Catching some rays…

Seven months ago eight of us went in search of adventure in Kazakhstan. Courtesy of our Kazakh friend’s willingness to be a translator again, this month the group took a trip to another former soviet nation. Two Iranians, a Kazakh, an Indian, a Kiwi, an Aussie and two Brits flew to the Ukraine, to learn a bit about the city of Kiev and the site of Chernobyl, one of the world’s biggest Nuclear disasters to date.

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It’s important to stress here – a trip to Chernobyl is not out of morbid fascination with something dark or for the sake of our Instagram feeds. A visit to Auschwitz or the Somme is about paying respect to an element of the incredible tapestry of what humans are capable of. Chernobyl is not the site of a battle, but a deadly accident borne out of bold ambition. It was not horrific immediately, but the processes of its cover up, the sheer power of nuclear radiation and the fact that we still cant fathom its affects – all of this is worth seeing and attempting to understand. The Ukraine is a fascinating, inviting country that hosts Chernobyl, not proudly, but stoically and honestly, as a major part of its past.

Like much of the Eastern block, the Ukraine is profoundly affected by its Soviet history. But pre-Berlin Wall, contrary to glimpses shaped by Hollywood and bombastic Presidents and Prime Ministers – Ukranians, Kazakhs, Azerbaijanis, Tajikhs, Georgians, Slovenians and Belarussians were not brought up to feel like they were ‘the bad guys.’

Kiev Figures

Photo by Drina Cabral

 

Kiev Architecture

Whatever ways history may interpret the soviet era, the Ukraine is a country that flits between centuries of European kingdoms, the odd Viking or Mongolian invasion, and the brutalist architecture of soviet determination. In the mix is Kiev, a dignified city of wide gridded streets, between rolling hills and a large river. It reaches from high-rise concrete estates littered with monumental street art, to neo classical and baroque columns around grandiose empirical buildings that are now home to Sushi and Starbucks.

The capital is full of contrasts: fashionable monochrome ladies in red lipstick beside ex-soldier-boys with severe 90s haircuts; hipster bars and vintage speak-easies next to brutalist institutions; swirling art-nouveau facades of naked ladies flanked by political busts of serious men; ornate orthdodox cathedrals beside confiscated Russian tanks; bowls of Borsch and dumplings, and fusion restaurants that deserve all the Michelin stars; gypsies holding prize-chickens for photographs, and Putin’s face on toilet-roll; many, many men called Vladimir and cats with biological-weapon-breath.

There were also a lot of directional arm gestures. We needed to calm down.

 

We got a guide and a mini bus, and made a very big day-trip.

Chernobyl is a 2.5 hour ride out of town. It wasn’t the main reason for the trip to Kiev, but a destination none of us could argue against. We expected an abandoned city, two-headed mice, maybe some yellow smoke, men in gas masks, craters in the ground and apocalyptic signs – basically a 90s music video.

On the bus, our cheery guide described a time when the whole of Europe teetered on the brink of annihilation, and events that triggered the collapse of the Soviet Union, with a massive smile on his face.

In 1986 the Chernobyl disaster started as a fire in reactor number 4 of the Chernobyl Power Plant. Along with Japan’s Fukushima disaster in 2011, it ranks as one of only two “Level 9” events – the maximum classification.

Chernobyl began as a nuclear power station built from 1970 onwards, in use from 77 to 2000, well after 86. Contrary to popular belief or selective memory, the accident was not the equivalent of one sudden nuclear bomb, but about thirty Hiroshimas, and not sudden at all, but a week-long disaster that affects a much broader expanse of Europe than the towns of Pripyat and Chernobyl.

Pripyat Nursery 2

The slow release of radiation; triggered by a fire – triggered by an overnight safety-test; released a plume of radioactivity into European air for several days. The world had never experienced anything like this, so Mikhail Gorbachev’s all-seeing government would not have known where to start. It was the civilian emergency services that would bare the brunt, and pay with their lives, from firefighters to helicopter pilots and hospital staff.

