32. Dolphins, drones and…dogs

It’s bad enough being a toxic bachelor but in the next couple of years there is almost certain to be a rubbish incinerator located not far from this beautiful island, as reported in the latest edition to Cheung Chau’s print media (pictured). I guess I better enjoy the natural world alongside my preternaturally single status while I can?

Incinerator news

Fortunately, it seems for now at least dolphins are willing to come and fish, in some numbers, off Cheung Chau. I’m no scientist so can only speculate that the trawling ban around Hong Kong, combined with unusually clear waters, tempted them towards the southwestern shores of Cheung Chau over Chinese New Year for a rare visit.

south by southwest

These weren’t the blighted pink variety of which we hear so much – and see so little – around Lantau (a memorable dolphin-spotting trip some years back ended in my ex-wife and I pleading with a floating plastic bag, disguised as a sentient mammal, to transmogrify and forgive us our human sins) but big, muscly, grey-backed things, powering themselves through the water as a handful of tourists and scattering of insouciant fishermen looked on.

Adding to the experience, the two rare beasts I call my parents were beside me, all signs being that the island’s spookily good behaviour (too cold for snakes yet a tree-climbing lizard obliged us by munching on a fat fly in clear view) would continue for the duration of their visit.

Which made the next episode all the stranger. Not used to seeing dolphins whilst I’m floundering around the island, I’m even less used to seeing drones, but the delicate-looking dervishes are as identifiable as they will soon be omniscient, and I had no doubt what type of creature was welcoming us to a usually isolated beach near our viewpoint, a camera slung under its exoskeleton.

While most Hong Kong couples settle for walking, or wheeling, a beloved pooch around at weekends, here we came across a man in his mid-20s taking his drone for an airborne stroll. Unable to fuss over the thing, or adjust its tartan onesie, his partner – sporting impenetrable shades – appeared less than thrilled with her suitor’s devotion to it. Or at least to the giant remote control he was clasping. Because despite the pilot’s concentration it wasn’t completely clear who was master and who was mastered as the mechanical menace hovered around the edges of our photos and videos, emitting a kind of embarrassed whirr as its altitude fluctuated. Perhaps the youngsters looked embarrassed too. The sunglasses, and lack of opportunity to pet their…pet robbed us of any chance to exchange niceties, despite the mutual view of ancient coastline.

Just then a scraggly pack of the island’s much-maligned wild dogs appeared on a rocky outcrop high above us and began to howl, though whether in an effort to reclaim this ownerless territory from man or machine I can’t be sure. Either way, I’ve never been quite so happy to see them.

To find out more about the threat posed to Hong Kong’s islands by the proposed waste incinerator you can visit:

Living Islands Movement

Time Out article, July 2014

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31. At last, a home for the cowboys of the sea

There’s definitely a novel to be written about Hong Kong’s outlying islands. Of course I would say that, wouldn’t I? While it’s tempting – for me at least – to play on the men-as-islands metaphor, that risks distracting from the very real characters who live, or once lived, around these parts – individuals far too vivid in reality to be converted into vessels of authorial whimsy. Some of these determinedly eccentric men and women made their home The Sea Ranch, a once-decadent beachside housing complex situated on a secluded part of Lantau Island, and accessible from Cheung Chau via a residents-only chugboat.

This charming short film by Piotr Zembrowski sheds light on what it was like to live at The Sea Ranch during its glory days when yachts danced on a glittering sea and champagne glasses twinkled on broad-brimmed balconies ahead of evening naughtiness. It’s a near-perfect bittersweet tale of Bacchanalian privilege, Ballardian decline, snobbery, reverse snobbery, and the love we can invest in our manmade environment when it segues so successfully with nature and memory. Why spoil a good story by making it fiction?

Back on Cheung Chau, The Garden is one of two pubs to be found on the short stretch between ferry pier and main beach. The newer hostelry is Austrian and offers extra-strong beer to Chinese tourists wanting some bang with their bratwurst. While the bierkeller expands at a rate unrivalled by anything on CC bar the pipeline-in-progress near the pig slaughterhouse (another, darker novel is buried there perhaps), The Garden appears pretty much the same as it does in this aged photo from Travel Head’s blog.

