Monday, 9 June 2014

Much Ado About Nothing

Recently, I was supposed to be playing in the band for a charity production of "Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat". Last minute changes meant that there was no live band, and no-one to play Jacob. As I already had the dates in my diary, I allowed my arm to be twisted... 

So, was it a big deal, or wasn’t it? It feels huge, and it feels trivial, all at the same time.

Those whose passion for as long as they can remember has been performing, probably won’t have a clue why anyone could possibly be worried about being on stage, singing a few lines solo in front of an audience. But that’s something I’d never have believed I’d ever do. If I’d had time to consider it properly, I’m sure it would have felt like a huge mountain to climb, even though in reality all I had to do was don a costume, wig and beard, shuffle on stage, sit in a rocking chair, nod sagely and sing a few simple lines. Hardly an Oscar-winning performance; hardly a performance at all, really. So what is there to be nervous about? 

And therein lies the key to the riddle – much to my surprise, no nerves materialised. There simply wasn’t time. In any case, nerves would be a borrowed fear, something whose origin comes from outside self. I “ought” to be nervous, because that’s what’s expected. But the moment the question was asked – would I do it? – alongside that instinctive urge to say no, there popped up a totally unexpected person inside who actually rather fancied the idea, seeing it not as a trial but as an adventure. It makes me wonder who else is hidden in there...

It must have been that little spark of excitement that tipped the balance and made it possible to see beyond any worries and reframe it all as an adventure. I’m too old to pass up the opportunity for an adventure.

The bottom line is that it was no big deal after all. The role was tiny, the audience – though hugely appreciative and filling the hall – was small, and expectations all round were of fun rather than professional polish. 

There are any number of ways of splitting humanity into two camps; one such way is to divide it into those who revel in performing on stage and those who shrink from the very idea. I thought I was one of the latter; now I’m not quite so sure...



Friday, 23 May 2014

Why did I stop writing?

A couple of days ago, out of the blue, I had an email from someone who had come across my old blog and wondered what had caused me to stop writing. It’s a long time since I wrote much more than a brief paragraph of Facebook status update, but something gave me an inkling that it might be worth exploring the answer to that question. Four pages of scrawl later...

Why did I stop writing?

There are so many possible answers to that question, and I’m not sure I even know just how much – or how little – they really give an honest or complete answer, but here goes.

When I started my blog, back in 2003, one of the first decisions was whether to adopt a pseudonym or whether to blog under my own name. At that time, hardly anyone in the UK had even heard the word “blog”, let alone read them or had one, so the chance of anyone I knew in “real life” coming across it seemed vanishingly small. It felt dishonest, inauthentic, to blog anonymously so from day one my blog carried my full identity. To begin with, that worked out fine. Within a few months I was sharing some of my innermost thoughts, both on my blog and through comments on others’ blogs, and found unexpected delight in the community of like-minded souls of which I somehow became a part. But as time went on, this “hiding in plain sight” was no longer possible. Blogs went mainstream (for a while, before Facebook and Twitter took over) and people I knew in the real world began to discover my online presence. That might not have mattered, but my online self exposed parts of me that were usually hidden to others; I became more circumspect, more aware of the potential knock-ons if what I wrote got read by people I’d rather didn’t see it. That in itself may not have killed the blog, but it certainly was one of the nails in the coffin.

I think perhaps others blogging at that time felt something similar. Those first years of the 21st century seem to have been a golden age of blogging. We felt like pioneers exploring limitless new territories – but sparsely populated territories, so there was a spirit of comradeship, sharing what we knew, supporting each other, offering a form of hospitality – opening our doors to strangers and inviting them in. But as this world became more populous, the barriers began to go up; people retreated inside their walls. There was a sense of “now what?” The community lost its vibrancy and vitality and began to stagnate. People drifted away and for whatever reason weren’t replaced by new virtual friendships.

