Sunday, April 06, 2014

Eurovision Drinking Game 2014

Just under five weeks from today, we will - for one night only - abandon all musical taste and dive headlong into the world of pyrotechnics, ballads and unpronounceable acts that is the Eurovision Song Contest. And so, with a fair number of people already turning up on the blog every day and checking out last year's rules, I figured it was about time I knuckled down and create a new Eurovision drinking game rule set for 2014.

Now, last year's rules were pretty deadly thanks to the pyrotechnics, but still people have been getting in touch with me to encourage me to up the ante, to raise the stakes, to ensure that there can be no possibility of making it even half way through the night vaguely sober. And so, I have done my level best to ensure Eurovision 2014 is one to remember...or not, as the case may be...

As with previous years, some of the rules are slightly UK-centric so, if you intend to play this in another country, just ignore rules 1 and 23 and knock back two shots before you get started for good measure. Or, watch it on BBC and pretend to be British for the night so you to can feel our pain.

Now, - as ever - I need to issue a word of warning; this game is based upon the consumption of strong alcohol. I cannot, therefore, be held responsible for your health (or lack of) if you stringently follow the rules of my game and drink yourself into oblivion. Play this game entirely at your own risk…


1. A shot glass for every person playing (probably best to have a couple of spares in case people get overexcited).

2. The national drink of Denmark is akvavit which, frankly is a little unimaginative as it's also the national drink of Norway who hosted the contest in 2010. Now, since it's not the sort of drink you're necessarily going to run into at your local Sainsbury's, I would suggest that you feel free to play hard and loose with the rules and pick something suitably alcoholic and to your tastes...

The rules are really very simple. You take a sip of your chosen spirit if:

1) Any time the British entry - Molly Smitten-Downes - is referred to as a 'newcomer' or an 'unknown'. Take a whole shot if she's described as a refreshing change (or words to that effect).

2) The host attempts to sing.

3) The host pretends to be surprised at something that's going on in what is clearly a vaguely-rehearsed piece of improvisation.

4) The host loses track of their autocue or messes up their timing.

5) The video shown before an act contains shots of people in traditional Danish costume. Drink a shot if anyone is doing a traditional Danish folk dance. If you're unsure of what a traditional Danish folk dance looks like then check out an example here. If you're too lazy to follow that link; don't worry you really haven't missed much.

6) You see Denmark's national animal, the Mute Swan. Drink three shots if it’s a person dressed in a Swan costume.

7) You are not entirely sure whether the singer is man who looks like a woman, or a woman who looks like a man. 

8) A country is represented by a singer from somewhere else in the world. Drink an entire shot if a country is represented by what seems to be a random person (or persons) scooped up off the streets and then pushed out on stage.

9) The act involves people on stage banging large drums or objects acting as large drums.

10) An item of clothing is removed on stage. Drink an entire shot if it is removed by someone else.

11) The act is bald. Drink an entire shot if they are also female.

12) The act possesses a large moustache.

13) The act is dressed in leather. Drink an entire shot if they are dressed in leather and have a large moustache.

14) If you hear a language used other than that of the nation who is singing (for example, English words in a song by Ukraine). One sip per language. If in any doubt, just take a sip.

15) You recognise the song immediately as being a blatant rip off of a previous winner of Eurovision.

16) The song is an ode to world peace. Drink three shots immediately if there are any children on stage at any time during the song.

17) There are dancers on stage who, by their movements and lack of synchronism, appear to have perhaps had three dance lessons as a child and have never heard the song before tonight. 

18) People are pretending to play instruments on stage. Drink an entire shot if they take a pretend solo.

19) Every time there's some kind of pyrotechnic on stage.

20) Every time someone employs the use of a wind machine.

21) If the act attempts to distract attention from the paucity of quality in their offering by getting some kind of celebrity on stage with them (for reference, see Germany in 2009 who employed the services of Dita von Teese to no effect whatsoever)

22) Every time there is an awkward silence and/or miscommunication between the hosts and the people reading out the votes. Drink an entire shot if the votes get mixed up.