The Garden pub

What I find most intriguing about these slightly scrambled old school blog entries is the story of The Garden’s former landlord Joe. According to a friend who regularly delivered his magazine to the bar some years ago, Joe was an aspiring B-movie actor and ferocious drinker who passed away aged around 40. Although many of us are drawn to those with larger-than-usual appetites, drinking tales often lose their appeal when we find out the habit helped cut short the life of the participant. However, I think this extract from Travel Head’s blog is worth reading, if only to illustrate that even if Joe’s actions were exaggerated by booze he was often impassioned for a worthwhile reason.

The Garden Pub had an outdoor area right across the walkway, so we all hung out there. Intermittently, we’d hear Joe yelling or smashing things. He was rather upset, as it was the 10-year anniversary of the Tiennamein [sic] square massacre on June 4th. So every now and then, he’d break in to a rage about it, and then calm down. You had to let him calm down on his own. If we tried to talk to him, he’d say that not being Chinese, we didn’t understand, and I guess he was right. Although we knew of the injustices that took place, perhaps it had a much deeper meaning for him. Although I’m sure a lot of it was the alcohol talking as well.

I’d love to know more about The Sea Ranch, Joe, and Cheung Chau’s recent history. Please feel free to share your stories below. I don’t know if people living on islands are much different to those living in urban areas, except perhaps that they have wider horizons and starrier skies to contend with. Could this be the source of their inspiration, and madness? Might explain why I’ve started looking for escaped pigs in the twilight…

30. Who would live in a house like this?

IMG_2753IMG_2754
My money’s on Manchester pop culture pundit and resolutely non-renaissance man Terry Christian having moved to the island. That’s The Word on the street anyway. As for the beer, I always loved the malty smell of the Boddingtons brewery whenever I passed Strangeways in Manchester but the ale itself is too smooth for my taste. A bit like Terry himself?

24. Exposed: how Cruise would be ferried (if he lived here)

The heat is on, and that can only mean one thing on the island: it’s time to upgrade to DeLuxe class on the ferry, something my socialist affectations have been loathe to endorse until now. In fact, the 19 dollar price tag (£1.40) hardly suggests I’m going to find Salvador Dali and Mia Farrow munching on butterflies up here, or even Brad and Angelina promoting their latest wine, but the top deck, with its relentless air-conditioning and ‘superior’ view (i.e. layers of condensation through which it’s hard to make out the lesser, more interesting harbour craft) does have a moreish quality, especially in this weather. There is elbowroom, a table to work at, and a crewmember to tidy up all the sweat-clotted tissues it took to get this far.

Cruise and Chinese lanterns

Public transport is generally fantastic in Hong Kong, only ruined by one thing: other people (millions of them). Here in DeLuxe there are noticeably fewer of them; this is where the cool crowd hangs (an old man examines his McDonald’s breakfast suspiciously, a teenage couple stare at me with detached fear, a mother and daughter bicker softly). And it’s all very nice…for a while. But this isn’t a city that was ever meant to be enjoyed in (relative) isolation. Long before the ferry docks I have mentally braced myself for the next stage of my journey, involving as it does a march through ultra-modern Hong Kong station, amongst viciously elegant commuters, followed by a packed MTR ride.

Music at the ready, all systems go, I head below decks (inhaling the scent of hot metal and steaming armpits) from where I can beat the rush as we disembark. Here is where I used to belong: amongst ‘my’ people – the workers, dreamers and misers paying only 12 dollars a ride. A feeling of betrayal washes over me. What have I become? What do they think of me now? I look around to try and gauge the reactions of my old comrades (anger? indifference? angry indifference?) but find them difficult to make out, my glasses having almost completely steamed up due to the change in temperature.

De Luxe Ferry

Price: HK$19 dollars / HK$28 at weekends (one way)

Sea Miles: ask local operator for details

23. Rat-tle my timbers: it’s a snake!

While my first SNAKE ENCOUNTER (I can sense the view count soaring already) was not as petrifying as that involving a metre-long cobra recently trapped in a Sai Kung doorway like a passive-aggressive draft excluder, the beast was still long enough (1.25m) to make me think twice about skirting round it (I won’t specify its exact location as it might risk scaring potential guests away). Eventually its dopey countenance and small head gave me the confidence to make the leap. As in most snake encounters (I suspect) ABSOLUTELY NOTHING BAD HAPPENED yet to say my heart rate didn’t increase would be a fib.

Employing the principle that the best antidote to such a meeting is often a refined dose of venom, I found myself watching Vice News’ Snake Island documentary soon after my SNAKE ENCOUNTER. And yes, it did make me feel better. In fact, watching a fresh-faced, youthful journalist with his whole life ahead of him camping on an atoll packed with squirming serpents is guaranteed to make you feel better about pretty much anything. Try it.

