Wednesday, 31 December 2008

Shetland blogs; Christmas 2008

The reunion:

I have to write this now as apparently documents written on newer versions of MS Word cannot be read by older versions. What kind of sense is this? What is the point of carrying data on portable drives if not all computers can read the data?

Anyway, last weekend.Events turned out to mean it was possible to attend the annual reunion of members of the trade in which I served in the Air Force; armourers. For those who do not know an armourer deals with things that go bang; so most of my time in the RAF I built bombs and the suchlike. We also look after all weapons, ejection seats and bomb disposal. Our patron saint is St Barbara, and the Saturday nearest her day is when we have our get togethers.

My old schoolfriend, Dick, lives near Lincoln and as he is home from the sea in preparation to start at the same new company as I will be, he said I could crash at his place in Gainsborough.So, after the rush hour I set off on the train to London; dash across the city on the Tube to catch my connection at Kings Cross and then up into the Fens of Lincolnshire and eventually to Lincoln and then on to Gainsborough.

All was going well until the second from last train broke down; 500 yards from Lincoln railways station. No matter how much the driver made the engine roared, the brakes would not come off. After some banging under the floor and some swearing we juddered into the station and I could at least catch my connection.Dick was waiting for me at the station and after a quick slice of pizza and a beer we set about the nights task; preparing his son's bands gig that night. He has 5 boys and four of them are in Colour:Code, abut it all fell down to assorted parents and grown-ups to lug the gear from the car and set it up wilst the boys looked and acted all cool with their friends and girlfriends.When the doors opened, dozens of skinny indie kids came in; those old enough made their way to the bar, whilst the others just sat around trying not to look too excited.

Colour: Code

It was great that so mnay of the boys friends came along to support their friends on stage, and in truth the boys were very good playing a mix of Green Day and Blink 182 covers sprinkled with a few originals. I took pictures and everyone went home happy.

Quite whose idea it was to have the reunion in the centre of Lincoln on the busiest day of the Christmas Fair, right at the top of the aptly named Steep Hill, is not clear. But at least the landlord was happy enough to have the extra business.We caught a bus into the city as neither of us would be in a state to drive back later; as usual, the bus meandered around several villages before heading into the gridlocked traffic; we jumped out near the city centre and headed off op the cobbled Steep Hill into the ancient heart of the city, perched on a hill overlooking the Lincolnshire fens. The street is all lined with black and white timber framed houses and is stunning, really. Waslking on the cobbles isn't easy, and the steepness of the hill is surprising as Lincolnshire is usually so flat.

The venue, The Snake and Lion, is in the shadow of the Gothic cathedral and the castle, and is really a wonderful spot. All along the street outside stalls had been set up selling all sorts of crafts and food. All very nice.Once indide we had the first beers of the day and settled back to see if we could guess who the other armourers in the place might be. A young lad came and asked us if we were armourers; we were, once we said; and so sat down and told tales of old and of hedonsistic nights around the globs; as you do.Within an hour the place was full of armourers and ex-armourers, all making new friendships or renweing old ones. And much quaffing of ale was done. We all had to buy a drink and put it in a communal pot, and then take turns in a large draught of the brew was taken by each of us. Salutes were taken of those who had passed away and those who could not be there.Then more drinking. Much more drinking. But, not as much as you would think; for some of us, the years had taken their toll, and we needed something to eat. We had vouchers from an Australian themed place (don't ask) and so four of us split and went down for free buger, fries and beer.And why not.It was with some panic Dick realised we had 5 minutes to catch the last bus back, at half six, and so we staggared/ran through the city centre and grabbed seats on the bus.

And fell asleep.The driver woke us up in Gainsborough, and we set off in the general direction of his house.Dick fell asleep on the sofa and could only be raised to eat the chinese meal that had been fetched from town, and then he headed off to bed. I had to endure the horror that was The X Factor, and Simol Cowell's caustic comments and the bitter tears of disappointment as another young hopeful got the boot. It was worse the night before when we watched the final mkoments of I'm a Celebrity Get me Out of Here, and listened to tales of insect eating a faux bonding between Z listers.

