Don’t check my bags if you please, Mr Customs Man.

Sartori in Uganda, part II

“Flying into Los Angelee-ees, bringin’ in a couple of keys, don’t check my bags if you please, Mr Customs ma-a-an”, (or my passport). Arlo Guthrie.

So….It’s August 1986, I have to fly to Uganda with my craftsman, friend and master builder, Bill, who’s only foreign foray to date is a van journey to Switzerland and back.  I don’t have a passport, because it’s been stolen, he only has a British Visitor’s Passport oh, and I haven’t yet bagged an aircraft to hitch a lift on.

For those not familiar, a British Visitor’s Passport was issued by the Post Office, https://www.passport-collector.com/the-simplicity-of-a-travel-document-the-british-visitors-passport/ and was valid for a whole list of countries, including most European and some Commonwealth countries.  Most importantly you could get it immediately at any Post Office on production of a birth certificate.  Interestingly, it was discontinued in 1995 because several EEC countries, notably Spain, had some problem with it – so much for Free Movement or, as it was initially sold, Freeedom of Travel.

I called the Uganda High Commission in London, they were clients of mine, but I didn’t know the clerks in the consular department.  I spoke to a woman there, explained my situation and asked her to confirm whether the BVP was acceptable as a travel document for entry to Uganda.  “Yes”, she told me.  “Good”, I said.  Now I just needed an aircraft.

I called my friends at https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/DAS_Air_Cargo a small cargo airline started in 1983, owned and run by Joe and Daisy Roy, a lovely, engaging and entrepreneurial Ugandan couple.  No problem, they had a flight out of Amsterdam ferrying back to Entebbe, empty after a flower run from Nairobi.  I could grab two jump seats but I’d need to get a flight to AMS.

Called another friend and the Amsterdam leg was sorted too, out of LGW, in plenty of time to connect with Joe, who was also Chief Pilot for his airline.

Another lovely Ugandan was Chief Pilot, my dear friend, Jack Calnan of Uganda Airlines.  Jack was mixed race, I believe his father was Irish, and he and his beautiful and knowledgeable wife, Nina put me up in their lovely little house in Entebbe for a few weeks, a few years earlier.  She and I became very close, she was just a few years older than me but she mothered me, which, when you’re young(ish) and away from your own wife and family, is a lovely thing.  I remember she had a huge scar on one leg, about a foot or more long.  I plucked up courage to ask her about it one day and she explained that as a young woman, she had been bitten by a snake, a Green Mamba as I recall.  Her mother had quickly made up a “magic” poultice using ingredients I can’t recall.  She then took a sharp knife to Nina’s leg and drew a long slit, folding back the flesh and packing the resulting wound with the poultice, before sewing it up, the full length and bandaging her up.  I was in awe of this story, both the bravery of mother and the daughter and the traditional yet scientific knowledge that had been handed down.

I got introduced to Robert Ludlum by Jack and got through many Ludlum volumes on that stay, it was my introduction to Jason Bourne, which gripped me inexplicably.  Still does.  The movies are great but the books are so much better, unless of course you’re a literary snob.

Something just happened.  As I write, I now have tears running down my cheeks and I’m really, really devastated.  My memory isn’t perfect, these days, after thirty odd years,  and I have to Google to remind myself of things.  I just Googled Jack Calnan and I came across this https://www.newvision.co.ug/new_vision/news/1086327/police-probe-calnan-eur-wife-death

Nina was hacked to death and strangled by thieves, burglars, who made off with a stereo and a mobile phone.  I’m beside myself. That beautiful, loving woman.  It happened 17 years ago but it only just happened for me and I’m deeply, deeply upset.

Prior to 1986, most of my memories of that amazing country are good ones.  I remember planting an avenue of sticks, one foot lengths of the trunk of something or other, on each side of Jack’s crescent-shaped driveway.  Six months later, it was an avenue of trees. The deep red soil was so fertile, the sun always shone and the rain always fell.  That’s what the equator is like, just amazing.

I was so taken with it that I started working with a young local entrepreneur, David Chambadi, as I recall, though that spelling seems more Indian than Bugandan.  David had a dream to export pineapples from Uganda, I made that dream come to fruition for him and for me.  It was a painful learning process.  Damages were frequent.  Cold storage at Entebbe was intermittent, and expensive, as were the flights but we persevered.  Within months we were fetching record prices for pineapples at New Covent Garden market.  Harrods were our #1 customer.  Air flown pineapples from Uganda on the shelves of Harrods, it’d never been done before.  Pineapples were picked as green canon balls in the Ivory Coast and shipped by sea container in the hope they might just ripen, en route.  They never did, they were disgusting things.  You haven’t lived until you’ve tasted a sun-ripened pineapple, warm in the field and had the sweet warm juice run through your hands and all over your face as the delicious taste lights up your eyes.