Exhaustive Word Diving™ research suggests my laissez-faire intruder (small head, brown features) was probably a RAT SNAKE, unlikely to lash out unless threatened (I took this to mean intellectually: fortunately I was struck dumb).

Ratty ratty rat snake

Discovering that my ‘lone wolf’ was actually a ‘rat’ inevitably led to a degree of disappointment. Not only is the name a bit, well…ratty…but there’s actually far more frogs in our well-maintained, if tendril-heavy, Ballardian enclave than rats (so far as I can tell). My Polish neighbour told me coolly that the last time he saw a snake here it appeared to be unsuccessfully trying to wrest back control of its own head from the still-jumping frog it had just eaten. The adrenalin fully worn off, I reached the conclusion that my encounter wasn’t so remarkable after all. Maybe I, and my future guests, should be grateful for that?

22. Restaurant review: Les Copains D’Abord, Peng Chau Island

Good news for all those worried about the gentrification of old Hong Kong at the hands of slick European gastronomes: the counter-revolution starts here…. and from within!
Appearance: shabby-chic shack in dusty town square at high noon
Sheriff: out of town
Waiting staff: roguish
Menu: “Non.”
Food choices: bread platter; mushroom pizza
Drinks: beer, wine, water
We ordered: pizza (x 2)
They said: “Sure, but we can only make one at a time.”
We said: “C’est la vie/Non e un problema.”
Entertainment: kids chasing bubbles in the square
Best enjoyed: with old friends
Do not take: high-octane business contacts
Price: unanticipated
Stars: 3.27/5
Conclusion: Cordon Ramsey would rob this place of its charm but next time we hope the French chef is back from sourcing the delicacies we were hoping for…

21. Robert Plant….or a plant?

Mr Plant

It was certainly a wet and wild start to the year on the island, tempered by the fact rumour that Robert Plant, the original stormbringer*/hammer of the gods, may have visited our rocky shorelines on vacation as the rain lashed down. Apparently, he has family in Hong Kong and comes over from time to time. As a female friend wondered if either he or she were too old for groupiedom, I pictured ‘Percy’ on the balcony of his room at The Warwick (our only respectable hotel) screaming at the rolling seas as the latest band of low pressure hit the island; the cargo of concrete contained in the wreck of a vessel that ran aground here recently shifting slightly…

We come from the land of the ice and snow,

From the midnight sun where the hot springs flow.

The hammer of the gods will drive our ships to new lands,

To fight the horde, singing and crying: Valhalla, I am coming!**

Alternatively, he might have just been just enjoying an ice cream from our local gelateria-cum-bar.

Robert Plant on holiday

*I know this was Deep Purple but it fits here and in so doing enhances the deeply unreliable nature of this post 

**The Immigrant Song from Led Zeppelin III (play LOUD)

19. Giving up Facebook

Rumours that I was asked to leave Facebook due to a ‘near-universal lack of popeularity’ (their typo) and that my virtual headspace was required for ‘new, more dynamic users’ are way off the mark. In fact, we have parted company ‘by mutual consent’ (my words) and only for the time being: the launch of my novel, Death Defiers, in October means I will be re-joining in advance of that momentous event to do the marketing thing.

How am I adapting to my new, lo-fi lifestyle in the meantime? Well, so far so good. It may surprise you to learn that I am drafting this post on the off-white pages of an elasticated policeman’s notebook (though you may be less surprised to learn that none of my fellow passengers have yet mistaken the tall, bearded gweilo for an undercover cop and asked me to arrest any pesky mainlanders for suitcase-related felonies).

What I miss least from my FB days is not the universal acclaim granted to my self-consciously wacky dress sense or Leica-pure photography but rather the constant invitation to like or not like the variable efforts of others. Being a liberal yet petty-minded kind of netizen, I used to do this rather earnestly – scanning a fish eagle’s eye over the exploits of friends and asking myself like a confused Turner Prize judge: but is it art? Consulting the subcommittee in my brain I came to an agonizing decision every single time as my throbbing finger hung over the mouse button, or smudge, sequestered screen.

To like, or not to like? People’s lives may depend on this, yet often I resisted goading on the lonely and insane (as they resisted encouraging me).

Island life in the '80s - what's not to like?

Island life in the ’80s – what’s not to like?

And after a couple of beers?

Different story.

