels. What do they do exactly?”

“To be honest, I haven’t got a clue. My mate says they’re ultra reliable though. They never go wrong. One of the camels has only got three legs and it still works fine. He said he found a spare leg in the store cupboard, but it’s never been taken out of its box. The fitting instructions got lost, apparently.”

“Typical. Were they expensive?”

“I’d say! They were an arm and a you-know-what to purchase, the hump upkeep costs are horrendous and the yearly maintenance, well: I could purchase a luxury cruiser for less.”

“Why did they buy them in the first place then?”

“God only knows. But then who knows why anything happens in this industry? I know I don’t…”

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