Saturday, February 26, 2011

Sightseeing in Bangalore

It is rare that I get to see much of the places I visit when abroad with work. Normally it is just hotel, airport, stadium and whatever tarmac lies in between. But I had a spare morning yesterday and asked a taxi driver to take me on a spin of leafy Bangalore, a city that I like very much.

We saw the crimson-brick law courts, the excessively grand state parliament (and the even grander new one being built next door), the park and the Bangalore Palace, a rather splendid and very British-looking stately pile started by a schoolmaster in the 1860s and completed 80 years later.

It was intended to resemble Windsor Castle, with turrets, battlements and ivy growing up the walls, and from the 1880s was the home of the Maharajahs of Mysore. There was only time for a brief wander, but the palace was being prepared for a large party tonight thrown by Vijay Mallya, owner of the Bangalore Royal Challengers and Mr Kingfisher beer. Clearly my invite went missing in the post.

Then it was on to what the driver called "the white palace", an evening retreat for the maharajah and now a retail mall. Clearly this was the scam bit of the tour - indeed, my driver quite merrily admitted that he got paid a commission for bringing tourists there, flashing a watch that he had received for customers rendered - but I enjoyed a wander round, looking at cashmere scarves, marble chess sets and saris.

When I walked into the area of the palace where carpets are sold, I was approached by a very nice shopkeeper who had a similar look and manner of speaking to Sir Alec Guinness in his later years.

"You want to buy something," he said and I almost felt like replying "I want to buy something". Must be an old Jedi mind trick. The price label of $800 for a small, if gorgeous, carpet that measured about 4ft by 2ft shook me out from his spell.

We finished the trip on the Ulsoor Lake, a reservoir where for 100 rupees (about £1.40), I was able to go for a paddle on a pedalo round the wildlife sanctuary in the middle. It only took two minutes for me to realise how tough pedalling one of these things is. No wonder Flintoff needed a few pints before getting in one at the last World Cup.

Today, being a Saturday, the British journalists on daily papers decided to leave the press conference to the Sunday hacks. There is only so much you can listen to Andrew Strauss talking about how positive England feel. Instead, we went tiger hunting.
Well not quite hunting, but we took a drive out of the city and went to a safari reserve where we saw tigers, lions, bears and other wildlife. The tigers, particularly the white tigers with their cold blue eyes, were astounding to see up close, but the bears were not how I imagined they would be. None of them were picking pawpaws or prickly pears, for a start.
Driving in India still remains a mystery for me, a combination of aggression and impatience with every spare piece of tarmac an opportunity to gain two inches. "They don't follow the rules of the road," my taxi driver said yesterday, but it wasn't a criticism. "I don't follow the rules of the road either, otherwise it would take much longer."
Today's taxi driver had his own views on driving in India. "You need three things," he said. "Good brakes, a good horn and good luck." So far, we have survived.

Thursday, February 24, 2011

Almost like being there

It is a sad fact of modern journalism that sometimes we report from events that we have not been present at. Television and the internet make it so much easier to get details these days, while the expense of sending too many people to cover an event means that often I am asked to bail out those who are there.

I promise I am really in India at the moment - I have the slightly turbulent stomach to prove it - but have sometimes covered matches off the TV. Sometimes you see far more than you would in person.

On at least two occasions, I have reported on the final day of the US Masters golf from my living room (actually, one year was done from the bedroom when my wife banished me because she wanted to watch Damages). Augusta National only gives out two accreditations per paper and far grander people than me nab those, but the work still needs to be done.

This is no new practice, as I learnt from reading Inside the Box, Peter Baxter's autobiography of life as producer of Test Match Special. Baxter relates a tale of Alan McGilvray, the Australian who was a TMS summariser for many years, being part of a "synthetic coverage" of the 1938 Ashes in England.

Because telecom lines back from the other side of the world were unreliable, the Australian Broadcasting Corporation decided to have a team of commentators based in Sydney with a large photo of each venue and a series of cryptic cables back from their man at Lord's or Trent Bridge. From that, they would concoct a ball-by-ball commentary for Australian audiences within a couple of minutes of it happening.