Of course, we had our struggles, both down on the ground; handling, packing and shipping but also back home in blighty, on arrival.  The official handling agents at Gatwick, Gatwick Handling, were a bunch of thieves and vagabonds.  I tried every trick in the book to avoid their pilferage, running around 10-15% of the shipments, but they were so brazen and never, ever got taken to task by Customs or the police for fear they’d walk out and the airport would grind to a halt – and they knew it.  They were heavily unionised and some of the most despicable people ever to encounter, let alone to be forced to deal with.  Jeremy Corbyn was probably their shop steward back then.

With the pineapples successful, we looked at other things we could grow and export.  We moved onto Passion Fruit.  Not many people have ever experienced a Passion Fruit farm but it is an incredible thing of beauty.  A structure, not unlike a giant rose pergola, stretched over an acre or three of ground and the Passion Fruit vines climb up and through the structure.  The fruit hang down above your head making them easy to harvest by hand, without even bending.  Back home we were used to these shrivelled up things that looked like walnuts and about the same size.  These were the real thing, fat and plump and smooth, the size of a large lemon.  Indeed, we had two varieties, the traditional purple ones and a lemon-yellow variety.  I can’t describe how wonderful they taste, but I can remember it.  They were a huge success.  Then David found us a fantastic farm property on the shores of the Nile River.  The earth was so black it looked as if it had been ravaged by fire but it was fertile beyond anything I’ve ever encountered.  Add in the climate and you could literally grow anything, at three times the speed of anywhere else on earth.  The problem wasn’t growing, it was coping with the speed of growth.  Courgettes had to be picked three times a day, else they were marrows.  Tomatoes put on so much growth that whatever we erected to support them collapsed under the strain, until I went for the nuclear option, chain-link fencing strung between concrete fence posts, that worked!

Uganda was a war-ravaged hellhole with no economy, no government, no security, no reliable law enforcement, riddled with corruption from top to bottom.  But it had fabulous assets.  It had the kind of climate that meant you didn’t really need a roof over your head, a climate and a soil that meant you could never go hungry but most of all it had a people who every day got up and put a smile on their face and kept it there, all day and all through the evening, though they possessed little more than the clothes on their back and had no idea, from one day to the next, where the next fistful of shillings was coming from.  Lovely people.  Back here in the civilised West, I hear complaints of poverty and deprivation, of how the government must do this and should do that.  Quite frankly it makes me embarrassed to hear these spoiled brats with their first world problems.  These Ugandan fellows would emerge from their mud huts each morning, with a freshly, laundered shirt and pressed trousers.  Don’t ask me how.  They didn’t sell drugs, they didn’t steal or beat each other and they certainly didn’t knife each other.  They enjoyed a beer with friends in the little shanty bars and cafes by the roadside.  The biggest danger you faced were running the gauntlet of army roadblocks, official and unofficial.  The army never got paid, this was their way of solving that problem.  It helped to be a smoker, cigarettes were currency, and rolling your own was a magic passport to entry, they assumed it was ganga.   The teeny steps we were making to grow produce and to export it to the outside world, was more than just a business, it was a symbol to these lovely people of what riches they could achieve, if they could just be given the chance and the guidance.

Bill and I spent a day running around buying a swathe of new tools to take with us, everything we could think we might need.  I was building an hotel in Entebbe with a local partner, John Mukasa.  The first person I ever knew, personally, to die of AIDS not surprising, really, in the AIDS capital of the world.  John was an energetic local entrepreneur, a rabid philanderer, husband to multiple wives and father of many children, the daughters being regularly paraded, literally lined up on parade for me to inspect and select, as tokens to me of his hospitality (ugh).  I always politely declined, in case you’re wondering.

Our joint company, Palm Tree Hotel Ltd,  had got a large loan from the Uganda Development Bank, we owned the land on the shores of Lake Victoria, a stone’s throw from the airport, it was beyond special.  The building was half constructed and I wanted to set up one of the rooms with high quality fittings that I’d already shipped down there.  The idea was that Bill would construct and fit out the first one, showing the local builders how it’s done and leaving them a model to follow – I knew there was little possibility this would work but it was worth a try.

