From Birkenhead to Bandar Seri Begawan and Bishkek
The Ramblings of a Wanderlust Builder
Chapter 6: Smarty Pants Then All at Sea
Chapter 6: Smarty Pants Then All at Sea
It is difficult to sign off on my time in the desert without recalling a comical episode with “Trooper” Cliff Brown, an easy going, wiry Newcastle-born pipe fitter, who preferred to be described as a pipe fighter. Not without good cause I might add, as anyone who has ever handled steel pipes in extreme heat, will confirm. Cliff, a former Royal Marine, was very fit, had a great sense of humour and was a very loyal and reliable friend.
With just half a day to do our Christmas shopping before flying, we dashed around Abu Dhabi to find Cliff some decent clothes to replace his regular attire of tatty jeans, scruffy tee-shirt and flip-flops. We were running out of options when we waltzed into a world-renowned men’s designer outlet to browse the racks of immaculately made trousers.
A rather snooty young assistant obviously assumed they were clearly out of the price range of someone so poorly clad, sneeringly stressed that they were from an exclusive Italian collection and very expensive.
Stung by this overt snobbishness, Cliff animatedly quipped back in his broad Geordie accent, “A div’na kare man, I’m a desert pipe fighter, so I’ll have two pairs”. He made this masterly decision without even asking the price and left sporting a smug grin, having seemingly unequivocally proven his solvency to the salesman. It was an hour or so before he converted the cost to pounds and his eyes popped when he realised that in his haste to slap down the haughty shop assistant, he had paid UKP 150 for two pairs of trousers (a bespoke suit cost UKP 30 in 1976 and UKP 150 is equivalent to UKP 960 in 2020). Annoyed with himself and goaded by my inability to stop laughing, he blamed me for not stopping him from acting like an idiot. He was still moaning on the flight home, but after a couple of beers, we were both chortling about his unintentional extravagance.
It wasn’t too long before I saw Cliff again, as four days later, to avoid some undeclared domestic crisis, he decided he would be more welcome staying with me for the rest of the holiday. We went to couple of parties, where I ensured that all the ladies he spoke with made a point of complimenting him on his beautifully tailored trousers. Once prompted, he enthusiastically related the tale of how he came to buy his designer clothes, embellishing it further at each telling.
After a brilliant holiday period and with plenty of time to see family and friends, I was happily relaxed and enjoying the benefits earned by the past two years’ hard work and had time to assess and reviewed my job options going forward. Quite frankly they were no better than when I had left previously. Britain was in an economic mess, having gone cap in hand to borrow from the IMF like a third world country and now massively restricted by the terms of the loans. Industrial strikes were rife and UK was dubbed the ‘Sick Man of Europe’. Clearly, opportunities in my industry had not improved to any discernible degree while I was overseas.
Late in January, I had an unsolicited call from a recruiter who had received a recommendation from an oil company manager, whom I had occasion to coordinate with in Abu Dhabi. Subsequently, following a review of my CV, a brief telephone interview and armed with an acceptable reference, he offered me a job back in Abu Dhabi. This time it was far from the desert, but even more remote, being on a tiny barren island, a 100 or so miles offshore in the Arabian Gulf.
Approaching Das Island for the first time
I had little knowledge of Das Island, other than it was an offshore oil processing facility, run by BP, therefore I had every reason to believe it would definitely be superior to my previous location. The driving factor to sway my acceptance of the job, however, apart from the decent salary, was the work to leave ratio of 70/20. It was a quantum leap from the 105/10 cycle I had previously been tied to and so I was more than happy to return to the UAE, to start this new venture.
I had to spend my first day in the city, to complete security formalities. The island’s location, near the Iranian sea border, in the offshore oil fields made it somewhat sensitive. That done, I took the charter flight to Das, where I was met and introduced to my new colleagues from the engineering department, followed by the grand tour of the island, which didn’t take too long as it was only one mile long and half a mile wide. At that time, Das had no paved roads, but surprisingly besides all the oil and gas facilities crammed onto the island, it also boasted a golf course, football pitch, cricket pitch, sailing club and cinema.
I immediately had a good feeling about this place and felt comfortable with my new work mates, who exuded the sort of laid-back confidence that experience brings. Things got even better when I was made aware that besides the company senior staff club; all the sports clubs had an open membership policy.
In my initial meeting with my line manager, he offered two valuable pieces of advice. First – I spend my first tour of duty just familiarising myself with people, procedures and places and second – take full advantage of the many facilities available, but don’t let recreation overlap with the serious work that we were primarily there for. With 400 mainly British senior staff supported by 4,000 multi- national technical and operations personnel, a lot of thought had been applied to keeping the all-male population happily occupied when away from their families. It was a work hard – play hard environment, with a philosophy and clear message that stated, “We pay you well and look after you, so don’t let us or yourself down.”
A few days after arriving on Das Island I was invited along to the Cricket Club for an after work beer. The place was popular and moderately full and I was chatting away with some new colleagues when I received a tap on the shoulder. A voice with the undeniable accent of a fellow Birkonian, barked out, “Hey you, I want my gate back”. I turned to see a short muscular fellow glowering at me. Somewhat confused, I responded by saying I didn’t understand what he was talking about. ‘’You lived in Humber Street and I lived In Patricia Avenue and you and your pals stole my gate”. Still not fully absorbing his demand, delivered in a typical, slightly aggressive Birkenhead manner, I admitted I had lived there only until I was 6 years old and so he needed to explain further. According to him, 25 years earlier I had been with a gang of kids collecting firewood for the annual English traditional Guy Fawkes bonfires in November, when his wooden garden gate mysteriously disappeared. He was adamant I was one of the culprits and had staged this confrontation as his way of introducing himself. I was very impressed that he even recognise me after 25 years, especially as we had never previously met, even though we lived just half a mile apart. This was Peter Foulkes, a guy I shared many a beer with and became close friends with for years after. I had a further unusual connection with Peter, well after my time on Das Island. But that’s a story for another day.
Camp Tell: Ready for decommissioning
My secondment to the Engineering Department was precipitated by a planned major construction programme to expand and upgrade facilities, infrastructure, housing and various relocations on the island. I was in fact taking over from an incumbent, who’s only task for the remainder of his last tour was to handover ongoing works and advise me on procedures.
My first project was simply to dismantle Camp Tell, the original staff housing and clear the area ready for construction of new storage tanks. With the complexities of relocating many personnel into the new modern housing now made available, some staff were obliged to have temporary intermediate housing, but even that was limited and so as last man on the schedule, I became the only resident ensconced in the condemned accommodation I was charged with knocking down. Despite this minor expediency, I was happy with my situation but could not know then, that this half a square mile of volcanic rock would have such an influence on my future and provide such profound changes for my family.
BP British Signal leaving the berth with the first Das Island crude in July 1962
This is the sixth in a series of blogs narrating the life of an Expat – from childhood years to his ascend as a veteran of the Travel and Construction industry.
Bernard C. Dagnall, CIPM
Bernard is a highly experienced professional Project Manager with credentials earned over a span of 35 years with VVIP Clientele and Blue-Chip brands in Europe, Middle East, Central Asia and the Far East. He is also a creative writer having penned many industry-related articles and blogs.