The sound of bat on ball was provided, McGilvray said, by a sound-affects man hitting a lump of wood with a pencil. By the time of the next Ashes, communications were better and the remote commentary team were disbanded.

Police give crowd a damn good thrashing

In the past week of my World Cup journey we've had congestion, a car crash, pollution and now police brutality. Really, India isn't so different to back home.

The M Chinnaswamy Stadium, where England will play India on Sunday, was the venue today for a remake of the Gourmet Night episode of Fawlty Towers, with the Bangalore police playing the role of Basil and the thousands of spectators who had been unable to get tickets receiving "a damn good thrashing".

Their crime was to be miffed that the 7,000 tickets that went on public sale at 8.30am this morning had all gone within two and a half hours. Believing that more would soon be released, they loitered by the ticket windows, at which point in came the boys in beige wielding their lathi bamboo truncheons and spanked them until they moved on.

"It's not fair," one devastated Indian told me, possibly. "I was really looking forward to seeing Mike Yardy bowl his little darts." Another said that he had queued through the night in the hope of getting a ticket to watch Jonathan Trott scratch around for an ugly fifty.

A third person, this one from Ashford in Kent, was protesting about the British Government increasing tuition fees. With the last three thousand pounds of his trust fund, he had taken a gap year and made his way to southern India to make his point. "I didn't expect to get beaten up here as well," he sniffed.

The British police would do well to watch a video of their Indian counterparts in action and learn how to really bludgeon a protestor. None of your straight back and forwards approach here, it is all wristy dabs and swishes, finding the gaps between shirt tails and trouser waistband.

"We train really hard for days like this," a policeman told me while administering six of the best to the neck of a tobacconist. "You don't just rock up to the ground and expect to find your form. Some of us have been beating up taxi drivers in our spare time just to keep our eye in."

Another copper said with pride that he was planning to be in Mumbai for the final on April 2 and would be available for a bit of freelance violence if the local police needed him. "I don't mind whacking some new faces," he said. "It's good to have a change of scenery."

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Going Dutch

Just under an hour from the start of England's first match with the Netherlands in the cricket World Cup here in Nagpur and the omens are not good. For a start, we have just had the first - and I suspect not the last - power cut of the day.

Furthermore, if the scenario that the local scoreboard operators have chosen for their equipment check is right, England are about to make a disastrous start to the tournament. The scoreboard opposite has the Netherlands six without loss, chasing a target of only 52 to win.

I had a surreal experience last night as I sat in a bar between Mike Atherton and Ravi Shastri as they debated, calmly in Athers' case, loudly in Shastri's, how much of a softy Sourav Ganguly is. The Prince of Kolkata has a way of carrying himself that manages to rub his team-mates up the wrong way.

Shastri related an argument he once had with Ganguly, who he felt was unwilling to train as hard as the others. "You should listen to me," Shastri said. "You may be captain of India, but I opened the batting for India."

Speaking of captains, I was surprised to see that Times Now, an Indian TV channel, in an advert introducing its commentators billed Mike Gatting as "England's greatest captain". OK, so he won the Ashes in 1986-87, but they were the only two Tests he won in 23 matches in charge. Surely a Strauss, Vaughan, Hutton, Illingworth or Brearley would have greater claim on the title.

The man from The Sun provided the answer. "It's an Indian channel," he said. "They're still delighted that Gatt stood up to the Pakistanis over the Shakoor Rana affair."

One bleeping thing after another

This post will contain rude language, for which I apologise, but it is impossible not to use naughty words when quoting Alan Bennett. Somehow, the British National Treasure makes even the coarsest profanity sound charming.

I was sitting in my hotel room here in Nagpur, where England start their cricket World Cup journey today (in Nagpur, that is, not in my hotel room where there isn't room to spread the field), and flicking through the 100 channels on my TV discovered that Bennett's The History Boys was on.

The film had not been dubbed but for Indian audiences who might struggle with the Yorkshire accents there were subtitles in English. And I discovered that the subtitles did not always match what was being said. There was a bit of censorship going on, but only for those who could read English but not hear it.

So, "pissed off", though spoken aloud, was changed in the subtitles to "annoyed". "Tits" became "bosoms", "shit" became "crap", "wank" became "self stimulation" and, I particularly admired this, "how's your sex life" became "how is the physical aspect of things".