Pripyat Piano

A bit like the Ghostbusters scene when the fire-station reactor is shut down, radioactive fumes flowed into the atmosphere, drifting over Europe, – only these took an entire week, and were invisible, with up to 60% settling in Belarus. Local authorities didn’t notice the fire was blazing within the reactor until a journalist & photographer flew over it in a helicopter the following day. Russia failed to alert the international community until Swedish Nuclear Power-station workers across the sea triggered their radiation detectors upon entering their workplace, rather than exiting. Sweden contacted Denmark, Norway and Finland, and the Russian Government now had to put its hands up.

Pripyat entrance

Pripyat was built as Nuclear town from 1970 onwards, close to the plant, to house workers and their families. Its 50,000 residents had 16 years to get used to their burgeoning community: its supermarkets, restaurants, schools, nurseries, sports stadium, fairground, before being calmly uprooted without explanation.

Pripyat Nursery 1

Today, two of the most radioactive parts of the town are the middle of the playground and the hospital; two points where the first respondents were first brought to; helicopter pilots and firefighters. As human carriers of unprecedented levels of radiation, their presence in the hospital endangered the lives of hospital staff too. At first they showed what looked like burns, then vomiting, and were each given hours… The hospital staff would have months, and often years before they would feel the effects, but they would feel them. These were areas we could not access.

Pripyat Dodgems

In the first days, residents had been advised to stay indoors, as shelter was better, and wind initially led the fallout away from the town, but as the wind changed, thousands of families and their animals were quietly led away from their homes. People came back over the months and years to collect precious items, but what is left now, among the decaying wall-paper, dusty children’s toys, jars in cupboards, broken pianos and decomposing sofas, is a memorial to our precarious life on this planet – the life we’ve built for ourselves, with its invisible, but invincible threats around us.

A thin but established forest now dances over Pripyat. Shrubs scribble over its once-busy tarmac’d streets, with strange red beetles zagging between fag-butts and rotting wood. Street lamps stand quietly in clusters of trees the same height, and there’s a reverence to the place, but as we run around it, absorbing signs of 1986 soviet life, a sense of pride. I don’t know whether it was the blue sky, or our collective quiet wonder, but Pripyat is not macabre, or even sombre.

It’s not a place of death, torture or violence. It’s the centre of a much wider place that was exposed, betrayed by a lack of honesty, but that still shows its heart and faces. Forced to react, with thousands of lives uprooted and transplanted, the place is a monument of truths, and of transience. Just as Pompei is a glimpse into a distant, deadly past, Pripyat is a frame of nearer catastrophic times, but still very human and very real. As the trees take over the schoolyards, and vines creep into the supermarket, it’s eerily beautiful, a poignant reminder that humans are not permanent, infallible, or gods.

Pripyat Nursery 3

For now, a second “Sarcophagus” sits over the reactor, said to be able to last 100 years. The site is teaming with industrial workers and soldiers, who look nonchalantly at the wide-eyed tourists. Down the road is ‘the red forest’ – where much of the most radioactive land was exposed shallowly, – a large expanse where much of the initial airborne radioactivity landed, where the hand-held scanner in our guide’s hand bleeped ferociously.. The bottoms of the trees are black – and birds freely land, nest, and fly away to other areas. For now, it costs billions to take care of the sarcophagus – generations of Ukrainians will have to worry about the forest later. So for that reason, tourist dollars directly contribute to the upkeep of the site.

31 deaths are attributed to Chernobyl, among the emergency workers and reactor staff. A UN report attributes 64 deaths as of 2008, although the toll is expected to reach 4000 among those exposed to the highest levels; 200,000 emergency workers; 116,000 evacuees and 270,000 residents of the most contaminated areas.

Pripyat Nursery 4.JPG

But here’s the kicker. The fateful reactor was number 4, with reactors 5 and 6 under construction, and another 6 planned. The reactors powered nearby cities and towns, yes, but that kind of power would need a very maximum of two reactors – not twelve. About a 45-minute drive from the plant, we were taken to a huge construction of space-age rows of telegraph wires, some 150m in height, by 300m in length – a rigid series of conical cages, ladders, platforms and wires, pointed unashamedly towards the United States. In full view, NATO would have been aware, but people are still confused over its purpose, if it is purely a colossal listening device, or the potential to be much more.