Armed with bags and boxes of tools, a pair of BV passports and a pocketful of cash, we hopped aboard one cargo flight in Gatwick and arrived at Entebbe on another, early the next morning, ready to start work.  A flight in your very own, personal 707, when it’s empty of cargo, is a luxury I never failed to appreciate but it spoiled me for modern air travel where I feel like a penned steer, literally being treated like cattle.  This was flying and it was fun.  We always tried to make sure the crew wasn’t too drunk to know what they were doing.  Though sometimes it was hard to get them out of the hotel bar for those 5am starts, sometimes we skipped the sleep part, or just forgot it altogether, until the load master had to try to get his fogged head around those tricky calculations.  Would we make it off the runway with this payload at this altitude at this time of the day?  One key thing to remember, make sure you check the fuel load, it doesn’t do to run out of fuel at 30,000 feet.  Not everyone remembered. In fact, many of the crews I flew with, didn’t make it to retirement.  Air Cargo is a buccaneer business, operating in and out of some decidedly iffy places, many of them war zones, most of them corrupt.  You always seem to be bending one rule or breaking another but if you didn’t, nothing would happen, the whole corrupt process would simply grind to a halt.

I guess I should explain that I had a company based in Uganda with offices in Dar Es Salaam, Tanzania, at Tororo on the Kenyan border, with my English partner in Mombasa and Nairobi, in Kampala, the capital city and another in the front, corner, ground floor office of the Entebbe Terminal building.  I was thirty-three years old.  Those who have seen the movie of the Israeli hostage raid will not be surprised to hear the facade of the building (and much else) was peppered with bullet holes but they probably don’t realise that it was further and much more widely damaged, three years later, when the Tanzanian Army backing Milton Obote invaded, as part of the Ugandan War of Liberation to oust Idi Amin.  In short, the place was a dire and decaying shithole but it was all they had.  My story takes place seven years after the war but in truth, you hardly knew it was over.  In the meantime, another war had occurred, this time a successful revolutionary bush war, I believe it was the first successful one of its kind.  The young Yoweri Museveni https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Yoweri_Museveni who had been exiled in Tanzania by Obote, formed the NRA, the National Resistance Army and we, my companies and I, had been active supporters supplying much needed assistance in a variety of ways.  In January of that year, Museveni came to power and with him, the father/father-in-law of my two stalwart employees, as Prime Minister.  Incidentally, Margaret Thatcher and Tiny Rowlands, of Lonrho fame, were also supporters.

My office had a prime view of the cargo sheds and the whole of the airport apron.  The eldest son of the Prime Minister, Samson Kisekka, also called Samson Kisekka, but Jr. worked for me as did the PM’s son in law, Fred Kamihanda.  Boy, it’s amazing how these names I haven’t thought of in years just roll off the tongue when I need them.  In other words, I had modest connections but then, so did everyone.

Accompanying the crew and Joe we presented ourselves to immigration…. but there was no one there.  This is not unusual.  There were only half a dozen flights a week into Entebbe from anywhere, and most of those were domestic.  Add to that the fact that government employees were rarely paid and, if they were, it was always many months behind and not worth a week’s worth of beer when it came.  Everyone had multiple ways of earning a living, much of that involved fleecing anyone you could in the form of a bribe to do the job you were rarely paid a paltry sum to do.  Why rush out of bed in the morning when there’s no work and no pay?

Frankly, we could and should have just gone on our way but Joe was concerned to follow the rulebook, because enemies in Uganda would have readily pounced on the slightest infraction of the rules, if it profited them, as it surely would.  He was what they hated, successful and respected.  He had his own airline for heaven’s sake!

So, we wandered through to the “airport hotel” where someone rustled up something vaguely like a mug of warm, sweet tea and we chatted and waited till the immigration man arrived.  I knew this fellow slightly from seeing him on multiple occasions but we’d never had any dealings and he certainly didn’t have any reason to like me. I was a white man that had never paid him a single bribe, I wish I had, now but what I didn’t know was that I had competition.  He was a small fellow with a small round face and a hare-lip.  He had a pair of NHS pebble spectacles, 1960s vintage, and reminded me of Goebbels.