The F word was definitely a no-no and that was omitted altogether from the subtitles, which rather spoilt the humour of Rudge's line: "history is one fucking thing after another".

Most bizarrely, though, was the decision of the censor to alter one of Francis de la Tour's lines. When Hector tells his fellow teacher that his groping of the schoolboys was "more by way of benediction than gratification", De la Tour says: "That is utter balls."

The subtitles censor changed her line to "That is utter bollocks".

Friday, February 18, 2011

In it to win it

Negativity is a British disease, although some prefer to call it realism. There's the joke about the difference between an optimist and a pessimist in Britain: a pessimist thinks that things can't get any worse and an optimist thinks that they can.

I was rebuked twice yesterday for being negative. At the captains' press conference before the start of the cricket World Cup here in Dhaka, I was sitting next to a Bangladeshi journalist who told me that his country will win the World Cup "or at the very least make the final".

I was too polite to scoff at his confidence, but even though they are playing at home and will have noisy support, it is hard to see the world No 8 side advancing that far. He then asked me what my expectations were for England and seemed shocked when I shrugged and said that we should make the quarter-finals and then would need some luck.

"How can you not believe that your country will win?" he asked. I replied that I had watched them before.

Later that day, as the £20 million opening ceremony, complete with fireworks, a thousand dancers, a giant tiger and Bryan Adams, no less, wound to an end, an Indian journalist asked me for a quote for his Kolkata newspaper.

"Oh, ah, very good, impressive, great fun, certainly much better than anything we could put on in England," I said. To which he again asked in surprise: "Why do you English always put your country down?"

He probably had a fair point, but I was at the opening ceremony for the 2009 World Twenty20 at Lord's. It featured a speech by the Duke of Kent and so much rain that the planned concert by Alesha Dixon was cancelled on health and safety grounds.

That said, that display may have revealed as much of what is at the heart of British culture - royalty, drizzle and petty bureaucracy - as fireworks, dancing and tigers does about Bangladesh.

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Servant of the Civil Service

I've been enjoying A View from the Foothills, the first set of political diaries of Chris Mullin, the slightly bookish and befuddled former MP for Sunderland South and extremely reluctant junior minister in the Blair Government. He does a nice line in observation of his colleagues and honest (and honourable) indiscretion and also reveals how depressingly accurate was the view painted of the Civil Service in Yes Minister.

Two entries from 2000 that I have just read reveal this. In one, he was asked to approve a letter from his department (Transport and Environment) to the Foreign Office but is met with a brick wall when he suggests adding a sentence.

"Oh that's not for you," blurted my Private Secretary. "So why are you asking for my approval if I'm not allowed to change anything?" Mullin replies.

The Private Secretary first tells the minister that he will pass the concern on - "I don't want my concern passed on. I want to amend the letter," Mullin says - then, after the minister is very reluctantly allowed to make his change, Mullin reports that he got a call a few hours later in the House of Commons and was told by the Private Secretary that he had discovered the Foreign Secretary had rejected that idea before so he had decided to remove the line after all.

"I hope you don't mind," the civil servant says, adding to stop Mullin's retort that he had been unable to get hold of the Minister, who had been in Parliament all afternoon.

The other anecdote reveals the stupid - and costly - consultation process of which the Civil Service is so proud. Having fought a fruitless battle earlier in the year against night flights over Heathrow, Mullin decides to reject the Civil Service suggestion that they pay to commission more research into the effect of aircraft noise on sleep.

"What's the point?" he asks. "Whatever the conclusions, you are still going to tell me that nothing can be done about night flights." He speculates that the disgruntled civil servants will just wait until he is moved on before putting it under the nose of a new minister.

By rejecting the consultation, Mullin saved £1.5 million of taxpayers' money. I wonder how much more was wasted - and still is wasted - by Government on research that proves nothing or, if it proves something undesirable, is never acted on?

Land of the Duty Free

Bangladeshis don't travel light. Our flight to Dhaka from Dubai was delayed last night, mainly so that the returning passengers could finish emptying Duty Free. They trotted on to the plane clutching half a dozen plastic bags each, which they somehow stowed in the lockers, under the seats and, for all I knew, up their jumpers.