Each to their own, and it was time for me to send back the z's until morning

I awoke at six with the usual confusion that comes after a heavy night. As it began to get light the murals of Bob the Builder and assorted cartoons became clear. I was sleeping in Dick's youngest room. Dick was up and made bacon sarnies with some thick bacon and doorstops; and after a couple of pints of tea I felt it was time for me to leave and asked Dick to drop me off in Lincoln so I could take some pictures before the crowds arrived for the last day of the market.

It was a crisp, frosty but bright morning, and after scraping off the frost from the windsreen we drove to the centre of Gainsborough where there is a manor house. Built by Henry VIII and it is still in stunning condition, but just sits in the middle of town.

Gainsborough Manor

Over the centuries, the timber frams had warped and so the walls were at all angles and overlooking the courtyard it was all black and white timber frames. Very nice.We drove out of the town and through the rolling Lincolnshire countryside, the light of the rising sun bathed everything in a rich golden light; even the power stations looked beautiful, and we stopped so i could take pictures.Dick dropped me near the castle in Lincoln, and so I wandered the cobbled streets taking pictures of this and that; some of them really quite good even if I say so myself. A quiet fair, stall holders setting up, the steep cobbled streets leading down into the modern centre of town, the cathedral, the castle.


All really very beautiful, and looking even better in the morning light of a bright winters morning.

By half nine the crowds were beginning to arrive and the food stalls were cooking the first batches of food for the day. I walked into town down Steep Hill, glancing backwards to see the towers of the cathedral above the surrounding hoses and shops.

Christmas Market

Steep Hill, Lincoln

Lincoln Cathedral

The first train out of town wasn't until eleven, so I stopped for a coffee and a mince pie of two in a cafe and got out the Sunday Times to read. The train was packed, and showing how thittle thought goes into running railways not running them as a service any more. Oh well.

At Newark the platform was also packed, and I decided to upgrade to first class just to get a seat. Thankfully they had a special offer for Sundays; just £20 to upgrade. So I sank into a chair as comfortable as your favourite aarmchair, and watched as the countryside rolled past. I bought a small bottle of red wine and the day got even better.

Jools was waiting for me at Kings Cross, and the first task was to find somewhere for lunch. A quick ride on the tube to Tottenham Court Road found us in a traditional boozer; we ordered roast beef and all the timmings and a pint of frothy ale and just watched the world go by out of the window.One of our favourite things to do in London is to walk the streets of Soho and theatreland just for the fun of it and to people watch. Sadly the light was already failing, but it was great walking the streets and smelling the mix of food from the various eateries.We made our way to Vicoria, and as the sun set we made our way through the south London suburbs into night time and Kent.

11 Dec 2008:

So, there I was on Tuesday, flying north to Lerwick in the Shetland Islands. This is nice I thought, maybe have a few days bad weather and go see the neolithic monuments. I could see some impressive ones from the harbour over the sound.The weather dropped some and so we sailed, we did two hours work in the wee small hours yesterday, and then stopped as the winds started to gust to 35kts again.I wake up this morning and find we're heading back down south to Great Yarmouth again, as the client thought the weather forecast was going to be so bad they cancelled the rest of the job.

But, I had one night in Lerwick; in a bar, very tired, but drinking a fine local ale, and being entertained by the locals. Or one of them. He was the old soak, the town drunk who was already rocking and rolling by three in the afternoon when he was kicked out. We made do with the Juke Box, and who could get the cheesiest selection for a quid. Without doubt the worse song was the Brotherhood of Man's Eurovision entry, to which time has not been kind. The female old soak did dance and clap herself around the bar for the duration, though.