23) Every time one of the people reading out the results of a country’s voting attempts to secure their 15 seconds of fame by babbling on incoherently and generally delaying things and winding a few hundred million people up.

24) Every time it’s "Royaume-Uni? Nil point!". Drink a shot each time, at the end of a voting round, the UK is in last place.

25) Every time a country gives top marks to someone for geographic, political or ethnic reasons.

26) If there is any alcohol left once the show is finished and you’re physically capable of coordinating the movement of alcohol from the bottle to your mouth...take a sip!

At some point in the next five weeks I'll try and fashion a printable version like I did the in the last two years. Oh and I would suggest that, in order to maximise the chances that your rules survive the night's entertainment, you may want to think about laminating them! Have fun and please don't blame for the pain and misery you will have to endure...not to mention the hangover the day after!!

Sunday, March 30, 2014

British Airways provides delay and comic relief...

Now, as regular readers may know, I am not always the luckiest of persons when it comes to travelling and - true to form - I managed to run into problems yesterday when travelling from London Heathrow to Rotterdam...

Boarding all went fine - in fact, better than fine! It was smooth and quick and I was in my seat with minimum wait and absolutely no fuss. But, no sooner was the whole plane boarded when there was the first hint that all was not well.

"I'm afraid there is a problem with one of the emergency exits," said the Captain over the intercom, "and we need to have the engineers to come and have a look at it."

I was sitting next to one of the emergency exits but, when the two yellow coated engineers boarded, it was the exit on the other side of the plane that they examined. Cue some removing of panels, a modicum of fiddling and some muted discussion before the engineers departed and left the plane. Problem solved? Oh no!

"Unfortunately," said the Captain, a few minutes later. "The engineers haven't been able to resolve the problem and they've gone to find a manual."

Gone to find a manual??? I tried to feel reassured (hey, at least they had a manual!) but instead found my confidence in the engineers had decreased just a smidgen. Twenty minutes passed (it was clearly either a really big manual or just a long way away) and the engineering team again boarded the aircraft and set to work...

Now, to the uneducated and untrained eye, it appeared they did exactly the same again (pop the panel, fiddle around a bit, look confused, and then mutter at each other) but I'm sure that - since they'd spent twenty minutes consulting the manual - this was an optical engineering illusion. But, either way, it didn't help because within minutes they had tromped dejectedly off the plane again.

Another twenty minutes or so rolled by - passengers idly wondering by this point whether or not we were going to actually leave Heathrow today - when a third engineer arrived. This one looked altogether more senior, considerably more knowledgeable. With a level of ethos befitting his appearance, he popped the panel. He fiddled. He muttered. He tromped back down the aisle and left.

The flight was now over an hour late and there was still no news of when we would be getting on our way. Just as I began to fear that this might be a problem beyond the engineer's capability, the engineering team re-emerged and strode with some confidence down the aisle - surely, I thought, surely they have solved the problem at last. And then they started doing this...

That's right. They are sticking black tape across the exit and adding no exit signs. An hour of deliberating and consultation of manuals and senior engineers resulted in the - highly technical - solution of slapping on a bit of tape and some stickers. To be fair, they did have a fair old game getting the 'no exit' stickers in place (perhaps the manual wasn't very clear) and they even made sure to pop some black tape on the exit sign on the ceiling (in case, after this hour delay, there were still some people who weren't aware there was a problem with the emergency exit):

And thus, after ten minutes of careful sticking, we ended up like this:

But, at least we were ready to go...right? Wrong! Due to losing two emergency exits, we now had to engage in a sort of musical chairs (sans music) to shuffle passengers around the plane to make sure that their distribution was suitable for our reconfigured plane. This took another 15 minutes of deliberation and moving and hand luggage shifting but, finally we were ready to depart. Right? Right? No. Not right at all. You see, while they had masked one ceiling exit sign, they had forgotten to mask the other one:

Now, I noticed this just after they left but was I going to draw attention to it? No, I just took a photo. But, one of the reshuffled passengers unfortunately was unable to restrain themselves. They had to tell a stewardess. Why, Mr. Shuffled Passenger? Why would you do that? We were ready to go and you had to point out a missing piece of black tape that no one cared about at all! Well, whatever his rationale, it brought a halt to the proceedings as we then had to call the engineers back on board in order to place two 8cm pieces of black tape over the exit sign and delayed our departure that little bit more....

