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Reflections on wealth and contrast

Dubai: Thursday 5th July, 2012

We approach through a luscious oasis of manicured lawns and ornamental flowers, at the top of which the taxi pulls a  tight U-turn  and comes to a halt outside a covered entrance foyer. Before I have finished fumbling with my wallet to extract the required payment, my door is opened and an immaculately pressed pair of trousers welcomes me to the Park Hyatt.

 The lobby staff greet me with Australian and South African Accents as I amble past and into a glass corridor, conveying me past sun-drenched garden courtyards to a bright open space overlooking Dubai Creek. Diesel powered 60 footers, those playthings of the tax exempt, bob with lazy self-assurance beneath the vengeful sun; their ensigns, are those of the Cayman Islands, denoting either that their owners have travelled a considerable distance to be here, or, more plausibly (if less romantically) that they are registered to a port of convenience for tax reasons. Beyond them, in the distance, arising from the haze; recognizable shadows emerge; The skyscrapers of Dubai’s Mid Town, arranged along a portion of Sheikh Zayed Road like upturned kitchen knives.

 Descending a flight of stairs I am greeted by an Australian of about 20, sporting a brilliant white uniform, again immaculately creased. The effect is hard to pin down. Is this resonant of empire, or the navy? I’m not sure. He is friendly yet solicitous in a manner which reminds me more of the highlands of Scotland than Gallus Sydney. Simply by showing me to my low sofa and handing me a cocktail menu, I am left feeling pampered; important, of worth.

I am not a guest here, although I would very much like to be. There is luxury here which both recalls and eclipses anything Alan Wicker used to write about. For the uninitiated, Alan Wicker presented a television series during the 1960’s, 1970’s and 80 entitled Wicker’s World, in which, memorably he would globe trot, providing human interest stories to the great issues of the era, often attending cocktail parties given by aging European Monarchs or heiresses and interviewing the likes of Princess Grace or the Sultan of Brunei. His trademark style was to portray himself as the insider, and yet slightly removed, laconic and amused, but essentially at home with an expensive glass in his hand, communing with the elite. This was a world into which you are not usually invited, but thanks to Whicker, you could see the lives of the elite.

Wicker’s World did not just cover the Rich. He also covered petty warlords and the disenfranchised or excluded, including the Boat People, whose floating homes render the Hong Kong Island settlement of Aberdeen, one of the more surprising and interesting you are apt to see.

Yet when we recall Whicker’s World, we are usually apt to recall the opulent lives of the world’s opinion-formers and decision makers, petty dictators or aged aristocrats. Hardly surprising, perhaps, given that our images of Britain at the time can seem very unglamorous indeed.

When we think of the Britain of the 1970’sand early 80’s, it is likely that in many cases we are drawn to television news pictures. Perhaps you will recall the grainy footage of Punk bands, with wildly coloured Mohican hair cuts and anemic faces, or donkey jacketed strikers; factory operatives or miners; huddling around flaming oil drums to keep out the cold. As Andrew Marr has said, “wherever you look in 70’s Britain, you see anger and decay.” Or perhaps you recall Les Dawson telling Mother-in-law jokes on the beige set of Blankety-Blank, or the lurid face paint of David Bowie’s alter ego, Ziggy star-dust.

Whicker’s World was the corollary of these collective images, all of which, to a greater or lesser extent, convey sadness or dreamy escapism. The raw aggression of the Sex Pistols articulated the anger which accompanied this sense of moral and economic putrefaction, while Bowie, has been seen as providing a dream-like escapism for a youth feeling its disenfranchisement keenly.

Whicker’s World was an altogether different sort of escapism, taking the viewer, not only to another country but to another world. One which is just better.

We are tuned to remember the world getting smaller during the 1970’s and 1980’s. Foreign travel was already possible for most through the rise of package holidays from the 1960’s, on. Yet the Whicker’s World remained elusive to all but a tiny minority.

Package holidays could promise and deliver much. A week or two of guaranteed sunshine, sandy beaches and exotic drinks was astronomically different from what their parents had enjoyed. But whatever freedoms and pleasures a package holiday provides, exclusivity and status are not among them. It was this which captivated the audiences to Whicker’s World.

Today, the world really is much smaller, even than it was then, for the simple reason that a taste of the glitz and glamour of Whicker’s World is open to a far greater number of people. The allure of Celebrity remains elusive foremost, and yet, a proliferation of working class stars have been catapulted into this world often with amazing rapidity, inspiring a generation of Britons to  dream of equally effortless ascendancy.

It is not that Celebrity glamour and excess did not exist in the 70’s and 80’s. The tragedy of Child Star, Lena Zavaroni, or George Best show how it was already possible to rise from obscurity, burn brilliantly, before succumbing to the effects of this sudden, wanton adulation. But while it did exist; had always existed, it was less common than it is now, which is why Whicker’s World would look so very different if broadcast today.

