Category Archives: films

Pillaging

The pig freezer

The pig freezer

I had bacon for breakfast this morning. Bacon and freshly ground Starbucks coffee. This surprising bounty came as the harvest of my new found favourite hobby; looting. My housemate and I were invited to come looting by friends who work at the airport. A foreign contractor had evacuated its staff during the incident (like Voldemort, people here don’t refer to IS’s August advance on Erbil directly, mostly so they don’t have to classify it with words that might make people unhappy, such as crisis, near-invasion, when most of my friends left me or the time I realised I wasn’t one of the people with an automatic seat on the last plane). They’d left at very short notice and under some stress and although the company had promised to ship them some of their possessions there was a strict upper weight limit. This left eighteen flats full of expat stuff, much of which could be given to Erbil’s many refugees, but much of which could not; specifically larger electrical items, frozen foodstuffs and alcohol. My housemate’s house was pretty empty, now the two of us have three tvs and four fridges. Being only a temporary inmate, I concentrated my efforts on the consumables, by which I mean meat, the sauces that go with meat, and booze.

I think this is doable in the next five weeks, right?

I think this is doable in the next five weeks, right?

The abandoned freezers produced an astonishing range of world foods, much of it in the form of huge quantities of lovingly curated pork, including tenderloin, gammon steaks, all manner of bacon, ham, sausages, and some kind of so far unidentified Icelandic flat-pack orange-coloured pork chops. There was also Californian fish, Honduran prawns, American hamburgers and steaks and steaks and steaks. And chips and Branston pickle. I also snaffled around 200 abandoned dvds, including at least six copies of Badboys II. Surprisingly none of them have so far turned out to be porn. The alcohol situation is frightening in its possibilities; in the corner of my room, where Kurdish visitors can’t see it, there is a tower of booze. I have four cases of beer (plus assorted others), two litres of rum, three bottles of bourbon, gin, whiskey, wine, Bacardi breezers and a bottle of saki. We are the most infidel infidel’s house in Erbil. If IS come for us I reckon we could drink ourselves to death before they break through our barricade of pork-filled freezers. I also feel I have gained experience which will prove useful after the apocalypse when the survivors will have to live by scavenging from the ruins of our decadent consumer world.

stairway to the underworld, or at least a hefty insurance claim

stairway to the underworld, or at least a hefty insurance claim

On site, things continue to be both dangerous and depressing. Due to lack of funds we’ve gone down to just two workmen to shift the spoil. We haven’t sacked anyone, they’ve agreed to all go down to one day per week on a rota meaning every day I have to explain what needs doing all over again. In the deepest part of the excavation, which I now need to record, we’ve come to the limits of all our sensible ladders. The workmen have instead produced an abomination in ladder form, probably made by one of their children as a school woodwork project, which is long enough but so clearly potentially lethal I’m surprised the teacher let him take it home. It’s full of knots and cracks, creeks ominously while in use and has the fresh sappy smell of utterly unseasoned wood. I’ve banned the heaviest Kurdish trainee from using it, partially because I’m afraid he’ll break it but also because he is the very last person I want to fall on me.

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Soggy ziggurats

The curiously erotic art of Basra airport

The curiously erotic art of Basra airport

I’m in the Ur dig house wearing three jumpers and a woolly hat watching my breath fog. January in Iraq turns out to be quite cold and pretty wet (I weep inwardly over the big socks I couldn’t fit in my bag). I got here on Thursday night about ten hours later than scheduled. I made a strong start by getting quite drunk at Manchester Airport and finally getting round to watching Captain America on the plane, but then got delayed at Istanbul, where I sobered up, and then had to spend two hours circling Basra waiting for the fog to clear.

We’re living in the compound of the ancient city of Ur, which is full of dogs and rubbish. On Friday morning a few of us went to check out the ziggurat in the rain. The ziggurat of Ur is about four thousand years old and probably the greatest monument of the region I’ve been studying for the last twelve years. It featured heavily in my doctoral thesis. We trudged up to the top, decided it was horrible and went back to the dig house to make coffee and put on more clothes, which wasn’t exactly how I’d been imagining it all these years.

That wet ziggurat smell: S and D at the foot steps wanting to go home

That wet ziggurat smell: S and D at the foot steps wanting to go home

The samphire of ancient Ur: the perfect accompaniment to hard boiled eggs and processed cheese triangles

The samphire of ancient Ur: the perfect accompaniment to hard boiled eggs and processed cheese triangles

The next day the site guard gave us the full tour, together with a couple of Iraqi army officers from the local base, who spent most of the their time taking photos of each other on their smart phones. We slithered down the mud to the royal tombs of the Ur III dynasty, which remain a marvel in the world of brick vaulting fanciers despite being heavily befouled by pigeons. We admired the very large holes left by Leonard Woolley (https://oldstuffinhotplaces.com/2013/07/16/the-world-according-to-woolley/) in the 1920s, now filled with plastic bags, and I noted how well samphire grows on heavily salinated wet mudbricks.