Still, at least we got there in the end. The passenger sitting next to me told me they'd had their flight cancelled twice on this route so I guess I should consider myself lucky that we only needed some cosmetic surgery in order to get on our way...

Thursday, March 27, 2014

A glimpse into the future of Google...possibly.

The last two days, I've been attending a conference in which a range of professionals from different industries get together to discuss developing trends in the media industry and take a peek at where those trends might be leading us in the next decade...

One of the tasks everyone was given was to take a company (selected from a range of possibilities such as Kickstarter, Oculus, Amazon, etc. - but each company could only be used once) and write a short narrative that depicts a future for them ten years from now. We only had 10-15 minutes to write this so there wasn't much time, but I got Google and I thought it might be fun to type up what I wrote and share it here and maybe encourage people to write shorts visions of the future as they see if for a media company...

Technology companies are like sharks; should they stop moving then they die. Google was the biggest shark of them all in 2014 and they continually sought to evolve and grow; they never stopped moving and acquiring - whether people, concepts or companies - and, as 2024 dawns, we find Google still as the largest digital predator. Central to that has been the morphing, evolution, and amalgamation of their technologies into AESOP (Autonomous Embedded Search Optimisation Persona).

John is 35 and works as a lawyer; he single and interested in sports (particularly baseball - he supports the Red Sox) and music (he listens to blues rock) and he relies upon his AESOP for every part of his day. He is woken at 6am by his alarm, not because he set it but because AESOP knows that he has a 9am meeting and that, if he is to get ready and make it through the projected Boston traffic, this is how long he will need. AESOP also communicates to the cappuccino machine in the kitchen to begin brewing coffee while waiting for John to wake. Once John has staggered to the kitchen, AESOP activates a wall display to highlight interesting news stories, media, and events that is has been collating while John slept. It also has a list of suggested gifts that he might want to send to his sister for her birthday (based upon previous gifts he sent and limited communication with his sister's AESOP).

While John eats breakfast, AESOP brings up some suggested recipes for the dinner John is planning on cooking for a date this weekend; it doesn't require he give an auditory response since cameras monitor John's face for micro expressions using the facial action coding system, it can determine which of the recipes he likes most purely from this information. John showers, gets ready for work and then gets into his car - whose navigation is powered by AESOP - and this means that he can focus on work preparations while his car drives him. AESOP has been searching for case files that could aid him in strengthening the legal case he is currently defending and John reviews these, saving the best of these to the cloud for later evaluation. AESOP then lets John know that the star pitcher of the Red Sox is due to sign copies of his autobiography at a book store two blocks from his work, and gives him the opportunity to buy tickets since it fits into his current lunch break.

AESOP is an AI that learns who we are, what we want, how we feel, and helps satisfy demands we are sometimes not even aware of ourselves...

Wednesday, February 26, 2014

El hombre de la lluvia

The first time I heard the name el hombre de la lluvia was on a bright February morning.

I was sitting on a bench alongside Barcelona harbour, drinking water from a bottle and watching the way the sunlight reflected off the water; I was talking to a girl I’d only just met and feeling the warmth of the sun on my skin. Looking back, it seems a very different time in my life; a time when I felt that I was a good judge of character, a time when I didn’t find myself endlessly looking over my shoulder, a time when life made at least a cruel kind of sense.

                “El hombre de la lluvia” she had said, pronouncing it slowly so that I could grasp the nuances of the language and smiling as she did so. “My abuela, my grandmother, she used to scare me with the story of him when I was little to make me go to sleep. Go to sleep Reina, she would say, go to sleep before el hombre de la lluvia comes out to play.”

                “El hombre de la lluvia,” I echoed back to her, “The man of the rain.”

                “In English, I think the Rainy Man sounds better.” she said.

                “And he steals children?”

                “Not just children. He steals the lost.”

                “But only when it rains.”

