Thursday, August 18, 2016

Tangier Island - A World Apart

I have always been fascinated by islands. They are like a microcosm of the mainland but there is something different about them. They are marooned and cut off. They offer wonder and terror and a glimpse of something else.

I have written about islands before in I is for Island. We don't need to retrace our steps in the sand, although it's true that the thought of islands takes me back in time to the humming of the boat, the screeching of the gulls and the trip across rocking seas to the desperately remote Farne Islands off the coast of

Out fascination with islands is rooted in the tale of Robinson Crusoe. Desert islands are places of fascination, dipped in the sweetness of coconuts with an edge of fear to them. Plays and films have depicted people wrecked and trapped from Lord of the Flies to Lost.

Recently, curiosity took us to Tangier Island in the Chesapeake Bay. Tangier doesn't have palm trees or pristine white beaches or mountains shrouded in mist. It's low and flat and being relentlessly eaten away by global warming. The people on the island talk with a strange dialect that's meant to resemble old English but didn't sound that way to me. In fact, the people are descended from the Cornish who were ever a race apart, although it's hard to see why they would exchange those magnificent soaring cliffs for this brackish flatness.

On the day we visited Tangier the rain was falling steadily and the Chesapeake Bay was as dark as iron and as unprepossessing. But the rain slacked off as we arrived at Tangier and the sullen clouds gave the place an edge. The first thing you see are remote crabbing huts perched on wooden walks above the water, places where the solitary menfolk shell crabs above the slick waters of the bay.

Given the twin threats of pollution and global warming, it's a tough existence and many of the homes on Tangier Island are ramshackle and showing their creaking bones against the onslaught of the elements. There was water, water everywhere on the gravel paths fringed with oysters and the pooled yards of homes.

Even today Tangier Island seems far removed from America. It supported the British navy in the war of 1812 and feels somewhat cast adrift.

It was fascinating to walk about for a couple of hours but the alarming proliferation of Trump signs and the fact Tangier is a dry island meant we made doubly sure to catch the last boat out of the place.

Friday, July 29, 2016

Sluggish July

This summer is icooking my brain. The coffee turns my mouth sour but I still slug on it, drinking to the base, hoping to revive myself and to conjure up an original idea. It's late afternoon. I think of stagnant ponds, and rivers thick and sluggish with oil in a flat and industrial landscape. The heat out here is too thick to breathe. Heat index is the most over-used phrase. That and triple digits. There's no getting clean from it. Shirt and pants stick. Skin burns, necks ache.

It seems too long since we lay on your bed and looked at each other steadily.

There are too many words, too much traffic, too many Tweets, too many bombs and knives, too much anger.

The people gather under Neptune. They interact very little. The look into the small screen - not the TV of yesteryear but the portable small screen. They catch Pokemon on the screen. They jabber with an other worldly language about squirtle. Squirrel, I say. No Squirtle - get with it, Dad. Where have you been? Under a rock? Under the sea bed like Neptune who frowns steadily at the storm-laden sky.

But I was with it some time ago, in another place and another era. There was a crowd in white, winding from the bridge at Magdalen and all of Oxford was coated in the glory of morning and unfilled potential and gleaming things to come. I saw them then, young and bronzed and lithe across the water meadows and the domes and the spires,  jumping with abandon in the water. I thought of Brideshead and imagined them now; fat lawyers and accountants behind dust-filled desks.

I wondered lazily if the bridge was blocked again and I thought of you - looking at me steadily across the heat haze, distilling a perfection out of all this imperfection.

Tuesday, July 12, 2016

Reviving the Unfinished Novel

It's true to say Reportage is a bit of a mess. Today I finally went back to it after a long time away and tried to make some sense of it. One reporter was working on an incident of police brutality. The other human trafficking in Cambodia. It probably needs some pixie dust sprinkled on it. That or a little less reality. There were chapters in various takes that seem to overlap. There are people doing unexplained things because the chapter that gives it context has disappeared and I don't even like the working title. By the time I finish it the newspaper industry may be ancient history.

