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Milk and sand

It was now 1990: I met Brian Mullally at Heathrow, bound for Riyadh in Saudi Arabia without realising that for the next ten years I might as well have had a commuter's season ticket to Terminal four and BA flights to the Middle East!

I spent the following two weeks carrying out consultancy investigations at Almarai Dairy, which was and presumably still is such an impressive, market dominant set up, vertically integrated right through from growing the cattle feed to rearing and maintaining the cows under massive open structures way out in the desert. To keep them relatively comfortable the hundreds (or thousands) of Holstein crosses were constantly sprayed with water brought up from the 'aquafers' that cross deep under the Arabian peninsula from west to east. As a result of the most rigorous management milk yields are significantly higher and carry substantially less bacteria than those, for instance, in the UK. The milk is then emptied into huge silos at the processing plant, ready for bottling and labelling or for segregation and processing into consumer packed cream and various cultured products. One product of special appeal to me was the Arabic 'laban' drink. A bit like a European style drinking yogurt but sharper and absolutely gorgeous. I would buy it daily, were it to be available here.

The main of several Almarai processing plants was situated about an hour south of Riyadh, near the town of Al Kharj. Driving through Al Kharj for the first time, Brian Mullally at the wheel, a well bearded gentleman stepped out in front, bringing us to a stop with a mighty thwack from his big stick. Brian said and did nothing, expressionless, until this stern faced fellow stepped aside. Driving on he told me the man was an untouchable - a religious policeman called a muttawa (unsure about the spelling), who was simply reminding us that this was a holy day, a Friday, and that therefore nobody should be working or driving about, especially an infidel. Relationships and responsibilities between the secular police and the religious policemen seemed to me often to be quite obscure although the latter were undoubtedly senior. You did not, ever, argue any point with the muttawa! And, I was often reminded, you never, ever, made eye contact with a Saudi lady. Nine out of ten shoppers in the big supermarkets were men and what females did appear showed only their eyes through narrow slits in their head gear. What I recall most about them were my glimpses of their beautiful shoes, uniformly expensive no doubt. I was told to beware, for they were quite fond of surreptitiously goggling or oggling westerners like me! In my ten years operating my businesses in Saudi Arabia not once did I meet, never mind exchange words with a female of our species - but, ah, not quite true. More later on that.

The Al Kharj dairy plant incorporated a large and very well organised storage and distribution system. Dozens of loaded refrigerated vehicles left there each night for destinations as far away as Jeddah on the Red Sea, Dubai, Abu Dhabi, Bahrain and Kuwait, all places hundreds of thousands of kilometres distant. My role was to report on the efficacy of everything Almarai except the agriculture and farming sectors of the business, with a special brief for packaging logistics. That is, the pallets and crates and the individual bottles and containers complete with lidding, labelling and graphic design etc. Plus of course the machinery supporting them. Much of the requisite technology was outside my previous experience but fortunately I proved to be a quick learner with a strong design imagination that appealed to the Almarai Executive.

Almarai had been suffering significant product damage to goods in transit. Early one morning I was let by Brian into one of the massive refrigerated vehicles, unbeknown to its Plilipino driver or anyone else, just before it set off filled with product bound for Dammam, some four hundred kilometres distant. My role was to see for myself the why and the how of damage in transit at first hand. (I tried to forget the fact that these Philipino drivers, driving unlimited mileages on straight and featureless cross desert roads constantly fell asleep at the wheel and ended up in or on the sand, sometimes still upright but often not!) The main problem very soon became clear as we traversed a speed bump or a pothole and all the loaded crates - including the one on which I was sitting - lifted off the floor of the vehicle and came back down again with a resounding thump! That realisation led to the company re-equipping its fleet with vehicles incorporating a new kind of pneumatic shock absorber. I recall on another very early morning going out with an Arab van salesman on his rounds of shops, large, small and tiny in a suburban sector of Riyadh.This was my main introduction to the real way of life of modern Arabia. In spite of its strangeness and sometime harshness I found myself liking and respecting this country, the Middle East in general and its peoples give or take the senior ones with whom I eventually crossed swords. As I will reveal, a fairly senseless position to take against a people whose flag actually features crossed swords - and uses them freely!

But it is fair to say I really liked this assignment and it certainly led on to many years of well remunerated consultancy with Almairai Dairy and others all over the Middle East. Over that period of time I designed and commissioned from an Italian mould maker injection moulded crates, stackable when loaded or empty,  compression moulded pallets from a company in England, thermoformed cups and containers from a plant in Dammam and blow moulded bottles in various sizes from a company in Riyadh. I also worked with the mighty Tetrapack (paper cartons), with a French glass bottle blower, various labelling and labelling machinery companies including the one in Northern France for which I became Middle East agent. (I remain good friends with the owner, now retired.) On the strength of the increasingly well known success of my efforts for Almarai, as time went by I gained consultancy work with and for many of these supplier companies and with many of Almaria's competitor dairies as well as from packaging companies trying to sell their product into my operational area. Treading the fine line between helping one dairy or European supplier without compromising my work and integrity with the others became a constant worry for me. The markets in the Middle East are small in scale by comparison with those in Europe and thus quite incestuous.

Back home it was time to move on. I was commuting from England to various parts of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia and other parts of the Middle East on an regular / irrregular basis. The New Forest seemed just too far from Heathrow and the locations of our combined families for it to make much sense. So we left Sopley and rented yet another splendid old detached cottage in the village of Micheldever, close by the M3 motorway and only an hour from the airport.. It had plenty of space for my office and ourselves / visiting family and a wonderful village inn called the Half Moon. It was also close to the beautiful bluebell Itchen / Micheldever woodlands and the South Downs Way with which we, especially Dee, and our dogs were to become so familiar. The advantages of renting over buying were by now becoming clear to me, if less so to my partner, who would have preferred buying on a fresh mortgage. Certainly we could not have afforded to purchase the level of properties with which we had become used, and the flexibility and certainty it afforded us had become more and more obvious, given the sort of rental 'contract' we always looked for and found. Of course we still had the usual problems with some, but by no means all of our family, including especially the ill and itinerant Robert and the South Winds care home-bound Joan. Our time at Micheldever was not  exactly paradisal, but we were getting closer to it as the nineties unrolled.

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First of the many - Me and Billy McGhee (alias Dee Islip)

First of the many - Me and Billy McGhee (alias Dee Islip)
Photograph courtesy of Colin Robertson

How it all started...

Our packaging business was based in Bahrain and Saudi Arabia. On the 11th of September 2001, in a hotel bar, I watched the fall of the twin towers.

Three days later I met my wife, Dee, at Heathrow. We made out way north to a long planned holiday in the north west Highlands of Scotland.

By the end of that holiday our decisions were all made; we would close up our Middle East operations. I would come home to Winchester and in due course we would move up to Wester-Ross.

All my life I had played around with painting pictures and with writing verse and fiction. Now I would do this for our living, and in a place where you only had to lift your eyes to lift your mind.

In September 2002 we moved north; we had come home.

What you see here and at Pictures and Poems is some of the result thus far.

'Come on along o' me, for the best is yet to be.'

Bryan

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