Perhaps that was one reason my own outlook went through a change. At one time, this new-found virtual world assumed such importance for me that it almost eclipsed the real world. These connections made with friends around the globe felt deeper and more significant than the connections with most of those around me, immediate family excepted. But even family belonged to a different world. It seemed that blogging gave an opportunity to sidestep the facade that many of us maintain – knowingly or unknowingly – and connect at a deeper, more intimate level. This led to something of a crisis in my own life, albeit one that I kept mostly hidden in the everyday world. This new-found persona was locked in combat with the “old me”, and I spent 18 months having counselling to try and resolve the struggle and allow both sides to live in harmony. But in the course of this, something strange happened. I was beginning to realise that, attractive as the possibilities of this “new me” were, I couldn’t ignore the old me and the real world. I was neglecting my job big-time; my whole focus had drifted into something that, looking back now, seems almost a fantasy world. I made a decision that, whatever else, I needed to make a real effort to take work more seriously. After all, there were bills to be paid and a family to support. 

Without meaning to, I banished my muse. It happened in a dream; I was in a room full of people, and there were two of me, as two distinct people – the old, familiar me, and this new person, almost a stranger, whose motives and potential actions scared the old me rather. In the dream, I was looking through the eyes of the old me, and for some reason, without being aware of any motivation, I suddenly lashed out at the new me – and he vanished, in a flash of light, as in some magician’s trick. He never reappeared. I kept the blog going for some while after that, but it was never the same. Eventually I closed it down, but not wanting to abandon writing completely, I started another - this one. It was never the same though; no community of friends, no real purpose in writing; my heart had gone out of it.

So I’d lost the drive to write. But where had that drive come from in the first place? When I began blogging, it wasn’t out of any burning desire to communicate or to express myself; I certainly didn’t feel I had any writing talent. It was more a matter of curiosity, and a desire to be part of something interesting and exciting. To begin with, I was perfectly satisfied to post just a short simple paragraph based on some observation or experience from the day. But as time went on, and I read more blogs and gathered more readers to my own, I found to my surprise that people seemed to appreciate what I had to say. I began to try and craft my words more carefully, and people seemed to appreciate that too. I was hooked – but not actually on writing itself, rather on the recognition that came from writing. I’d post something in the evening, then rush downstairs in the morning eager to see what comments has appeared overnight (as most readers were in North America, UK overnight encompassed their evening). Coming from a background of science and engineering, I was something of a geek – a techy, usually only becoming verbose and excited over intricate technical details. Never in a million years did I imagine I’d find people calling me “a writer”, yet here they were, many of them genuinely good writers in their own right – even some professionals. I even got a mention in the Washington Post.

There was a dark side though. It raised my expectations of myself by an order of magnitude. Suddenly I was censoring, editing, word-smithing, anxious to maintain a standard, and more to the point the recognition that resulted. There was good and bad in that – I think my writing did actually improve, but there was a cost, in that more and more I became dissatisfied with what I wrote. Where once I might have posted a spontaneous paragraph giving raw expression to something, now I edited and rewrote so much that the original emotion was left on the cutting room floor.

It was probably that developing writer in me that enabled me to continue writing long after I’d so unceremoniously kicked out my muse, my alter-ego. I guess that in order to answer the question of why I stopped writing, I have also to address the question of why I banished him.

If I’m honest, I guess it was fear – fear of where he might lead me. I was starting down a road going in a radically different direction to that which I’d been following for the previous fifty years. This wasn’t just about writing; I was uncovering aspects of self I barely even knew were there. Things that had lain dormant in my psyche for decades; creatures left to slumber were beginning to stir. I was afraid what might happen if they fully woke up and began flexing their muscles.

Some time before all this, I’d seen something similar happen to others. At that time, I was studying counselling at evening classes, as a precursor to try and shift career into management development. Odd choice for an engineer, I know, but that’s another story, albeit perhaps linked by those dormant aspects of self. Although originally I was only doing this because it was recommended as a first step, I found an unexpected affinity with the precepts, especially of Carl Rogers’ “Person Centred” approach. There were a couple of people on that course who unexpectedly quit part way through. Although no reason was given, my guess is that, like me, they’d realised they were going down a path which led somewhere that, from the perspective of where they then stood, they were scared to be.

Who can say whether those choices – theirs and mine - were good or bad choices? Exploring new paths, to continue the metaphor, might be exciting and lead to wonderful new lands, or they might lead to a back-breaking tumble over a cliff edge or drowning in a swamp.