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Known as “The Russian Woodpecker”, the structure was in action, interfering with radio waves and airwaves for decades, right up until 1989 and the end of the Cold War.. Popular local belief is that, with a possible six more reactors, the intention was to do much, much more than simply listen, (and here I picture Alan Moore’s ending of “The Watchmen”). The guide explained the amount of power that would be needed to create a weapon that could control the weather – and with incredible amounts of nuclear power under your control – why not?

It was by reaching so far, and literally to the sky, that one of the biggest, and most powerful empires the world has seen, collapsed. One crack – one accidental fire, that cost 16 billion dollars to address, and then fix, back in 1986. Its expense was crippling, and that in turn, transformed the lives of millions across the Ukraine, Kazakhstan, Belarus, Estonia, Armenia, Azerbaijan and many more.

Pripyat Supermarket 2

Today, the Ukraine relies on Nuclear power for 60% of its energy supplies, and with it’s ability to take away dependency of fossil fuels and natural resources, and to power entire cities fast, without a viable sustainable alternative, nuclear power is going nowhere. As a global populace, its up to us to understand how to take care of it, harness it, and live with the consequences if we can’t.

Heading back to the city, the combination of Kiev and Chernobyl was a mind-opening trip that hadn’t been what any of us expected. We expected a pretty European city with a smattering of communism and a clash of cultures, with Vodkas in our hands. We expected a bomb site full of horror stories and post apocalyptic film sets.

Instead we found quiet, inspired stories from strong people full of contrasts; a task to attempt to understand even just a tiny bit, a myriad of different types of beauty, different sides of history, solid handshakes with hidden attentiveness. And of course, a trip across a planet that can perfectly cover our steps if it needs to, and we could so easily force its hand.

Pripyat Apartment


Keep Young and Beautiful

Try this. This is a delightful piece of copy for womens’ cosmetics over 100 years ago. While the vocabulary may have changed, the sentiment has not.

Antique cosmetic copy

  • If you want to be prettier, try this.
  • Pretty and clever people use this.
  • It’s really clever.
  • There’s no way you could make it yourself out of cheaper things or stuff in the garden.

Three differences between this and our modern day beauty-fuel:

  • There is no Faux-Sciencey nonsense – eg Pro-Marine Collagen Organic lifting Serum, 24 hour hydro booster molecular oxi Q10 pro-retinol etc.

(For a serious debunking of all these Bollockisms about cosmetics and other delightful crappages of our times, please, please read Ben Goldacre’s brilliant Bad Science, which explains that if your skin could actually absorb fish DNA, you would have scales. DNA is what makes and keeps you what you are, despite many imaginative science fiction flicks. We should be very pleased our DNA cannot absorb or replicate other DNAs by simply rubbing it in, and no, the Clinique lady in Debenhams should not be wearing a bloody Labcoat. The Edwardians didn’t go that far).

  • Three Flowers Face Powder also doesn’t include our lovely present-day buzzwords either, these words that mean so much: replenish, revitalize, enhance, hydrating. radiance comfort, defense (American spelling) extracts, regenerate,  nourishing, youth-surge, visibly-lifting… you get the gist.
  • This copy is accompanied by a cartoon, as opposed to a photoshopped flawless 20 year old.

I spent five days last month sitting next to a talented designer photoshopping the crap out of a 24-year-old’s face for a product aimed at ladies in their 40s.

And here’s the killer. This kind of advertising is at least 120 years old. And the corresponding vitriol and indignation, that’s nothing new either. But if we’re all so savvy, aware, and won’t be sold to, when it comes to picking up something off a shelf, you’re more likely to pick up the product with the pretty lady on it. Or the funky graphics for a funky price if there’s more in your wallet that day.

We can still be manipulated, but it’s lovely when we’re not, and just appreciate things because we genuinely know they’re great. In that category I can put Monster Munch, Rescued Dogs, the Game of Thrones books, Baby Oil, Hugs, Spaghetti Bolognaise, orgasms, Emeli Sande and a pint in the Golden Rule in Ambleside. Nobody told me why. They just are.


The BishBoshBang Infographic

Stats that won’t end up in your PowerPoint presentation. They may, or may not be true. I’ll let you be the judge of that.


2012 More or Less


Beirudethings

The Setting:
Beirut. Capital of Lebanon. A fuzzy, laughing, pock-marked electric oasis, ensconced in the Arabian wedge of the Meditteranean. Garlic, booze, concrete, olives, amorous eyes, hormones on steroids and cigarettes in every hand, cornered between angry nations pointing rockets and fingers at each other.