                “Yes,” she smiled again and I found myself unable to resist smiling in return. The wind whipped her black hair and I held her gaze for long seconds, realising that there was just some instant connection between us.

                A seagull had initiated our conversation, it had come wheeling in off the sea and scooped up half my sandwich, which I’d briefly put down on the bench beside me while I had opened my bottle of water. As the seagull had lifted off with my lunch in its beak, I had sworn rather rudely and the girl, who had been sitting at the other end of the long bench, had laughed at me as I shook my fist and threatened it – and its immediate family – with all manners of revenge.

                Conversation came easily after that; she told me that her name was Reina and that she had lived here for her whole life; I told her about the lecture I had done the day before in Girona and how, afterwards, I had been given a delightful tour of the city by some of the University staff who had talked about some of Girona’s legends. They’d told me about Tarla, who had supposedly brought cheer to the sick in times of plague, and about the witch of the cathedral; and they had shown me the statue of the lioness – whose bottom one is supposed to kiss for good fortune – but I’d passed on the opportunity.

                And that, of course, had led to a discussion on the legends of Barcelona. I’d done my homework on Barcelona the night before, so I already knew the story about the Alchemist (and the house that remained empty for centuries), and about the legend of Saint Eulalia (who, we’re led to believe, was tortured by the Romans for defending Christians) and so I challenged Reina to tell me a legend of the city that I wouldn’t know.

                She had stared out to sea for a few seconds and then turned back to me with the hint of a smile.

                “El hombre de la lluvia.” she had said.

                “I’ve never heard of him.”

                “Be glad. Be glad and hope he hasn’t heard of you.”

                “Say the name again,” I’d asked, and so she’d repeated it and then told me how her grandmother had used the Rainy Man as a threat before bed time. It was a new story to me, not one of the legends listed on any of the web pages I’d browsed the night before in my hotel room, and there was something about the sound of the name that appealed to me.

                “Not many people know his name,” she said, as the seagulls cartwheeled in the blue sky above us, “Most people who meet him never get a chance to talk about it again.”

                But then the conversation had moved on and we instead got to talking about music and literature, finding a common ground in Hendrix and Stephen King respectively and arguing Purple Haze against Hey Joe, It against The Shining. And as the sun had slowly arced across the sky above us, she told me about the degree in fine art she’d earned and yet never found a use for, and I told her how I’d eventually stumbled into the world of education. It was one of those conversations where everything comes so easily and it’s obvious that you are both on exactly the same wavelength.  And it had been a long time since I’d felt that, indeed I’d have probably told you beforehand that I wasn’t in the right place in my life to be capable of that kind of instant connection. But there it was.

By the time we had paused for breath it was already late afternoon and so when Reina offered to show me to her favourite tapas place where we could enjoy a few glasses of vermut I didn’t take an awful lot of persuading. It had been a long time since I’d enjoyed someone’s company like this.

We ended up somewhere in the heart of the Gothic quarter - exactly where, I have no idea; I don’t remember the name of the place and she threaded us through such a maze of tiny cobbled streets and archways, into small alleys illuminated by slabs of dimming sunlight and flanked by high stone walls and shuttered windows, that I would never be able to find it again even if I wanted to. I sometimes play that scene through my head and wonder how life would have gone if I had turned her down, if I had gone on my way. But of course, there are no replays in life. We make our choices and we live with them.

The food was great but the vermut wasn’t really for me and so I switched to beer instead; but not many. The longer this story goes on, the more you’re probably going to question that part, but you have to believe me when I tell you that the closest I got to drunk was a pleasant underlying buzz, that smoothing of the thought processes that enables you to better tap into your intuition. We talked more over a plate of pinxtos and she asked me if I was single and I guess I must have hesitated for a second too long before answering, or there was something in my eyes that betrayed me.

“What is it?” she asked, “You have a girlfriend?”

My gaze instinctively slid away from her and to the window, where the sun had edged behind thick clouds and the day was darkening noticeably. But I wasn’t paying attention to the view; I was gazing off in the middle distance, lost in thoughts and memories.

“No,” I said finally, my voice sounding like someone else’s. “I don’t have a girlfriend.”

