Gooseberries can fly

On to the third and final leg of my trip in bullish mood after some positive meetings with colleagues in Abu Dhabi and Dubai but still feeling the effects of my Bangladesh food poisoning. Over the last two years, when I’ve mentioned I’m visiting Bangladesh I don’t think a single person has offered to take my place or looked at me enviously and expressed a wish that they could come with me.
But that has all changed with my latest venture. I’ve had so many offers to carry my bags that if I’d accepted them all I wouldn’t have needed any suitcases, I could just give everybody a single item of clothing to carry. I mean, what is it about the Maldives that makes you all go weak -at-the-knees with envy?

Is it the fact it’s 32 degrees Celsius?
Or is it the soft white sands?
Or maybe the crystal-clear blue water?

Make no mistake, this is not a holiday, we are here to work. Judging by the plane I flew in on, I’m in a minority of one. The plane was full of couples: old couples, young newlyweds and couples of every shape size, colour and sexual orientation in between. All kissing, cuddling and whispering in anticipation and excitement of their romantic break. Oh, and me, the world’s biggest gooseberry, third wheel or whatever your preferred phrase is. I didn’t even have my colleague with me as we had gone our separate ways over t he weekend and planned to meet up in Male.

We are here for the first stage of a new project funded by the Asian Development Bank looking to divert construction and demolition waste and the residue from Municipal Waste Incinerators from landfill to more productive purposes. So, while the aforementioned couples dreamily headed off to those beautiful islands, the highlight of my day was visiting the capital’s waste transfer station.

Tomorrow we catch a ferry in the morning and head off to one of those neighbouring islands, Thilafushi, also known as the waste island. Maybe it’s the attraction of a large landfill site at 32°C that appeals to you or is it that nobody mentions Brexit?


I’ve arrived in Dubai on the next leg of what my son calls my mini Gap Year. The change of view from my Bangladesh Hotel to my Dubai Hotel is welcome.

Room with no view (Dhaka)


Room with a view (Dubai)

Somebody once told me that during the cold war British spies operated under cover as cement salesman. The fact that cement goes everywhere in the world apparently offered the perfect cover for their clandestine activities. I don’t know if this is true, but I rather like the thought of a smooth talking cement salesman suggesting your concrete should be “shaken not stirred”. I tried googling to see if I could find any evidence and I did find some interesting facts that suggest it might not be a million miles from the truth.

For example the connection is made by Lord Selborne, who was Director of Cement in the Ministry of Works during WWII and left this role to become Minister of Economic Warfare, which put him in political control of the Special Operations Executive, the organisation responsible for organising clandestine activities in occupied Europe. Atlantic Wall, a musical based on a true storey about the French Resistance has a character, Henri Giraud, an ex- First World War artillery officer, recruited to develop a fledgling spy network in Normandy. He uses his job as a cement salesman – which allows him to travel freely between Paris and his home town Caen – as cover for his intelligence work.

Why this interest in espionage and cement? Well it’s partly to add a bit of glamour and excitement to the “grey” world I work in and partly to put into context the second part of this post. I’m taking the opportunity of being in the UAE, to promote the activities of the small part of Mott MacDonald I belong to. While our, Bridges, Tunnels, Ports, Coastal and Offshore operations have no problem selling their skills – “they do what it says on the tin” as the advert goes, our function is not so clear.

I work for Special Services! Our team has nothing to do with clandestine operations (although I would say that wouldn’t I) but we are the repository that ends up with projects that nobody else wants to and/or can deal with. We were formed when alkali-silica reaction was dominating the concrete world back in the mid-1980s and there was a belief that they needed to bring together structural and materials expertise to address the problem. We’ve developed a wide-range of skills over the ensuing years as problems have come our way.

Some of our areas of expertise are shown below. Do not hesitate to contact me if you’d like to find out more about any of these special services we provide.

I apologise if you can’t get the image of me wielding a Schmidt Hammer with a licence to kill out of your mind. In that case I’m just glad I didn’t mention the other kind of special services that are offered by certain kinds of ladies in the personal ads of your local newspaper. Oh dear, too late!

List of some of our Special Services

  • Dynamic Analysis,
  • Forensic engineering,
  • Slab track analysis and design,
  • Human induced vibration,
  • Durability modelling and design,
  • Cathodic protection,
  • Wind engineering,
  • Blast analysis and design,
  • Noise and vibration measurement, analysis and mitigation,
  • Short-circuit analysis
  • Fire analysis
  • Fatigue analysis
  • Aerodynamics,
  • Finite element modelling
  • Seismic design of structures
  • Non-linear buckling analysis
  • Analysis of masonry vaulted structures,
  • Flood containing retaining walls,
  • Expert witness
  • Alkali-activated slags
  • Stress corrosion cracking,
  • Welding investigations,
  • FRP design
  • Tribology,
  • Through life asset management,

Modern technology

The wonders of modern technology are allowing me to post this message from somewhere near Mosul, well 36994ft above it actually. I’m heading to Bangladesh for the final stage of a DfID funded project we’ve been working on for a couple of years in which we’re trying to improve the durability of their concrete in the coastal regions.

It’s been quite an interesting challenge as the country has very little in the way of natural resources (most coarse aggregate and cement is imported) except clay so they make a lot of bricks and crush them up to use as aggregate.

There is a strong belief that stronger is better and that supplementary cementitious materials are bad – a view we’ve tried to change by introducing durability testing like the Nordtest NTBuild492. My colleague Sudarshan Srinivasan presented the a paper at the durability conference in Leeds last year which summarised the work (and won 2nd best paper award). If you’re interested I can let you have a copy.

Now all we have to figure out is how to get the technology to be able to stop the chap sitting next to me from waking me up so he could go to the toilet after I’d eventually fallen to sleep!