The Cast:
Seven Brits – alcoholism, nihilism, Borat & Partridge quotes, mutual piss-taking, self deprecation, limited understanding of exchange rates, cheerful and willing abandon at regular intervals.

Three Aussies – construction, management & mining consultants with a vent for hedonism, females and the pursuit of happiness.

Two Filipinas, immaculately turned out, all-seeing, all observing, not about to take any shit. Off anybody.

One Palestinian/Lebanese – the only member to actually understand often less-than-favourable comments from locals. Tolerant, thoughtful counterbalance to everyone else. Loveable.

One South African – Ladykiller, ladles of charm and no problem being the butt of jokes because he always gets the girl (although he doesn’t know what Savoury means or who Bill Murray is).

One Scottish-Indian, bright-eyed, loved up, up for everything, owner of the most inimitable accent I will ever hear.

The ensemble headed to Beirut last weekend for a 30th bash. Memory loss. Fearlessness. Intermittent Aspergers. Regular premature Alzheimers. Puke. Bidets. Abused curtains. Lots of laughing.

The Scene.
Flydubai took us to the city where the Arabs go to party, where Roman ruins dance between the ghosts of old wars and potentially imminent ones on streets peppered with smiles, stares, shwarmas, cigarettes, hugs, handshakes and a smoky warmth wherever you end up.

Biblical stone broods beside bullet-addled bricks, and 70s highrises cuddle up to Maronite churches, while Byzantine columns sleep between cacaphonic pylons. Decent Graffiti frames Hesbollah posters. 60s Mercs cut up brand new Porches. And men, men everywhere – soldiers on corners, old men on chairs, flatcaps and leather jackets, on steps, in doorways, outside shops, fifteen for every lady, with unabashed stares at unchaperoned women, hands forever scratching itchy bollocks (apparently it’s because it’s common to shave your pubes in Lebanon, but the ladies didn’t seem to have the same problem).

One street is old Berlin in summer, the next is Havana in Winter. The manic roads and crumbling history are Athens, with streetfaces of downtown Memphis or Barcelona. Plenty feels like downtown Marseille or Lille in the mid 80s, or like the 80s in general, only everyone’s off their faces, wants to be your friend, to show you the very best of their country and drives like a complete mental. Rear view mirrors are for ornamental purposes, as are lanes, pavements, traffic lights and zebra crossings.

The Plot.
Ha. Not really. Started with good intentions, but there were no illusions that the plot was going to be devised or found on this trip.

At 5am, 1.5 hours before the flight, I met my roomie for the first time, a stunner a long way from the home counties with a clever media job, in a pile of drunken bags and stuffs on the roadside. We’d both separately decided that as it wasn’t a school night, it was fine to travel to Lebanon on NO sleep and extended inebriation. On the plane, one of the Aussies thoughtfully warned a Lebanese man that we might be doing “terrible things to your country”. He was wrong. As much as Brits and Aussies are a royal pain in the arse on a global scale, anything we thought was unacceptable or just plain silly was fine with Lebanon. The locals’ primary concern was that we love the place, and we did.

Jihad Salon pour homme - We'll blow you away

We hired a coach and saw some sites. A million years of stalactites, (or an incredible, drippy Jim Henson/Terry Gilliam set at Jeitta’s Grotto), the serenely chilled RomanChristian Byblos, with fishermen chilling in the sunset on a 4000 year old port, giant angry marshmallows or rocky fingers swearing out of the bay at the Corniche, electric bars and happy drunks staggering across Jemayze. But mostly we ate, drank, ran, danced, wobbled, sang, questioned scam artists, lather-rinse-repeat as needed.

We met Hamdan, the checker player with the most incredible moustache any of us will ever see, the scamster arsewipes at BO18 who took a chunk of our money for a table guarded by overweight overzealous bouncers in bad suits & attitudes, then charged the entire bill again to the Aussie Birthday Boy’s card once we’d left. The larger than life ponytailed soulsinger Alex Nashef in Bar Louis. The kind taxi driver who didn’t get offended when we observed the thickness of Rafik Hariri’s eyebrows. Reem, the barmaid who kept pouring us ‘surprise’ shots and cocktails. Local ladies with lashings of eyeliner, piles of cleavage and plenty of soul. The Finnish girls who scammed us into paying their Bar tab. Wolf whistling soldiers. Bemused hotel staff. Amused pizza boys who could see a chunky profit a mile off. Everyone you looked at was looking back.