Perhaps that exposes another reason why I stopped writing. Life on the edge is exciting; safe is boring. Without fully realising what I was doing, not for the first time in life I opted for safety, living in a comfortably upholstered rut. There’s little worth writing about there.

Five years down the line, life continues to be largely comfortable. Maybe some discomfort wouldn’t go amiss.

Thursday, 19 April 2012

Prelude

If I had anything to say, I might start writing again.  But I suspect the stuff I might say is getting held back, blocked behind the stuff I can't (or won't) say.  I guess that means it's time to start writing morning pages again.


Friday, 16 September 2011

A landscape of interminable undulations

“…all this had caused him most unpleasant dreams; waking at very early dawn… he had found himself comparing this ghastly journey with his own life, which had first moved over smiling level ground, then clambered up rocky mountains, slid over threatening passes, to emerge eventually into a landscape of interminable undulations, all the same colour, all bare as despair.  These early morning fantasies were the very worst that could happen to a man of middle age; and although the Prince knew that they would vanish with the day’s activities he suffered them acutely all the same, as he was used enough to them by now to realise that deep inside him they left a sediment of sorrow which, accumulating day by day, would in the end be the real cause of his death.”

From "The Leopard" by Giuseppi Tomasi di Lampedusa

Monday, 29 August 2011

Trial By Jury


I spent the last 2 weeks on jury service; it left me with real doubts about the fairness of our famed English justice.  This is an attempt to get my thoughts in order before possibly following up elsewhere. [Updated 13:30 30th August 2011].

Remember the description of planet Earth in Douglas Adams’ “The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy”?  Mostly harmless.   Trial by jury is a bit like that – mostly fair and effective.  But not entirely so; it may be good but it isn’t perfect.  Even after all these years, flaws remain.   Any business manager worth his salt will tell you that system design should be open to continuous improvement, uncovering the flaws and refining them out of the system, but one senses that the English judicial system has become too inflexible to allow adaptation.  While there’s no obvious case for revolution, the principle of continuous improvement means there is always a case for evolution, yet the system seems too rigid to permit even the contemplation of the minor tweaks that could address the flaws.  Flaws that in some cases result in justice so crude it verges on being arbitrary.

The adversarial system – a theatrical and sometimes barely civilised battle between opposing counsels for prosecution and defence – inevitably tends to create two interpretations of the circumstances of an alleged crime that are polar opposites.  Prosecution paints the defendant as blacker-than-black, pulling out every shred of evidence that can be used to bring out his or her guilt.  The defence, always on the back foot since the prosecution necessarily goes first, attempts to create an opposing view, re-interpreting events to put the defendant in the most positive and sympathetic light that the evidence allows.  Perhaps if a simple verdict of guilty or not guilty is all that the jury is required to decide, this approach is good enough.   No nuanced judgement is required, there are no shades of grey, just a simple verdict of did or didn’t the defendant commit the act of which they stand accused.

If our case had been that simple in its structure, there would have been no problem.  But it wasn’t that simple.

Although there was only one incident – a stabbing – there were two charges, one an alternative to the other; unlawful and malicious wounding with intent to cause grievous bodily harm, or a lesser charge of simply unlawful and malicious wounding, without any statement of intent.  The difference between the two charges has very little to do with the cause of wounding, but is about the intent behind the action.  The jury is asked to determine, on the basis of the evidence, not only what actually happened, but what was in the mind of the defendant at the time.  It is important to recognise that both charges are of malicious wounding – wounding that was deliberate as opposed to accidental – but the more serious of these charges concerns the intention behind the act of wounding.  Did the defendant intend “merely” to hurt the victim, or did he intend to cause really serious harm?

This makes the task of the jury more complicated on two counts, compared to a simple “did he or didn’t he” verdict.

Firstly, they are asked to evaluate not only facts, but what was going on in the mind of the defendant, which they can only infer from the details of the circumstances surrounding the actions.  Secondly, they have to make a fine value judgement, placing that intent somewhere on a continuum between accident (“I only meant to scare him”) at one end of the scale and attempted murder at the other.  Furthermore, having placed the perceived intent on that continuum, they have to determine whether it sits on one side or the other of a dividing line called “intent to cause grievous bodily harm”.  And as if that wasn’t enough, they have to figure out for themselves exactly where that dividing line itself sits on the continuum.  This is a whole different ball game to the simple “did he or didn’t he” form of verdict.

