Dubai – Kalifa Berg

the trip to Kalifa berg

After a highly focused and productive morning coaching my client all morning in an anonymous suite, I break out into the Arab sunlight for my last half day here in Dubai. My sweet client offered to tour guide me but i declined, saying alone is fine for me.  But I do take his recommendation and take out down towards the Dubai Mall where the world’s tallest building so far is located. What is it with human beings and tallest buildings? 

I eat lunch in a Chinese restaurant that turns out to be an American franchise, but none the less it is okay, full of shoppers and frolickers. i sit in the shadow or the light of that tower, the Kalifa tower. i understand it was to be called the Dubai tower but the Sheik insisted that it was his money and he wanted his name up on it. I squinted at it in the sunshine imagining what it must have been to have conceived this thing here, in the middle of nowhere, in the middle of already over-stuffed materiality.  I notice in the other direction the elegant shape of a luxury hotel shaped like a luxury liner. All beautiful soft curves and angles. Nowadays buildings in ship shapes are highly unoriginal but this one worked somehow. 

i leave my table and walk along the rather beautiful artificial lake, to stand under the base of the tower, only to learn that i need to access it by passing through the Mall. Now that I should have known already – always channel the visitor past the shopping. Enter and exit via the gold-plated gift-shop. I find the entrance, the check. Beyond that I see with a heavy heart the throng in front of the lifts. There are two screens above the pay gate. one asked that visitors respect local customs and cover legs and shoulders. Fair enough. The next screen is advertising the telescopes you can hire up above; and the CGI image to promote these features a glamorous western woman with bare shoulders. I am puzzled and amused by this.

When I get to the front of the line I learn that I can get up that evening, but that it would cost around $150 – to go up in a lift to see the desert and the sea essentially. I ask about this price about three times but it doesn’t change. It is a special VIP price that includes binoculars but I can do it more cheaply if I book ahead. I choose this moment to ask about the image of the woman and her shoulders. A little nonplussed at first, the ticket seller recovers to say that she is not real. The image is only to sell binoculars not the trip itself. and she is not real – she is image.

I am most impressed by this post modern turn. I ask if, were I to take offence, whether the image would be removed. She said she doubted it but she did take my point. i look at the never diminishing lift queue which was a hour long but i was told that the lift itself only took seconds so the queue was nothing by comparison. i decide to leave tallest building logic behind safe in the knowledge that there will be another taller one along soon enough.

Relieved that I am not having to endure that queue, but slightly discomfited that i have come this far and still not aloft, i walk into the fading desert light, not yet ready to go to the airport, not yet ready for the end of the light. I make my way towards the high end hotel and decide that infiltration of that place is the only possible way to go. I try to enter through the car park underground but cannot get in.  The front door is easier and not difficult to pass through and the woman in the business centre is positively welcoming, inviting to me to enjoy their seven star splendour. The whole place is thickly carpeted, wonderfully hushed after the clamour of the Mall and the tower.

I coattail into a lift behind two german woman who can afford to stay there, and exit at the same floor as they. Upstairs is even more hushed, subdued. don’t you get any excitement for $400 a night? Just all this quiet, with subservient staff in the shadows, always attentive always unobtrusive.

i leave the guest room level where discreet adverts promise ‘new levels of privilege’ – dont they have quite enough already? But then maybe you can never have enough privilege. the P drug needing ever more expensive fixes.  In the deserted mezzanine floor of The Address hotel  i sit quietly to contemplate a larger than Hepworth – but in the style of Hepworth – sculpture. It is really beautiful; some form of black marble and impossibly large, but not vulgar in this high ceilinged setting. i sit in a sofa on the edge of a sofa and meditate quietly on the wonder of being here, all so quiet and so fine. i enter the conference area and find that deserted, so proceed through the atrium, visualising hosting a fine conference of my own design, treading on these magnificent carpets, proudly glad handing my guests while offering them champagne.