For one thing, the world of the Rich and Powerful and that of the Rich and Famous is not quite so distinct in the public imagination. It is probable that nobility has always consorted with beauty, but it was less understood by the population as a whole, then. Now, the idea that a Miss World, a member of a girl band or a footballer would turn up at a party given by Vladimir Putin would raise barely an eyebrow. The public has been educated to understand that exclusivity is not as exclusionary as we might once have imagined.

The young Australian returns and takes my order. Unclear as to what the vast majority of these concoctions will taste like, feeling that I should experiment, and dimly recalling James Bond, I order a Lemon grass Martini.

 It’s good. Really, really good.

To the childhood me, Whicker’s World represented the world of my Father, who spent much of his life travelling the Globe with work. Mostly this was extremely unglamorous work, landing him in hot, dusty places to seek meetings and openings which might or might not be forthcoming. But it was, for me, impossibly exciting to receive a postcard from Fiji, or Malawi or Mexico. It is from these postcards that I learned my Geography (as my well-thumbed children’s Atlas will testify). But it was Whickers’ World which gave me my feel for what these places might be like.

Of course, the world is mostly nothing like its portrayal in Whicker’s World. The clue is in the title. This, we implicitly understood, was the world in which he moved. It was television-worthy precisely because it is not the real world inhabited by the rest of us.

But it was also a world in which I could imagine my father moving, meeting ambassadors, ministers, movers &  shakers. The expression, “networking” was wholly unknown to me at the time, may indeed, not have existed, but it was this which I imagined my father doing (Indeed, when I think about it, I had almost no notion that my father’s job had any administrative or procedural elements at all, although of course it must have had). For me it was all tall stemmed glasses beside outdoor swimming pools, palm pressing with swarthy men in expensive shirts and wet black hair, courting younger women in chiffon dresses.

There was certainly no clue that this was not the case from my fathers postcards which, looking back, all say the same thing:

Arrived Sunday and am here until Thursday. Weather hot. Hope all is well back in UK. Will try to call if I get the chance. Look after your mother and sister for me. Love Dad.”

Sometimes, my father would include a point of interest which he thought I might appreciate. One such postcard has a picture of an Arab Fort from the kingdom of Oman. Another show’s an old, rusting artillery piece dating from the Battle of Guadalcanal.

But, generally speaking, my postcard collection remains enigmatic. At once enlightening and closed off. Providing a vivid snapshot in time and then removing it.

I am left with the same picture of my father, sitting at the desk of his hotel room, and writing off a couple of postcards before heading to the bar or to a meeting.

I pay my bill; I’ve had two more cocktails and am slightly tipsy.

 Leaving the Park Hyatt turns out to be an expensive business. This is a hotel so posh that you do not leave in ordinary taxi’s but are required to select from a selection of limousines

 Fortunately I have not got far to go. I am only travelling to the wharf at Dubai Creek, where the brightly painted Dhows unload every possible commodity from rice to washing machines and LG TV’s. Their mostly Iranian crews are hard at work, painting and repairing these old wooden vestals for the trip back out into the Gulf.

 In itself the Arabian Gulf is a fairly benign sea, but all the same, some of these craft look less seaworthy than is altogether comfortable. Especially as some of them will make their way further, out through the Straights of Hormuz to Pakistan

 This is a different side of Dubai, much-loved by tourists such as myself because it offers such stark contrast to the air-conditioned opulence of Dubai’s malls and hotels. Here, perhaps the old Dubai is still present. We flatter ourselves that this is the true heart of the city, offering a link between its past and future selves.

 There are other parts of Dubai in which the traders instinct can be readily witnessed, the haggling for knockoff goods in Karama Market or in the various souks which are themselves serviced by Dhows entering Dubai Creek, do this.

But there is drama and undeniable poetry to the Creek. It is a real and vital little stretch of water, with waterborne taxis ferrying people across and the various souks, whose presence creates the demand which ensures that the Dhows are here in the first place. It may be quaint viewed next to the towering glass and steel edifices of Modern Dubai, but it is also a functioning part of the global marketplace, in which imports and exports drive reserves of foreign currency and feed, ultimately the Global power politics of nations and their elites.

Most importantly the wharf allows us to comprehend the titanic ambition represented in Dubai. It is noisy and bustling and on a human scale. And as such it inspires empathy and warmth for these men, whose working livelihoods are also, an unconscious and unrewarded part of Dubai’s tourism industry.

I contemplate this as I take a water taxi across the creek and traverse the narrow streets in the late afternoon humidity until I can find a taxi to transport me back to the cool, uncluttered opulence of my own hotel. A further Alan Whicker moment awaits, with a glass of chardonnay with old friends.

Tourists would still come to Dubai without the wharf. They would still enjoy the souks and the hotels; the sunshine and the attractions. And if Dubai can still feel a little soulless behind its fabulous aspiration, this is not surprising. Dubai’s expansion was always a long-term project and the buildings can be viewed as the infrastructure around which its modern history will evolve. In the mean time, the trading that takes place at the wharf offers a hint of colour and continuity, both of which are also necessary foundations to allow tomorrows history to evolve.

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