We all wandered down to see him and I went first with Bill.  He didn’t acknowledge me but complained about our BV passports and claimed they were not valid travel documents.  I spoke calmly to him, pointing out that he knew me well enough (trust me, the local gossip machine meant he’d have known my inside leg measurement), that the Uganda High Commission had confirmed that it was a valid document, described how I’d had my original stolen at Parliament and suggested he called the Prime Minister’s son to confirm.  He was having none of it.

My guys, who should have been there to meet me (standard practice in case of events just such as these) had still not turned up.  He told me that I was denied entry to the country but that I could stay in the “airport hotel”.  You might wonder why I use inverted commas around that term, presume the worst!  What he seemed to be overlooking was that the hotel is “land-side”, not airside and so in inviting me to stay there he had actually granted me entry to the country.

The PM’s son in law turned up and spoke with the guy whilst Joe and I were having fun chatting and exchanging stories.  He eventually came back, red-faced, and announced that he’d achieved nothing and that someone, somewhere was pulling invisible strings, he was completely bemused. By this time, I was bored and I wanted to get home to my bed.  I told Joe we were leaving and that I’d go to the British High Commission next morning, get another passport and sort it all out.  We waived goodbye and drove the 40 miles to my house near Kampala.

I shared the house with another English guy, Ian Brebner, his name just came back to me.  His home was in Worthing and he ran a business in Uganda selling generators, big generators.  Your average Ugandan citizen nor business could ever have bought one of Ian’s generators.  The official exchange rate was, something under 200 shillings to the pound.  The unofficial or real rate was 6000 shillings to the pound.  To give you an indication of what 6000 shillings would buy you, apart from a pound – and buying pounds was illegal – I used to fill a shoe box to take with me in the morning, filled with cash, so that I might be able to buy lunch, if I could find anywhere selling something vaguely resembling food.  The place was a mess.  So, who did buy Ian’s generators?  People who had received bank loans, bought with plentiful bribes, from banks funded by the IMF or the World Bank.  In other words, your taxes.  They didn’t buy the generator just because they needed one, they bought one so that you could double or treble the price they actually paid and you would hand back the difference in cash, some of which may be used to pay back the loan, maybe.  Every one’s a winner…..

It’s not that people are corrupt, you understand, people were desperate.  They were also entrepreneurial and if the outside world was dumb enough to shower western taxpayers’ money into their corrupt institutions then it would be even dumber not to relieve them of some of their burden, so that you could send your kids to school or pay their hospital bills or, at a push, feed them.

So that was the business Ian was engaged in, much like every other foreigner and resident alike, one way or another.  Ian wanted me to buy the hotel generators from him.  Everybody needed generators if you wanted electricity and a hotel without electricity would not be a good hotel.  I had explained to Ian that this was my money I was spending, it wasn’t some government stooge’s money, it was my hard-earned cash so, sure I’d buy from him but it would be an appropriate ex UK price, just like I would buy from anyone else.  I knew that hadn’t pleased him and, sure enough, his prices were way higher than anything else I’d been quoted.  What I hadn’t appreciated is just how badly this had gone down with him.

Ian was at the house when we turned up that evening, it was evening by the time we got in from Entebbe.  Uganda is on the equator so at 6pm precisely, summer or winter, the sun falls out of the sky seemingly so quickly, it can catch you unawares.  It was dark when we arrived.  Fred dropped us off and Ian “greeted” us but I was confused by what seemed like a look of surprise to see us, despite me having telexed him a day or so back.  He was unusually edgy, sort of irritated and not his usual self.  At one point I remember he took down his handgun and showed it to Bill and I.  I knew he kept one there, I was glad of it, we’re talking a pretty lawless place here.  We had something to eat and before we all settled down to bed, I arranged with Ian to wake us in the morning and give us a lift into Kampala so I could pick up a car.

Bill and I awoke around 10 am, late.  Ian was nowhere to be found, nor was his gun.  I know, because I checked, as this behaviour was starting to concern me.  I was annoyed but more confused than anything.  I was particularly concerned because I’d wanted to get to the High Commission early to get the jump on this immigration thing before it turned into something big.  I called my guys and go them to come and collect us and take us into town.

When we got to the office, I spoke with my guys and asked them what was going on with the guy in Entebbe and why they hadn’t been able to square things.  I got a phone call from Joe Roy.  Things were kicking off and the little Himmler chap was demanding that Joe get me back to Entebbe to answer questions.  I told him I had to go to the High Commission first, sort out a passport and then I’d be over directly.