I see a door to the balcony that skirts the entire perimeter of the poop deck. This is the very balcony that i admired from the restaurant earlier. Hardly believing the door pushes to, i am suddenly out here alone as the sun finishes its settling, and the lights in the tower twinkle magically. So now i am the captain of this fine hotel, captain of my destiny.  It is glorious moment that rests happily for a long time. This beats any trip up the tower which would never in fact afford a view of itself. the best things never do once you are inside of them.

i make my way via a whole series of lifts to the inevitable sky top bar with subdued lighting, to allow the view of the city beneath. It is pretty but i preferred my empty balcony. My mother would have scanned this bar for evidence of high rollers. All i could perceive though the dim lighting were ordinary people seeming to be looking for evidence of high rollers. The simulacrum, the empty experience of Umberto Eco’s propethising. 

Back then in a cab, off to pick up my bags and find the airport.  The driver is enlightening as to the lives of Pakistanis in Dubai. at the airport everyone but me is on their way to various parts of Asia, loaded up with flat screen  televisions. all day i had been feeling that i had been missing something and that was it. The cellophane wrapped telly ready to go. How could i have been so foolish?  

Bangkok: escaping the Immigration Office

I braved a further trip to immigration office last week. Decided to try jumping then by going on Friday afternoon late, before a public holiday on Monday. The deadline strategy seemed to work okay and they processed me in almost record time. My nemesis for the last three months was almost gracious in defeat, saying ‘have a nice day’ as I left, without any detectable note of sarcasm. Outside the far flung office a collection of foreigners clung together for comfort with all the taxis gone by that time of day and only the motor cycle option left.

As I climbed on the pillion a couple of stragglers asked me if it was safe – I said ‘up to you’ so we made a convoy and headed into town. It was exhilarating to find a way through all of that gridlocked traffic, even heading through crowded markets and down the narrowest of alleyways. Vraiment formidable shouted the French guy across to my bike as we moved into Red Arrows formation on a wider street though the Dutch lady still had her eyes wide shut. To our left the sobering sight of a train derailment, passengers milling about on the tracks. I guiltily want to reach for my phone camera then resist. 

Back in town i catch a train and wonder how they don’t derail more often as we sway against each other, crushed in tight, smart phones held high to be read like lanterns as passengers seek safe shelter. Back on the street i hail another bike for the final passage home. Some of these riders are really cautious others are in a permanent competitive frenzy. This guy was one of the frenzy merchants releasing the clutch before you have fully announced your destination never mind negotiated a price.

My bag swings wildly behind as we snake towards a righthand junction on an eight lane highway. He races as fast towards the light as ever this bike will allow. Just as we approach the changing light at highest speed he starts to sneeze convulsively and repeatedly. i clutch my newly stamped passport praying that the six months stay is of execution as well as of residence. 

Getting down with the protesters at Peace Camp

Getting down with the protesters. 30 03 2104 
After two days of being a recipient (not a victim) of the protesters highly successful ‘Shut Down Bangkok’ campaign, i decided to take my battered bike and equally battered body round Lumpini Park, the lung of the city where i habitually ride and now serving as the HQ of the Peoples Party.  I was allowed through the barricade of tyres and sandbags to be waved into a wonder world. This park is normally populated only by older folk passing the day with Tai Chi or dominos while lamenting the state of the world, mixed with yuppies on high end bikes and the occasional tourists who have somehow escaped the Tourist Board’s version of a temple-based Disney world of floating markets and dancing elephants.

Presided over of course with the noble permission of the conspicuous monitor lizards who long ago declared the park to be their kingdom. Replacing this usual tableau I discover instead a world of colour, vibrant sound, and lemon grass scents quite different in kind from those ever witnessed here before. Every patch of grass has a mosquito-net tent on it, every river terrace lined with sitting people, eyes alive, quietly satisfied with their day of Shut Down.  They eye me cautiously at first, as i am the only white face in this ‘country comes to the city scene.’

Cycling around my usual circular route I find that third time around i am shown recognition and smiles which i reciprocate though i mainly keep my camera in my pocket.  A band plays Thai pop music which i have grown to find a soft spot for, this wall of sound reaching every part of the park and beyond via giant mobile speakers, parked alongside the meticulous mobile toilet blocks.  All feels serene and as the music picks up, the mood is quite joyous.

