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Letters Blog Letters Blog | Barrie Mahoney

'Writing Inspired by an Island in the Atlantic'

A Pair of Shorts and a Toothbrush

As much as I love visiting friends and family in the UK and Ireland, the necessary air flight fills me with dread, which is why I avoid this tortuous ordeal as much as possible. No, it is not the actual flying part, nor the possibility of catching pig flu from all that recycled air, nor being crammed into airport buses and queues and not even the major airports’ policy of processing passengers like sardines. No, my horrors begin when packing my suitcase, or several in my case, a week or so before the trip. Recent luggage restrictions are ridiculous, after all, my wash-bag alone is almost the entire weight allowance. Add to that, two shirts a day for 14 days, all the necessary vests and thermal underwear, gloves, scarves and hot water bottles - all so essential for a trip away from home, as well as a more than generous inclusion of essential gadgets and their necessary chargers and adapters and you will understand the pain, suffering and soul searching that I have to endure. Yes, I know, I am not alone in my whinging and I do fully understand all about global warming - as if an extra shirt or two would make any difference...!

A very good friend of mine recently took me in hand after I had explained the distress of my forthcoming situation. I listened carefully as he, in whispered tones, revealed some of his travel tips. He laughed, rather cruelly I thought, when he heard of the number of shirts and socks that I had planned to take. “You will be wearing vests, so take just three shirts. Make each one last for two days and then go to the launderette,” he laughed. He passed on other gems too - all equally drastic measures.

Hmm, and a good dose of deodorant, I thought to myself, but not wishing to appear ungrateful I continued to listen to his pearls of wisdom. After all, my friend was an ex-marine who had travelled throughout Laos, Thailand and Vietnam for several months with little more than a pair of shorts and a toothbrush. He taught me how to roll and not to fold my clothes. Did I really need to take an electric shaver, electric toothbrush, hairdryer and iron? He thought not and I, after several stiff brandies, eventually agreed, albeit reluctantly.

The big day arrived and I tentatively balanced my suitcase in my partner’s hands as he balanced on the scales. After the deduction of his weight and a few adjustments I smugly realised that the overall weight of the proposed luggage was now just 16 kilograms! That was indeed a record for me and I set off to the airport with a new air of confidence, knowing that I had four kilograms available for newly purchased goodies!

Two weeks later I was standing at the dreaded Gatwick airport, queuing to have my bags checked. I had suffered two weeks of just three shirts, visited the launderette twice, had plenty of showers and used lots of deodorant. No one had commented about my wearing the same items of clothing for two weeks and I stood with confidence in the queue awaiting my turn. Certainly, I had bought a few things, collected the usual batch of Christmas presents from generous relatives. I had bought two large bottles of Vitamin C tablets as well - have you noticed the acute shortage on the islands?

“Had a good trip, sir,” came a friendly voice from a spotty youth wearing a smart uniform. This chirpiness took me back a little as both age and experience has taught me that such chirpiness from anyone official in airports throughout the world usually means trouble.

“You’re a little overweight, sir,” continued The Spotty Charmer, grinning broadly. I thought he could have chosen his phrasing a little better. After all I have been wasting away on a diet for three months or so.

“How much overweight?” I snapped coldly, not about to indulge in pleasantries.

“Ten kilograms, sir. You must have bought a lot of stuff in the UK. I hope it’s worth it because that little lot will cost you £100.” The Spotty Charmer had suddenly become officious and demanding in his voice, but he continued to smile broadly, although the breadth of the smile was thankfully restricted by the brace on his teeth.

“That’s impossible,” I replied. “Anyway, ten kilograms at £5 per kilogram is only £50. You are trying to overcharge me, young man.”

“Not so, sir. If you pre-book your excess luggage before your flight then you can have it for £5 per kilo. If not, it is £10, sir.” I no longer liked the way he referred to me as “sir”. It had an evil resonance about it.

“What rubbish,” I spluttered. “How can I possibly foresee what the overall weight of my luggage will be until I have completed my trip. How can I judge that beforehand?”

“Well, that is your problem, sir. Will sir be taking anything out of his case or will sir be paying by credit card?”

“This is preposterous,” I exploded. “Sir will certainly not be taking anything out of his case,” I retorted proffering my well used credit card.

“That’ll do nicely,” beamed The Spotty Charmer, whisking the card out of my hand and into his evil machine.

I sighed, knowing when I was beaten. How my friend had travelled the length and breadth of Asia with a pair of shorts and a toothbrush I shall never know.

© Barrie Mahoney

First published in 2010

From the 'Letters from the Atlantic' series by Barrie Mahoney

Living the Dream: ISBN 978-0992767198

Click here to find out more

World War Heroes and the Canary Islands

One of the many things that I love about our island in the sun is the ‘live and let live’ approach of its people. No, I don’t mean the thousands of tourists, but the true Canarian people, those who were born and have stayed in this little corner of Paradise. As long as it is broadly legal and does not interfere with anyone else, in the main, anything goes. For many of its present day ex-pat population, with its heady mix of faith, culture, colour and sexuality, it takes time to get used to not being judged. Maybe this stems from the time, it is said, when Spain’s General Franco, intolerant of gay men in the military, would ship them off to Gran Canaria, which became a kind of penal colony for homosexuals. Whether there is real historical substance to this claim or whether it is an urban myth, I do not know for sure, but it sounds reasonable enough to me!

For me, one of the real unsung heroes of the Second World War was the code-breaker, Alan Turing. It was thanks to this mathematical genius that the war against Nazi Germany ended when it did. He managed to intercept and crack ingenious coded messages that gave detailed information to the Allies about the activities of German U-boats. However, there was only one problem with Alan Turing - he was gay.

Alan’s reward for his pivotal role in cracking intercepted messages was quickly forgotten when, in 1952, he was prosecuted for ‘indecency’ after admitting a sexual relationship with a man. As an ‘alternative’ to imprisonment, this unsung war hero was given ‘chemical castration’ - a newly devised treatment for such ‘disorders’ at the time. In 1954, at the age of 41, he killed himself by eating a poisoned apple. I rather like this part of the tragedy - the ending is just so dramatic!

Or was this the end of Alan Turing? This amazing man is also credited with creating the beginnings of computer technology and artificial intelligence, which led to the development of one of the first recognisable modern computers. Alan Turing's brilliance and personal life came to the attention of present day computer programmer, Dr. John Graham-Cumming, who began a petition asking for a posthumous apology from the government. Many thousands of people signed it and the previous UK Prime Minister, Gordon Brown, finally apologised for how Alan Turing was treated in the 1950s. Whether it was through political motivation or genuine compassion for this brilliant man, and I like to think it is the latter, he said that "on behalf of the British government, and all those who live freely thanks to Alan's work, I am very proud to say: we're sorry, you deserved so much better.”

My thoughts also go out to the many thousands of gay men and woman who have been persecuted over the years - just for being themselves.

All this serious stuff brings me back home to Gran Canaria. Spain’s General Franco certainly had his faults, but I cannot help thinking that being shipped off to a life in the sun in the penal colony of Gran Canaria, just for being gay, was a far preferable alternative to ‘chemical castration’!

© Barrie Mahoney

First published in 2010

From the 'Letters from the Atlantic' series by Barrie Mahoney

Living the Dream: ISBN 978-0992767198

Click here to find out more

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