I would ‘like’ indiscriminately, from disco dancing hippos to the deaths of exotic household pets. How did I feel in the morning? Compromised beyond measure. My eventual solution involved holding myself in – something that comes pretty naturally in middle age – and waiting for something to come along that I truly ‘liked’.

And here it is, at last: quitting Facebook and complaining about it anonymously on yet another whingeing blog.

What do I ‘like’ even more than complaining? You, virgin reader, for finding me here without the all-encompassing power of Facebook to guide you gently to my realm.

Okay, now feel free to throb, hover and ignore me until the next post…

17. Is there a gecko in here?

People – or more often, the psychiatrist that lives in my head – often ask me if I mind living alone. In truth, I don’t (mind it, or live alone) because since moving out here in September, my flat has been kept free of pesky flies and bad vibes by a family of house geckos who, for convenience, I have collectively named Diggory. ‘Not a particularly aquatic name for one so suddenly obsessed with the sea?’ Sigmund Fraud suggests, chewing on a biro. That’s where he’s wrong – Diggory is in fact named after an old work colleague, Diggory Haddoke; in the name of sustainability and with sustainability in the name I thus opted not to call Diggory, say, Brian, after Brian Cod (Coventry City’s backup goalie 1972-5) but instead to give him a name of (slightly) greater stock.

Diggory, or possibly son of Diggory...

Diggory, or possibly son of Diggory…

I’m straying off the point. What you want to know is how living with ‘Digs’ differs from cohabiting with one of those unpredictable, non-insect-eating humans. Well, for one when I come in late he doesn’t fly into a rage: in fact he usually stops what he’s doing (often sucking on an old, discarded sock) and looks genuinely terrified, leading to lots of cooing and affectionate reassurance on my part, ‘Oo’s a good ‘ickle ‘ouse gecko then?’ Alas, no sooner have I turned to fix him a drink than he’s gone – quicker than a potential Hong Kong date when you explain you’re a struggling writer, live on an island, hate fancy restaurants and talk to geckos.

16. Bicycle Graveyard

 

One thing you learn early on the island is that while you can play ‘chase me, chase me’ with local folk and tourists after you’ve swerved around nervous ankles or leapt over cowering heads like Evel Knievel, once your beloved bike is stationary it becomes less blurry and so far more recognisable and thereby vulnerable to attack. Furthermore, if you leave it parked illegally outside a certain restaurant (or deign to suggest that their cheesy fish balls could have done with a bit more frying time) you may find that Big Wan is summoned from the recesses of the darkened kitchen – where he’s been busy cleaving whole pigs into mini hotdog sausages – and asked to hurl your two-wheeler into the bicycle graveyard clearly visible from our Malecon at low tide.

Bicycle graveyard 1/2

Now I’ve never actually seen Big Wan (it’s even possible that – like Big Juan out in Mexico – he’s a figment of my ravaged imagination) but I picture him as a kind of huge, hypersensitive Orc with dinner plates for hands, ejaculating tears whenever he recalls how his immense bulk through childhood led to the inadvertent destruction of at least a dozen shiny red tricycles. So remember (1) Do not aggravate Big Wan with your careless parking or facile food complaints and (2) if you inadvertently prang your pimped-up island racer into Big Wan as he’s shuffling home after a 12-hour shift, you better hope he’s got his hands full or it could be Davy Jones’ locker for you too…

Bicycle graveyard 2/2

 

 

14. “The machine should be eliminated…now that it has served its purpose of alerting us to the dangers of machine control”

William Burroughs

It seems there’s no stopping technology, even on the island. It may only be a mid-sized water treatment plant but it’s already changed my rooftop view forever (albeit the pig slaughterhouse is far from obscured – nor will the prefab structure come close to muffling the screams of our porcine neighbours as they realise they’re about to serve their purpose). You probably read about Google’s steady acquisition of much of the lethal/life-extending robot technology being developed in the West. They certainly have the funds required to populate our future visions. But are their motives as pure as Hong Kong water authority’s?

Reading the very first recorded interview William Burroughs ever gave, courtesy of the peerless Beat Scene, you are first struck by the unforgiving wit of the artist as a youngish man. Gregory Corso asks, ‘What kind of advice you got for politicians?’ to which the acid-tongued Burroughs replies, ‘Tell the truth once and for all and shut up forever.’