I soon i find myself dancing along with the irresistible beat and the swaying crowd, thinking there are other ways to express democracy rather than the ballot box. An old lady wearing a bandana saying ‘We love the King’ smiles in beneficent union at me. Yet  i see no press, no police, no army. Outside the park yes their presence is felt but inside nothing, not one sign of the normal forces of social shaping, The sense of ‘organising’ and quietly building a society that works here is unignorable.  In fact I am rather surprised it has been allowed.

Part of me wants ‘my’ park back, another part celebrates that maybe it has gone forever. it reminds me of Cape Town post Mandela dispensation in 1994 when suddenly the once all white beaches became black, or mixed. to witness privilege being appropriated overnight is symbolically breathtaking, not least as we more usually witness appropriation occurring in quite the reverse direction.  The monitor lizards are nowhere to be seen, though i expect before too long some alternative surveillance, of social monitoring will be in operation.

Why are the press not in this camp? This morning’s editorial in the English language newspaper ‘The Nation’ was dedicated to speculation about the impact of loss of Alex Ferguson’s leadership on the demise of Manchester United.  the gaze seems to be anywhere, anything other than the lived experience of these protestors, focussing if it recognises them at all only on their leaders and their rhetoric.  I return to the sandbagged gates, threshold to the normal cacophony of traffic and fume. I think I was safer in there than I am out here. And i wish them no harm at all, but fear reform might be a long time coming.  

Breaking camp at the Peoples Park: 31 03 2014
 Returned on the trusty rusty bicycle yesterday to witness the next evolutionary stage of this democratic temporary organisation. I find the camp in a liminal state between the weekend’s total occupation and the the re-introduction of the forces of normalisation in the form of the regular park workers. The music continued to play for a while, sadly to be replaced by interminable political speech-ifying.  Despite the monotony of this – which most in the camp seemed to ignore – some of the deep groove from the day before persisted.  

It seemed that while some were reluctantly breaking camp, gathering their few belongings around then for the journey home, some seemed to be embedding themselves more deeply than ever. One man had set up a highly enterprising barbers shop beside the primitive shower block, attracting a long queue of customers. Many stalls were now popping up selling drinks, hats and for some reason denim shirts.  One woman’s entrepreneurial triumph was a push-up bra pop-up shop, though her market research team may have been a little misguided in targeting this particular market which needed little uplift.  A few stall owners improvised arches of recycled drinks bottles that magically refracted the midday sun.

The crows large as ravens that had disappeared over the weekend were now returned in full malignancy, reclaiming their ground by the river while feasting on the few scraps left behind. The clean up was total, the park being restored to pristine condition as the tents were raised, not a plant left out of place.  The fountains sprayed once more, while the  pressure sprinklers in their high arc paid their normal disregard to passers by.  One welcome but intrusive innovation was the presence of men dressed in ghost-buster outfits spraying pungent disinfectant down every drain, leaving a cloud of toxic fume behind that made it impossible to walk or cycle through without choking for those of us not blessed with decontamination suits.

The water bowsers and other park vehicles were made to check in by the provisional guards at the still sandbagged gate, though the searches of these trucks seemed congenial enough. One aspect of contemporary life still absent from the camp was the sight of people poking at smart phone screens, oblivious to immediate appreciation of those around them. I guess this absence may have been due to lack of power but it was nonetheless noticeable that this country which has recently surrendered to the smartphone was rediscovering an immediate ease and communion with each other.

 At the exit a group of happy protestors asked me if i could take their group photo, many phones appearing from pockets to be thrust in my direction.  I gently inquired if i may have a picture of their ensemble too as their beaming faces spoke volumes, but they declined. I restricted my photos of the camp once more to inanimate views. By the gate one of the guards stepped out not to admonish me for photographing – as i had thought – but to reward me with a most welcome bottle of chilled water.

In the middle of the adjoining highway the army had set up their own sandbagged post for the protection of the citizens. I boldly asked if i may take their picture, prepared to cycle off at speed if it all kicked off. They were more than happy to pose though. Perhaps they have nothing to fear from anyone.  Next weekend the Red Shirts march, perhaps with designs on the park also.  Today the English language newspaper says that the Army are considering options to bring peace to this demonstration torn land. It will be interesting to see if this report proves to be true. Meanwhile the monitor lizards remain in their sceptical deep-dive.