“Are you ok?” she asked, leaning forward and reaching out to touch me on the arm. Her fingers were soft, her touch delicate.

“Yeah,” I said, lying through my teeth. “It’s nothing.”

“Look, forget I even asked,” she said, “It’s really none of my business.”

“No,” I said, hesitantly and felt my chest tighten. “There was someone.”

“But you’re no longer together?”

“She,” I started and looked away again, blowing out my breath as I felt tears gathering unbidden at the corners of my eyes. When I continued, my voice was shaking a little in a way it hadn’t done for months. “She died last summer.”

The sentence hung in the air for a few seconds. It was only in moments like this that it felt tangible; the rest of the time I had dulled myself against it, kept my grief locked away in a little box deep in my head.

“I’m sorry,” she said, finally. “I’m really sorry.”

“No,” I said. “I’m sorry for spoiling the mood; it’s just not something I ever talk about.”

“I understand how that feels,” she said, a compassion shining in her eyes. “I’ve lost people as well.”

I had lost Ellie; I lost her one weekend and I never got her back. All it took was a weekend away with friends in Amsterdam for a hen’s night, a collision with a bike - a bicycle, for fuck’s sake – and an awkward fall. And then a call in the middle of the night and my world fell apart. I wanted to be angry at someone. For a time I was angry at the guy on the bike, even though I know it was Ellie who was drunk and looking the wrong way. Then I was angry at Ellie for not being more careful. And finally I became angry at myself for not being there and, even though that made no sense, that kind of inner guilt – varnished over and dulled with time – was what I lived with, even as I pretended to get on with my life nearly a year later.

A solitary tear slipped from my eye and began to trickle a hot path down my cheek and I wiped it away angrily with the back of my hand, annoyed with my body for betraying me like that.

“We can get out of here,” she said, “Just go take a walk.”

I nodded in silence, fighting hard against the surge of suddenly raw emotion that was pulsing inside of me, and she waved the waiter over and got him to bring the bill. I fished money out of my pocket, left it on the table and slid through the crowd until I stood outside. The sky had grown thick with roiling black clouds and I felt the splash of a raindrop on the tip of my nose.

Reina followed and took my arm. “Let’s walk,” she said. And so we did.

We walked in silence for a few minutes, me trying my best to lock away all the feelings that I’d managed to keep so successfully under lock and key in these last six months and her just watching me and leading me through a series of left and right turns until we ended up in a small enclosed square with a well.

She turned to face me and took both of my hands in hers.

“I felt your pain,” she said, looking into my eyes. “Even as we sat by the harbour, I could sense the pain that lay hidden under the surface.”

I said nothing, just fought to hold onto control.

“You miss her, and that’s so natural.”

Another tear rolled its way down my cheek but she held my hands tight and so I felt it trace a slow arc. I felt more rain splash against my face, fat drops as the rain began to get heavier around us.

“I’m sure Ellie misses you, too.”

I started, snatching my hands away from her. “What did you say?”

“I said that I’m sure she misses you, too.”

“No,” I protested, loudly. “You said you’re sure Ellie misses me. How do you know her name?”

“It has been hard, hasn’t it?” she asked, ignoring my question. “You’ve felt like she was the one thing that you could depend on, that she was the anchor holding you in place and that without her there’s nothing to give you traction.”

It was like she was pulling thoughts from my head and giving them voice and that was the first moment that I was overcome with the sensation that something was very wrong here. It was like something fell from my eyes, like some glamour was lifted from me, and for a second a glimpsed something cold and dark in Reina’s eyes.

“I’ve got to go,” I said, and took a step back from her.

“Go?” she said, and stretched her arms out wide with her palms upturned. “Just as it’s starting to rain?”

I took another step back from her, my stomach lurching and shifting like I’d just stepped off a violent roller coaster.

“I saw your pain,” she said. “I saw how lost you are. Wouldn’t you like all that to just go away? He can make it all go away.”

And even as she said it, I could feel a presence behind me. I remember the moment distinctly; the hairs on my forearms were standing up and I swear I could see the vapour of my breath in the air. And then I was turning and looking at the figure standing no more than ten feet from me.

