Monday, June 27, 2011

Come the hour!

Summer is now truly under way, and the beach at Wainscott is as beautiful as ever. Today was a day for the local custom of allowing the tourists to start leaving the beach late afternoon, and enjoying that peaceful hour from four 'till five when the sun is still deceptively weathering, but there is little noise - and certainly no beach games. Today was my second time in the Atlantic Ocean. The first was last week, impulsive, and resulted in a partial loss of circulation from the neck down. Today, just a few days later, it was bliss to swim and float in the surf. What a difference a week makes!

Sunday, June 26, 2011

You get what you (don't) pay for - and home-made is best!

A spurious little blog entry this evening, as I've been testing a home made a.m. loop antenna which is the first one I've built in decades. The last one was about four time the size of this one, but current space demands a more modest array. Made from off-cuts of wood and wound with approximately thirty-five metres of fine gauge wire, I even stained it dark mahogany to make it look more presentable. The good news is that it works! At about 2215 local I was listening to a station from Worcester, Massachusetts. A discussion of the Easter Island statues. The bad news is that the receiver I was using, my only digital a.m. tuner was complete rubbish. But then it was given to me by a local thrift shop (in return for a small donation). It has all the right looks, knobs and LCD display, but the digital tuning is off by 10 khz. So I now need a good, accurate a.m. receiver with digital tuning, without spending too much money. The hunt is on!

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

A black desert night and a black cloak... Kuwait Days

Four days is too short a time to even begin to get under the skin of a country, especially when one is part of an official military visit with all of its political, diplomatic and social activities. From the time of arrival to the moment the lines between the ship and the shore are loosed people, everything is highly planned. This requires a high degree of personal discipline and organization, as each event will often require a change of “rig” or uniform, from dress up to dress down. It would be quite normal to attend a luncheon with US diplomatic staff in blazer and tie, then be taken on a tour of a naval facility in working rig, and finally change into beach wear for an evening barbeque. Which is what we did one day.

Late afternoon a coach and a white van were heading west out of Kuwait City, out into the desert. We sped along Route 70, the Atraf Highway. It was along this desert road that the Iraqi Republican Guard advanced in convoy on August 2nd, 1990, only to be stopped by the Kuwaiti Army along the Sixth Ring motorway. Our picnic destination was also significant – for the barbeques were set up on the ridge along which the Kuwaitis got the first glimpse of the Iraqi invasion.

Eating hamburgers and hot dogs as the sun set in the desert was quite an unforgettable experience. The quality of the food is best left unmentioned, but with regard to the other senses it was an hour when colours changed, darkened and then disappeared, when the scent of the air became less acrid, and when the temperature suddenly dropped. We sat in silence, sipping our Cokes (well, we were in a Moslem country, and the caterers were the American military) and shivered at both the recollection of battles only six years old, and the inhospitable nature of the place at night.

Walking the hot streets the next day I became aware of the cosmopolitan mix that is Kuwait City, and was vividly reminded that out of a population of nearly four million Kuwaitis are a minority within their own country. In fact they are outnumbered by a ratio of almost two to one. There were faces from the Far East, the Asian subcontinent, northern Africa; Caucasians, most of whom were in American military uniform; male and female, Jews and Greeks. But slave or free? It became apparent by simply watching from a café table (more of that delicious coffee), listening and also learning from the opinions of others that many of the foreign workers, primarily employed in construction and the service industries, are treated as second-class citizens by Kuwaiti nationals.

My guide and host was a field agent for an international petroleum company. I never did find out what that meant but he gave the impression that we was always busy and in demand. There were few people, places and facts that he did not know, or so he kept telling me. And he asked me if I’d picked up any numbers during my short stay. My puzzled and ignorant expression made him laugh, and putting his hand into his shirt pocket he pulled out two small balls of screwed up paper. Take one, he said. Look at it. Opening one up I looked at a number written in pencil. None the wiser I handed it back. It’s a dropped phone number he explained. Dropped by whom? By women. Mainly Saudi women visiting. Dropped to the ground from within the abaya. He pocketed the pieces of paper with a grin. Some of them like company you see.