The Death of Sue Townshend aged 76 and a half

a number of readers have nudged me of late regarding my recent silence on celebrity death.  The truth remains that i must remain authentic to personal reminiscence. The bare confession is that i have so little to add on the sad passings of Clarissa and of Peaches, both in their own ways tortured souls haunted by their respective demons.  I could of course reference the private conversation with Lord Bob of Boomtown back in the late eighties when i counselled him on the advisability of arcane naming of offspring, with all of the attendant hostages to fortune that such appellation would attract, but typically he would have none of it: even when i arranged for him a chastening seance with the entire Zappa family, accompanied of course by John Cage who was a few minutes late. 

During a later decade and for different reasons i felt the need to direct Clarrisa towards the Floydster to help her know better the dark tunnel she was entering.  I understand their ensuing Skype conversation went viral, conducted as one half of it was from a sidecar (not named desire), while the other side swayed for different reasons. The recent deaths where i do feel qualified to add value would of course be those of Richard Hoggart and Sue Townshend. How these events come in pairs.  I take minor credit for bringing together this erudite pairing to appear on a special edition of Laurie Taylor’s ‘Thinking Allowed’ in 2009, where between them they were able to delineate the seamless thread that was the pioneering of Cultural Studies 1955 – 1982. 

The passage between Hoggart’s sympathetic but never indulgent portrayal of postwar working class warp and weft and Towshend’s anthemic construction of eighties middle class thatcherism never sagged as one generation absorbed Hoggart; while Jacobson who was propping up Cultural studies at Wolverhampton played John the Baptist (with a classically ironic jewish twist) while awaiting the arrival of the greater talent than he that was Townshend, before the wilderness years kicked in.  After the show we retired to the Green Room where Laurie made an unfortunate grab for the post-Marxian popularisation of cultural studies.  The Hogg was disdainful, while Sue suggested that Laurie acted his age (76 and a half) 

Marques is dead

I would prove to the men how mistaken they are in thinking that they no longer fall in love when they grow old–not knowing that they grow old when they stop falling in love’.

I sit in the back yard, dawn softly breaking, utterly alone. I perch on a white chair, surrounded by high while walls, the paving recently scoured clean of weeds by Louise who now sleeps, drugged from her exertions.  I struggle to clear my mind but the troubling decision regarding the corrosive pay dispute and the impending marking strike will not be subdued. A dream from last night intrudes where a foreign colleague explains that she has been completing her marking by ‘striking through’ each and every exam page with a bold pencil stroke, then awarding a random grade, some getting full marks.  Would that I could resolve my struggle between justice and putting food on the table with such a gesture.

 Alone, my mind seeks to empty, aware that soon the tourists will be abroad, on the other side of the wall that keeps reality at bay. They will be gossiping in satisfied tones that there is precious little evidence of the winters storms that they had vicariously endured through TV footage despoiling their favourite beaches, tea-shops, promenades. Little do they know of our recontouring work that will play tricks with their memories, feed their need for continuity while the sea changes everything, every day.  A decision needs to be made before they intrude. On the rooftop a familiar gull lands and flaps, gaining my attention.  In time the sky blackens as an albatross alights beside her, a delicate landing for such a creature. 

 She has some news to relate that does not concern  industrial conflict or the overthrow of education policy. She tells me that ‘marks is dead I am confused for a while saying that we all know that – but surely it does make the concept of surplus value any the less real.  No she laments not Karl or Groucho but Gabo, the man who breathed life into stories such as the one we are living.  Ah Gabo but surely Marques not Marks?  Not so she lisped in her far away columbian twang that on the out breath cat tied the scent of desolate oceans. Her speech came with difficulty. It must have years since it was necessary. For those of us who deeply know his acquaintance there is but one syllable in that name. The kezz or kwezz addition is pure baroque ornament,

A Western affectation copied by would be cognoscenti whose need for cleverness will always obscure plain truth. It is simply Marques, fully Marques. He never made the hundred years he craved, the old hundred, but eighty-seven is indivisible, as he would have known. The gull leads off, while the albatross follows, in one motion high, separate against that prefect sky. At my feet a snail traces sticky residue across the pristine paving.  I resist arising, resist reaching for the newspaper that i know lies on the mat and that will confirm through recycled Twitter tributes what i already know. I am alone with this. This reality.