But it’s his unforgiving attitude towards the boffins that really sends a chill down the CNS. For them he has the same fate in mind that those unfortunate pigs meet every day. His idea, worth repeating, is that the unblinking ‘machine’ that technology represents cannot be tamed; instead it must be destroyed, along with the ‘reality-addict’ scientists who invent and then oil the cogs. ‘The whole point is,’ Old Bill tells Ginsberg, ‘…the machine should be eliminated. Now that it has served its purpose of alerting us to the dangers of machine control.’

Burroughs envisions a world in which free thinkers become unacceptable to those in control of an increasingly streamlined society. As we know, nothing, once invented – not even nightmarish robot dogs – can be uninvented. Shelve something mind-blowingly efficient as a bad idea and you risk being seen as counter-evolutionary. Science, in his view, is a conspiracy to impose a single, true universe on us at the expense of all others.  Therefore our only option, Burroughs claims, is the kind of revolutionary mining of our chosen path that points to the radicalism that may lie ahead. Google’s quirky motto ‘Don’t be Evil’ might strain to make the shotgun-toting Burroughs seems like the bad guy but I’m happy to listen to both sides, being one of those pesky inefficient, indecisive humans that will no doubt be mauled by a mechanical pig shortly after falling in love with his OS. In the meantime, up on the roof, I can’t help wishing the livestock sounded a little less human.

10. Race to the ferry pier

My camo rust bucket will see off yours...

My camo rust bucket will see off yours…

Date: unspecified cold, clear December morning

Time: 8.27-8.42am

Course: quarter lap of island

Class: mixed transport class

Propellants: leg power, electric/small petrol engine, fear of missing ferry, attempting to cause rivals to miss ferry, variable smell of canine excrement, any available hill, slope etc.

Inspirations: Wacky Races, Senna v Prost, Battle Royale, Isle of Man TT, the life-affirming lifejacket lady (see below).

We do it for her...

We do it for her…

Final positions:

10. Trundling rubbish cart causes a stink on first corner

9. Triad escapee cycling with face obscured by DAB literature

8. Would-be hipster weighed down by giant headphones

7. Snake startled from the bushes

6. 100-year-old fisherman with bad attitude

5. Cops in toy patrol car divert electric motor to cook morning fish balls

4. Me

3. Stray dog

2. Businessman employs hidden engine in tuk-tuk; overtakes field while cackling

1. Teenage schoolgirl with super-new imported Japanese bicycle, riding serenely with eyes closed

Next meeting: same time tomorrow

NB: Novice racers should note that in keeping with their rebellious nature, islanders prefer to ride on the right-hand side of all circuits in current use – in contrast to the legally enforced left-hand driving you’ll find on ‘conformist’ Hong Kong.

9. Coust to Coust

By no means a real diver I do, however, have a genuine passion for the sea. There is a sheltered bay a decent hike from my place where I recently tested out my brand new snorkelling gear (visibility: zero; sea colour: green). Now that the weather is getting cooler I will doubtless turn once more to my Jacques Cousteau DVD box set – surely one of the most magical and romantic documentary series ever made (premise: Princess Grace launches the Calypso from Monaco – you and the crew proceed to sail and dive around the globe, several times, re-supplying yourself with local hooch and pipe tobacco at friendly ports en route).

Grub's up

One of my favourite episodes involves not a ‘real diver’ in the sense of a workaday industrial diver (and God knows, they take enough risks) but one of those aquatic mavericks to which us landlubbers are so often drawn. In season 1, episode 31 of Cousteau’s odyssey we meet Recco, a gruff, middle-aged coral diver who – with scant regards for the bends, or indeed any of Radiohead’s work – plunges into the abyss off Corsica each day to retrieve tokens for his bikinied partner, Nadine, who is responsible for keeping his equipment maintained and spirits up. We see her waiting patiently for Recco to surface, selecting decorous pieces of petrified plant-life for posterity. Sometimes she jumps into the water and they blow bubbles at each other. It is a touching tale, but one you sense can only end in tragedy. Will Recco’s health give out? Will he drown while chipping away at one last chunk of lucrative seafloor? Perhaps Nadine will find a younger diver to hang out with? No, in his hypnotic tones – tones that reverberate sonorously over almost anything worth detecting above and below the waves – Jacques informs us at the end of episode 31 that Recco has just been killed by a neighbour in a dispute over a garden fence…

Before you buy the DVD set – and you really, really should buy it – you can watch The Coral Divers of Corsica here, albeit broken up by regionally appropriate adverts.

