Year Three in the Atlantic

NOVEMBER 2014

Every year we get a nice bunch of folks from the Department of International Development come to visit us. It’s an  opportunity to justify the funding that the Island receives. Each year the acronym has changed; last year it was DPAM and this year it is BAM. I can’t help it but keep thinking of the line ‘wham bam thank you ma’am’ on Ziggy Stardust. The Sentinel is expecting Batman to appear. I’m invited to make a presentation and give a warts and all picture of both the successes and the failings in housing. I make my rent increase/second homes tax/reformed housing benefits/dowry proposals. As with all of my audiences to date, the scale of the problem is recognised, they’d like to help but…can it wait a year or two? There is a mountain of competing demands and a conflict between the long term benefits that the airport will bring and the more immediate need for decent homes and other public establishments.

I just want to share another genuine day in the life out here.

It began with emails and Councillors reporting leaky pipes, poor housing conditions and an agricultural tenant wanting an extension to his tenancy.

A couple of hours are spent drafting procurement documents for the rewiring of Signal House, the most prominent house above James Bay, and a draw down contract for the 14 houses on Piccolo Hill.

We have another glitch on Half Tree Hollow to deal with. Some land has been sold which cuts right across the site for our exemplar home, without being picked up on the infrastructure design. I change the plot for the exemplar and we will need a rearrangement of a couple of plots to ensure that we do not lose a house or parking.

I don’t miss mobile phones – far from it – but it means that I have to traipse around town to find an elusive, very busy contractor. I find him on the wharf.

Tracy has a painful slipped disc and has been off for a while, so I call to see how she is and whether she’ll be back next week.

And to finish the day I’ve two unusual tasks. Firstly, as I mentioned last month, there are a number of houses whose addresses appear to vary from one database to another. This is because none are numbered and even the tenants are not sure what the numbers should be. Because everyone knows each other you don’t always need an address, but when it comes to rent accounting it matters. And as the Fire Service pointed out this week, if the fire alarm is going off, they want to know which flat or house is on fire (I’d have thought that the flames would be a clue). So I’m sticking numbers on houses. 

Finally I’m trying my hand at goatherding because several of our tenants’ goats are said to be causing a nuisance to the residents of a home for people with learning disabilities. Odelayee odelayee odelayhe o!

Thank god it’s Friday. After that every day and two dives, two tennis matches, five a side, a round of golf and a poker night in the Island Distillery (no joking!) this week I need an early night. No chance – I’ve offered to have a Star Trek night with some fellow geeks so the marathon starts at 6pm. LLAP.


DECEMBER 2014

One month to go and no feelings of demob happiness. This is partly because Tracey has now been signed off for several weeks. It’s also been a while since we had any vacant homes, and I have some very serious problems of homelessness to address. So I’m skipping between policy development, planning problems, contract negotiations, key chasing and homelessness prevention. 

Around 20 years ago I represented one of housing authorities lobbying the Department of the Environment (yes, it was that long ago) to be able to spread their expenditure over three years in order to avoid the regular panic spending spree in order to spend the budget. The DoE eventually moved to three year programmes. Three year programming hasn’t reached St Helena yet and so it’s all hands to the pump as the deadline for committing capital spending draws to a close in December. It’s a bit like transfer deadline day in the scramble to get permission to spend and then enter into a contract, but after running up and down Main Street so much that I’ve created a groove in the new pavement, I manage to commit my last £120,000.

A big achievement given the paucity of technical support and the absence of the procurement team, so can I rest easy? Er, no. in the latest twist to the saga of Half Tree Hollow, two wirebird nests, featuring eggs, appear slap bang on the development site. The environmentalists demand a month-long 50 metre exclusion zone. Given that there are only 400 of these birds in the entire world and they are all here, I can hardly argue. The better news is that the site of the first home sits just outside of the zone.

I swear my colleagues think I’m absent minded (mainly because some of them tell me), but that’s because chasing builders, accountants, lawyers, social workers, tenants and engineering consultants leaves no space in my brain for more mundane stuff such as where I left my wetsuit.

Talking of wetsuits I have managed to complete my 50th dive. At the same time Martin the Prison Manager completed his 100th dive and we celebrate by heading 110 feet down to the Royal Fleet Auxiliary Darkdale. The Darkdale was sunk by a German u-boat in 1940, resulting in the death of all 41 mainly young sailors who were on board. This 140m tanker is a war grave. As you descend, the sight of it, split in two and so long you can’t see both ends at once, thinking of those young sailors who gave their lives, is quite moving. At such a depth you cannot stay for long but our slow journey to the surface we are joined by a curious devil ray. The fact that the day before we snorkelled with the first whaleshark of the season made for an unforgettable weekend.

Talking of back pain (which I was a few paragraphs back) I was caught up in a major road traffic accident this month. A tourist bus swerved to avoid some pedestrians, hit them nonetheless and then went straight into a methane gas tanker. I drove into the rear of the tanker and ended up with serious spinal injuries. Six people died in the major civil emergency. 

At this point I suppose I ought to mention that it was a mock up, an exercise, not the real thing. I was selected to be one of eight major victims because of my reputation as an actor. Given that the reputation is based on four or five appearances as Napoleon, I have never acted before and even feigned illness to avoid the school nativity plays this came as a surprise. But I drew upon my experience of an exposed compound tib and fib skiing accident to yell in pain every time the rescuers dropped me or drove over a bump in the road. It was a brilliant exercise and the Island should now be far better prepared for the real thing.