 The Script. (Names *****ed) 

“I knew it was time to go when I asked that man to drag me around the floor by my feet”

“Reception said they’ve run out of beer – they didn’t sound very apologetic about it”

“I think I’ve got chocolate cake in my ear”

“Promise you won’t make me leave this room or do anything today or I’ll have a panic attack”

“What’s the conversion for dollars into Lebo thingies again?”

5pm on BBM “Is anyone up yet?”

“A good midget porn title? ‘It’s alright, they’re not children'”

“He is genuine ********* face” (Borat quote in response to very Borat-sounding coach driver)

“If nothing else my kids’ll have good manners.” – “J****’s kids’ll probably have ***** ********”

“Who’s that dude staggering across the street down there? Oh, it’s D***. D***! We’re here!”


Wedding Learnings

My big sister Jessica got married to Graham Simpson last week in the Lake District. She is now Jessica Simpson. Here are some Wedding Learnings.

If the bride is a badass businesswoman flying high on the crest of a going-global entrepreneurial tidal wave, and not very ‘weddingy’, it helps to have a Mum who is a badass events-organising behemoth. While this entails power-struggles between two bright, assertive ladies, it also means Brilliant Wedding on the cards, and that’s what we got.

Family Weddings are a novel way to find new ways of infuriating your mother. One is to move to Dubai 6 months beforehand.

Another is to get ‘relatively tipsy’ the night before, and tread a stiletto-heel-shaped hole in the 300-quid veil, which is then discovered 3 hours before the wedding

Fixing the hole by sewing heart-shaped lace on it does not necessarily fix it but does make a ‘funnee story’ the entire congregation knows about before the service thanks to a blaspheming mother

My brother Ben is exceptionally good at chauffeuring over 30 international guests around the Lake District without grumbling, and generally being a charming optimist throughout

Optimism pays off, because the gods of Lakeland Weather smile on Jess and Graham. Which helps in a landscape like this:

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My mother is exceptionally good at decorating small Lakeland churches

Hanging a painting of one notable absentee in the church is highly effective as both a perfect finishing touch and source of waterworks

The best man forgetting the rings is still not as bad as stomping a hole in the wedding veil. And he got them in time for the service.

Auntie Mary is an exceptional trooper for driving up the country by herself and partying hard, albeit terrifying a few of the younger single males

It is ill-advised to tell lots of people to meet the bridal party at the Queens Head pub the night before, when there are 6 Queens Head pubs in neighbouring towns and villages, and you’ve booked the wrong one

It is ill-advised as a guest to corner the bride the night before the wedding to tell her you’re disappointed with the accommodation/setting, and the bride’s mother may be restrained from giving you a piece of her mind

Everyone knows the culprit of the exceptional clouds of flatulence throughout the reception. And no it wasn’t me or Ben.

My sister is exceptionally good at making speeches, picking excellent husbands and not getting upset about holes in her wedding veil

During the speeches, the biggest laugh can be caused by a six year old who raises her glass “To Toast!”

The bridesmaid is not only best friend of both bride and groom, but the reason they met, and therefore has quite a substantially positive impact on a few folk’s lives. She’s also a bloody good poet.

Uncle Geoff wins a gold star for realising he forgot his suit upon arrival in Ambleside, then driving down to Preston with a very tolerant wife to buy a brand new suit

The Dukan diet removed a cumulative 24 stone (estimate) from wedding guests – this is equal to approximately 2.5 guests

Uncle Duncan (not a dietitian) retains an exceptional capacity to frighten small children by playing with his dentures at the dining table

Don’t be offended when Uncle Ken comments on your boobs

It takes a noble best man in a kilt to not retaliate when the fellow-Scottish kilt-wearing groom lifts up his tartan in the middle of the dancefloor to prove he really is a Scot

Don’t be offended if the DJ hastily takes back his microphone after your ‘rendition’ of the start of “I like to move it”.