They could have been asked to put their Duty Free in the hold, but that was already bursting to the gills to judge by the volume of baggage that was put on to the carousel. I waited for an hour as more and more bags were added to the pile and was starting to worry that mine hadn't made it, but when it did arrive there was still half a planeload of passengers waiting for their luggage. Most of it seemed to be wrapped up in duvets tied together with string.

I'm out here for the cricket World Cup - "the cup that counts" as the local advertising campaign rather defensively describes it - and the streets have been decked with lights to mark the occasion. Apparently the Government have also taken all unsafe vehicles off the road and we drove past a graveyard of skeletal and burnt-out coaches on our way to Fatullah for England's warm-up match today.

I dread to think what congestion in Dhaka would have been like if they hadn't taken this measure. The taxi ride from the airport to the hotel last night, a ten-mile trip, took over an hour. London can be pretty clogged too, of course, but these roads were jammed five or six vehicles wide.

That doesn't mean that they were five-lane roads, though. Lane discipline is merely a nice idea here and the standard driving procedure is for short accelerations whenever the merest whiff of a gap emerges, followed by sharp breaking and a toot on the horn at whoever stopped your passage.

Nothing so far, however, has quite matched the Indian taxi driver I once had who drove up on to the pavement to get round one bit of gridlock.

It is all part of the impatient approach to life here and it is charming to a point. Our plane had barely landed and was still making its taxi when there was a stampede by the Bangladeshis on board to line up by the exits. Despite the pleas of the stewardesses to sit down, none of them did even though they must have known they would have an enormous wait come baggage reclaim.

There was a swarm of mosquitoes around the carousels and I have spent much of today scratching at bites. I never got round to getting a malaria vaccination but one local told me there is nothing to fear. "Our mosquitoes are very friendly," he said. "No malaria here."

Lucky 13?

The England cricket team's selection policy for opening batsmen is similar to that used by successive British governments for picking transport ministers. Everyone gets a go in the end.

I'm in Dhaka for the start of the World Cup and this morning's big news is that Kevin Pietersen is being given a go as Andrew Strauss's opening partner in their warm-up match with Canada. I'm surprised that Pietersen hasn't been tried in the position before. His natural aggression would seem suited to the powerplay overs at the start of a match where there are more gaps in the field.

Assuming that he is retained for the first proper match of the tournament, against the Netherlands on Tuesday, Pietersen would be Strauss's thirteenth opening partner in one-day matches and they would be the 21st different first-wicket pair tried since the start of the last World Cup, which is remarkable inconsistency even for England.

The previous 12 to open with Strauss are Trescothick, Bell, Loye, Joyce, Vaughan, Wright, Bopara, Davies, Denly, Kieswetter, Trott and Prior.

Monday, February 14, 2011

Death row, Terminal 3

There probably are more hellish places to be on a Monday night than Heathrow Terminal 3. Guantanamo Bay, I suppose. The less safe parts of Helmand. At a dinner party with Julian Assange. But not many.

I fly quite a bit for work, usually once a month, and I have spent a fair chunk of the past decade in airports. I don't like the places, from the petty security checks (that ridiculous belief that toothpaste becomes less explosive if placed in a clear plastic bag) to the mark-up that Starbucks charge on a tuna melt panini.

But the worse thing about airports is other people and nowhere quite brings you into contact with the great unwashed like T3. First you are forced to go through Duty Free after passport control and have to barge your way past people who can't go on holiday without stocking up on eight bottles of Smirnoff and a couple of hundred B&H.

Then you are squeezed through a tiny corridor into a barely bigger waiting room where you are packed in like turkeys on a Bernard Matthews farm. If you want to walk anywhere, you trip over bags and limbs.

You just about find a seat between two large ladies reading what I imagine they call "books" but seem to feature 100 pages of photos of Katie Price and Natalie Portman, and then you realise that you cannot read the status of your flight on the iPads that pass for departure boards and so you have to get up and barge past the masses again. At least most flights seem to be taking off. God knows how desperate conditions were here during the great snow-in last December.