I’ll miss this unique mix of work and play and also the friendship of so many of the Saints. Quite bizarrely, when I visit the Police Station all of the cops call me by my first name. I would have to be a serial killer to be so well recognisable in the UK. Stranger still, when I encounter the prisoners weeding the Castle Grounds they all say ‘Hi, Andy’ and the one who I do know well offers me a handshake. 

JANUARY 2015-

Well that’s it. Over two years away from family, friends and one of the best Southampton teams of all time. When I arrived it felt like Alice in Wonderland, year two felt a bit like The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner and just lately I’m worried that I’m Leonardo di Caprio on Shutter Island. It’s been an exhilarating, unique, once in a lifetime, impossible, chaotic, surprisingly challenging experience and one I’ll not forget or regret.

In work and play I’ve had more experiences than I could ever have dreamt of, plus a few nightmares. Napoleon and his biographers were clearly aiming for the sympathy vote with their portrayal of the Island. Or maybe he had one or two summers like we’re having at the moment – more Edinburgh than Equator. 

Perhaps he should have taken up diving – I’ve just seen my first turtle, 33m down in the ocean, having a bit of a rest. I’ve suggested to the Tourism Office that St Helena should have a ‘Big Five’ to match that of neighbouring Africa. Turtles, Devil Rays, Dolphins, Whalesharks and Humpback Whales make for quite a collection. Other quintets have also been suggested, but with no offence intended I can’t get excited about the Little Five invisible insects. Or the Big Five Pests – ‘rats, cockroaches, mosquitoes, fleas and expats’ being one suggestion. I really don’t see the pests drawing the tourists in.

Among the last memorable experiences is my first art show in the southern hemisphere. Throughout December and into January the Museum has displayed most of the paintings that I have produced out here, plus a few I brought with me. Some are to be auctioned for local good causes once the Post Office produce them as stamps. I’ll be honoured and quite chuffed when this happens. One has been commissioned by the Arts and Crafts Society to mark the end of the line of ships to serve the Island – another honour, marking what will be a hugely important and emotional part of the Island’s history. The show also results in several friends ordering paintings of their homes or favourite sites. One of the nicest compliments I get is when I ask whether my new patrons have any special requirements and they say ‘no, we want it just how you like.’

So there I leave it. We have the foundations of the housing service in place. We have all the information that will ever be needed on the condition of every house and its occupants. We have a full set of modern housing policies designed to replace the vacuum that previously existed, These should guide the work of its first trained housing officer, Tracy, the maintenance service and the rent service. There is a 30 year, fully costed business plan and, as asked, I have set out how it could and should be funded. There is a much greater awareness of the need to continue modernising the service. The funding thus far has made all of the flats in Jamestown safe and transformed the quality of some refurbished homes. Plans are on the table for over 400 new homes, ready to meet the demand once the airport opens. We have started the housebuilding programme ahead of the hospital and hotels, even though they were all on the drawing board before I arrived and have benefited from teams of on-Island designers. Whereas I've been without a developer, architect, surveyor, project manager, landscape designer, financial advisor and administrator this side of the planet. But I have had five different directors in the space of two years, plus a few wirebirds nesting on the building site. 

On a personal note I’ve been sorry to lose a number of friends over the past two years and a bit. Back home, Pat Primmer was a lovely, funny and warm friend to Jane and I. The world has lost a modest and thoughtful bass guitarist in Derek Wood. Here on St Helena we have lost Trevor Otto, Tracy’s uncle; a leader of the fishing community and friend among the tenants. Patsy’s mum, who like Patsy, so welcomed me into the Island community, has also left us. Every parting reminds me that we have just one life and should make the most of it, as all of these good people did. When I climb on to the RMS for the last time I will also be leaving behind around 100 other friends and colleagues. I have surprised myself by remembering the names of most of them which given my track record is fairly miraculous but feel bad that I didn't get around to saying goodbye to every single one of them.

I’ve learnt a lot. Design by email is one of the nightmares i referred to above. Design engineers make far more sense than masterplanners. Given that every request for internal support adds weeks and for international support adds months to the timetable, UK timeframes make no sense. This isn’t just due to a ‘passive aggressive’ culture among a minority of staff; it is the sheer fact that a population of 4,000 can only manage a certain amount of major capital projects. Employing overseas consultants is a lottery; some bad, some excellent and always impossible to keep to deadlines, often because they are dependent upon the cooperation of others in government who have other priorities. Colonialism is still alive in the minds of a few expats and peoples’ motives for being here cover the whole spectrum from altruist to escapist. I still think I’m on Shutter Island.  

The big question is whether the progress (I hesitate to say momentum) can be maintained.  Housing is having to compete with the delayed hospital improvements, fire station, wharf, airport extras and other demands. It is not looking positive, at least in the short term. But the plans are there, ready to go, and it would be a terrible waste of public money if, like so many plans before them, they were left to gather dust.

So out go twice weekly dives, the company of whalesharks, humpbacks, turtles, devil rays and dolphins. A marvellous drive to work. Waves and hellos from friends and complete strangers. A round of drinks for a fiver. Food way past its sell by date, plus around 30 activities I could never have experienced if I’d not accepted the job. To be replaced by locking the car and house all the time, sweaters and wet weather gear, healthy eating and bloody mobile phones.

Thanks to the 1,000 folks a month who have been following the blog and my very best wishes to the good people of St Helena. Live long and prosper.

Andy