Or perhaps not.

After I copied and pasted sections, I found I had almost reached 50,000 words. So only 50,000 more to go. I should be able to crank that out at Starbucks one lunch time. At least I'm back on the train and not hanging out drinking beer in the unpleasant station cafe.

Here's the prologue.

Laurent Bourgonville closed the curtains earlier in the day even though sunlight was still barreling down the street. Linda was ill again and being unbearable in the way only Linda could be when she was ill. He finally sat down in the pleasant semi-darkness and sunk into the old sofa when he heard her hollering again from upstairs, her voice sounding like one of the sirens he heard on the ships in his navy days.

“Lori, Lori. Where’s that damned herbal tea?”

A spasm of pain shot down Laurent’s leg as he stood up and hit his head on an ornamental owl on the shelf above him. He silently cursed Tracy and her barn owl fetish.

“Good God I’m coming woman.”

He shuffled through to the kitchen and momentarily considered the tea would be enhanced with a well-aimed globule of spit, just a small, neatly crafted one lovingly swilled around his mouth that blended in with the greenish murk.

He was standing on the bottom stair when Linda ordered him to stop in his ponderous tracks. “Lori. What’s going on outside?”

“I’m not a clairvoyant. Do you want your tea first or do you want me to look out of the window?” He knew the real answer would be both simultaneously, but even Linda wasn’t going to articulate that thought.

“Look out of the window, quick.”

He felt like telling her he didn’t do anything quickly at the age of 78, but he moved to the window and tugged on the carpet. “Good Lord.”

“What is it, Lori? What is it?” her voice had risen about 10 octaves like a miner bird’s, and he wanted to torture her then. The best he could do was slow delivery.

“It’s a few police cars.”

“We don’t have those on Beaumont Avenue.”

“Well, we do today?”

“What was that Lori?”
“I was saying there are quite a lot.” He counted six cars and a large truck that had the words “Mobile Command Unit” on the side.

There were flashing lights from ambulances too, and the street was cordoned off with yellow tape. Laurent had driven past many scenes like this in Chicago but never here on his street. 

It felt like another city had been transplanted to this respectable street in Seatown.

“I think I see body bags Linda.”

“Aww no not for dead people, surely.”

Laurent wondered if the cops had one to spare.

Friday, July 1, 2016

The Battle of the Somme - A Grim Anniversary

A long time ago I had to drive down to Paris late at night in my battered Renault. In the early hours of the morning, I was getting sleepy and pulled over to a rest area to get a 20-minute nap. There was a slight chill and I tugged my jacket closer to me. Outside a thin mist was creeping across the flat treeless fields and clinging to the rivers that crisscrossed them. I remember the bleakness of the place and then I saw a sign that chilled me to the core. It read "River Somme."

I slept fitfully but decided to wake and get back on the road. The name had unnerved me and I thought of all the ghosts of the anguished souls who once struggled and died in these fields.

The first day of the infamous Battle of the Somme was exactly 100 years ago today in 1916. It still stands as a monument to a barbarity that is almost unparalleled in the last century.

The bloody mechanized war that pitted France, Britain and Italy against Germany, Austria and Turkey was in its second year. For months on end men lived and died in waterlogged and rat filled trenches on the front line, in constant dread of hearing the order to go over the top.

At Verdun, a 300-day offensive as the Germans battered the French lines had left 800,000 soldiers dead. 

In an attempt to relieve pressure on Verdun, the British army launched a massive offensive further north on the Somme. In the week before the battle began 1.7 million shells were fired by the British at the German lines to break up the barbed wire and demoralize the enemy.

Yet on July 1, when 100,000 British troops  were sent over the top, they found most of the wires still intact. The soldiers were out in no-man's-land being mowed down by German machine guns. There are many accounts of the terrors of the first day of the Battle of the Somme, of men missing arms and legs who suffered drawn out deaths as the life bled out of them in shell holes. On the first day of the battle, the British suffered 57,000 casualties including 19,000 men who lost their lives. It was the bleakest day in the history of the British army.