Oh well, such is the glamorous life of a journalist. In about an hour, my flight is due to take off for Dhaka, Bangladesh, via Dubai, where I will be covering the cricket World Cup. The waiter in my local Indian tells me that Dhaka is an overcrowded city but surely compared with Heathrow Terminal 3 it will be like the Scottish Highlands.

Wednesday, February 09, 2011

Archaeology today

I don't know why this story didn't get a wider airing when it broke nine days ago (maybe it just isn't true) but apparently Donna D'Errico, last seen running and bouncing along the Californian sand in Baywatch, has come over all Indiana Jones and announced that she is joining an expedition to climb Mount Ararat in Turkey in quest of Noah's Ark.

So serious is Ms D'Errico about her new career that she has even turned down a place in Dancing with the Stars to go hunting those long-lost cubits.

"This has been a dream of mine since I was 9 or 10," D'Errico told AOL News, which is surely kosher enough for this not to be some weird hoax. "I went to Catholic school and was fascinated by Noah's ark. I would do class projects based on the ark.

"I've been studying this for years and know where the sightings have been. According to my research, the ark lays broken into at least two, but most likely three, pieces. I believe that one of those pieces is in the uppermost Ahora Gorge area, an extremely dangerous area to climb and explore."

Archaeology was never this glamorous when I did it at university, but shouldn't she serve her apprenticeship by prodding muddy fields in Wiltshire with a trowel for a few years first?

Fruitloops have been seeking the ark for centuries, apparently unable to accept that after such a long time the wood might have just rotted. One question that no one seems to have answered, or even considered, is if the ark really did come to rest on top of a mountain, how did Noah get all the animals down the mountain safely?

Maybe he ripped up the ark to make skis for the elephants?

(Hat-tip to the Retronaut)

Monday, February 07, 2011

A question of rock

A couple of months ago I posted the style diktat of Richard Dixon, the Times's chief revise editor, about the difference between rocks and stones. A rock is too big to be thrown by protestors, apparently. We should more correctly say that they throw stones. That's when they are not throwing fire extinguishers.

Protests are so prolific these days that Richard felt moved to circulate his memo again last week, reminding us that even in north Africa, a rock is something you build pyramids with, while a stone is what you throw. All understood.

But what about the difference between rock musicians and blues musicians? That was bothering me today when I read the obituaries of the much-missed guitarist Gary Moore. The BBC, Times, Independent, ABC and most other news outlets called him a rock legend. A few others, including RTE, said that the Belfast-born guitarist was a blues legend.

This is where I confess, to great embarrassment, that I never knew Moore was in Thin Lizzy, the Irish 1970s group who you would definitely call, on the evidence of The Boys Are Back in Town, a rock group. Although Whiskey in the Jar, one of their other hits, is a folk number.

Anyway, to me he had always been a pure out-and-out blues guitarist. One of the finest. And I had never thought of him as a rock guitarist.

On the way in to work this morning, I listened to his Blues Alive album. Other albums of the past 15 years had such titles as Blues for Greeny, Back to the Blues, Power of the Blues and Old New Ballads Blues.

It shouldn't matter that a bluesman was called a rock guitarist, but it jarred. A life defined in one word and it seemed to be the wrong one.

It got me thinking about what is the difference. As and when Eric Clapton breaks his last guitar string, will old Slowhand be called a rock guitarist or a blues legend by the obituarists? I rather think the latter. But what about Jack Bruce, his bandmate in Cream?

How do you categorise Jimi Hendrix or Jimmy Page or Keith Richards? All were very strongly influenced by the blues, but I suspect that unlike Clapton history will regard them as rockers. Where do the boundaries lie?

I know this is only semantics and that we should just celebrate Moore and his like as wonderfully inventive talents who cannot be pigeonholed, but it should matter. No one ever described Miles Davis as anything other than a jazz trumpeter when he died, for all the weird electronic, hip-hop, trippy stuff he did later in his career. So, I would like to think that we have lost a bluesman first and a rocker second.

A grand day out

Here's Miliband Minor, the school captain, leading out little Dougie Alexander and the rest of the sixth-form history class on their field trip to Helmand.

I wonder why they are wearing their rucksacks on the wrong way round. Is it so that they can get to their sandwiches more easily?