Free dive

These days, the organisations Cousteau helped inspire (let’s not forget that he both co-invented the aqualung and, like David Attenborough, advocated world population control for the sake of the planet – two very different forms of life-saving) take a dim view of coral collecting for profit. However, one activity that is growing in popularity is free diving; and it isn’t restricted to those born and raised on remote coastlines, or with the mythical lungs of the pearl divers of Hawaii. You may have seen this moving piece in the New York Times, about Nicholas Mevoli, a gregarious native of the city who lost his life in competition two weeks ago. There are no huge profits to be made in this business – no massive sponsorship deals (at least not yet); Mevoli scrimped and saved to fulfil his dream of challenging for a world record. Like others before him (though the organisers insist the sport sees few casualties) he is likely to have succumbed to nitrogen narcosis – a potentially fatal drunkenness that affects decision-making at depth. In many ways, Mevoli sounded like a typical New York hipster – of the type I strive to emulate (despite consistent denials mixed with the irreversible aging process) – yet he dared to do far more than exhibit in Greenwich Village, or recite some beat poetry on the Lower East side; instead of trying to encapsulate his love affair with the sea, he simply embraced it, and it him, and not an irate neighbour in sight…

6. Nature Boy

Run down an isolated path through pristine jungle to reach a sheltered beach to find…oh…it’s covered in washed-up plastic crap and bulging bin bags of household rubbish. Strangely, for someone with such a pronounced selfish streak, I find the realisation that humanity is quickly choking itself to death less disturbing than the sickening thought that this stuff is likely to outlast the species by hundreds/thousands of years. Am I becoming a real hippy after all my years of pretending? Why should I care about the planet we leave behind? If I had to take a wild guess I’d say it’s because, for the first time in my life, I’m surrounded by nature.

Hint: this wasn’t the beach I ran to

Hint: this wasn’t the beach I ran to

I tell a friend about my encounter with oblivion later in the pub. This is the same islander with whom I marvelled at the praying mantis (‘Monty’) who gusted onto my rooftop the first night I spent here. By this point I am wearing flares made of jungle palm and smoking a conch shell pipe. “You should have cleaned it up yourself,” he tells me. He has a point. Twelve months down the line, Nature Boy may respond to such instincts; although knowing him (i.e. me) he will have already moved on to the next fleeting obsession in his contrary existence. Fortunately for him, you and me there are several ongoing beach clean-up campaigns in Hong Kong that remind volunteers when and where to take action, providing a special boot up the fronds to those who would rather moan (albeit in an extremely eloquent way) than get on with it…

The Naked Islands Project

Hong Kong Cleanup

 

5. I, Spy?

There’s nothing disputed about the island I’ve relocated to. When it’s not doing its own thing – in that fiercely laidback island way – it is resolutely pro-China. On outlying islands where the British built council estates to contain previously nomadic fishing communities, having segregated the choicer cuts of the outcrops they decided to settle, it’s perhaps no surprise that there is little of the pro-dem Western liberalism you might find lapping at the shores of the cut-glass Hong Kong I’ve left behind. Whatever the exact historical reasons for the welcoming glances towards Beijing (and this being China, family ties doubtless have a greater pull than most other factors) myself and the few dozen other Brits here could have done without the recent exposure of our true motivations for living so far from home. Namely, that a fair percentage of us are MI6 flunkies with a direct line (or tunnel?) to the basement of the British Consulate in Admiralty: Beijing spy tales point election finger at UK

"Then maybe you shouldn't be living here!"

“Then maybe you shouldn’t be living here!”

Along with avoiding poisonous snakes, and the wild dog pack that roams the nearest beach, I don’t want to have to spend my time averting my eyes from the suspicious glances of my new neighbours – I’d much rather they remained inquisitive (or apathetic). In truth, I’m worried I might crack under pressure. Quizzed by the ex-publisher landlord of the local pub, or the crack security team of geriatrics that guard my jungly compound, I worry I might confess to being…. what, exactly? A writer? Far too suspicious. A 39-year-old man living alone? It gets worse. Perhaps it’s best if I come clean: I was approached at University by someone asking if I wanted to join an agency. The work would rely on a squeaky-clean persona and the occasional handling of knives. Months later I was still working in the sweltering basement of the De Vere Hotel in Coventry, wondering how many more hot pans I would have to successfully dodge before they sent me here to uncover secret seafood recipes. With that off my chest, I’ll sit back and request another beer, toasting the spies and spy-catchers amongst us, who – despite their indiscretions – maintain a veneer of respectability that this retired pot-washer can only dream of.