The self-published author Barrie Harmsworth talks about the romance of Dubai's 'frontier' days.
Hunter's Gold author denies similarity to protagonist
There is a disclaimer at the beginning of Hunter’s Gold, stating that all the characters appearing in the slim volume are fictitious and that, “any resemblance to real persons, living or dead, is purely coincidental”.
Which makes “what a coincidence” a phrase that regularly comes to mind on meeting the author, Barrie Harmsworth.
The lead character of this, Harmsworth’s first self-published novel, which emerged without fanfare a little while ago (more of that later), is one Mike Hunter, an ex-army mechanical engineer who arrives in Dubai in 1974 to work on the building of the city’s dry docks.
Harmsworth is an army-trained, mechanical engineer who arrived in Dubai in 1974 to work on the building of the city’s dry docks.
At the weekend, Mike Hunter tears around the countryside in a Jeep, delighting in terrifying his (many) female companions as he recklessly rattles over rough terrain and up into the deserted beauty of the Hajar mountains.
A woman was once reduced to tears by Harmsworth’s idea of a fun afternoon drive into the deserted beauty of the Hajar mountains.
Mike Hunter steals a load of gold jewellery from Dubai’s gold souq and bundles it into his motorbike saddle bags with the intention of sailing it to India in a dhow.
Here the coincidences end – though Harmsworth did the sums and worked out just what weight of gold could be transported this way. And, a keen sailor, he’s confident he could pilot a dhow pretty much anywhere.
Hunter is fit, ruthless and a skilful seducer of women, so it might be tempting to conclude that there is more than a little wish fulfilment in Harmsworth’s creation of his hero.
Not so, according to the author, a divorced father of two, “not far off 70”. In fact he claims not to like his hero at all. “It absolutely stuns me,” he says, “the number of people, and it’s mostly women, who like Mike Hunter.”
Because, although he admits that an awful lot of the fiction of Hunter might more accurately be described as fact, albeit thinly veiled, as far as Harmsworth is concerned Hunter possesses all the worst traits of a certain kind of expatriate attracted to the emirate at a very particular time in its development.
He says: “This guy is like a lot of people I’ve met in my life, just amoral. They see a window that’s open and they don’t even think twice about it – they go through it.
“I’ve seen a lot of people like Mike Hunter, particularly when I came out here at first.”
Back then, Harmsworth remembers, there were 350 expatriates working on Dubai’s dry docks, built between 1974 and 1979 on the orders of the emirate’s then ruler, Sheikh Rashid bin Saeed Al Maktoum.
“Some of these guys were just there for the money and whatever else was going. They didn’t care about racism or being politically correct or the damage they did. They were just there to make money and drink, get whatever they could and get out.
“It was the Wild West. Only it was the Middle East.”
Today Harmsworth runs a business importing air-conditioning equipment from Australia, the country of his birth. He works with an Emirati business partner whom he regards as a friend, “closer than a brother”.
After more than 35 years of living in Dubai, Harmsworth quite clearly doesn’t fall into the category of mercenary expatriate in which he places Hunter. But he certainly harbours a degree of nostalgia for those early days and what he describes as the “sheer chaos” of it all.
A world away from the concrete and glass of today – a glossy facade for which Harmsworth cares very little – he describes the Dubai of the 1970s as exciting and different and unlike anything of which Perth-born Harmsworth had ever dreamt.
He says: “I was born in a remote part of a very isolated, insular country. I got married when I was 24 to a very young girl – she was just 21 – and until I was in my early thirties I never had any intention of leaving.”
It was only because of a holiday in Europe and a freak accident that he ever did. The train on which Harmsworth and his wife were travelling from Belgium to Italy came off the tracks. They survived unscathed but their plans were derailed with the carriages. They missed their connection, changed their itinerary and ended up going to London.
“We thought we’d stay a few weeks. Two years later we were still there,” he says.
Harmsworth got a job working as a senior mechanical engineer with the Costain Group, the British company that had secured the construction contract for Dubai’s dry docks alongside Taylor Woodrow.
“It was the biggest construction contract in the world,” Harmsworth remembers. “My wife and I were living in West Kensington but after what felt like a two-year-long party I was starting to think it might be time to go home. Then they announced they were ready to move the project to Dubai and asked if I wanted to go ... and here I am.”
Dubai, as Harmsworth recalls it then, was like something straight out of one of his boyhood adventure books. “It was like one big Meccano set in the middle of the desert. Well, not the middle, [more like] the edge of the sea. I loved the sea and I loved Meccano. I thought, ‘Let’s go!’”
The work was gruelling – six days a week, 10 hours a day – but Harmsworth found those first years in Dubai to be among the most exhilarating of his life: “Costain [and] Taylor Woodrow ran this town. If you were with them you could do anything. You could go into the gold souq and a trader would say, ‘You like this necklace? Take it. Bring it back next week if you change your mind.’
“You’d see the old Arabs smoking away on their shisha, the old world alongside the new. You’d go out on to the sea and you could be totally isolated. It was beautiful. There was just nothing like there is today. Now, that old world has been ripped apart and put together in, to my mind, a rather shabby fashion.
“One of the reasons I wanted to write [Hunter’s Gold] was to show people another side of Dubai, the side you used to see everywhere that wasn’t brassy or shallow. It was just so different.”
In fact, although Hunter’s Gold is the first book that Harmsworth has had published, the first book he actually wrote is called Rashid Blood. He plans to publish it very soon. It tells the story of Mohammed Ghanim Al Rashid, a young pearl diver who sails his dhow from Dubai to Mumbai at the start of the 20th century.
It is a story that Harmsworth sat down to write nearly a decade ago. He sent it to an agent in Melbourne back in 2002 and received positive feedback. “She wanted to see another book,” he says, “so I sent her Hunter’s Gold, which I’d written in six months or so. She wasn’t as positive on that. She said the writing wasn’t up to the same level. I wasn’t entirely in agreement to be honest.”
He decided to proceed with publishing Hunter’s Gold as a “bit of a test run” and recruited the services of an editor plucked from an advertisement in the London Review of Writing. But Harmsworth is editing Rashid Blood himself. He recently cast a critical eye over the text and is pleased to report that it includes some of the best writing he has read anywhere, “bar none”.
After selling 100 or so copies of Hunter’s Gold from flea and art market stalls, Harmsworth hopes that sales of Rashid Blood will reflect the quality of the work.
“I admit not everybody will like what you write,” he concedes. “But all my life I’ve wanted to write a book. I look upon writing a book as trying to entertain people. I’m confident that’s something I can do.”