At the end of 141 bloody days on the Somme, the British, French and Germans has lost 1.5 million men and the British had gained a few miles of waterlogged soil that would be recovered by the Germans in 1918.

Today the Battle of the Somme is just another obscure piece of history like Waterloo or 1066. I had a great uncle who was a stretcher bearer during the battle but he never spoke about it and is long gone. 

On the way back from Paris, I returned to the Somme in daylight and drove down deserted roads until a thickset and brutal structure rose from the ground. It was the Thiepval Memorial to the Missing of the Somme, the 72,000 plus British Empire servicemen who never came home. The Somme remains an eerie landscape forever overshadowed by the Great War. Neat cemeteries of simple white crosses dot the dark hills here and the towns of Picardy seem mean, strained and cowering.

Sir Edwin Lutyens designed the Thiepval Memorial. The architect is better known for his country houses and his work in New Delhi, settings for cocktail parties and polo on a sunny day.

Yet by the time the monstrous guns finally fell quiet on the Western front, the days when Britain ruled half of the world were over. The aura of invincibility had been swept away in a few hours as the smoke cleared over the Somme and a generation was cut down. Those who lived went home but many of them were never the same. The blooded ghosts of the battlefields followed them to the quiet country lanes of old England. Thousands suffered shell shock, including the poet Wilfred Owen who was killed on the last day of the war but whose lines lived on to give it a frightening poignancy to later generations.

Unlike World Wat Two, the Great War was not a clash of ideologies and it's difficult to portray it as a battle of good against evil. Rather, a complex set of treaties led the great European powers into a war that nobody wanted to fight. The terrible global conflicts of the early 20th Century were the catalyst to the European integration that has unraveled of late. It's a stark testimony to how quickly things can go wrong.

Anthem for Doomed Youth by Wilfred Owen

What passing-bells for these who die as cattle? 
Only the monstrous anger of the guns. 
Only the stuttering rifles' rapid rattle 
Can patter out their hasty orisons. 
No mockeries now for them; no prayers nor bells; 
Nor any voice of mourning save the choirs, 
The shrill, demented choirs of wailing shells; 
And bugles calling for them from sad shires. 
What candles may be held to speed them all? 
Not in the hands of boys, but in their eyes Shall shine the holy glimmers of good-byes. 
The pallor of girls' brows shall be their pall; 
Their flowers the tenderness of patient minds, 
And each slow dusk a drawing-down of blinds. 

Saturday, June 25, 2016

My Personal Brexit Hell Part 1

It's more than 10 years since I left Britain and I'm starting to wonder what's happened to it.

Certainly, Thursday night as the Brexit vote was counted was a stressful one. An exit poll suggested the lunatics would be beaten, albeit more narrowly than one might have wished. Like the vote for Scottish independence a year earlier, common sense would prevail.

Common sense is a British kind of thing, along with the occasional tendency to feel a bit superior. Sure the Brits have voted for extremism in the past. WMargaret Thatcher was a bit of an extreme maniac but at least she had a lot more upstairs than Ronald Reagan.

Of course,  Brits have always been a bit uneasy about the Europeans. We spent much of the last few centuries fighting the French and the Germans and before that the Dutch and the Spanish. Our football fans are still rooted in this mentality and we can't get over the fondness of the French for horse meat. It's a bit hard sometimes to understand this mentality, given that half of the country is probably of French descent post-1066. The Normans themselves were descended from the Vikings from Scandanavia and another quarter of the country was populated by Saxon invaders who were from Germany. The real Britons inhabit one village in Wales with a very long name.