But here’s my rendition of At Last for Jess and Graham’s first dance:

Do be in awe of the rendition of Sugar Hill Gang by the ladies from Charleston, South Carolina

Do be amused by a very british, very camp rendition of Hey Ya.

The popular South Carolinan dance ‘The Shag’ provides an infinite supply of jokes unrelated to technique or style when demonstrated on the dance floor

Ceilidhs are profoundly confusing

The evillest cat that has ever lived likes to slowly chew the feet off mice for hours next to groups of people outside the Langdale Chase hotel

Fireworks are the definitive way to make sure your wedding goes off with a bang. Yes I went there.

Picking Kenyan & Rwandan honeymoon destinations that are “Not massively kidnappy” does little to ease tensions of family members

All in all a brilliant wedding. Well done Jess and Graham, and mum, and the Simpsons, and Christine, and Ben, and Vic, and all the people that flew a long way for a perfect weekend, and the ones that didn’t, but gave it their all. And to Jess and Graham again – for the start of a very happy life together.


Dubai Learnings part 2

In response to the well-received Dubai Learnings Part 1, here’s the next edition>

It is illadvised to invite the chinese weapons salesmen to your friend’s houseparty

A tablespoon of Ghee is not worth eating for 100 Emirati Dirhams.

Sludgy drinks puddle + heels + free bar = Wrist support which makes you look like an IDIOT

If I live on the 26th floor, and work on the 40th floor, and there are 11 feet per story, my median average altitude at any given hour of the day in one month (or Maddiyan height) is 308 feet.

There is a speed bump for every head of the population. Dubai Ladies’  wardrobes do not lend themselves to sports bras. Therefore, 3+ years in Dubai = Saggy boobage due to bumpage.

Dubai is 12 towns on top of one anther like a layered cake, based on nationality, income, profession and religion. Everyone mixes with their tier, with differing opinions about how high or low it tier is. All expats are sociable and confident, soon get to know enough of their lot and then call it a ‘small world’.

Breast Punching is not universally hilarious.

Arabs LOVE Vimto. Not just a little bit.

Do not expect U-turn opportunities. If you need to go left, go straight for 2 miles and back. Then you can turn right. Stupid.

There are no Mosquitoes in Dubai. Or if there are, there are about 11. This is great.

There are no pigeons. This is also great.

750 quid to fly back for your sister’s hen for 4 days is entirely worth it, providing your mother doesn’t have a sulk for 2 of them

DO NOT GET IN DEBT IN DUBAI. DEBT = JAIL.

Youtube parties get a lot more competitive when there are 5 professional DJs in the room.

It is illadvised to put TV presenters in head locks (observed not perpetrated)

Living out of a suitcase gets irritating after 6 months

Serious pillow fights in hotel rooms with 8 multi-award-winning creatives at 5.30 am + 8 bottles of champagne = a world of pain at the desk 4 hours later.

Dubai is not going to get finished. But it’s good enough.

Someone willing to kiss you after an extreme allergic reaction and exorcist-style vomitousness may have questionable standards

Seeing the British riots through the eyes of Indians, Lebanese, Australians and French was profoundly humiliating and frustrating.

A bidet is not for puking in.

Ramadan – a chance to understand the culture you are in, and be more respectful to everyone and everything. And also go to lots of lovely houseparties and make some lovely friends.

It’s fun to see some of these friends on the telly.

Local film channels are brilliant and beautiful in their random selections. But whoever decides when to cut the films for the advert breaks is TERRIBLE AT HIS JOB.

Prawn Tempura is an acceptable breakfast

If the shop in your work knows you as Oranamin C Lady, this is probably not great.

Oronamin C in Dubai

DishDashes and Abayas – symbols of identity & pride, worn with class, not any form of extremism. Far from it.

Badass cars are not driven by Badasses.

International professional Stand-Up Comics can still be genuinely afraid of your mother.

Filipinos – the hardest working, most courteous, astute nationality I’ve come across in the USA, Dubai, Australia or anywhere – it confounds me that they work so damn hard around the world when such uncharacteristic corruption is in charge at home.

Having a glass of champagne passed to you by an acrobat hanging from the ceiling is very cool but also a bit weird.

Peanuts and Japanese Rice Crackers does not a well balanced diet make.

Rain is a lovely thing.