It was time to go. I had a plane to catch.

Saturday, June 18, 2011

That Citroen 2CV...

Thanks to my friend the Rural Rector I can publish these photographs of that famous car - here shown en vacances in Monflanquin, France. Also included is a rare image of Father David Fayle looking suitable bemused.

Thursday, June 16, 2011

Breaker 1-9 for a copy!

My first experience with CB radio was in my postgraduate year in Swansea, Wales, when such transmissions were illegal. Yet the imported culture of CB had taken very deep root. The year was 1979. Having achieved my Post-Graduate Certificate in Education, supposedly the passport to a successful teaching career, I was facing the dole queue. Why? Because I taught history and swimming, and not science, science and science. For that was what the government of the day, a rump of a socialist administration, demanded. And so I sought employment elsewhere, which brought me into contact with Julie and her brother Stephen who were both "into" CB radio. We pooled money to buy a Midland hand-held A.M. transceiver, and most Sundays we would drive down to the sea-front and spend far too much time talking to other local and visiting CBers, and if we were lucky one or two from over the Bristol Channel in North Devon. It was all illegal, harmless fun, but the craze soon passed and the set was probably thrown into an attic somewhere when the UK government legalized Citizens' Band radio, albeit using inferior FM, in 1981.

Fast forward just a few years to 1985, and my third and final year training for the Anglican priesthood at Salisbury and Wells Theological College. My friend and now fellow-priest, now serving in the east of England and the author of the blog "Saintly Ramblings" (see the link to the right of this column) had a CB rig set up in his curate's apartment in Poole, Dorset. One balmy (barmy?) evening's visit I played about with it and the next thing I knew was that he gave the set to me, with all the bits and pieces including a rather handsome dipole antenna. All of this was secretly set up outside of my top storey window in the college, with kitchen staff looking up to see what was going on, and fellow students wondering what all the banging and colourful language was about. And I was back on the air.

My "handle," the name chosen by a Citizens' Band operator was Silver Eagle. To this day I don't know why so please don't go reading anything into that. It just sounded right, that's all. And I wasted far too much late evening time, when I should have been studying Karl Barth or fifth century eucharistic traditions, talking on air to locals - mainly farmers and delivery men - about anything but theology. To this day I find the price of meat far more interesting than the finer points of Johannine christology.

That CB rig went with me the following year when I was a newly ordained Deacon in Taunton, Somerset, and it was eventually installed in my small Citroen 2CV (see above post), the antenna effectively doubling the height of the car. I started using it in my new parish, but with great caution for now I was a public figure and vainly concerned about my reputation. My CB hobby became much more passive, as I listened more than I engaged in conversation. Then that rig, or rather a minor component within, decided to give up the ghost, and it was consigned to the great Channel 19 in the sky.

Fast forward again - this time over a quarter of a century (gasp!) - and an old, used multi-band radio that I use as a back-up set for DXing (long distance radio listening) from time to time. It also includes the (American, naturally, and AM) CB band. From time to time I tune in and marvel at what I hear. The humour is brilliant, especially the other day when a trucker from South Carolina was trying to find a delivery site in our location, and all the locals giving him different advice! But I am able to make one serious observation: CB radio as a popular culture is through and through American.

It's not just the codes and the language, and believe me when I say that CB language is up there with Esperanto. It's the way in which it's all rooted in the American interstate and highway experience of the 1960s onwards, and really needs to be spoken with a southern twang. We in the UK imported all of this stuff, but when you hear "Breaker 1-9, we got a smokey taking pictures on the A303 so you buddies keep yer ears on an stay out of the hammer lane, is that a 4 ? Come back" spoken in a Welsh/Dorset/any English regional accent... And as for a "Bear in the air above Wooton Bassett?" Sorry. Doesn't work. At all.

I wonder if that trucker found his warehouse?

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Coming soon...

Experiences in Kuwait. The final chapter.

Breaker 1-9: CB listening and memories.

Short Wave and the Christian Fundamentalist Message.

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Publish and be damned?