He wore a long coat, stained with mud, and hob nailed boots. A wide brimmed hat cast a shadow across his face but his eyes shone like shards of jade and, when he smiled, his mouth seemed impossibly wide, impossibly wide and filled with tiny, white sharp teeth. Trust me, I know how crazy this sounds but I swear to you that he was there. And he reached out to me and it was as if his arms warped and stretched to close the distance, strong hands closing around my arms and dirty nails digging tightly into my skin. And the touch burned cold and he smiled this wicked smile and, at the same time, I didn’t feel afraid. Everything seemed right in that moment, even as his black tongue forked between his teeth and he moved closer to me, even as his hands squeezed my arms tight and held me in a grip like iron. The rain coming down around us in thick sheets now.

“You will be free,” said Reina from behind me and it seemed such a good idea.  I wanted to be free in that moment; there was no fear, just this terrible calmness as he came closer and closer. Even as I smelt the stench of carrion on his breath, there was a calmness and acceptance of my fate. I would be free.

And then the voice of Ellie exploded in my head like a siren. “Fight it!”

It was as if someone had thrown a bucket of cold water over me. Alertness suddenly returned and, even as the world tilted madly and the thing shaped like a man lunged towards me, I somehow found the strength to break free from his grasp. Reina reached out to stop me but, fuelled on adrenaline, I swatted her aside effortlessly and charged out of the square through an archway. My feet hammering the cobbles, sending a spray of water with every step as I charged forwards blindly.

I remember very little of what happened next. I ran madly through the streets and alleys until my lungs burned and my heart felt close to bursting; I fell at least twice and tore my jeans and bloodied my knuckles, but I always got up and I never stopped running. I only stopped when I tumbled out from an alley into an actual road with traffic and then I just flung myself across the bonnet of a passing car and clung to it even as the driver started cursing at me.

The police came fairly soon and I tried to tell them what happened but they didn’t listen or didn’t understand and they just assumed that I had been mugged. They put me in the back of their car, took me to the station and tried to make me write a report and, after a few hours, even I began to think it all sounded crazy. The mind is like that, I guess. It tries to file away the rough edges, make sure we don’t have to live with those kinds of things in our head. And a day later, I was on a plane back to London and the details were all fading away like a bad dream.

                That was three months ago and I told everyone that someone tried to mug me and I fought them off. That’s the revised history now. People seem to fall into two camps, they either tell me that I was a hero or they tell me how stupid I am – what if he’d had a knife or a gun? And I’ve told the story enough times that I even started to believe it myself. The other stuff, the weird stuff, I figured that was probably just something my mind cooked up in the heat of the moment. I was upset, I rationalised; that girl managed to get me to open up to her so I was vulnerable. And maybe, I theorised, maybe she’d even slipped something in my drink to make me more emotional; some kind of drug. It all made sense.

                At least, it all made sense until two weeks ago when I was walking home from University on the evening as it started to drizzle and I saw him again near Tufnell Park Road; standing beneath a bus shelter, waiting for me. I quickly turned and walked away in the opposite direction and I tried to pretend that I’d imagined it, that it was just my mind playing tricks on me. And that worked until three days later. It was raining again and this time he was standing in the park at the end of my road when I got off the bus. There was a teenager getting off the bus at the same time as me and I pointed and asked him if he knew the guy in the park. The teenager looked at me like I was mad “What guy?” he said and then walked off, plugging his headphones in as he went. But I could see the Rainy Man as he stood in the light rain and slowly tipped his hat to me.

                I saw him again yesterday. He was standing at the end of my driveway as a thin rain fell around him.  I had come to the window to shut the curtains for the night and there he was, green eyes shining as he smiled that wicked smile at me. I shut the curtains instinctively and counted to ten and, sure enough, he was gone when I opened them. But I know he’ll be back. It’s just a matter of time.

                The weather forecast says there’s going to be heavy rain tomorrow and so I’ve decided I’m going to wait for him. I’m not going to run anymore, I’m going to face him again. Maybe Ellie can help me, and maybe she can’t. Maybe I am too lost. I’m leaving this on my kitchen table now so, if you’re reading it, then I’m guessing I am…     

Friday, October 04, 2013

From Russia With (No) Love

Oliver arrives in Moscow. Briefly.