So, we are now heading south; have about a 1,000 miles to go which will take us over two days; so my body clock which is already shot to pieces by having to be made to work nights will now have to get used to being on days for a while, until Sunday at least. But, we still get paid though. Still no news on getting Christmas off; I am resigned to my fate though, as is the family. Jools' Nan was upset; she's 94 and thinks this is her last Christmas and so wanted me there. She could be wrong about being her last year of course. But I stand little chance next year either with a new job.I have lots to write about; the weekend I went to an Air Force reunion; I have typed it all up and reads quite good; will try to do that in the next couple of days if I can squeeze it into my schedule.Hope you are all well and playing nicely. Santas watching

13 Dec 2008:

In the past two years since I started this job I have travelled to some wonderful places; Holland, Java, Borneo, Sulawesi, New Guinea, West Timor, Norway, Great Yarmouth, etc. And people ask me what is so-and-so like?The truth is, I don't really know. For the most part I fly here like everyone else, and then someone meets us at the airport, takes us to the ship and we sail. At the end of the voyage its just a reverse of arriving. If we're lucky, we may get an evening of our own in which to find a bar and sink a few.

Don't get me wrong, I'm not looking for sympathy here, I have seen some wonderful things, visited some tremendous places, but really just passed through. When I get off a ship all I want to do usually is to get home as soon as possible; which is what I do.I guess the Shetlands is another example; I flew in, we didn't sail for a day, but I couldn't really see much more than the centre of town, and for me getting out and taking some shots is what it's all about for me. I can tell you that Lerwick is a small town, with some shops and a couple of bars, and that's it.yeah, this is me, complaining again. But just to have a few hours free to look round some places, you know? I guess we can add the Shetlands to our list of places we want to visit right after Japan, Tierra Del Fuego, The PNW, most of Euope, Egypt, Cambodia and all the other things we have either read about of saw on TV. Just too much to do and not enough time.

As luck would have it, I am seeing more of the Shetlands than I thought I would; we were supposed to be heading south the Great Yarmouth again to take on some new people for a new job, but the weather had other ideas. A huge storm has blown us and is staying right above us; so we are going up and down a bay staying out of the wind whilst it blows over. This puts us two or three days behind, but its better than being out in open water when we don't need to be.So, we have nothing to do; watch DVDs, play online, maybe even buy some Christmas presents as well. Only meals breaking the day up. And this is work and we get paid regardless of whether we work or not; and I know, we are lucky. I have been watching Bones, the foresnsic series, marvelling at the dreadful acting, but it passes the time.

And it's nearly dinner!Still no word from the office about getting off for Christmas; we should be in port next weekend; I could walk off the boat, but it would mean never being able to come back, and I'm not sure if I want to burn those bridges quite yet. I can't deny it being tempting, though. So, probably be on here for Christmas, maybe even working, stranger things have happened. We are planning a family day with Jools' Nan of course, but the magic won't quite be there. But, we can celebrate whenever we want, and with the sale of the house hopefully going through this week, then we may even more to be happy about.

I'm not looking for sympathy here; I know I'm lucky, maybe sometimes I don't realise just how lucky. But when you see others having the Christmas off year after year, it does get annoying. Frustrating, even. Christmas is for families, and I was just hoping to be spending it this year with mine.

17th Dec 2008:

Its three in the afternoon and its just about dark. Such is life in the Shetlands. For those of you that do not know, the Shetlands are the most northerly of the Scottish islands and are well on the way to Norway in fact. I believe that the nearest main line railway station from Lerwick is in Norway; or I could have imagined that.

We were due to leave here on Friday, but the weather got bad, real bad, and has stayed that way ever since. The news is that we may sail on Saturday, but even that is in doubt. So, we do odd jobs in the morning, roam around the town in the afternoon before hotting the bars at about eight. We have been here so long they know our drinks in Captain Flint's and are already pouring our pints as we walk in from the door. Almost locals, then.

Sadly, there is little to do here; we have about four hours daylight each 'day' and for the most part it has been too gloomy for photography. Today was a little brighter, and we had a common seal watching us as we did things with our streamer on deck. I say common seal; it was wearing Burburry and was casting glances and the souped up cars on the quay.

Still no news on whether I will be in the bosom of my family for Christmas; once again the office fails to answer my e mails and each time it reminds me why I am leaving. Walking off the boat if we get to Great yarmouth before Christmas will bean dicking some other soul at very short notice to take my place, and as tempting as that option is, I don't think I could do that to someone else.So, we have all agreed to do a secret santa for each other; although there is only a limited range of things to get in Lerwick; hopefully each of us will get some colourful knitwear and so we can parade around the town Christmas Morn; if we're still here. Heck, we may even get some snow.And now for the big news:


On Friday the person buying my house in Suffolk will be signing the contract and the transfer of money should go through on Monday or Tuesday.