One of the viral stories that has even made the headlines on most of the major western media networks this last week is that of the expose of the Syrian lesbian blogger as a straight man – an American living and studying in Scotland. The other, less sensational, is that of his loudest lesbian cyber-critics also being revealed as a man writing (shock, horror!) under a pseudonym.

The backlash within the awfully entitled “blogosphere” has been negative, vitriolic, almost to the point of being abusive and violent. Other involved and campaigning bloggers expressing their sense of betrayal, even endangerment. Oh dear.

I really think that we ought to put this into perspective. All involved in this comedic melee are bloggers, amateur contributors to the open forum that is the internet. Myself among them. Not professional commentators, who are normally very judicious in their writings, but people who simply want to write and publish. And this is all well and good. But.

And the “ but” is this. The trumpeting critics of Mr McMaster and Mr Graber make two cardinal errors. Firstly, they exhibit an off the scale sense of self righteousness, as if blogs and their authors have a entitlement to respect and a degree of authority. And these critics have elevated themselves in whatever situation or campaign they find themselves in. Secondly, they either choose to ignore, or (more likely) are uneducated in the fact that the art of writing from within the situation of the victim is historically well established and recognized.

Simply read some of the anti-slavery poems of the Americans Hannah Moore and John Greenleaf, who put themselves into the shoes of the slave. Likewise James Beattie of Scotland who wrote many abolitionist letters and essays in the same way.

And as for other examples from ancient Greece and Rome… Oh my! There is not enough time to write. For I must off to read, and wish others do the same.


I was not left alone in that grim room for more than five minutes, before the Captain entered, profusely apologizing, and inviting me (again in cultured English) to join him in his office while “this unfortunate matter is cleared up.” A minute later we two sat at an elegant low oak table as lower ranks poured coffee and brought a tray of small cakes and pastries. Expecting some form of interrogation I mentally conceded. If this is what it takes then I will tell all! The coffee was freshly brewed, aromatic, strong, and unlike any other form of café that I have ever drunk. In a word, it was heavenly. And the small bites? Each one differently flavored. Vanilla, cinnamon, chocolate, coffee, various herbs (especially tarragon. A tarragon cake? Oh yes!)

The two of us savored this small and sweet feast in silence for at least a minute or two. He was the first to speak. You are my guest. This is most regrettable, and not of our doing. The rules changed only yesterday and others gave the orders. Others? I was curious. He said nothing but gave a fleeting glance at the window that gave a view of the outer office desks where half a dozen personnel were at work. Standing out beyond them were the white robes of the two men clearly taking an interest in the running of the airport security. Wahhabi religious police. Mutaween. Saudis. Now all began to make sense, if anything does make sense in this part of the world.

The news that an attaché was on the way with the necessary paperwork to get me into Kuwait was encouraging, but strangely enough didn’t please me as it ought to have done. You see I was enjoying my little adventure, and was having a great conversation with the Police Captain. Trust now established he let me know that although he was born and bred in Kuwait his family had roots in Egypt, and were all Coptic Christians. I commented on his excellent English and he said that his father had worked for the British administration in the 1950s, Kuwait then being an independent principality under British treaty. He was educated in English. His Home Counties accent? He laughed. It has come from a lifetime of listening to the BBC World Service!

A knock on the door announced the arrival of the naval attaché. A blue ink visa was ceremoniously stamped in my passport, and shaking the hand of the Captain I left – blinking in the daylight, still bright in the late afternoon. Again the smell of the desert. I wanted to explore, but (sigh) had a ship to join. (To be continued)

Sunday, June 12, 2011

Arriving in Kuwait

After an uneventful flight, sweetmeats and champagne, the Kuwait Airlines place touched down in Kuwait City a little after two in the afternoon. The captain, in an immaculate cut glass English accent, then apologized ("I'm awfully sorry...") for what he called an "disembarkational mess" at the terminal, and informed us that we would have to leave the aircraft via motorized steps that would meet us at the alloted spot. There were a few quite grunts and murmurs of disapproval, but I liked the idea thinking that's how they used to do it. I remembered posters of happy, white-teethed and well-dressed BOAC passengers looking out from then top of one of these airport ladders, feeling at the time a sense of adventure. Now I would get to do the same. Which I did.