Answering “did he or didn’t he” commit the act fits comfortably within the black and white framework constructed by the adversarial approach of prosecution and defence.   But that approach gives very little substance with which the jury can work in that uncertain middle ground where they have to try and unpick the hyperbole and establish  exact shades of grey where the only colours presented to them have been black and white. The whole thrust of the prosecution is that the defendant is guilty of the more severe charge; the defence’s line is that the defendant didn’t even carry out the act so how they be guilty of either charge? At no point in the court proceedings does anyone - neither defence or prosecution counsel nor the judge - address the evidence in a way which might shed any light on the possibility that the defendant is only guilty of the lesser charge. 
 
To reach a fair verdict in these circumstances, the jury needs knowledge in three areas, none of which was adequately addressed:
  •          An appreciation of the continuum of intent (from scaring off, to murder)
  •          An appreciation of the continuum of harm (from a scratch, to life threatening injury)
  •          Sufficient evidence to be able to determine the position of the defendant’s mind on the former continuum, and his intended result on the latter continuum – i.e. what injury did he intend to inflict (which may not be the same thing as the injury actually inflicted) and did that intended injury cross the boundary into GBH?  Note that there seems to be no legal definition of what constitutes GBH – the only guidance we were given is that it is “really serious harm”.

Based on the debate which took place in the jury room, I don’t believe the majority of members of the jury had either of those two appreciations; unless these could be established, any review of evidence has no frame of reference within which to make a judgement.  It was clear from what was said that, in the minds of most jurors, the act of stabbing necessarily indicates an intent to cause GBH.  But if that were the case, why would there be the lesser charge?  The implication of the very existence of the two charges is that the law makes provision for the possibility that wounding may be malicious without necessarily being intended to cause GBH.  Yet that provision was lost on the majority of the jury.  It has to be said, too, that the adversarial approach tends to reinforce that viewpoint, by seeing everything from points of view which are polar opposites with no exploration of the middle ground.  That exploration is left up to the jury, if they ever even realise that there is a middle ground to be explored.

Although the judge gives a certain amount of explanation to the jury before they retire to consider their verdict, that explanation still tends to reinforce the black and white view of things, with no attempt to describe the continuum either of intent or of harm.  The question remains stated in simple terms which mask the complexities which underlie it - did the defendant intend to cause really serious harm?  Yes or no?  To the layman, who has already determined that the defendant carried out the stabbing, what other interpretation can there be but that he intended to cause GBH?

The jury, with no legal background and only cursory guidance, are being asked to make a fine judgement with enormous implications for the life of the defendant.  A conviction for the more serious charge is likely to carry a sentence three times as long as for the lesser charge – 6 years as against 2.  With actual time served  likely to be half of those figures, and taking into account the 5 months already served in custody in this case, the effective difference is even more apparent – 31 months against 7.  You would think that after 5 days of trial, the court ought to take sufficient steps to ensure that the jury has a thorough understanding of the task at hand and the parameters it has to consider when reaching a fair verdict.

This is where the flaws in the system start to become apparent, opening up the way for improvements to the process.  Given that the jury can be assumed to start with no actual legal knowledge, but instead many preconceived ideas concerning all manner of legal matters and terminology, there has to be some communication to impart the necessary level of understanding.  Now, communication is a 2-way process.  If A wishes to communicate something to B, it is incumbent on him to verify that B has not only heard the message but has understood it.  Yet in the case of a jury, the communication is 1-way only.  The judge makes many statements in court but the jury must remain silent at all times.  The only communication allowed back to the judge is by way of a written question, which is taken to the judge who may answer it by calling the jury back into court – where, again, they must remain silent as they receive his answer.

People reach mutual understanding by a process of dialogue – a 2-way exchange.  Yet the legal proceedings are structured in such a way as to make that impossible.  So we’re left with a jury whose knowledge of the parameters  by which they are supposed to be determining guilt or innocence is at best both sketchy and varied, and at worst plain wrong.  To this day, in spite of mulling over the verdict we reached almost every waking hour for the last three days (and I suspect for many of the sleeping hours as well) I have absolutely no idea whether the verdict we reached was fair and just, or not.