When we got to the High Commission, sigh, staffed of course by useless uncivil servants, their lack of concern, urgency or downright decency was something to behold.  I had a lengthy discussion with a Deputy Consul. He asked questions like, “Well, why did you leave England without a passport?”.  I had already explained the Speaker’s Regatta incident, the House of Crooks experience and the fact that I had checked with the Uganda High Commission re the validity of a BV passport. “I didn’t leave without a passport, as I told you, I had a BV passport”.  “Well, that’s not valid for Uganda”.  “I know that now but forgive me for trusting the British Post Office and the Uganda High Commission, the question is, when can I have a new one?”.  “Oh, that could take a week or two”.  “A WEEK!?”, “I’ve just explained to you that the immigration official at Entebbe wants me back there to answer questions and this could escalate quickly if I can’t give him a document he’s happy with, I need one now!”.

Eventually, he asked me to come back after lunch, by which time he would have made some enquiries.  How bloody British is that?  After ruddy lunch.  “I’ll just finish this game of bowls, your majesty, then we’ll go see about those Spanish and their little Armada.”

He was unmovable and unmoved.  I shrugged at Bill and decided I’d go and explain all this to Himmler, and then we’d come back that afternoon and sort out new documents.  Bill, I should explain, was petrified from the moment this all began.  He said nothing, not until several weeks later, in fact, but he was petrified.  He just followed my lead and did as he was told.  Bill is a guy that likes his supper on the table at a certain time, his slippers parked in the right direction and absolutely nothing unusual to ever occur, ever.

When we arrived at Entebbe, things went from bad to worse.  We were immediately “imprisoned” in an office, guarded by armed police.  All the police were armed but the soldiers were the ones to worry about, usually because they were either drunk or on drugs and frequently belligerent.

Samson Kisekka Jnr and Fred Kamihanda were both there, they kept going off to negotiate with Himmler and others and then returning to fill me in with what had been said.  Fred kept saying, “I don’t understand it, someone is pulling strings in high places and they seem to be one step ahead of us every time.”.  “They want to charge you, they want to put you on trial, they want to make a show trial of you.”.  I probably said something like, “Fred, speak to your father, how much do they want?”.  “It’s not money, he said, this is something else, they want you and they want you on TV, very publicly imprisoned and then deported”.

….to be continued…..

House of Crooks – SW1A 0AA

aka Used and Abused in Uganda (Part I)

 

Diplomatic Passport(rev)

Despite the now faded smell of urine and filth, I have a very soft spot for this old friend.

Let me tell you a story…

It was the summer of 1986, a hot August day and I’d been invited to a jolly by my long-time friend and insurance broker, Gordon.  The Speaker’s Regatta, an annual event where MPs and their staff mess around in boats on the Thames and generally have a good lark.  All good-natured fun, of a very British kind.

Guests were hosted on the members’ terrace of the House of Commons, very appealing to the upwardly mobile of the day, elitist even, in the modern jargon.

I arrived around 10:30 and it was already hot.  The Terrace was a hive of activity with no shade, not even a token umbrella.  There were already jolly gapes going on, down below in and on the water.  My friend greeted me and offered me a drink.  He gestured to the Beefeater Marquee set up at the end of the terrace and announced that we had a choice of Gin, with or without tonic.  I accepted mine with, it seemed the wiser option, given the hour of the morning.

And so it continued throughout the day.  We were all having a fine time, watching those respectable members pushing each other into the murky waters of London’s largest sewer, laughing and screaming with delight as they did so.

The TerraceI remember the enormous bulk of Cyril Smith who stood for seemingly hours, sentry-like at the entrance from the House onto the terrace, engaged in conversation with various folk.  He was wearing his trademark brown, broadly pinstriped, three-piece suit and as I watched the rivers of perspiration running down his face, I couldn’t help wondering how desperately uncomfortable he must feel.  It wasn’t a pleasant sight, at all and this was well before any of us knew about his aberrant pastimes.

I do recall there was a buffet-like snack available but there wasn’t so much eating going on, just a whole lot of drinking.

By mid-afternoon I found myself perched on the end of a trestle table, the end nearest the Palace, away from the water.  I’d just finished a chat with someone when this fellow ambled past seeming, it must be said, by the nature of his gait and by the garbled sound of his voice when he spoke, a little the worse for wear.  “Dja wanajdrink?” he asked, good naturedly and smiling inanely.  I might not have cottoned on but for the fact that he had paused his steps and held out a brimming tumbler in my direction, at arm’s-length.  I noted it was full, which I found reassuring (you never know where these people have been) and glancing at my own, that it was empty and so I replied, “Why thank you, don’t mind if I do!”