I meandered somewhat from Thursday night but you get the idea. I checked the BBC website for the results and my smugness and belief that common sense would prevail was instantly wiped out. The vote for leaving the EU was ahead. Just about every provincial English town and city was voting for an exit. Only the Scots, a nation whose menfolk once day declared 'it's chilly up here - let's wear skirts,' were doing the sensible thing and voting to remain.

At least Boris is happy - sort of

I woke up to disbelief the next morning on social media. I don't have a single English friend who voted for Brexit. I don't know anyone who doesn't think Boris Johnson is a bit of a dick to put it politely,

Boris looked a bit shellshocked himself as he left his home on Friday and made his way past folks yelling "scum" to a press conference where he looked anything but triumphant. The Prime Minister had just resigned, the pound was bombing and half of the people who had voted to leave the European Union were going online to Google what the EU actually was. Boris looked ready to do a Lord Lucan.

The phrase "here's another fine mess you've gotten me into" which is often attributed to the hapless Laurel and Hardy came to mind, although apparently they never uttered it.

In the space of 24 hours, Britain had lost its coolness and those of us who hold passports has lost the chance to live in lots of pleasant white-washed places by the sea where we could drink good wine all day long.

It also meant we could no longer sneer at Americans. Voting for Donald Trump is no more nonsensical than voting for Brexit and America hasn't elected him as its president yet, to be fair.

A day after the catastrophe I'm still looking for silver linings from Brexit. For one thing, I'll be able to go to Britain without having kittens every time I see my bank statement and it doesn't make living in America seem so bad - at least until next January.

It's also given me a new appreciation of Scottish values. The replies to Trump's idiotic Tweet while in Scotland were a case in point. Comparing Trump to a "dehydrated oompa loompa" was one of the politer ones. Please do visit this site. I think I'll email a few to Hillary - perhaps not.

Thursday, June 23, 2016

Not So Fond Memories of Down on the Farm

Facebook can be a strange media that hits you with the modern as well as bits of yesteryear and serves it in one big soup.

So, for example, I have a feed from the first newspaper I worked on. I usually ignore it but from time-to-time something will pique my interest.

When you live in America, you can fall into the trap of thinking Britain is the kind of place where people play cricket all day, ride bicycles with big baskets and say nice things to each other. My feed from the Western Morning News reminds me otherwise.

On the mean streets of Devon and Cornwall, some guy has been busy attacking his wife with a hammer in Painton, while some other guy has been busy goosing his flock of sheep on Dartmoor - that article didn't say if he was sheeping his geese.

Cars on the Tamar Bridge may be killing mussels and the World Dad Dancing Championships are returning to Devon.

It amazes me to think how seriously we used to take these kinds of things when I worked on the newspaper. Maybe old Millennial Me would have had a lot more fun than Back then Me.

Out of curiosity, I read the farming pages. It's a well-known fact that nobody apart from farmers reads the farming pages, that farming correspondents are invariably devoid of all social skills and they smell of manure and no reporter ever liked to do this job.

I still shudder at the thought of being sent one year to the Holsworthy Show to report on farming results. Covering agricultural shows involves a whole different language and it wasn't one that I wanted to learn.

Here's an extract from a recent Western Morning News farming report.

The interbreed terminal sire progeny group championship then went to the Blue Texel group from Rhys Cooke, with the Suffolk trio from Chris Holmes in reserve spot.
In the well supported pig section the interbreed title went to Hampshire Gilt Blewett Precious 76 from J E Sage, with the Large Black leader, Finnington Maltida from Jack Haywood following up in reserve.

It raises a lot of questions, right? Such as what's a well-supported pig. Is it a pig with a large piggy bank? And who's interbred? The animals or the farmers?

The Holsworthy experience was a thoroughly miserable one. I had to drive for about an hour-and-half on manure-splattered roads in the driving rain to stand in a foul smelling barn wearing my undersized city slicker reporter's mac in deep-in-the-heart-of nowheresville.

When I finally got to interview a farmer he looked at me in a strange way as manure built up on my shiny shoes and my notepad tumbled into the mud.