The first assault on my senses was the heat. When I looked out from the top of that ladder all I could think about was the searing heat. That was natural enough as I had been in air-conditioning for four hours, but this was more than a change of environment. This was a broiler heat under a high afternoon sun. That light itself was piercing, not only directly but in its rebounding off the metal of the aircraft, the steel steps of the stairs - even the pale yellow concrete of the ground. And then there was the smell. A scent that defied a single word. It was hot. It was dry. It was also sterile, and yet carried with it a tinge of something that a person like me had never experienced before. It was the smell of the desert.

Oddly enough I thought the cool interior of the terminal disappointing. Perhaps I was still thinking of that desert, that wilderness that the explorer and writer Wilfred Thesiger once described as "The place on earth that reminds us of our true vulnerability. Yet we flee such places in favor of what we dimly call 'civilization.'"

Those of us who are, or who have been regular travellers, know that in most airports there are two lines of arrival, citizens and non-citizens. Well in Kuwait City, that delightful hot day, and all days, there was one queue, quickly moving, each person flashing a passport or official identification at the poker-faced staff. All that is, except me. For when it came to my turn I handed over my passport, in which Her Britannic Majesty requests others to grant free passage to the bearer, and was told I was going no further. Where was my visa? I had none. I informed them I was entering the country on military business. What military business, he asked unemotionally? Joining a NATO warship was my reply, but the NATO Travel Order which I placed on his desk did not impress him. Come with me please, was his suddenly sharp request, and a young soldier stepped up and unshouldered his weapon. This was an unexpected turn of events. I was taken, politely yet firmly, to a room with two chairs yet no window, and asked to sit and wait. Did I have an option? Sit and wait was repeated. The door was left ajar, but judging by the doubling of the guard outside that door one thing was crystal clear. I was under arrest.

Thursday, June 9, 2011

Radio Waves

Getting back to short wave listening and the radio hobby in general, is not without its nostalgia, and the natural temptation to make comparisons between the radio bands of the 1960s and early 70s and those of today. This column isn’t big enough to contain all comments, but I’ve been meaning to write a brief general overview for some time, and will now attempt to do so.

When I last hung up my headphones it was 1972, and there were some powerful and loud voices on short wave. The cold war was still at sub-zero temperatures, and east and west were engaged in a war of words and information that a simple spin of a radio dial would instantly reveal, regardless of the time of day or night. On the communist side the gargantuan Radio Moscow was everywhere. At any chosen moment the eerie interval chimes that would be played before a scheduled broadcast could be heard, loudly in Europe, and faintly as they beamed the socialist creed in over seventy languages to far flung lands. (They went iron fist in glove with Radio Peace and Progress with its equally chilling theme tune.) Then there was the cadre of Soviet bloc countries in Eastern Europe, each with their own socialist message: Radio Warsaw, Prague, Bucharest. And then there was Tirana. Radio Tirana. The most other-worldly of them all. By the 1960s Albania had distanced itself from the Soviet agenda and embraced an independent Marxist vision closer to that of China – and the broadcasts were so outrageously bad that they were worth listening to! And China itself made its voice heard clearly in the programming of Radio Peking. When it came to confirming a reception report (QSL) they were the most generous. I sent in my report and two months later a parcel arrived with, yes, a QSL card, but also a colorful pennant, a bundle of Chinese English language magazines and newspapers, and a copy of the thoughts of Chairman Mao Tse-Tung (the famous Little Red Book!)

On the western side the main shortwave protagonist was the Voice of America with its various offshoots and repeater stations. Always slickly produced, yet with dull programming, and despite its designed information counter-offensive, it would become irritating to the European ear. To the shortwave hobby listener Voice of America was rarely of interest.

Of course the BBC World Service (“This is London.” Cue ceremonial march.) was in the middle of this mix. Always there, yet unassuming and surprisingly neutral in the name of good journalism – a fact that often riled Washington. Again, to the DXer, only of passing interest – but useful in catching up with the Archers when an episode was being broadcast to Indonesia!