Tuesday, 1st October started off reasonably well; I left the house at 8.10am with my suitcase, marched to the train station and sat down the on the train that would whisk me to the airport in just under an hour. I was feeling good - I was off to Moscow to attend a conference (where I would be giving a keynote speech on the future of Higher Education) and an academic fair. Little did I know that, exactly sixteen hours later I would have returned to exactly the same place (minus my suitcase)...

Things went fairly smoothly at the airport - a bit of luggage reshuffling (it turns out promotional brochures are pretty damn heavy) and I was checked in and had time to enjoy a relaxing latte at Starbucks. I ran through how the day would unfold - the flight to Moscow, the high speed train from the airport to the city, grabbing a taxi to my hotel, getting myself registered and then having time to catch a metro out to eat some authentic Russian food. It all sounded perfect.

The flight with KLM also wasn't too bad, although - as ever - the standard of food wasn't particularly impressive; some kind of strange pasta and cheese type dish that I ate more out of habit than anything else (although, it must be said, the white chocolate profiteroles were wonderful). And, just over three hours after departing the gate, we were touching down into a grey and rather miserable looking Moscow. But, while the weather was miserable, I was already enthused and energised and marched at a swift pace towards the customs. Not knowing I was only minutes away from the beginning of slow disaster.

I picked the queue with the least number of people in and after a few minutes took my place in front of the glass cubicle, sliding my passport with a smile through to the girl who sat behind the desk. She looked back at me with a sort of studied suspicion. Oh well, I thought, she probably looks at everyone like that. She looked at my passport photo. She looked at me again. She flicked through my passport. She looked at me again. She looked back at my passport. And then she brandished it, pointing her finger at some sellotape (scotch tape, for the non-UK residents) that was partially holding the cover in place.

I  must explain. Almost three years ago, a few months after I got the passport, the overly eager grabbing hand of someone young and excitable managed to partially detach the cover of my passport. Since I'd only just renewed it (and paid about £150 for the privilege) I figured the easiest thing to do was fix it with some tape - problem solved. I rang up the UK passport to check that it would be ok and they were of the opinion that, as long as the passport itself wasn't damaged, it should be ok. And it was. In the three years that followed I used it to travel internationally on about a dozen occasions with no problems whatsoever...

I tried to explain to the customs girl, but her English was on par with my Russian so I resorted to trying to mime. Which didn't really manage to achieve anything other than for her to call over her supervisor, who joined her in the booth and began examining my passport at great length - holding it up to the light, running her fingers across the tape, etc.

"You need to wait over there." says the supervisor and points me in the direction I have just come from before disappearing into a nearby office with my passport.

I move out of the queue and stand back a little, before a security guard (whose only English appeared to be the word "Mister" said in varying tones and volumes) politely requested, with a point and a brief "mister", that I move off to the side of the immigration hall.

What Oliver had to look at...

So, I sat down. Above, you can see my view. I figured it would take a couple of minutes for them to figure out everything was ok and they would send me on my way.

Five minutes later, nothing.

Ten minutes later. Still nothing.

After about fifteen minutes, things got interesting. But only because another plane had landed and a whole bunch of people joined me in the corner of the room, having also been pulled up for one reason or another. I am sure it was only coincidence, but I was the token Caucasian in the corner.

Thirty minutes and I was beginning to worry. My fellow companions in the 'naughty' corner were coming and going with alarming regularity. They'd be pulled out of the queue, their documents would be taken from them, and then ten minutes later they'd be escorted to the customs booth and they'd go on their way. All except me.

Time dragged on. There was very little to do and the nervous tension ensured it wasn't really possible to relax. All attempts to wander over to the office where the supervisor had long-ago disappeared were met with various versions of "Mister!" and indications that I should get back behind the line.