We have begun the process of buying the house on the cliffs near Dover and as I write this e mails in legal speak are criss-crossing east Kent getting surveyors and the such to do their thang!We have been told that the sale should go through quickly and there is a good chance we will have the keys before I start the new job on February 2nd.

We have a tennant for our flat; someone who works with Jools, and when we sell the house he will just switch to paying Jools' Dad as he will be buying the flat off us.It seems all bases have been covered here; we have the finance, my stuff is out of the old house and Jools has begun to pack the flat up. It seems we have covered most, if not all bases and are stunned at how this has moved forwards so quickly again.

Other than that, not much happening, and so I wish all my friends the best greeting for the season; Merry Christmas.

19th Dec 2008:

OK; we have been here for a week now, and although it is nice to be paid for sitting alongside at the Victoria Pier, the possibilities of fun around here stretch to going to the the bar in the afternoon or evening. Or both.There is only so much brightly coloured knitware anyone could want or buy. The family are going to be so disappointed by their Christmas gifts as everyone will have matching bright red hats. At least they will all match.I failed to buy one for myself as I have a very fashionable Razorbacks wooly hat; well, fashionable in Arkansas anyway. I get admiring glances as I stroll down the main steet; at least that's what I tell myself.

So, today, instead of looking at the rain running down the windows of the lab, Dave and I decided to climb a hill.Because it was there.In fact it still is.So, we set off at first light; half nine this morning! And set off on the scenic route down by the waterside and around the edge of the golf course before heading out of town and upwards.


We timed being at the headland just as the sun rose behind the lighthouse the other side of the sound. I had my camera and recorded that fact to memory card. And to memory.The rain came, and we sheltered in Tescos, and then set off to the hill where there are two very attractive mobile phone transmitters. It was hard against the stiffening breeze. The wind was stiff not anything else; I don't get excited by a westerly wind! Walking beside the main road south was fun as car after car took turns to see just how close they could pass us by.

We turned off and upwards along a farm track through worried sheep and rabbits until we came to the top of the hill. The batteries in my camera failed so I have no shots to prove we got there.It was windier there I can tell you, and we could see a long way, and see the next rain cloud hurrying towards us. We turned back and headed back down.Tomorrow we sail south; maybe. And then the big worry of will we go into port for Christmas, of before and will I be getting off? I don't think so. Jools and I have hatched plans to get me home if a replacement arrives on Christmas Eve.

As this is our last night, maybe, on Shetland, for a achange we are going to go to Captain Flints where they do not know what we drink and have it ready as they can see us walking across the quay from the ship. Honest. There's promis of some traditional music and traditional drunks, which will be nice. We have to be good as representatives from the client arrive in the morning to judge whether we are good enough to go to work by the time we get to Norfolk waters sometime on Monday (if we sail tomorrow).

Nanu nanu.

20th Dec 2008:

Today we were due to sail south through hell and high water to Great Yarmouth, or at least to the new survey area.

We were due to have two new people from our clients looking into health and safety; only that would mean going into port sometime before Christmas to drop them off and losing survey time if the weather is fine.

So, the order came to sail this morning before they arrived. Sail by ten came the order from head office.

The master, being his own man, decided to wait until half past. As we pulled away from the quay the taxi carry the two pulled up, and so they watched us sail away north. See we were going to hide in a bay near the oil terminal and head south at some other point.

Thanks to modern technology, the reps called their head office; who called our head office, and they called the master and ordered him back to port.Which is where we are now. Meetings are taking place. They have been taking place for three hours now. We have missed the weather window to head south and so we will be here for another day or three at least.

My thoughts are; thank goodness I'm leaving this Micky Mouse company and going somewhere else. And still no wrd from my boss either, and days are clearly running out. I have 18 days left and counting down.

Have a great weekend, it'll be fun here.