We saluted each other casually, he stumbled on and I reflected cheerfully on the good timing of the encounter, raising my new glass to refresh myself in the hot afternoon sunshine.  I didn’t so much recoil, when the taste first hit my tongue, but I definitely winced a tad, thinking, “Boy! That fella likes a strong G&T!”

Some while later, my glass being empty yet again, I wandered down to the only refreshment offering available, the Beefeater Marquee, and joked with the bartender.  “Ooh, what should I have?  Perhaps a nice Gin & Tonic?”

Beefeater“‘fraid not”, said he, “We ran out of tonic an hour or two back, only gin now. Plenty of ice though!”  It dawned on me, as in the light bulb moment, that the tall tumbler of strong G&T I’d just downed was, actually, just G with absolutely no T whatsoever.  In for a penny, in for a pound, I thought.  “Well I’ll have a nice long glass of your finest gin and a little ice, then, please!” I ordered. I have absolutely no idea how many times I might have repeated that process and I remember nothing more about the afternoon’s events on the terrace until it came time to leave.

This was the ’80s, I must remind you so I should not be embarrassed to refer to the fact that I had arrived carrying my “man-bag”.  I shouldn’t be but I am, still.  I had left it on a chair by the entrance door where there were various other personal items that guests had rested down, probably with the traditional “keep an eye on that for me, won’t you?” request that one makes in such situations, naively.

It was still there.  I retrieved it and my friend and I went on our very jolly way, feeling on top of the world and ready for a night out on the town.  The evening was young, the sun still shone and we were healthy thirty-somethings with constitutions like the proverbial oxen. I don’t know what made me think to check but, in any event, I did and slipped my hand into a pocket in my bag to make sure my passport was still there.  It was the blue, hardbacked kind so very easy to recognise by touch.  In those days I always carried my passport with me, everywhere, because I was forever jumping onto aircraft at the drop of a hat to jet off somewhere, usually some part of the world where civilisation is, shall we say, not as we’ve come to know it.  My passport wasn’t there.  I panicked, I had a trip coming up in two days’ time, adding to the anxiety which filled me and I frantically emptied out the bag’s contents on the pavement, outside the members’ entrance to the HoC.  It wasn’t there.  I stuffed everything back inside, told my friend to wait there for me and dashed off back to the terrace to interrogate the staff.  They were politely useless but, in fairness, what could they do?  If, as they implied, I was dumb enough to leave my passport, in a bag on a chair in what should be one of the safest places on earth – what did I expect?  HoC stands for House of Crooks, they told me.  How right they are, still.

Resigned to the situation and determined not to waste a perfectly good summer evening in London, I re-joined my friend and we happily trotted off along the embankment, wondering where to stop for a drink, as you do.  That’s when we spied The Hispaniola, moored adjacent Hungerford Bridge, along the embankment. It was quite a novelty back then but has since become an intrinsic part of the scenery in that part of London.  We stood up on the top deck and had a couple of drinks before we headed off again, up Northumberland Avenue, where we spied the Sherlock Holmes pub.  It was full of after office drinkers and, I dare say, quite a few tourists like ourselves and we had a couple more drinks…..

We were getting quite hungry by this time so when we left the pub and found ourselves back on Northumberland Avenue, we were wondering where we might go for a good meal.  Having made all the calls so far that evening, I said to Gordon, my friend, “OK, I’ll get the cab and you tell him where to take us?”.  Gordon signified agreement, so without further ado, I strode into the middle of Northumberland Avenue and held up my hand in front of a speeding cab.  As the cab screeched to a halt, inches from my outstretched palm, I’m sure the cabby was uttering a slew of foul language, in my direction but I didn’t stop to look. I thanked him and opening the rear door, stepped inside and took my seat as Gordon didn’t so much lean into the passenger side window as leer.  “Take us to a dirty restaurant, he slurred”.  I was taken aback but I burst out laughing and resigned myself to whatever the destination turned out to be!  At least the word restaurant held the promise of food and that was the main thing on my mind at the time.