After an hour I started worrying about my poor suitcase, endlessly circling the baggage retrieval conveyor belt with no one to rescue it. I tried a bit of mime with the security guard, who after some head scratching, realised what I was on about. "Is ok" he told me, but I wasn't particularly reassured. Still, not wanting to be called Mister again, I slunk back to my bench in the corner.

Finally, just over two hours after I'd first made the mistake of going to the wrong custom booth, a new security guard came out of the office with my passport. Hurrah, I thought to myself, they took their bloody time but at least they've managed to sort it out. Perhaps, I rationalised, they'd had to get an expert to verify the authenticity of my passport or check with the UK or something. Either way, emergency over. Although I was going to be late to my hotel and I might have to miss out on that Russian food...

"Here is your passport, Mr Davies. We have arranged with your airline for you to have a ticket on the next flight back, I will escort you to the gate."

Those of you that know me will know that I am rarely lost for words - but, in this moment, all I had was slack-jawed silence. Before my brain processed what was going on, realised I was being deported, and began running through a checklist of reasonable questions - such as why? (the passport is not valid), because of some tape? I've travelled all over Europe on it! (we have different rules in Russia), can I appeal the decision? (no), is there someone else I can speak to - a manager, or supervisor? (it is on paper, no, you must go). Finally, after several minutes of frantic attempts at negotiation I realised that there was nothing - absolutely nothing - I could do in the face of bureaucracy.

"Don't worry, Mr Davies - we don't think you're a terrorist." said the security guard as we headed for the gate. Which, while intended to be reassuring, didn't particularly console me at that moment in time.

Finally, I am left at the gate with my boarding pass. I have been here just over two hours, my flight departs at 20.55, Moscow time. I will spend less than three hours on Russian soil.

Oliver waves goodbye to the blurry lights of Moscow.

The flight back, I was filled with a mixture of shock, frustration, anger. Then I look at my passport and I begin to worry - the tape has been peeled off on one side and then restuck back on haphazardly; on the other side the tape has been entirely removed. Oh, and to help matters, the cover seems to have been leveraged off considerably more than the original damage. In short, my passport looks like crap. What, I worry, if they won't accept it as valid when I land?

I head straight to the Immigration Office when I arrive - not wanting to queue up at the customs booth and then find out I have a problem - and show my partially mangled passport. Is this, I ask, going to be a problem? The officer looks at it 'It's no problem - if they say anything at the window, tell them I said it's fine. I'm the chief of immigration."

Sure enough, the window has no problems. They hardly even look at the passport, don't even notice the cover that is hanging off. I trudge wearily to the baggage retrieval. Only to find that - contrary to my security guard friend's words (and the Aeroflot assistant at the gate in Moscow) - things are not ok and they've lost my suitcase. Where seems a bit of a mystery but it would seem to still be in Moscow somewhere.

I then get on the train and come home. I am, by this point, feeling utterly exhausted and generally crappy. It's been fifteen hours since I left the house. Then, like the icing on the cake, I am treated to the joys of the rudest train conductor I have ever met...

Wait...what did you just call me?
He comes down the train and I pass him my business card. He checks it and asks me quite aggressively for my supplement ticket. There must, I tell him, be something wrong, I use this train quite often with my business card and I've never had to buy a supplement ticket. He looks at me with undisguised disgust - "If that's your story," he sneers, "but I'm going to make sure there's a fine on your ticket."

Anyway, the day I've had is catching up with me and his tone and generally aggressive attitude pushes me a little over the edge. "Look, can I have your name please as I'd like to register a complaint."

"I'm not giving you my name."

I have my phone in my hand already. "Fine," I say, "I'll take a photo of you so I can identify you to the train company."

The train conductor is livid, "You put that on the internet and I'll sue you! You stupid motherfucker...."

At this point, being called a stupid motherfucker by a train conductor in his late forties, I realise just how stupid this day is and I burst out laughing. He glares at me and strides off down the carriage, my laughter still ringing out quite loudly. It really is, I thought to myself, not my day...

And so, sixteen hours (to the minute) after I stepped through the door of my apartment on my way to the train station, I step back through it having only accomplished being deported from Russia, having my suitcase lost (it turned up two days later) and being called a stupid motherfucker....