Nearly forty years on and the shortwave scene has totally changed. The collapse of the Soviet Empire has given birth to radio stations that are the direct successors of their parent stations, but now with a new and open format. We can listen to the Voice of Russia, Radio Romania International, and, after the unification of Germany, Deutche Welle. Tirana is silent, and following the separation of the Czech and Slovak Republics, their international broadcasting is limited. (They continue to share the same transmitter and single frequency!) Peking, sorry, Beijing, is still big and loud, offering assistance to the whole world via Radio China International. The only constant voice that reminds the listener of the Cold War era is that of Radio Havana, Cuba. Voice of America is rapidly reducing its overseas service, as is the BBC in the face of huge energy costs involved in sending signals around the planet. They, together with so many national broadcasters, are retreating to the internet.
Has the shortwave lost its luster? Is it still an interesting place for the radio hobbyist? No, and yes are the answers to those questions. But it is a different place, and possibly a more irritating medium when it comes to a huge increase in the number of powerful stations and organizations that occupy its frequencies. They are today what the big Cold War broadcasters were yesterday, except they are now mainly American financed and fundamentalist faith based. (To be continued…)

On the way to Kuwait

If I want to tell the story of my visit to Kuwait I must begin the tale in Barcelona, where the whole saga began in 1996. At 10.00 a.m. one morning I was standing on the flight deck of HMS BATTLEAXE in a light drizzle, waiting for a car and driver. She was late, but eventually arrived with a screech of brakes and a scowl. Had I already spoiled her day? Interrupted her mid-morning beauty sleep of which she needed none? Who knows? I was driven to the airport with speed and attitude, the latter probably something to do with the fact that government contracts involved no “tips”, whereas civilian airport rides were extremely lucrative. We parted on cold, indifferent terms. She with her highly polished, sweet-smelling Mercedes, me with my two worn, navy issue bags.

It took the bored Alitalia desk staff thirty minutes to find my reservation, but when they did I was pleased when they bumped me up (interesting phrase, that) from business class to first. Good, I thought. A comfortable nap on the way. And that I enjoyed for a couple of hours until the plane landed in Rome. It was to be an overnight stay in a pre-arranged hotel, and I had the address in an official signal. I got off on the wrong foot at the airport however because although I was expecting the customary car, I walked out of the wrong arrivals door and was persuaded by a limousine driver that I was his expected fare. Of course I didn’t realize that I would have to pay him directly until we were traveling at a hundred miles an hour on the highway into central Rome. Not a time to argue, especially as he often took both hands off the steering wheel to make a point. At least he spoke good English, and was extremely friendly and helpful. His fee was actually not that expensive.

It was dark when we pulled up to the hotel and I checked in without any problem. At least they were expecting me. Would I require a drink? Of course. Dinner? No, I said, I would find something locally. The clerk’s eyebrows should have alerted me to something. My room was small, simply decorated, yet included all creature comforts. The bottle of wine had already been delivered and was breathing on the dresser. Although it was after sunset I wanted to see what view lay beyond the closed curtains, and was astounded to be faced with a breathtaking view of the Coliseum, floodlit in all its glory. I spent a perfect ten minutes sipping my wine, regretting that I would have no time to explore this ancient building which had been such a part of my study of classics in school. Perhaps another time – but to this day I have not returned.

Walking out into the street, scouting for a sign that would indicate a restaurant or café, I soon became aware that I was the only one moving around. Others were there, in doorways or other shadows, but they were deliberately still. Passing close by one such local I immediately matched the short red dress with the lip-gloss, and it then dawned on me that I was in the middle of a red light district, and that food was really out of the question. Nonchalantly I turned around, and looking directly ahead covered the hundred meters back to the hotel with as much dignity as I could muster. Fortunately the night clerk was now on duty, and there was no problem in getting me sandwiches at that hour. Minutes later I was happily munching away and pouring more wine, thinking that an early night might be a good thing before transport picked me up at 6.00 a.m. to return me to the airport. Still I gazed on the Coliseum, and wondered.

Sunday, June 5, 2011

Coming Soon...

Kuwait Days... of my arrest, great coffee, sweetmeats, Saudi police, and little balls of screwed-up paper.

Loud voices on short wave: Then and now.