22nd Dec 2008:

Yes, we are just about to cast off and head south. We have been here for some nine and a half days now and if I'm honest the novelty has worn off. But, we've had some good times, made some friends and the Shetlands are certainly a place worth coming back to, maybe in the summer.

Last night there was a pub quiz in Captain Flints, and four of us decided to take part. We thought there was bound to be a local round, and lots of questions about Scotland; so we thought we didn't stand a chance.Members of the team that won each round got a free shooter and the winning team of the night got more shots and tickets for a Manchester United game. When we had won the first four rounds we realised we were going to win the whole thing. We began giving our free shots to other teams; just to be nice, not to be taking the you know what. The music round we got every question right; and the final general knowledge round we began making wold guesses. We still won by 16 points and at one point I did shout, 'easy, easy.'

Yes, it has been great here; but it is a town with limited attractions for those wanting to let off steam; and now we will have to go and earn our money, because after all this is a job not a cruise.The weather down south is for light winds, which will mean us working until the 26th at least, which means I will not be home for Christmas. Needless to say I am not happy with that, but what can you do? Getting upset won't change anything so I may as well get on with it.

24th Dec 2008:

And so it came to pass that my soon to be ex-boss has now broken a second promise for me to be off the ship by MOnday. He says there are replacement engineers to take my place, and the company wants assurances that I will not just pack my bags when we get into port on Sunday.

It is tempting, I wont lie; but I feel I have to play the game and not burn any bridges. That does not mean he is being unreasonable and dick. The question is if I had no resigned would he have tried harder to get me off? I don't know the answer to that.

What I do know is that if I had a partner who was any less understanding the choice would be between a job and a marriage. And that is no real choice.

And so here I am on Christmas Day surveying the North Sea again and not at home. There will be an empty chair at the dinner table this afternoon, and all the time I am wishing I were there.It is not going to be too bad here; we have our secret santa gifts, a turkey dinner and we will stop working for an hour so we can sit down together. Or would do if there were enough chairs.It aint so bad, I am working and getting paid a kings ransome for being here. I have said that ok for now, but I want to be off for New Years Day as that is when our daily rate and days work counter gets reset. If we are at sea there will be nothing I can do; but if we're in port I can and will walk off.

So, Merry Christmas from me to you, and hoping that your holidays are going well. I know they can be stressful, but enjoy your day, and remember the gift of giving and those less fortunate than yourselves.

25th Dec 2008:

Christmas Day began, quite rightly, at midnight when Slav and myself turned up for the start of our shift. Yes, our second day working in 17 days and it's Christmas; just our luck.

Anyway, it was low pressure stuff, just running our digital survey lines up and down; one of us took turns to work whilst the other relaxed by surfing the net or reading. At half five the mess staff got up; and yet being muslims were more excited about the prospect of Christmas than all of the rest of us. We were greeted by huge smiles and handshakes and exchanged greetings. They had the busiest day of all with the feast to prepare.And what a feast; whilst the rest of us carried on our work, they baked, cooked and did all the other things most of us would take for granted.

At midday the other shift took over, and it was decided to assemble in the lab at a quarter to one for Secret Santa. One of us dressed up with fake beard and red boilersuit to pretend to be Santa, and each one of us had to sit on his knee when our present was pulled out of his full sack. We had just £10 to spend, but the best were those funny gifts like the 'naughty' box of delights our geoligist received. I won't add to her embarrasment any further by listing the contents, but it did turn her cheeks the brightest of crimson.

After that we were called down to eat, and in the mess the most wonderful cold buffet was laid out, and those of who had been up for twelve hours were indeed hungry and filled our plates. It was then sprung on us that this was just the first course as a full turkey dinner was to follow!So with another laden plate we grabbed what seats we could and tucked in whilst The Two Ronnies played out unfunnily on the tv behind.There was even Christmas Pudding for those still hungry, and then mince pies, nuts, Quality Street, Christmas Cake, nuts and Chocolate Log to top the meal out and stretch those belts a little further.

Trying to sleep with a full stomach was difficult I have to say, but I did drop off to the gentle rocking of the ship and the booming of the seismic guns the other side of the hull.