Somehow, in a case like this where the jury is judging not black and white but shades of grey, a means has to be found by which the jury is furnished with the understanding necessary to complete its task according to some clear predetermined principles.  If conventional 2-way dialogue cannot be accommodated within the processes of the court, then some other means – a form of jury education – must be found to enable the jury to make a sufficiently nuanced determination.  The impact is potentially huge – in this case it could have knocked several years off a prison sentence.  If anyone who sits on the right side of law cares, that is.  I gained the distinct impression that most did not.

Saturday, 13 August 2011

Bass Guitar transcriptions


I spend a lot of my spare time, when I get the opportunity, playing bass guitar for shows put on by a number of local amateur dramatic groups, including Meme Productions, FFBOS and Completely Productions.  For full shows, the scores are usually provided, but sometimes we do extracts or an evening of "songs from the shows", which usually means working from a piano part and and an MP3 or Youtube clips.  Having spent several hours transcribing bass parts, using the superb (and free) Musescore software, I figured I might as well make these available, on the unlikely chance that someone, somewhere, might by trying to do just the same thing.

They can be found via the main menu bar above on the Music Transcriptions page

Sunday, 26 June 2011

A Tale of Authentic Africa


Two years ago today, we’d just returned from a once-in-lifetime trip to Zambia, visiting our son, who was teaching in Lusaka, and his wife.  I’d intended to document the trip, but for one reason or another I lost the energy for writing.  I kept a few notes in my journal though, particularly of one eventful day...


It had been a near perfect trip so far – upgrades at all three safari camps we’d visited, plenty of wildlife photos; even the couple of thousand kilometres travelled by  4 x 4 had given a fascinating insight into life in rural Zambia.  Admittedly though, we were experiencing Africa mostly from a  distance, viewed through the car window or from the safety of a safari vehicle or camp.  We were getting used to it, accustomed to it – a warm and friendly place, it seemed.  There had been a little edginess in Chipata, perhaps – in an exclusively black town with not a European face in sight we felt very much the outsiders; the kids outside the supermarket were more aggressively acquisitive than any we’d encountered elsewhere, demanding anything they could see through the car windows, departing with a casual “fuck you” when we ignored them.  All the same, elsewhere, the sight of schoolkids immaculately turned out, besuited men on bicycles, huge numbers of churches, made Africa seem a friendly and welcoming place.  Although in the south of the country, in the villages towards the Zambezi, we’d seen kids standing by the dirt road with arms outstretched, palms upwards and sullen faces - a gesture of demand, not of begging – those occasions were easily outnumbered by images of children smiling and waving.  But the edginess is there all the same; mostly harmless as Douglas Adams put it in “The Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy”, but not completely so.


Our Africa experience became a little more authentic on the way back from Livingstone to Lusaka.  When travelling these roads, forewarned is forearmed – it’s best to leave time for “eventualities” and  set out before dawn, arriving in the early afternoon - better to arrive early and kick your heels for 3 hours at the far end, than have an incident and still be travelling after dark.  Suppose an overturned lorry blocked the entire road – cliff on one side, ravine on the other? It could easily happen; it nearly did on our way down.  The road was unusually wide at that point; had it been narrower, there would have been no way round, and we’d simply have had to wait until it could be cleared.  Fortune smiled on us on that occasion, but it might not next time.


So ideally you build in several hours contingency, and if events eat into that contingency, the risk and the sense of unease start to build.  Plan A was to spend 2 nights in Livingstone, enjoying a touch of luxury; tasting, for a moment, life as the other half live.  We’d arrive at mid-day, go for a sunset cruise on the Zambezi, then on the following morning visit Victoria falls and the craft market for souvenir shopping, take tea at the Royal Livingstone Hotel in the afternoon, and return the following day.  Still under canvas, mind – a touch of luxury, yes, but only a touch all the same.