GaslightThe cabby dropped us in St James’ and a doorman came and opened our cab door for us.  This, my friends, was not only my first (and last) ever visit to The Gaslight Club, it was my very first experience of a “clip-joint”.  A phrase I had heard many times on movies, growing up, but never once stopped to check what it meant.  Wikipedia now carries a very fine summary:

“A clip joint or fleshpot is an establishment, usually a strip club or night club in which customers are tricked into paying excessive amounts of money, for surprisingly low-grade goods or services — or sometimes, nothing — in return.”.  Couldn’t put it better, myself.

I should perhaps pause to explain that Gordon worked for his brother’s firm, his elder brother, who had always made him feel like a very junior member of the establishment.  Gordon was excellent at his job and, as far as I know, faithful to his beloved wife, as was I, more or less.  Not his wife, obviously, but I’d always been faithful to my own.  I digress.  Gordon was thus taking me on a company jolly, on company expenses but his brother kept him on a fairly tight leash.  On this gratis day, therefore, Gordon was insistent that he paid for everything and I felt it would be churlish to disabuse him of that privilege.  Unfortunately, that had its limitations, due to the fact that Gordon’s brother didn’t trust him to have a credit card, merely a cheque book and accompanying cheque guarantee card which, in those days, was limited to fifty pounds per cheque.  A very wise move on his brother’s part, as it turned out.

We descended the seedy stairway into the bowels of the club and were greeted at the bottom by a host and hostess whose job, collectively, was to greet you, check your coats and appraise your ability to pay.  That was enough of a warning sign right there and I smiled at his brother’s consternation when he saw the bill that was coming.  I was beginning to understand the meaning of “clip joint”.  They were extremely pleasant, right up until the time where Gordon announced that he didn’t have a credit card and showed them his cheque book, all the while assuring him that he had a cheque guarantee card, which he waved reassuringly.  They looked at each other and I detected it was a guilty look, as someone leading lambs to slaughter might feel.  Anticipating their dilemma, I assured them that I did have a credit card so there would be no difficulty.  They immediately relaxed and waived us on through, handing over our shepherding to one of the ladies in bathing-suits who beamed widely and seductively as she led us to our table.

Gaslight1We were soon joined by an exuberant twenty-something young woman who was equally scantily but tastefully clad (I remember thinking) and who apparently only drank champagne.  Well of course she did.  With each bottle delivered, a waiter appeared, with a bill to be paid, and Gordon wrote out a cheque, each one in excess of the £50 limit of his guarantee card.  Each time, there was a look of fear that crossed Gordon’s face as he hesitatingly signed the check and muttered something about the costs of the evening….and each time, I reached across the table and patted his hand and reassured him, mischievously, “Don’t worry, Gordon, your brother’s paying, not you!”.

Eventually, I had to cave.  They wouldn’t accept any more cheques, having already accepted several and each being completely outside the scope of the guarantee.  I offered my gold Amex card to the slaughter.

For some reason, it never occurred to me to check that they would be sensitive to their married customers’ needs and use some euphemism or other on the establishment name given to the credit card company.  That’s what I’d assumed, foolishly.  So I was a little taken aback, some weeks later, when I heard my wife call out in the office to Alison, our lovely and diligent book-keeper, “Alison, what’s the Gaslight Club?”

Oh god!  I was in the other office, close to the exit door, as it dawned on me that my wife was checking my credit card bill…..I leaned down low and peered around the doorway to be met by Alison’s quizzical gaze as she similarly had ducked below the divider between her desk and my wife’s – whom she faced and who had her back to me.  “What the hell do you want me to say?”, she was asking with her facial gesture.  I had no idea how to communicate an appropriate response in sign language and couldn’t speak for fear of attracting my wife’s attention to our “collusion” but I heard her say something like, “I think it’s a restaurant, or something….”

Then my wife’s unmistakable tones of disbelief: “One thousand, eight hundred pounds for a flaming restaurant!?!??”.

I have no idea what more was said, I was already out of the door and on my way to an urgent appointment.

But I was going to tell you about my incarceration in a Ugandan jail, or two, wasn’t I?  Well, that occurred after the Gaslight Club and before the bill arrived – see part two.

Before I leave the subject altogether though, I should talk about the day Gordon announced he was to become the Financial Director of, wait for it, The Gaslight Club.  Yep.  It was several years later when his close acquaintance, and one I’d rather forget but never can, bought the club…… mainly on the back of his prostitution racket…. yeah, the one he continued to run from the Governor’s office of Ford Prison, after he was banged up for mortgage fraud.  It’s been a very full life, what can I tell you.  And so, to Uganda…..