Today we had our first full day on site; a modest Old Babylonian tell about forty minutes drive from Ur. Tomorrow we have the day off to go to the hospital and be tested for AIDS. Iraq is fun.

And repeat

In Norfolk I discover the exciting range of jam available in the village church of Burnham Thorpe (where Lord Nelson was born)

In Norfolk I discover the exciting range of jam available in the village church of Burnham Thorpe (where Lord Nelson was born)

With 2013 finally tied in a sack and left out for the bin men, I now have only one more episode of The One Show to endure before I can escape to Basra on Wednesday. I can reflect on a reasonably nice festive period, which included watching Cambridge lose to Oxford at rugby (and getting very drunk), spending a weekend in Norfolk visited English Heritage castles (and getting very drunk), smoking a pipe (and getting very drunk), organising a pub crawl through all the village pubs between Banbury and Oxford (…) and being very drunk in Chester Cathedral. In between the other usual Christmas pass times of eating, missing trains, and annoying people at parties I also managed to do a large amount of work for a small amount of money, most of which I lost on a series of poorly-motivated horses at the New Year’s day races at Cheltenham. For Christmas I got DVDs and a lecture about life trajectory and alcohol consumption (thanks mum and dad).

Ye Olde Reindeer; appropriately festive starting point for the intercalary Banbury to Oxford village pub crawl, during which I drank ten pints of beer  and was kind to a small dog. As I remember.

Ye Olde Reindeer; appropriately festive starting point for the intercalary Banbury to Oxford village pub crawl, during which I drank ten pints of beer and was kind to a small dog. As I remember.

The DVDs are aimed at keeping me reasonably sane over the next three months, which I’ll be spending in Iraq, down in Nasiriyah, excavating an Old Babylonian city while drinking very little and not getting out much except when accompanied by an unwieldy quantity of policemen. I feel a healthy supply of box sets may be the difference between a happy workplace environment and ugly social disintegration. So far I’ve selected Elementary series 1, Being Human 1-3 and Alan Partridge: Alpha Papa. This will definitely be the most dangerous place I’ve ever gone to dig; an issue which I’ve been furiously ignoring up til now. Today in Sainsburys mum asked me where Fallujah is, which constitutes her first expression of near-concern. Ignorance, as they say, is bliss, so I’m attempting to keep my parents as blissful as possible. My New Year’s resolution for 2014 is not to get dead.

Cheltenham: Lady Buttons returns from losing my last tenner by thirteen lengths.

Cheltenham: Lady Buttons returns from losing my last tenner by thirteen lengths.

In general, I’m not at all unhappy to see the back of 2013. Although I’ve dug a great many holes in a great many places, most of my longer term goals, such as getting a permanent job, moving out of my parents’, learning to drive, forming a romantic relationship with a (tall, mysterious, bearded) man, and paying tax, continue to elude me. On the positive, 2013 was the first year since 1996 in which I did not sustain a black eye. We’ll see if 2014 can see me escape the homeless, itinerant, poverty which only dedication and ten years at university can properly equip you for.

 

Public relations

Disney's Robin Hood: the first man I ever loved

Disney’s Robin Hood: the first man I ever loved

I’m drinking tea on my parent’s sofa reading my old John Constantine graphic novels, while receiving malevolent looks from my dad. I made him turn over from The One Show for the safety of both of us. I’ve been back in the UK for forty long hours now, though I made some of them go very fast by seeing Thor: The Dark World and drinking five pints of Cheshire Gap at the pub. The last week in Erbil was fairly packed. On site I completed The Megaplan (you can fit a lot of bricks in a 20m x 15m trench and now I know them all personally), my team won the Halloween quiz at the T Bar and were rewarded with lots of small, free, colourful drinks (which seemed like a good idea at the time), and I went to a refugee camp where we made life better for a bunch of Syrian children by making them watch Disney’s Robin Hood until they cried. I pretended to be amazing at Egyptian Arabic by translating the dubbed sound track back into English for my colleagues, while in fact simply recalling the script word for word having watched Robin Hood at least three hundred times between the ages of 7 and 28 (when the second DVD wore out).

Media mess: A late medieval wall proves to be the perfect buffet table

Media mess: A late medieval wall proves to be the perfect buffet table

We finished the season by holding a large press conference in the trench. I spent much of this hiding, and grinding my teeth as I watched members of the Kurdish press pulling bones out of the sections, scrambling over architecture in four inch heels, and using the ancient walls to put their drinks on. There was a thrilling minute during which a particularly fat cameraman stood on a section of wall supported only by optimism. I remained undecided as to whether the damage to the wall might be worth the sight of him breaking his legs in front of twenty TV cameras. I have since had to endure my colleagues sending endless YouTube clips of me looking shifty and irritable on various Kurdish satellite channels. I finally got paid (in cash). At first they wanted to pay me in Iraqi dinars but I had to point out that there wasn’t even nearly enough room in my luggage.