We didn’t get our now-customary upgrade this time; perhaps we should have taken that as an indication that our fortunes were changing.  Just a standard safari-style tent with typical campsite communal washing facilities.  Then, on the cruise, Rachel almost passed out, and spent a sizeable part of the time on her back on the floor, head on a cushion, feet propped up in classic recovering-from-fainting pose.  Thankfully she soon recovered, but she was ill again during the night, and that same night my wife also succumbed to the African equivalent of Delhi-belly, on this one occasion when our safari tent didn’t come with en-suite facilities.  (Yes, there is such a thing as a tent with en-suite facilities!)  An already unpleasant situation wasn’t helped by the need to take multiple trips to the shared ablution facilities on a very cold night.  Cream teas and mountains of cake seemed a risky indulgence for two dodgy tummies, so we decided to cut our losses and return to Lusaka after an early (and very cold) visit to the falls.  Still, we should get back to Lusaka by sunset, all being well. 




All being well; but we’d already used up every minute of our contingency time.  We were doing fine until just outside Mazabuka, having covered 350 of the 480km total distance.  I’d been taking a turn at the wheel; we stopped for Paul to take over and he immediately noticed something amiss with the brakes – far too much travel in the brake pedal.  Not being used to the vehicle, and not needing the brakes much anyway, I hadn’t noticed.  We checked the brake fluid – the reservoir was almost empty.  Lying on the road and peering under the car, the first wheel I looked at showed the problem all too clearly – brake fluid sprayed all over the front suspension and inside face of the tyre.  I got Paul to press the brake pedal – a tiny jet of fluid shot out from a pinprick hole in the flexible rubber pipe.  Bad new; very bad news.  Still 2 hours driving to go, not long until it became dark, and no brakes to speak of.  Paul was adamant there was no chance of getting it fixed in Mazabuka “This is Africa; everything takes three times as long.  They’ll say they can fix it, then find they can’t and they wont be able to do anything until tomorrow.  “But we can pay them plenty of dollars”, I say, naively  thinking the prospect of dollars would magically open doors.  “You don’t understand, that’s not how it works here; this is Africa”.

But we had to try.  Now, if you’re going to break down, a couple of km outside the second largest town in Zambia is about the best place to do it, although the timing wasn’t ideal – after 4pm, and everything shuts at 5.  We limped into town, keeping a long way back from any vehicles in front and keeping a wary eye out for street traders with their barrows who seemed oblivious to the traffic, darting from side to side as though it was they who clearly had the right of way, not us.  Maybe according to local custom they had.  I don’t suppose Zambia has a Highway Code, and even if it does, I can’t imagine anyone reads it.  There’s certainly no-one in evidence to enforce it.

We passed a run-down looking shack with “brakes and clutches” painted in black on its once-white walls.  Buildings in Zambia seem to receive one coat of paint in their lifetime; as the building ages, so does the paint.  Most of it is chipped, peeling, faded and dirty, giving the town a well-worn, seen-better-days look.  Outside, a group of men were fitting tyres that looked almost-but-not-quite completely bald onto rusty looking truck wheels, working by hand with hammers and tyre levers.  Probably just as well the proprietor couldn’t help us – I don’t think I’d want to drive a vehicle whose brakes had been on the receiving end of their style of mechanical attention.  He directed us across town to Autoworld.

They had no spare brake pipe, but we bought a couple of bottles of brake fluid, optimistic that we’d somehow get to the point where we could use it.  Next door to Autoworld was a very up-market looking (for Mazabuka) workshop.  Very new, with pristine paintwork, fitted with several ramps and modern tyre fitting gear – it wouldn’t have looked out of place back home; indeed, it would have put many such UK enterprises to shame.  We spoke to the mechanic working under a car raised up on ramps.  He called over a colleague, a young, burly cheerful looking Zambian; we explained our predicament, he took a look, saw the problem and wheeled over a trolley jack to take a closer look.  Easy to see the problem; harder to fix.  Not only had they no spare pipe, but after half an hour of struggle he couldn’t get the old pipe off.  At least if he could have done that, he could plug the end and we could drive with brakes on 3 out of 4 wheels.  Illegal in the UK of course, and maybe here too, but with no spares in town, what else can you do?  Anyway, this is Africa...