27th Dec 2008:

Yes, it's already Sunday morning here. And I see when I filled in my diary this evening that I have maybe eight or nine days left on board before I can go home for sure. Of course it could even before then, but I'm not counting any chickens quite yet.

So, here we are about 5 hours steaming east of Great Yarmouth, right now just going round in circles waiting for the weather to come down so we can get back to work.

Last night we spent eleven hours getting samples of sand and stones from the seabed. We get paid to do it, so I don't really question the futility of it. What I can tell you is that after a couple of hours in a force six, it don't matter how many layers you have on, it still gets darn cold.But, just before breakfast it was getting too dangerous for work out there, and we came inside. And that really has been the pattern for the last couple of days; just waiting around. We are due to head into port tomorrow; the one where I was supposed to get off. But, as everyone in the office, including my boss, has had Christmas off, the chances of anything been done are a little above zero.

I have sent my boss a mail saying that I want to be off by January 1; that is because that is when double payments for us end. It may sound a little mercenary, but it's the truth. For each day we work this month we get two days pay. How good is that? Well, for those who have worked even more days than I have, they are getting triple pay! And they don't wanna get off, which was the whole point for the company to introduce it.

Jools has been entertaining my Mother; I think at times it has been hard, and I guess it would have been easier with me there. And although Mother and I have had our issues, well I have the issues with her, I would still loved to have been there. Jools made Christmas dinner sound so wonderful, with both her siblings being there. I could only imagine really what it was like.

Other than that, things are pretty much the same around here; there is an abundance of Christmas food left over; the chef made a really hot and spicy Indonesian dish out of the leftover turkey, which was really great. And a change from the usual cold cuts or sandwiches. There is only so much Christmas cake one can eat though.

29th Dec 2008:

And verrily it came to pass that the forces of good did vanquish the forces of evil and brave Prince Jelltex did get permission to go home for the fest of New Year and the feast that is the NFL playoffs.

Maybe it was his force of will, his use of the power of the interweb and e mail that did it; but his arch-enemy the boss did say yeah, go home and stop yer whining.

And the people did cry out in great jubilation at this turn of events and there was weeping.And he did call out using the power of the mobile phone to his beloved, the Princess Jools, and she did grab her trusty chariot, VW Polo and did she head up the Queen's highways known as ye M20 and A12 headed she northwards where the arms of her husband did indeed wait.

And there was more weeping of joy. And thus the brave Price Jelltex did break the spell of employment under the cloaked figure known only as 'the boss' or that t#+t.' And looketh did he forward to the golden of lands of the new job living did they in the new camelot known as The House on the Cliffs.

And liveth did they happily ever after.

30th Dec 2008:

And so I settle back into life back home.The drive back down to Kent was uneventful, as we had to wait until my replacement turned up. The result was that we didn't set off until half seven, and at least by then what traffic there was had long since passed. Dover was quiet and frosty when we arrived, and our three cats were waiting in the hallway demanding what the heck we thought we were doing in leaving it to half ten to feed them dinner; some five hours late.

There was just enough energy to have a shower and a wee dram before bedtime. This morning Jools went into work whilst i battled with the adjusting of switching to living in the daylight that comes with working nights for the last week. I sat in the sofa and watched the sun rise over the frosty hill of River. Trains went by whisking those unlucky enough to be working.

I made do with cranking the heating up another notch and another cup of flavoured coffee with flavoured syrup.

Jools picked me up and we went to our favourite pub for lunch; we both had the pub staple; scampi. And I had a couple of pints of frothy Old Speckled Hen. It's a beer guys. And then we went to visit Jools' Dad and Nan. Nan dd not know I was home and so it came as a huge surprise for her. And we made plans for a long day at the weekend when we would have her over at the flat.

Arriving back I opened the presents that Santa failed to deliver to the ship. Clever Santa brought me two bottles of malt whisky; a high tech bottle opener for those fruity reds, various items branded with the crest of my favourite football team and thermal socks for those long hours standing on the pitching deck at sea.Clever Santa.Back here for more wonderful coffee, chocolate shortbread and the Christmas Wallace and Grommit whilst we shared the sofa with two of our cats.It's good to be home.