The Parthenon: still not finished

The Parthenon: still not finished

Because I haven’t suffered enough, instead of going home I went to a five day conference in Athens on Kurdish archaeology. When I say ‘went’, I mean I registered and then spent five days shopping and drinking wine in cafes. I dutifully went to the Parthenon, but was extremely careful to learn nothing whatsoever. Particularly memorable moments were the military museum (where I discovered that things haven’t gone so well for the Greek military since the Battle of Marathon in 490 BC) and seeing a dog run over by a taxi. I have changed plane in Istanbul airport nine times in the last twelve months and aim to never go there again.

German pig and Scottish Whisky

Round two of three. The german bar pig-based friday brunch of kings

Round two of three. The german bar pig-based friday brunch of kings

I just returned from brunch at the German bar, I think I might have civilisation poisoning. I just ate two bratwurst, one weiswurst, two other unidentified sausages, parma ham, baked ham, salami, several thick slices of honey roast gammon and a very very large quantity of bacon. The non-pig-based elements consisted of scrambled eggs, pickled cabbage, a bit of salad, a diet coke and two litres of good german pilsner. It was a bargain at $42; I might die of happiness. Or some other internal complaint.

The strange fruits of the iraqi earth

The strange fruits of the iraqi earth

My joyful reunion with Schweinefleisch has not been the only reminder of the things of home this week. Digging out a deep vertical pit on site, which I suspect to have been for a lavatory, we recovered a number of interesting items including shoes, clothing, tobacco pipes, umbrella fragments, a plastic flower and an almost undamaged whisky bottle produced by James Buchanan co. Ltd, Glasgow, Scotland. I feel a stronger connectedness to the people of ancient Erbil, now that I know they were drinking a decent Scottish whisky and hiding the empties in the toilet.

The Iraqi prince William comes with considerably more hair

The Iraqi prince William comes with considerably more hair

There are in fact a series of slightly un-nerving home-like things about Erbil, such as the very sensible adoption of the three-pin-plug and the way the mosque in the main square looks uncannily like Big Ben and the Houses of Parliament. In a wedding shop on my way home from work, two of the dummies have been dressed up to look like Prince William and Kate Middleton. The first time I drove past I thought I’d imagined it and was having some kind of mid-life royalist fit. Last night I went to the UN bar where I met a fair few British people and ended up talking about awful British towns we’ve lived in. I think I won having worked in Stoke-on-Trent for two years. The UN bar was unexpectedly nice and gave out free beers and Tuborg t-shirts, although it was slightly over-populated with earnest looking men wearing ethnic scarves. I’m always disappointed by cliché.

Art imitating life: Brad Pitt  as earnest scarf-wearing zombie-fighting UN worker in World War Z

Brad Pitt as earnest-looking scarf-wearing zombie-fighting UN worker in World War Z

Life below the radar

Being thrown across the bridge was all part of the fun in my day.  The Enterprise seatbelts make me spit diet coke over the woman in front

Being thrown across the bridge was all part of the fun in my day: The new Enterprise seatbelts make me spit diet coke over the woman in front

It’s been nearly a week since I got back from Iraq and I’ve been making the most of my renewed opportunities. Yesterday I watched six hours of television, went to see Star Trek Into Darkness at the cinema, went to the pub where I drank five pints of mild and ate pork scratchings (the good and hairy kind) and had sausages for dinner. All my dreams are realised. Having been paid for the work in Iraq I’ve bought myself a gift of clean shirts and trainers that still have rubber on the bottom. The Inland Revenue sent me a welcome back present of yet another tax code which I’ve added to my collection. One day I will have the full set.

Mum painting fences for the elderly Japanese man next door

Mum painting fences for the elderly Japanese man next door

The Inland Revenue’s problem is part of a general problem with my life, in that I increasingly don’t exist in the UK. I don’t have a job, I don’t sign on, I don’t pay tax, I don’t pay national insurance, I don’t have a house, I don’t have a credit card, I don’t drive, I don’t give blood (anymore, due to travel history), I’m not registered with a doctor, I’m not registered with a dentist and I’m no longer registered to vote as I don’t really live anywhere. I have no debt and no assets. The government might be forgiven for thinking I’m trying to avoid them, or perhaps that I’m living in the woods stockpiling road kill and sharpening sticks for when the revolution comes.

I might not have a job, but I do have work; in fact slightly more than I have time to do. I’ve been asked to write up part of a site in Turkey I work at for the final publication, the only obstacles being that the area was excavated by someone else nearly ten years ago and I can’t read their handwriting. I’m largely relying on hazy memories of seeing the trench when I went over to borrow the excavator’s plumb bob one morning in 2004. I think there was a wall. In a further test of memory, I was contacted on Tuesday by another excavation asking if I remembered where I found a particular scrap of textile in Sudan in 2010. Errm….

me and Tigerlilly own this block

me and Tigerlilly own this block

I’m successfully distracting myself from these unfathomable questions by joining twitter and becoming drawn into the territorial wars of the neighbourhood cats. The big ginger four doors down is taking some shocking liberties with the garden furniture and might be in line for a surprise if I still have the reflexes.