But as I say, he couldn’t get the old pipe off.  5 o’clock, and everywhere around was shutting down; shutters coming down, people packing up and walking home, and the sun edging ever closer to the horizon.  An unexpected overnight stay was looking more and more likely.  So this is the real Africa -  a fatalistic, shoulder-shrugging  approach to life.  Shit happens, and you just have to deal with it.  Vehicle breakdowns, no spare part – what choice is there but to wait as long as it takes until a bodged repair can be effected?  Broken down buses and lorries by the roadside had been a standard feature of our travels; several times we’d passed a bus - the ubiquitous sky-blue Toyota HiAce - at the roadside, passengers disembarked and wandering around or sitting on a pile of luggage whilst the driver had his head under the bonnet or was jacking up a wheel.  Goodness knows how they manage to make repairs, but evidently they do, otherwise the roadsides would be littered with abandoned buses.


This is in the centre of Lusaka – the only photo I have of these buses.

My mind wandered over the possibilities as the mechanic struggled to undo the recalcitrant nut. (To his credit, he obviously knew that to round off the flats on the pipe fixing nut would be disastrous and must be avoided at all costs).  The best outcome – a full repair – was already off the table.  Next best would be successfully to plug the end of the pipe and proceed with 3 brakes – but would it be better to travel to Lusaka in the dark, or to find lodgings overnight and wait until morning?  Then there was the worst case scenario – “Sorry, I can’t do anything” – and we’d be stranded.  No RAC, no friend to call, or none less than 2 hours drive away, a vehicle that couldn’t even be moved, and a big question mark over the  forthcoming trip through Namibia to the coast for Paul, Rachel and two friends who were due to arrive on the plane we’d be flying out in.

The sun dropped, the mechanic struggled, and I fretted.  So, this is the real Africa.  I joked to Paul that his African adventure wouldn’t be complete without this, but he wasn’t amused.  At that moment we’d both happily have swapped African adventure for European security and predictability.

But perseverance paid off – the offending nut finally gave in to dogged attempts to release it and now the way was clear to patching us up enough to limp back to Lusaka.  The mechanic called over  an older, wiry looking African in grease-stained jacket and trousers rather than overalls, who I took to be the boss.  He paid little attention to us, but sat on the ground, one leg either side of the wheel hub as he devised a way of inserting a plug inside the junction between the fixed and flexible parts of the brake pipe.  For all the fact that the repair was clearly a bodge, he gave the impression of having many years of successful bodging behind him, with an intuitive understanding of how to keep old vehicles functioning, if not exactly roadworthy.  I trusted him; but after all, we had little choice.

I wasn’t altogether convinced though at this point that continuing our journey was the wisest choice; wouldn’t it have been safer to stop overnight – the Brandt guide identified a lodge with en suite facilities just a few hundred yards away – and finish the journey in daylight?  But the prospect of another night in a strange bed and with unknown sanitary arrangements was distinctly unappealing to my wife, whose tummy was still feeling distinctly fragile, so we settled up - K100,000, about £12 for well over an hour’s work  - and set out.

Paul gingerly tested the brakes, not too sure what to expect.  Not so hard as to be too severe a test for the temporary repair, but hard enough to be sure that they worked.  Of course, with only one front wheel having a working brake, the car pulled strongly to one side under braking, and the heavier the braking, the more violent the pull.  The trouble was, it was the left hand brake that wasn’t working, which meant that an emergency stop would send us veering violently over to the right – straight into the path of any oncoming traffic.  It was manageable to a degree, by remembering to steer hard left when braking, but when you’re tired and driving by instinct, who’s to say you’ll remember and react in time?  We set a speed of a steady 60kph.  Half what we might do in daylight and with four good brakes, but anything faster seemed pushing our already stretched luck too far.