"So what make of cow is this?"

The farmer looked distinctly unimpressed. I figured he might even  be a breeder but I didn't want to ask.

"Can't you see that's a cross limousin steer, not a cow? You're not from these parts"

At that point, I was rather glad I wasn't from those parts. Had I been from those parts I might also be sized up a prized cow. I had no idea what a limousin steer was, although I was badly in need of a limousine to get me out of the poo.

I had blanked out the ideas of agricultural shows for decades but after reading the report I was left in a state of bewilderment that there are still grizzled old farming correspondents on rural newspapers who are going into work every day to write this slurry.

Wednesday, June 1, 2016

Gorilla Death Mom Michelle Gregg and The Netizen Bullies

I know I've had periods when I've thought social media was great and it's a component of my job, but I'm beginning to wonder. This isn't a new thing but the downside of social media was reinforced by the story of gorilla death mom.

This is a lot more serious than Chewbacca Mom (see previous post) but another example of how social media is leading to a collective loss of our minds. Gorilla death mom is Michelle Gregg from Ohio whose four-year-old kid climbed into a compound at Cincinnati Zoo and was mauled a bit by a gorilla called Harambe, who was then shot dead by zoo keepers.

The episode has sparked a barrage of online hate, most of it directed at Gregg. Judging by the level of vitriol you would have thought Gregg had shot the beast herself in the manner of Walter Palmer, the friendly neighborhood dentist who killed Cecil the Lion.

People loosely described as netizens took to Twitter, Facebook and the like to suggest, Gregg rather than Harambe should have been shot and to generally denigrate the mother as a low life. There's even a suggestion that the police could bring charges of neglect.

This is all rather disturbing as nearly everyone I know at some time or another has lost their kids.- granted  people without kids are less likely to. I succeeded in losing two kids in the space of as many minutes at Disney. Had the park not employed hyper-vigilant people, they'd probably still be wandering around the Magic Kingdom wondering if the line for Thunder Mountain had subsided.

What's worrying about the Gregg episode is how it illustrates how social media has set the playground bully free in a larger arena. It's a lot easier to say these kinds of things online than to someone's face. A zoo-type feeding frenzy then ensues with the mainsteam, and not so mainstream media, feeding off social media. This Daily Mail article is a case in point. What's the none-so-subtle message here and why is it relevant that the kid's father has a long criminal record? This article is really saying 'hate these people because they are black." Oh and they are overweight too - so that's a double whammy.

You have to wonder if there would be the same chorus of hating if a well-mannered, middle-class white, 70 year-old grandmother had a lapse of attention that led to her kid climbing into the gorilla enclosure.

This story also raises one more obvious rhetorical question to me, namely:

Shouldn't zoos construct enclosures that make it impossible for four-year-old kids to climb in and play papers, scissors, rock with a 450-pound gorilla? Just saying.

The concept of the social media bully would be less frightening if it wasn't so pervasive. Currently one of two candidates who is running for what is nominally the most powerful office in the word has made it this far by name calling on a grand scale. Marcus Rubio became "Little Marco," Ted Cruz was Lyin' Ted," and Hillary Clinton is "Crooked Hillary." It seems a rather long time ago since Donald Trump declared Rosie O'Donnel to be "a pig, a degenerate," back in the good old days when nobody took him seriously.

I always have this image as Trump as the punchy misfit who was bullied himself at school over his tangerine face and dead duck hairstlye and wrecks his revenge in shoes with steel tips behind the bike sheds, yelling "crip. loser, big ears or retard" at his victims.

I'm not saying politics has always been a gentle pursuit. Insults are part and parcel of the whole process.

Abraham Lincon once declared as a rejoinder to Stephen Douglas's arguments in favor of an expansion of slavery that they were "as thin as the homeopathic soup that was made by boiling the shadow of a pigeon that had been starved to death."

Trump is the inheritor of the party that Lincoln brought onto the political scene which is really rather tragic when you think hard about it.