The reason most Europeans avoid driving at night in Zambia soon became apparent.  Most of the traffic at night is juggernauts travelling to and from South Africa and few bother to dip their headlights as they approach.  Night driving becomes a game of Russian roulette; all you can see ahead is two blinding lights surrounded by darkness; all you can do is steer, hopefully, to the left of the lights, praying that there is indeed vacant tarmac in the blackness ahead of your wheels; praying that the driver is actually awake and on his own side of the road.  The roads are unlit, there are no white lines or cats-eyes at the centre or the verges, just a strip of grey tarmac with indistinct edges merging into the bush.  The  Nissan Patrol, for all its strengths, has abysmal lights that barely seem better than a pocket torch.  Not only do you hope there are no vehicles hidden by the glare of oncoming lights, there could be travellers on foot or bicycle who have chosen the tarmac for their bed.  The nights are chilly, and tarmac stays warm from the sun’s daytime heat long after night has fallen.


Imagine this scene at night, blinded by the undipped lights of the oncoming truck; 
imagine the reason for those wavy skid-marks.

We nearly came a cropper once when we encountered a small truck, full beam blazing, parked facing us on our side of the road.  Had we steered to the left of that one, we’d have ploughed into the group of passengers who were milling around at the side of the road.  Just as well there was nothing coming as we swerved over to the other side of the road to avoid them.

Bus breakdowns are no respecters of daylight hours either.  We passed a group sitting around a fire they’d lit beside their immobile bus; just another feature of everyday life in Africa.  Presumably they’d be spending the night there.  Fears of the night started to creep in.  Suppose the worst wasn’t yet over?  Suppose the bodge failed and we were left without brakes altogether?  Suppose we were marooned in the middle of the bush, at night, with no source of aid, limited water supplies and no means to carry out repairs; suppose we misjudged one of those gambles with the blinding headlights?  It wasn’t a comfortable journey; I counted down the minutes – we’d be maintaining this level of stress for another 3 hours yet.

Amazingly, in spite of the woeful  inadequacy of the Nissan’s lights, we managed to avoid the pot-holes which litter these roads.  Now another problem loomed – fuel was running low.  Normally we’d be carrying a couple of large jerrycans, but the trip from Lusaka to Livingstone can be made on one tankful, and in any case garages are more frequent on this stretch of road than most – it is the main route in from South Africa.  Frequency is relative though – in this case, it means three or four petrol stations over the 500km of the trip – an average of 100km between each.  We should have had enough, but we’d been using the aircon during the day since one of the window winders had broken and the window couldn’t be wound down, plus the 60kph crawl was in 4th gear, not 5th,  increasing our fuel consumption.  Running out of fuel would not be good.

Our experience of Zambian people had been good thus far – friendly people, smiling faces, smartly dressed eager schoolchildren.  But now we saw another face.  Perhaps it was just the ancient fear of the night, the strain of the journey, our tiredness.   The petrol station forecourt now seemed a threatening place, at least to our eyes.  Small groups milled around, their purpose unknown.  Those children who looked so appealing in daylight now crowded round, surrounding the car, knocking on windows, trying to sell us nuts or smoked fish.  Their faces were no longer smiling.  Older people hovered behind them in the shadows.  Just as you’d choose to keep a safe distance from the youths who congregate at night in places like bus stations in the UK, so we felt a similar sense of threat from these who chose to spend their evening on this forecourt, for reasons unknown.

In reality of course we probably had nothing to fear; those same faces in daylight would have carried no menace, just a minor annoyance.  All the same, we were mightily relieved to have filled up and be on our way.  Just 95km to go now.

We’d taken the opportunity to have the windscreen cleaned too, and the scatter of light from the oncoming headlights wasn’t as bad as before.  The remainder of the journey passed without incident; the closer we got to Lusaka, the safer we felt.  Only when familiar sights came in view did we feel we could finally relax.  We unloaded the car whilst Paul went straight for the whisky, poured himself a very large – and well-deserved -  glass, and collapsed, eyes glazed, into a chair.

I started by saying that our fortunes had seemed to take a turn for the worse, but in hindsight good fortune had still followed us.  The problem with the brakes had revealed itself without scaring us shitless in a moment of hard braking panic; we’d driven straight up to a place capable of giving us a temporary fix on the spot, they’d even been prepared to stay an hour later than usual in order to do so; the seized nut had unseized at just the right vital moment; a fuel station was open just when we needed it.  So maybe our luck did hold out after all.  Or maybe those prayers I had no right to offer, but did so anyway, were answered.

And we did have a truly authentic African experience.



More photos from the trip can be seen here: