Friday, December 31, 2010

Happy New Year - I'm off to the beach

It's New Year's Eve and we're off to the beach....

Not this one. This is a beach near Obidos in Portugal on the west coast, far from the Algarve that was turned into another Costa long ago by loud tattooed Brits.

The best places, inevitably are those that few people have discovered in the same way as the best restaurants are those frequented by the locals that look from the outside like the sort of joints you would take your dog to be put down.

New Year's Eves can be like that too. The big venues seldom fail to disappoint, unless you like freezing half to death for hours for the honor of having beer tipped over your head, in Time Square or Tralfalgar Square or Edinburgh's Tron.

In saying that the low key New Years have disappointed too. As a teenager growing up in suburbia there was such a crush of expectation placed on one night, that New Years inevitably proved to be damp squibs.

They'd often end up in cold bowling alleys, exchanging germs with a nefarious and frightening looking girl from the local comprehensive school, who you'd jump in an icy river to avoid making eye contact with the next week.

A bad New Year's Eve was failing to exchange germs with  a nefarious and frightening looking girl from the local comprehensive school, and having to watch your friend in the aforementioned germ exchange.

Actually a bad New Year's Eve was walking for hours in a sullen huddle with a group of no hopers looking for a non existent party and ending up back at the home of one of these no hopers polishing off a bottle of Thunderbird.

Of course, we are more evolved now. We have also recognized that New Year's Eves can be what's technically referred to as a pile of old cat poo.

But tonight we are free of the kids and out partying at the beach down at the Outer Banks. It should be enjoyable in a 40-something, semi-responsible, almost grown-up kind of way.

Happy New Year to all my fantastic blog friends. Here's to 2011.

Thursday, December 30, 2010

Dreams of nakedness and the school bully

This is how dreams should look; like the Birth of Venus by Botticelli in which the goddess emerges from the sea as a full grown woman. There are lots of aqua colors, shells and nice wavy edges.

Sadly my dreams don't look anything like this.
Take last night, for instance. I had that recurring no clothes dream. I was in a town square, somewhere in Dreamland when somebody suggested everybody should take off their clothes. Of course, I obliged.

But some time later I realized that I was the only person wearing no undergarments. Funnily enough I was walking around and talking to people and nobody seemed to notice. But I was keen, to say the least, to get to a bus stop where my undergarments were located. But every time I showed up at the bus stop, they no longer seemed to be there. When I asked people: "Have you seen my underpants," they just blithely shrugged their shoulders.

The unusual thing about this is if I was at a bus stop and some guy with no clothes showed up and asked if I had seen his underpants, I would probably dial 911.

According to the website the naked dream is fairly common. It may be telling you that you are trying to be something that you really are not. Yeah - successful.

The other bizarre aspect to my dreams is they frequently include the fat kid from school, who I will call Adam. In my daily life I haven't given a flying thought to this guy for 27 years. So how come he shows up in my dreams all the time?

The stereotypical fat kid story, from the Lord of the Flies on, would have it that the class fat kid is weak, bespectacled and a target for bullies. Well Adam wasn't like that. He was the school bully. His unexpected belly attacks on entering the changing room are part and parcel of the heart of darkness that was my schooling.

So it's rather disconcerting that I still dream of Adam rather than the pretty girls who were in my class. Come to think of it, that's stretching it somewhat. There was a lot of inbreeding in our neighborhood.

But I wouldn't mind dreaming of a couple of the girls who possessed their own teeth, rather than Adam.

I wonder what Freud would make of my dream. He's probably say it alluded to the possibility of sex with an eight legged elephant.

I need to research this whole dream thing further.

Tuesday, December 28, 2010

The madness of snow

Increasingly I am coming to associate the color white with madness, with sheer blanched out craziness, with snow on the ground and cars skidding and hobos hobbling through the pale sludge.

My state of mind is partly the result of a four hour drive on icy roads in falling snow in a storm that turned everything we take for granted on its head. In the drive-through of a McDonalds somewhere in North Carolina we waited 15 minutes behind unmoving cars before realizing the restaurant was closed or on some crazed snow time.

Then after two 5 a.m, shifts, of long hours staring at pink walls and the unforgiving whiteness lying impassive beyond the windows, I am feeling my sanity slide as surely as my body in my chair.

The cold withers and diminishes us. In another fast food restaurant pooled with slippery slush stains on the floor two bearded men talked in a monotone. “I just smoke and eat and smoke again,” said one. The other nodded in affirmation of a life stripped down to the basics.

So the snow brings out the worst in us. The Christmas card beauty is illusory. The reality is a wind with teeth that tears and gnaws under a sky scoured of all warmth and color: it’s all the neat little assumptions we have built our life on being flushed into a dirty freezing sink hole.

The most frightening cell Brian Keenan, the half demented Beirut hostage, was held in wasn’t dark and dingy but white like the inside of an ice cube. And his captors tormented him with a radio that was off frequency and squealed all day and all night.

When I think of madness I think of Karma Police by Radiohead. I have no clue what it’s about but it reeks of insanity.

Karma police, arrest this man
He talks in maths
He buzzes like a fridge
He's like a detuned radio.

The snow makes me think of disorientation and blindness, of tracks covered up and Captain Oates with his cable knit sweater and big boots heading out into the whiteness to be gone for some time. I shiver as I think of the Antarctic expeditions of Ernest Shackleton and the Endurance trapped and crushed in pack ice and immortalized in time by Frank Hurley’s haunting photographs.

After the loss of the Endurance, Shackleton and his party camped on a large ice floe for almost two months hoping it would drift towards an island. After this failed there was a mind and body numbing expedition including five days on the freezing waters in a small boat. They arrived on solid ground in April 1916, almost five months adrift after the loss of Endurance.

But more chilling than the exploits of Shackleton’s men, who all survived their ordeal, notwithstanding  frostbitten fingers, is Napoleon’s Grande Armée's retreat from Moscow in 1812.

Few historical accounts do justice to the horrors faced as an army that was once the most formidable in Europe was reduced from almost 700,000 to 70,000 men.

After the horses died the French army hobbled across the frozen wastes into blinding snow and sub zero temperatures, in inadequate clothes under constant attack from the Russian army. Men cannibalized each other and burned their comrades alive to steal warm clothing. By the time the remnants of the army returned to cities they had marched through in triumph, citizens turned away in horror at the sight. They had turned into a squalid sub human species in rags. Their bodies and minds had been undone by the biting wind.

There are few more chilling tales than those that combine the inhumanity of the cold with the inhumanity of war. More than a century later it happened again in the bitter winter of 1943 when the German 9th Army was encircled and faced starvation in Stalingrad.

It’s not easy to imagine the desperation of the soldiers huddled below the burned and blackened buildings knowing death was making its way towards them across the freezing white plains.

We think of death as black but bones left out in the cold are blanched white.

The art of stating the bleeding obvious

Is it just me or has there been a growth of online and magazine articles recently devoted to the ancient art of saying the bleeding obvious?

I was struck by this today reading the job seeker blog on what to say and what to not say to your boss.

So, for instance, if your boss explains how you can improve you shouldn't respond. “You give the worst feedback. Ever.”

You don't say.

Other comments you shouldn't make to your boss include "I want your job" and  "This will never work," apparently.

Maybe you also shouldn't tell your boss he or she "generally sucks" as this is potentially career limiting.

I'm not sure where The CareerBuilder gets this from. The Wal-Mart training manual, perhaps.

Talking of stores I recently saw a magazine article at the supermarket check-out on nasty and nice celebrities that contained the shocking revelation that while Tom Hanks is an all round nice guy Charlie Sheen isn't.

This would be the same Charlie Sheen who assaulted his wife and went crazy in a hotel room where a woman was locked in the bathroom?

Prepare for the latest shocking revelations. Snow, it seems, is cold and the sun can be rather warm.

Friday, December 24, 2010

Musings on the Plague at Christmas

The definition of Sod's Law is this. I was smugly boasting to my boss about how I have taken no sick days in 2010, last week.

On Monday when I woke up I felt like somebody had placed an anvil in my head; not a big, old dirty one from a backsmith's but a bijou designer anvil. It still hurt.

Add to the pounding headache, an itchy throbbing nose, watery eyes, a hacking cough and a regular need to sneeze and you get the picture.

I was also incredibly irritable. My wife didn't pick up on any change.

I made it to work but only so as I could drone into the phone at people who replied: "Sorry, I don't understand you."

Getting Tuesday off work wasn't a problem because I still had a year's allowance of sick days. But I like to make a cast iron case by groaning loudly and limping (did I tell you flu also gives me a limp?) and then playing the nuclear option which involves a performance of one's most runny and contagious sounding sneeze close to one's boss.

This normally prompts the response: "Maybe you should have tomorrow off," as she wipes off her keyboard.

Illnesses of the most basic kind serve to remind us how fragile we really are as humans. They are also good at securing sufferers a space on a crowded public transportation system, as I found out in London.

But when people who are laid up with an illness tell you they have "the Plague" it's always a good idea to indulge in some improptu re-education. I would suggest finding the nearest imposing piece of headgear, a top hat or the like, grabbing a copy of Daniel Defoe's A Journal of the Plague Year and addressing them in a booming voice along the lines of: "You most certainly do not, Sir (or Madame, if the malingerer happens to be a lady)."

A quick reading of the biography of Defoe suggests he fitted more into a short-ish 17th and 18th Century life than any 100-year-old you care to hunt down at one's nearest nursing home (admittedly not a traditional Christmas activity). Defoe wrote countless works, was involved in numerous controversies and managed to father eight kids of which six survived.

He also wrote the puncy sounding work: "A True Relation of the Apparition of One Mrs. Veal the Next Day after her Death to One Mrs. Bargrave at Canterbury the 8th of September, 1705."

He failed on a number of occasions to land a job as a headline writer on a tabloid newspaper.

In A Journal of the Plague Year, Defoe recounts the horror of plague afflicted London in 1665 when the bubonic plague struck brought over, like most of the ills of modern society, from the Netherlands.

in one vignette, he describes a victim who took matters into his own hands. "But after I have told you, as I have above, that one man, being tied in his bed, and finding no other way to deliver himself, set the bed on fire with his candle, which unhappily stood within his reach, and burnt himself in his bed; and how another, by the insufferable torment he bore, danced and sung naked in the streets, not knowing one ecstasy from another; I say, after I have mentioned these things, what can be added more?"

"What can be said to represent the misery of these times more lively to the reader, or to give him a more perfect idea of a complicated distress?"

Not very much. Defoe succeeded admirably in his grim task, although his account is a fictional one based on the diaries of his nephew.
Defoe describes a chuchyard in Aldgate, curiously a place I have driven past, quiet and half forgotten about now, but the ground zero of the plague in 1665.
Makeshift pits had been dug in the cemetery but with 200-400 bodies being thrown in in the course of a week, the pits were inadequate. In the end the authorities instead dug what Defoe describes as a "dreadful gulf" for the dead.
At the site of a great pit in open fields in Finsbury "some came and threw themselves in, and expired there, before they threw any earth on them; and that when they came to bury others, and found them there, they were quite dead, though not cold."
The Great Plague killed about 100,000 people, 20 percent of London's population, although it was on a far smaller scale than the Black Death pandemic of the 14th Century.
Happy Christmas everybody.

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Stars in the Sahara

You have to travel through the Sahara Desert to get an idea of the size of the world.

You have to sit on the lumpy seat of a Jeep for hours as it bounces across a dirt road and to be let out at twlight in the middle of nothingness, to gain some appreciation of the vastness of it all.

Then you have to lie back, let the sand take your weight and look up into the clear purple heavens. And try to count the stars, layered like glistening icing on a vast multi tiered wedding cake in the sky.

We may never know how many there are but astronomers estimate there are 100 thousand million in the Milky Way alone and countless galaxies beyond that. They glow with a light as icy cold as the desert at night but they are really on fire. And some are so far away that we are seeing light from a star that's now extinct.

It makes me dizzy to think of all this vastness and I always wonder if there's anything beyond these trillions of miles of galaxies. Are they all swept up into a tiny music box on the coffee table of a grande dame called Eve, who inhabits another cosmos of a trillion stars?

I haven't been far out into the desert, but I've been far enough to feel the pull of the planet and those empty spaces filled with dirt and rock and silence. And this was Tunisia, a small nation on the very edge of this vast ocean of sand.

In the middle distance, in the dustiness by a concrete house, a child stood impassive by the roadway. I wondered if she would grow up knowing there was anything different; if she would ever see a city or an airplane.

The desert is a world of simple outlines and hot and cold. It's the backdrop to the biblical Nativity story of three wise men who follow a star across the fastness of Arabia to the stable of the baby Jesus.

It's a simple but touching story re-lived in thousands of school plays. We've all been there when Mary has dropped the baby Jesus doll on its head and three wise social workers have come rushing in.

But Christmas is a curiously seductive time for children and even as an adult it doesn't completely lose its magic. I still remember the school hall and the makeshift decorations hanging from the roof comprising of hula hoops wraped in tinsel.

I thought they were the most beautiful thing I had ever seen.

Then one day my parents took me to a department store grotto to see Santa. In those days it wasn't just a case of forming a line. You boarded a shining train carriage to be taken to this wonderous inner sanctum where elves made toys in a cave seamed with gold.

When I was so young I thought the magic of Christmas would never end. It seemed a million light years before the disappointments and rejections of life set in, the angst of teenage years, the endless responsibilities of adulthood.

But I read something today that convinced me never to never look back in anger. It convinced me that my moto in life should be Carpe diem, quam minime credula postero – "Seize the Day, trusting as little as possible in the future." It convinved me to run tomorrow through the ice in the park and to relish the bite of the wind because there may be no tomorrow after that.

The correspondence was the latest update from my father-in-law suffering with lung cancer. His will to fight was still in him, but it had waned a little; and there was a tone of resignation, a recongition that this will likely be his last Christmas on earth.

And all the shiny things we take for granted and the piped music we deride and the over priced grottos and the wonderfully fake joviality will never be his again to see.

Likewise the pure of joy of children that's unblemished by the realization of what's to come.

So I can't trust the future but I hope one day to return to the greatest of deserts and to feel the cool sand wrap itself around me and look up at the beautiful high canopy of stars and to wonder if there's one with his name on it.

Because there are enough to go round.

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

My funny job interview

I had a funny job interview the other day. Not for a main "living wage" job but for part-time job number 5-ish.

George W. Bush once remarked on how touchingly American it was to have two jobs so I thought I'd stick it to him with five, before reminding him he couldn't even last on an oil rig without quitting for a beer.

This job involves demonstrating plastic windows, faux brickwork, conservatories etc. to the general public. I'm not sure how you demonstrate them per se. They're just there.

As I generally like and am amused by the general public, I thought let's give it a go.

I arrived at an industrial park in the middle of Norfolk; it could have been Kansas, but perhaps not the Amalfi Coast. I was asked by the receptionist, who was wearing rather an unusual pair of diamond studded heels - not that I noticed - to fill in a basic application form.

After screwing up about three because I routinely forget my Social Security number and haven't yet worked up the courage to get it tattooed on my forehead, I was ushered into what can loosely be described as a board room by a rather fierce looking woman of Cuban appearance who appeared to have applied her make-up that morning with the aid of a concrete mixer.

The first question was simple enough: "So tell me about yourself." she didn't add: "And outline the qualities that make you worthy of earning $9 an hour, with commission of $100 for every 27 conservatories you sell worth more than $1 million."

I gave her the short version as opposed to the long one which starts: "I was born at 10.30 a.m. at Great Yawning Hospital in the West Midlands, weight 5 lbs 6, color, mildly purple. My parents had a few problems with the car seat. My mother never again spoke to the organizer of the child beauty pageant after the results came in etc..."

Instead I rambled on about customer service and my love of the great unwashed general public, only to be interrupted by the aforementioned Cuban looking woman.

"You're hired."

"I'm sorry."

"You'll come for training tomorrow at 10 a.m.. Please fill in the forms for payment etc."

Now I was slightly taken aback by this because interviewers usually tell me "I'll be in touch." Then a couple of months go by, I summon up the courage to call them and they say: "Nope. You were crap. We gave the job to someone else."

Cuban looking woman went on to explain how the company was going down the tubes because demonstrators were making up false names to get sales.

"And they think I don't check the numbers? I'm here late at night, checking the numbers.

I came away with the distinct impression she checks the numbers.

Cue sympathetic noises from me. It seemed rude to mention the recession in the building industry.

"OK you make six sales in a month or you're out," she said, and picked up the phone for a store rep. to map out the rest of my life for the foreseeable future as I waved my hands around rather unimpressively.

"OK, you're booked in," she said.

"You know I told you I had a full time job. I'm only looking for Sundays," I said.

She shot me a predatory look from under those industrially made up eyes and snapped back. "But you said you'd be flexible."

"I explained this to the lady when I called," I responded.

"Huh - she's just a receptionist."

Still she's back on the phone to the man at the chalk-face. "So you do weekends? You do every weekend of the year. That includes New Year's Day."

"Well, actually I have a party and I don't get out much. Normally."

For some strange reason I still filled in the paperwork. The man at the chalkface is going to call me back next year, giving me a small window to emulate Lord Lucan.

Monday, December 20, 2010

Pamela Anderson - for better or for verse

I enlisted Pammy to bring a few more followers to my neglected blog Rhyme and Reason; that would be the serious one about poetry that nobody reads. Not even poets.

But not even one of the world's most Googled women could give my readership a great big shot of the old purple pill and send the graph of my numbers soaring up towards double figures. On a day that Brits in the USA reached the (admittedly non stellar) number of 150 views in one day for the first time, Rhyme and Reason hit 1.

If my two blogs were my children I'd be cited for child neglect and the second born would grow up with a chip the size of Greenland on his shoulder.

As an aside, it's a bit of a sad indictment on men that Pamela Anderson still seems so popular. I can only blame Nascar enthusiasts because Pammi contains as much inflatable material as your average pit stop.

And, as Michael Caine would have said, not a lot of people know this. It seems Pamela, the all Californian Baywatch girl, is actually Canadian.

Bet she didn't do much of that slow motion lifeguard bikini bouncing stuff on the streets of Moosejaw in December.

Inevitably Pammi has made the cover of Playboy again and half of the menfolk on the planet are clearly as evolved as Borat. But this time she has included her poetry in the edition.

BTW did anyone else miss the lunar eclipse tonight? I also missed Haley's Comet. It seems I will spend my whole life detached from the Solar System. I'll live with it.

To see my posting on Pammi's reincarnation as Slyvia Plath see -

Mel Gibson faces more flak over "oven dodger" remark

The more I find out about Mel Gibson the less I like him.

Not that I liked him much anyway; unlike all my female colleagues back in the day who swooned at his war paint in Braveheart.

(and to think they couldn't even find anybody Scottish to play William Wallace).

Anyway the latest Gibson revelation to emerge, this time from Winona Ryder, is that a drunken Gibson once referred to her as an "over dodger" at a Hollywood party.

After telling the gay friend she was with a horrible anti gay joke (she didn't elaborate), Ryder said Mel made this enlightened comment about her Jewish heritage, although she didn't get the Holocaust reference at the time.

Perhaps Mel needs to be taken to the grim museum of inhumanity that is Auschwitz concentration camp in Poland to see the horrific pictures and piles of shoes and asked if he still finds the Holocaust amusing. Perhaps we all should.

I prefer pictures of Mel Sporting a wife beater beard, rather than the cute faced actor of yesteryear. It makes him look a lot more like the bigot he so obviously is.

For more on Mel see:

Saturday, December 18, 2010

Newport News - the emptiness at the edge of cities

I have always harbored an inexplicable fascination with cities.

Once, a long time ago when I dated a Canadian girl, we went to Windsor, a dire low rise place of manicured gardens that reminded me of the English seaside. We walked through those carefully mainained gardens and stared across the river at the high towers of Detroit.

"I want to go there," I said, and jumped a balastrade in an attempt to walk across the road bridge to the US.

The girl I was with was a bit like Canada, pleasant and safe and unadventurous. She patiently informed me Detroit was all mayhem and murder. It was brooding gangsters sitting on piles of rubble fingering their firearms. It was a passport to an early death.

I still wanted to go there, but I didn't.

I never lost my fascination with the grim side of cities. I wanted to see what Ernest Burgess termed the Zone in Transition, I wanted to walk through the organic decay of a man made structure on the seedy edges of downtown and to feel the danger on the sidewalks.

My grandmother lived in the East End of Glasgow - what is it with the East Ends of cities? Her estate was gray and monolithic but the houses were solid with net curtains. But at the bottom of a steep hill lay a world of festering tenements teeming with trash, of hollow alleys that led to bleak abodes where heroin addicts looked through smashed windows at a cloud choked sky.

I slipped out to this urban wasteland and photographed a world of unremitting grey-ish green, of mean little railway bridges and electricity cables like spiders. Here the only grassy spaces were on life support and smeared with dog feces, most of the residents were on social and their hands were smeared yellow with nicotine and desperation.

I have less time today but I still like to lose myself on the hopeless blurred edges of downtowns; drawfed by concrete and glass. I like to find the decaying old buildings with black fire escapes that will spend the rest of their lives shutted up.

I took these pictures in downtown Newport News on Thursday after the snowfall with a chilly wind blowing off Hampton Roads. America's grid system can cut up its cities mercilessly, leaving empty zones like the one between Newport News' downtown, which stores moved out of decades ago, and the big impersonal port where the snow made mini mountains out of the piles of coal. Puddles of melted snow lay in the roadways and across the crumbling kerbs that nobody waked on. The traffic droned on the nearby freeway but few cars passed me by here.

The sense of loneliness down here beside the railways lines and under the freeways is palpable. To the east are mean streets that claim a steady tally of victims.

But the area south of City Hall is merely bereft and overlooked; a place to forget and remember, an urban desert in the heart of a city; a place that brings it home to us that in the final reckoning we are always alone.

Thursday, December 16, 2010

The view from my window - why Virginians don't do snow

This is the view from my window today. It's of a greyish whiteness and of a curtain of coldness dropping from the heavens. Mariah Carey's bottom is nowhere to be seen.

Snow in Virginia seems to be becoming more common; it's enough to make any former Vice President cum climate change guru, seek out the nearest massage parlor.

That's not to say Virginia copes. My daughter's school seems to close down every time it rains, so 3 inches of snow is the equivalent of snowmaggedon.

Bt there's something cosy about being off work in a warm house watching it snow outside, so far resisting any invites to freezing snowball fights.

It's snug but not snug enough to wear a Snuggie. A site called Snuggie Sutra was recently launched, describing all the possible sexual positions for Snuggie wearers. Sorry but there's nothing about a snuggie that would remotely want me to get my rocks off. Snuggies suggest steaming mugs of cocoa and white Labradors.

And the sort of people who jump on Tempur-Pedic beds to see if they can knock over glasses of red wine.

I suppose I could go out in the snow to take pictures of Virginians coping badly, of cars skidding into each other and one eyed souls trolling around on the ice in the parking lot of the nearby Wal-Mart.

But my car's already disappeared under the white stuff so this might be a good time to grab a glass of wine and wish myself away to sunny Cleveland, Ohio.

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Why Chrissie Hynde has the edge over Mariah Carey at Christmas

I tend to forget about the hideousness of Christmas music until it's this time of year again and it all comes flooding back like those memories of the first time I threw up with food poisoning.

Rather than racking my brains to think of jingles I'd rather not recall, MSN has compiled a handy list that was first put together by a company called Phones4u.

So thanks a bunch Phone4u for reminding me of the permi-tanned, white toothed duo that was Wham and Last Christmas, a song that I abhor but countless women have told me is the very romantic essence of Christmas.

Well we all know what happened to George; he recently drove his car into photographic shop, in anger at the demise of negatives, no doubt, and got caught fiddling with his greatest hits in the men's room.

But whatever happened to the other one? Andrew Whatshisname...

The list has also reminded me of the existence of Cliff Richard, a particuar favorite of my parents who would bang on about how he was 60 something but looked 20, innocently unaware of the existence of Botox. The Millennium Prayer was so riddled with religion, even Cliff's record company abandoned him and he had to record it independently.

Oh dear - did I really say "record company"?

Cliff is also guilty as charged with creating Miseltoe and Wine; a merry little number to choke on a turkey bone to.

MSN's list is fine as it goes. I really had forgotten that Mariah Carey and the Jackson 5 have Christmas songs to their names.

But there are a few songs here that are more classy in a way. For instance I have always liked Aled Jones' Walking in the Air and Slade's Merry Christmas Everybody is a Glam Rock classic of the '70s. Do They Know It's Christmas? served a good cause. Sir Bob Geldolf may have disparaged it recently but what else has he ever done that's worth repeating apart from I Don't Like Mondays?

My most hated Christmas song is from a few years earlier and it's called Mele Kalikimaka by Bing Crosby, which apparently means Merry Christmas in Hawaiian. During my long days of festive retail hell this song was always droning on in the background, providing a jarring contrast between the syrupy kitchiness of the season and the vast industrial machine I was serving that was forcing me to work into the night for $7 an hour.

Retail hell apart there's so much that's wrong with this song that I don't know where to start. I doubt if the island people were even big into Christmas until humorless missionaries forced it down their throats and, let's face it, Christmas just isn't Christmas if old ladies aren't slipping around on the street and the rest of us aren't freezing our nuts off.

There are so many bad Christmas songs that finding the good one is about as rare as finding a quarter in a Christmas pudding or a brain cell in Wasilla.

My vote goes for Stop the Cavalry by one hit wonder Jona Lewie, Fairytale of New York by Kirstie MacColl and the Pogues, 2000 Miles by the Pretenders and Happy Xmas by John Lennon.

So in the gallery of Christmas classics Chrissie Hynde has the edge over Mariah, even if she has aged rather more unevenly.

Apparently Gary Glitter once recorded a Christmas song. Pause for tumble weed to blow past. We don't talk about Gary Glitter anymore.

Monday, December 13, 2010

Office parties and bum photocopying myths

After attending the somewhat lackluster affair that passed as the office Christmas Party, I find myself wondering if there’s such a thing as the perfect Christmas party.

I don’t want to knock it too much; which is unusual for me, I know. It was held at a local museum which meant I could take my daughter around to see the fish tanks and alligators without the obligation of paying at some time down the line.

But ‘party’ is indeed a misleading term for these kind of bashes which, I suspect, are just an excuse for a free feeding on a Sunday night. The event ran from 6 p.m. until 8 p.m. but senior management were spotted heading for the parking lot shortly before 8 p.m.

A big old, rancid Santa was seen doing the rounds in the overlong food line. Whenever Santa’s involved Sod’s law tends to take over leaving me in the Christmas dog house. I told Zara she’d have to eat her dinner before getting a picture with Santa. Finally when we were ready to seek him out, I saw him slipping out of the door clutching cup cakes in one hand, dripping cigarette ash on his wino beard in the other.

Zara looked upset but her behavior in public is usually impeccable.

In the car on the way home she let me have it with both barrels.

Standing in the never ending line for food observing a colleague who has 13 children, who was obviously using the Christmas party as some kind of relief operation, I started reflecting on those Christmas parties of yesteryear.

I’m sure Christmas parties were a bit wilder in Britain, although I am yet to attend the office party of legend when you come into work the next day to find out fellow office workers have photocopied their bums and left the evidence on the photocopier.

The most lavish Christmas parties I recall were with a former partner who was in the travel business. Instead of the usual no hope raffle, dozens of high value holidays were handed out. The chances of success were about 40 percent which had the unfortunate result that the night produced jubilant winners and bitter losers.

We were bitter losers for two years out of three, but won a holiday to Thailand one year.

These days the only kind of prizes on offer are free tickets to a local comedy night.

In saying that I have a lot of bad memories of work Christmas bashes in the UK; of hundreds of people crammed into mass catering hotels, being forced to eat watery turkey, while drinking the one free glass of Liebfraumilch, which is totally unequal to the task of numbing the realization you have been seated next to the most odious guy in the office and he possesses a wife who is twice as odious.

I guess I shouldn’t complain about my new reality. I got to see a couple of turtles, after all.

Friday, December 10, 2010

Just another Saturday in a life more ordinary

Just before 2 a.m. on Saturday is hardly the time to be marooned in a room of tumbled books in the middle of a life notable for its unnoteworthiness.

I always wanted to live a life less ordinary; to be the sort of guy who freed tortured political prisoners from the Congo and disappeared on to the next assignment. I wanted that thrill of regularly waking up in a far away city with the morning mist hanging over the river and knowing it was mine to explore.

I suppose I wanted to be Lawrence of Arabia.

The reality is more prosaic. The reality is Saturday and routine, followed by another week and another Saturday. It might seem more valuable if I could take it apart like Ian McEwan in his novel Saturday which dissects the day by the minute. If an everyday Saturday suddenly exploded into unexpected violence and I rescued it from the brink, I might appreciate Saturday more.

Is this why men who have gone to war sometimes miss it? Do we miss the adrenaline rush of the threat of death? Surely those soldiers who lived and died in the mud and blood of the trenches, in a festering hell on earth peopled by sardonic rats, can't have missed it afterwards.

And yet my grandfather used to delight in telling me his wartime stories. His eyes used to mist over as if contemporary life was a pale imitator of those days of purpose and strife.

So the highlight of my week was the move of my office from the second to the first floor to allow for the removal of asbestos at the place I have been working for three years. The first floor is Pepto-Bismol pink. I can only imagine someone had the bright idea to paint it this way back in the days when it was populated by advertising reps. In those brave days they may have thought it would inspire someone to sell. Or maybe it was just meant to be so garish they would get out of the office.

Today the first floor reflects the newspaper industry in general. The ad. reps have been swallowed up in the acres of empty space and occupy a few cubicules across the other side. Pepto-Bismol World is ours to inhabit; an unchartered territory on which we can construct a brave new society.

Either that or we can do the usual; drink too much coffee and moan, of course.

But Saturday is a world away from the pink, which is one good thing to be said for it. It's another day to webcam the folks back home and meet a woman in the deserted parking lot of the local daycare, who will give me my wine samples to tempt customers at a superstore that's about as empty as Pepto-Bismol World before we moved there.

There will be the normal grim financial calculations and we'll stress out about the fact the tenants are about to move out of the rental house and there will be no way of paying the mortgage; prostituting myself wouldn't even cover the gas money to the rental house and my wife's efforts to raise money on ebay proved spectacularly unsuccessful because she ended up buying more jewelry than she sold, as usual.

So, once again, Saturday will be a predictable succession of minor skirmishes and chores half done. It will be bereft of ideas or mystical expeditions from virgin shores. If we do get to the country it will be as it gets dark and we'll quit after 10 minutes in a muddle of strollers and forgotten bottles and go to Wal-Mart.

Still I hope to find time to look beyond the new plastic fences that some of the neighbors already want replaced to think of a certain church in the hazy afternoon sunshine and an embrace and the words of Patrick Henry will ring loudly like some kind of rallying cry across the ages and the strip malls and freeways: "Give me Liberty, or give me Death."

Or failing that at least give me a sprinkling of glory. Speaking of which, Glory Days by Pulp has always struck a chord with me. Listen to it if you get the chance.

Come and play the tunes of glory -

raise your voice in celebration
of the days that we have wasted in the cafe
in the station.
And learn the meaning of existence in fortnightly instalments.
Come share this golden age with me
in my single room apartment.
And if it all amounts to nothing -
it doesn't matter,
these are still our glory days.

Oh my face is unappealing and my thoughts are unoriginal.
I did experiments with substances
but all it did was make me ill
and I used to do the I Ching
but then I had to feed the meter.
Now I can't see into the future
but at least I can use the heater.
Oh it doesn't get much better than this
cos this is how we live our glory days.
Oh and I could be a genius if I just put my mind to it
and I,
I could do anything if only I could get round to it.
Oh we were brought up on the Space-Race,
now they expect you to clean toilets.
When you've seen how big the world is,
how can you make do with this?
If you want me I'll be sleeping in -
sleeping in throughout these glory days.
These glory days can take their toll,
so catch me now
before I turn to gold.
Yeah we'd love to hear your story
just as long as it tells us where we are -
that where we are is where we're meant to be.
Oh come on make it up yourself -
you don't need anybody else.
And I promise I won't sell these days to anybody else in the world but you.
No-one but you.

Thursday, December 9, 2010

The Jackson Pollock of the kitchen

I believe cooking is an art form rather than a chore and approach it this way whenever I hit the kitchen.

Which is why I have little time for those fastidious matrons like Paula (Where did she borrow that hokey accent from?) Deen or Delia Smith.

Instead give me Jamie Oliver or Keith Floyd anytime. I'm not sure if Floyd made much of an impression in the US; nor does he have much profile in the UK anymore.

But you have to hand it to a guy who drank more wine while he made lunch than he put into the recipe. Half way through filming Floydie appeared half cut and was sloshing sauce everywhere.

I once had to call him to ask him about maritial breakdown number 140. I fully expected to be told to shove my questions where the sun doesn't shine, but Floyd was in a talkative and animated mood, launching into a diatribe about his ex that I couldn't print.

Likewise I see myself as a spontaneous cook. I'm the Jackson Pollock of the kitchen, throwning around spices, herbs and other ingredients with abandon. If I drink too much pinot noir and the cat ends up in the casserole, that's all part of the creative process.

Inevitably the kitchen ends up looking like a war zone, leading to numerous attempts by my wife to wean me off cooking.

Tonight's recipe was a very simple blue cheese pasta with walnuts. Everything went according to plan and the cat is still around.

My daughter took one bite and proclaimed: "This is disgusing."

But like all art, it's in the taste of the beholder, so I didn't take it personally.

Just banned her from watching SpongeBob for a month.

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Dirty joke Santa has the last laugh on Macy's

I've never been a big fan of a Santa Claus, an overweight and over jolly figure of forced fun who is accorded a Christ-like status in western society at Yuletide.

If you don't believe me go up to random five-year-old in the nearest shopping mall and tell him or her, you don't believe in God. Then tell the kid Santa doesn't exist.

We all know which statement's most likely to end up with a hangbag belonging to the child's mother embedded in your forehead.

I don't fall for the myth that fat men with white beards are all jolly and avulcular. The only guy I can think of who looked like Santa was Ernest Hemingway who blew out his brains with his favorite shotgun.

In saying that I had to feel for 68-year-old John Toomey, who worked as Santa for 20 years at Macy's in downtown San Francisco.

Toomey was fired this weekend after a couple complained about his rude joke.

When I first heard this story I thought he might have been telling the joke about the panda addicted to one night stands; you know the one; he eats shoots and leaves.

In fact Santa's rude joke went thus.

“When I ask the older people who sit on my lap if they’ve been good and they say, ‘Yes,’ I say, ‘Gee, that’s too bad,’ ” Toomey told the San Francisco Chronicle.

He added: “Then, if they ask why Santa is so jolly, I joke that it’s because I know where all the naughty boys and girls live.”

Pause to absorb the shock...

We don't know the identity of the complaining couple but we can image what Mr. and Mrs. Complainter are like; so anal that they probably spend half their life half way up their large intestine without realizing it, I imagine.

And what exactly does this say about the grinches who stole Christmas at Macy's?
Macy’s did not return requests for comment, surprise, surprise.

I'd like to think a sense of humor failure of this magnitude would not occur in Britain where we pride ourselves on the ability to laugh at ourselves. But maybe it would.

At least this story had a happy and festive ending. Toomey was offered dozens of new jobs after his dismissal became public. He has now accepted a job as Santa for a local pub, Lefty O’Doul’s, to help with its annual fire department toy drive.

He's getting twice as much as what Macy's paid and he can eat and drink as much as he wants, although I imagine the panda joke or getting so legless he throws up on small children is off limits.

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Kim Kardashian and her fellow 'Gremlins'

I have spent the last 10 minutes trying to think what the Kardashians remind me of; it’s not the most useful use of 15 minutes, I know.

It took Abraham Lincoln less than 2 minutes to deliver the Gettysburg Address, a speech that managed to invoked the principles of human equality espoused by the Declaration of Independence, not to mention redefining the Civil War as a struggle not merely for the Union, but as "a new birth of freedom” that would bring equality to all of its citizens.

It's soberign to think It’s taken me five times as long to make me realize the Kardashians look like film stars; and I’m talking the stars of Stephen Spielberg’s epic Gremlins – after the application of water; and a bit of make-up.

I am hoping my mid afternoon brain fog will pass but it’s slowing no sign of doing so any time soon. In half hearted desperation, I sought to research Kim Kardashian to discover she’s a celebutante, whatever this is when it’s at home, socialite, TV personality, actress and model famous for launching fragrances and a sex tape. In other words she’s a sort of brunette version of Paris Hilton and another oxygen thief par excellence.

At least Kim’s capable of turning heads, which is more that you can say for sisters Kourtney and Khloe (were these girls’ parents founders of the KKK or something?). Kourtney and Khloe are also stars, although this word is capable of being stretched a long way – of the reality TV show Keeping up with the Kardashians.

I'm probably showing my age here but I find myself preferring the mother. I'm not sure what she's called. Mavis or Doris maybe?
For those people who don’t want to keep up with them (and who can blame you) the show just involves lots of bitchiness over trivia.

The rather sobering thing is this trio have just made the top 10 of highly paid reality TV stars. Kim, has made $6 million in endorsements and her sisters have made a few million each, coming in at 7th and 8th places in a poll by the Daily Beast
Some nonentities from Jersey Shores have also raked in millions by being their dumb selves on camera. Kendra Wilkinson, an erstwhile Playboy bunny, who is now a mousy housewife, with theobligatory sex tape to her name, coined in $2 million. Depressing if you think about it too hard.,0,7112844.photogallery

Saturday, December 4, 2010

SpongeBob Square Pants - the yellow peril

I have been subjected to more than four years of the yellow peril and counting...

Ever since I foolishly introduced Zara to SpongeBob Square Pants he seems to have been lingering there in the background of my life with that horrible machine gun rattle laugh of his.

Every morning as I get the kids ready and try to summon up enough concentration to write Jackson's name on his bottle and to get the date correct, he's there on TV. Or it's Patrick with his retarded voice, or Squidward's nasal whine.

I don't pay much attention, but enough to realize I have seen whatever episode is on at any given time, at least six times before. This doesn't faze Zara who patiently informs me what's about to happen next.

Who would have thought this show would have such longevity? Come to think of it who would have thought it would have happened at all?

How did marine biologist Stephen Hillenburg do it? I can't even imagine him trying to sell his idea to film studios. It features a hyperactive sea sponge, that looks like a household sponge in pants. He lives in an err um a pineapple under the sea. He has a pet snail called Gary who, err um miaows like a cat. Actually he speaks in a few episodes where he is portrayed as a librarian with an English accent.

There's Patrick Star, a dimwitted pink sea star who lives under a rock and Squidward Tentacles, a vain octopus who lives in an Easter Island Moai; I hadn't actually realized this even though I have an interest in Easter Island and recently blogged about it. He also plays the clarinet; apparently octopuses are almost as good at this as they are at predicting football results.

When we get to Sandy Cheeks it becomes clear the people over at SpongeBob Central may have been taking something with their burgers. Sandy is a squirrel from Texas who lives in an underwater tree dome and has to wear an astronaut-like suit in the water because she can't breath under water. It goes to show folks will go to any length to escape from Texas.

Eugene Krabs who owns the Krusty Krab restaurant is a miser. He reminds me of a colleague I once knew called Bill who wore short sleeves shirts in the winter because he couldn't afford sleeves and always ate the tiny stale rolls from the work food machine because they were so cheap. The only time I ever saw Bill show anything like emotion was the time his roll failed to drop from the machine and he smashed it so hard tears were rolling down his cheeks.

A recurring plot in SpongeBob Square Pants is the repeated attempts by the vertically challenged Sheldon Plankton to steal the recipe for Krabby Patties. Plankton has delusions of grandeur and world domination that inevitably come undone. He shows all the symptoms of Small Man Syndrome.

I wouldn't be writing about SpongeBob Square Pants if it didn't impact on my life in some way. Sadly I hear his manic laugh in my sleep. I wake up in a cold sweat fearing I live in a pineapple under the sea.

If I'm at country show, there's inevitably some joker dressed up as Spongebob Square Pants who I have to take Zara to at pain of a three-hour stop if I don't.

Maybe one day, and I have been saying this for some time, she may grow out of him the way she has grown out of Dora the Explorer.

Probaby just in time for Jackson to get hooked, giving us another four years of the yellow peril.

Thursday, December 2, 2010

On dead grandmothers and foul smelling fruit...

If, like me, you are already thinking of Christmas with the extended family with three quarters dread and the other quarter terror, you might want to consider some culinary alternatives to the big old bird.

0h grandmother is not coming over this Christmas I heard you say.

Well if either of mine did I’d be out of the house in a flash as they passed away a few years ago.

But Christmases usually invoke some kind of malingering hanger on; picture good old Uncle Albert sitting there in the arm chair, a glass of your most expensive port in one hand, holding court about politics and farting like a steam train.

Yes I do love Christmas and that feeling of gut filled apathy that one gets by 3 p.m. when the presents have been opened hours ago, they were as pathetic and useless as you thought they would be, and you are popping the coffee creams to dull the pain of the whole affair.

Anyhow this year I am considering spicing up Christmas by decking the house with durian fruit.

For the uninitiated durian fruit is living proof that God has a sense of humor. It has a spiky exterior, a gunky middle and is described as having an odor comparable to a dumpster full of rotting fruit, although it tastes a bit worse than that.

Let’s just say Andrew Zimmern, a man who will readily eat rotting meat in Morocco, cow’s brains and fried tarantula, couldn't stomach a durian in Thailand.

Anthony Bourdain, an admitted fan of the fruit, described it in less-than-inspiring terms when he ate it on No Reservations: “Its taste can only be described as… indescribable, something you will either love or despise… Your breath will smell as if you'd been French-kissing your dead grandmother.”

Oh dear we are back to dead grandmothers.

Anyway I am thinking about giving the extended family something to savor, or at least something I can savor – the look on their faces when I pull my durian special out of the oven instead of a turkey.,38702/

Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Drowning by numbers in the blogisphere

Peter Greenaway’s film Drowning by Numbers was made in 1988, well before the Internet age.

I wouldn’t advise anyone to watch it. It’s utterly confusing but has some nice photography, being filmed in picturesque Southwold in Suffolk.

But it induces a feeling of panic and bewilderment that I’m starting to feel in the parallel universe that is the blogisphere.

We may not realize it, but slowly the Internet is changing us into number obsessed nerds. We are Rain Man where he drops all the matches on the floor and counts them accurately: we are the trainspotters of the 21st century.

Americans are sometimes confused by this reference as there aren’t many trains over here. It’s nothing to do with heroin abuse or the film of the same name.

But back in the '70s when there were a lot of people who didn’t have a life in England, railway platforms were crowded with them; scruffy youths in thick anoraks, their join-the-dots acne hidden by their hoods; or worse still middle aged men with thick red beards, plaid shirts, rubber shoes and heavy sets of binoculars hanging round their necks whose faces broke into child-like grins every time an 08 shunter appeared in the direction of Crewe depot.

I even went on a trainspotting trip with Collectors Club at school, to Swindon works to see locomotives being assembled and dismantled, to see sparks fly and cranes move. When a 47 diesel appeared on the end of the platform these was a rush of anoraks and rustling of papers as the crowd raced to the tracks to cross the train’s number out of their books.

We are so much more sophisticated today. We are beyond crossing numbers off pieces of paper. Or are we?

Ever since discovering the statistics section of my blog about three months ago I have found myself constantly going on there to see the fall and rise of the graph. It goes up and I’m happy; it flatlines – usually about 4 a.m. – and I place the cat in the microwave. On Monday I recorded more than 100 visits in a day for the first time ever, I believe. I got outrageously drunk and ran round the neighborhood naked (OK I made that bit up).

Today it’s on course for half that number. I’m in a blue funk. But, on the positive side, my number of followers rose to 40.

After learning this good news from home I got to work to check on the number of hits my stories were getting. Now the Hampton News page that I administer is almost up to 2,000 followers; my personal Facebook page has almost hit 300 friends – woo hoo. My Twitter page has more than 900 followers, but I had to follow twice that number to get there. Then there are the regular numbers update for my Hampton Matters blog that usually languishes close to the bottom of the regular email updates – must do better but don’t have a lot of time to post hyperlinks because I’m too busy checking stats elsewhere. How many contacts have I got on LinkedIn? I haven’t had time to find out.

The pertinent question to ask is where is this numbers game going and what’s the point? Will my life be any more enriched if this blog has 60 followers rather than 40. Much as I am fond of my followers, I haven’t met any of them. They’re not like disciples. Some of them probably wouldn't even lend me $1 for a coffee. Is this numbers game going anywhere? And if I carry on like this am I going to catch Asperger’s syndrome?

And if I drown by numbers will anyone notice?

Monday, November 29, 2010

The origin of hookers - and other Civil War tales

On face value the American Civil War wasn't very funny. It saw the deaths of hundreds of thousands of people and pitted families against each other. It's about as funny as the Rape of Nanking.

However, humorous anecdotes can be found in the most inhospitable of places and at least a couple of the war's most hapless generals have enriched the English language.

General Ambose Burnside, who oversaw the Union’s debacle at Fredericksburg, is best remembered for his novel facial hair that consisted of a full moustache and big cheek whiskers over a cleanly shaven chin.

Apparently the look wasn’t even hot for the time when the in vogue look was to shave everything except the chin whiskers, resembling a goat ie. A goatee. Burnside’s look wouldn’t even be considered trendy in the seventies unless you'd been doing a lot of drugs. The cheek whiskers became known as "Burnside's" and enjoyed a certain vogue among men of the day. The expression was later mixed around to become known as “sideburns.”

The expression lived a lot longer than Burnside’s reputation. After the defeat at Fredericksburg, his standing was finally sunk in the Mud March of January 1863 that saw his troops bogged down in a quagmire when he had hoped to strike a decisive blow against General Robert E. Lee’s Confederates.

Before the action Burnside had declared: "The auspicious moment seems to have arrived to strike a great and mortal blow to the rebellion, and to gain that decisive victory which is due to the country."

After the action he was replaced by General Joseph Hooker. It seems Burnside had never wanted to command the Union army anyway, but the threat of Hooker being put in charge persuaded him to reluctantly take up the command.

In the event Burnside’s nemesis replaced him anyhow and was no more successful, leading the Union army to another disastrous defeat at Chancellorville in the spring of 1863.

Hooker wasn’t the most popular of generals. One biographer called him a “a conniver and carouser” — because he was quarrelsome, deeply disrespectful of his superiors, a womaniser, a drunkard, and (worst of all) an unsuccessful soldier.

His headquarters were described as a combination of a bar and a brothel into which no self respecting woman would go. His men were also said to frequent prostitutes. It’s said the general gave rise to the expression “hooker”, although there are some obscure references that suggest the word may have been used for prostitutes before the good general’s time.

I’m happy to run with it and give another spectacularly unsuccessful general a legacy of sorts.

Sunday, November 28, 2010

The ghosts of Fredericksburg

We went to Fredericksburg over the weekend. I'm not sure why. Maybe because it was there.

I had heard it was picturesque but by the time we had waited in long lines of traffic on the I-95, to descend on a road flanked by crumbling strip malls, much of our wunderlust had faced away.

Still we made for the historic old town and parked near the bridge over the Rappahannock River. I had expected a mellow span with wide pavements for visits but instead there was just a small, dirty sidewalk that denoted a functional, industrial structure looking over a muddy ravine of skeletal trees.

The bridge faced the hollow backs of buildings, slightly neglected and off-the-beaten track. Instead we hurried with a cold wind on our backs to the main shopping streets, festooned with Christmas lights.

Fredericksburg reminds me off many small towns in England. It has a bustling town center that is a destination in itself. In contrast many American downtowns are shuttered up and empty at evenings and during the weekend, the domain of trash blown by the wind and the occasional down-and-out.

Frederickburg has a downtown bars and stores and cafes. There are cutesy and over expensive carriage and trolley bus rides. Still behind the facade there seemed to be something sadder lurking in Fredericksburg. Many of the shop keepers frowned and looked at me as if I was wearing a T-shirt with the words "Registered sex offender" on it when I walked into their cramped premises pushing a stroller.

The visitor center was a place of glossy brochures and severe old women with glassy stares. Had the recession or the cold wind stripped Frederickburg of its Virginian civility?

Or do the ghosts still walk in a town that was steeped in blood just over 150 years ago?

Just before dawn on Dec. 11, 1862 the same empty mud-bound Rappahannock River that I gazed down on was alive with men who were building six pontoon bridges for the giant Union army. The army succesfully crossed the river and the first urban combat of the Civil War began. More than 5,000 shells slammed into Frederickburg, the precursor to an era when artillery and bombs would increasingly come to be used against civilians.

If there was euphoria on behalf of the Federate army, it was short lived. During the long day of Dec. 13 114,000 men in Maj. Gen Ambrose Burnside's Unionist army were employed in action, many of them against almost impregnable Confederate positions on high land to the south of the town. With little apparent plan their commanders sent them slowly uphill into the mouths of the guns.

Thousands were slaughtered in one of the most one sided battles of the Civil War. When hostilities died down and the stars decorated the frosted skies, the cold night of Dec. 13 was filled with the screams of the wounded and dying on the blood soaked flanks of Marye's Heights. Richard Rowland Kirkland, a Confederate army sergeant,  gathered canteens and in broad daylight, without the benefit of a cease fire or a flag of truce, provided water to numerous Union wounded lying on the field of battle.

The story of kindness amid so much brutality earned Kirkland the name "the angel of Marye's Heights" and a statue in his honor.

The Union army suffered 12,653 casualties while the Confederate army lost 5,377.

Notwithstanding the scowls of a few store assistants it seems Frederickburg has become a much friendlier place in the space of 152 years.

Friday, November 26, 2010

Bitchslapped over Thanksgiving

Forgive me Father for I have sinned, and not for the first time. In retrospect my cynicism over Thanksgiving, expressed both on this blog and on social networking sites, was ill advised in a nation that has embraced me to its puffy turkey breast.

My Facebook posting provoked a few responses reiterating the core values of Thanksgiving - God, family, the star spangled banner and turkey. I feel like I have been bitch slapped by 50 states.

I now realize I violated these core values by mentioning Indians, wigwams and such like.

And people looked at me in a funny way at work today. Or maybe I was just paranoid. Certainly the server at Starbucks was less friendly than usual. I'm not sure if it was because of my anti Thanksgiving postings. For a start, I don't think she knows my name. Even so.

I mean Thanksgiving wasn't so bad, even if the baby did scream for three hours. There were no members of the extended family round here this year and hence no arguments or accidents with knives.

Heck there's even some wine left for the weekend. I'm prepared to give Thanksgiving the benefit of the doubt.

Those Black Fridays we love to hate

Five years later the expression “Black Friday” still strikes terror into my heart and sends me down alleyways of painful introspection.

Half a decade ago I had just arrived in the USA and was still adjusting to the emptiness of not getting on the tube every morning and going past the security guard into the heart of government: from grabbing a coffee at the chic outlet in Portcullis House or taking my Members of Parliament out for drinks at a Japanese restaurant to get the scoop.

Instead of pigeons and red buses circling outside my window and the high towers of Westminster Abbey, I found myself staring balefully through crepe myrtle trees, listening for the occasional passing truck.

From being in demand I was a nobody in small town America who couldn’t even get the editor of the local paper to take much interest. My interviews with Kate Winslet, Tony Blair and Hugh Grant didn’t interest him at all. He wanted someone who could trot along to a board of education meeting and report on the date of the next one.

By November unemployment in small town America was getting to me. I inquired about a holiday job at a local clothing store and was taken on.

I still remember my interview with the sallow woman who would be my supervisor in a room full of surplus coat hangers. Brushing cigarette ash off her jacket Linda (not her real name) said I’d have to shape up and make my quota of selling customers sky high interest store cards, or I’d be fired. Employees didn’t have many rights, although we were allowed a 10-minute break if our hands started to bleed.

My first day of work would be the day after Thanksgiving – known as Black Friday. I had no clue what this entailed, but I was told to arrive early, about 5 am.

Even today I can recall the feel of the parking lot when I drove in out of the darkness of a North Carolinian morning. Not even a bleak, windswept morning in the wastes of the Gobi desert or the Siberian steppe can feel as empty as the acres of rotting concrete behind a shopping mall in the American south.

Forlorn and lonely employees huddled in cold corners waiting for the lights to come on and for Black Friday to start in earnest. I played it cool and realized too late I was trying to get in the wrong door. By the time I arrived at the correct one I was already tardy on my first day. Unsmiling Linda opened the door and met my blabbering explanation with a stare that would have frozen the Polar ice caps at 20 miles.

“And I thought you guys were meant to like Brits,” I felt like blubbing.

Soon I was put into the frontline on till 2. Fortunately they had not had time to train me in the higher academic arts of cashiering, so I was left to bag up purchases for the masses and I mean masses. For hours during the morning they came at us like a tsunami. My rudimentary bagging skills weren’t up to the task but were probably equal to the salary of $7 an hour.

But after a few hours a strange thing happened. I was marooned in a regressive part of North Carolina in a low paid job with a boss who had all of the social skills of a cadaver; I was adrift in a foreign country with all those myths about an English accent opening doors shattering around me, and yet suddenly I started to have fun.

My fellow workers in purgatory turned out to be an eclectic bunch. It took me about 5 seconds to deduce Marc was gay due to the conversation he launched into about Boy George and Madonna, Rachel turned out to be as funny as she was acerbic; she was fiddling on the tills while making an application for a criminal justice course and Denise – well Denise, kept passing gas. This had the double effect of sending us into convulsions of laughter in front of customers as they reacted as if they had hit a brick wall at the till.

We all crowded round one till because the veteran shopworker on the other – Miss Shirley, was too much of a “witch” for anyone to work with. Eventually we drew lots for who would go and work with her.

Over the next few weeks the mall started to enter my soul. Hanging out in the mall burger joint with my store name badge hanging to my shirt like a moniker of shame, I would wonder what had happened to my life. Miss Shirley would berate me and call me “Bubba,” Linda would harass me about those elusive credit card sales. I realized society never realizes the plight of the humble shop worker who is forced to see the worst side of humanity with little support and spend hours on his or her feet for meager pay.

There were some fun times stacking jeans while Marc bitched about everybody in the store and Rachel ridiculed people. It was nice to find black humor in the most unpromising part of small town America.

But in the end Marc was let go. Linda explained to me he was “a bit funny” which I took to mean homosexual. Some of the others drifted off too and I got a call from a newspaper.

I left the store and those hours of loneliness beside the Izod shirts to someone else, I left the garish strip lights and cheap jewelry to Linda who was half dead, partly because her husband had run off with a Canadian, and Miss Shirley who was three quarters poisoned and one quarter mean as a raccoon in a trap.

But I can never see Black Friday in the same way since and that canned Christmas Perry Como stuff sends a shiver through my soul every time I hear it. And not in a pleasant way, either.

Thursday, November 25, 2010

Obama, turkeys and why Thanksgiving makes me queasy

It's going to be a long day. It's not even 10 a.m. and my first Thanksgiving as an American citizen is making me feel queasy.

I feel like I have emerged from a dream in which Lawrence Welk and the Osmonds took me for a singalong in a giant cake oozing pink vanilla icing where they promised me I would meet Barry Manilow and he would croon: "Oh Mandy."

It started with some schmaltzy stuff on TV. I have no clue what because I found myself clicking the TV manically looking for one of those crime shows where they nail the man who mutilated the prostitute through a DNA sample from a hair or nefarious bodily fluid. At the same time I am thinking about my recipe for Thanksgiving lunch and wondering when I'll get a battery for the remote control.

And what about those Facebook messages from friends over here? People posting about how grateful they are to be alive and in the bosoms of their families, how much they love God, how happy they are to be Americans blah blah.

Then there was the personal email we received this morning from the President. How nice that Barack takes the time to personally email every American citizen.

"When Michelle and I sit down with our family to give thanks today, I want you to know that we'll be especially grateful for folks like you. Everything we have been able to accomplish in the last two years was possible because you have been willing to work for it and organize for it."

Sorry. Having a few problems with that mid sized a-word Barack (my voice suddenly gets all sinister Sarah Palinesque) . Have you been to Guantanamo Bay recently? If you did you might realize it's still open.

The warm Thanksgiving messages are nice in a way but I can never buy into this kind of thing. You can take the Brit out of Britain but you can't take the cynicism out of the Brit.

I can only conclude that as a journalist and someone who has flirted with academia that I have a predisposition to be Godless, as Palin herself put it this week.

Maybe I can  tweet her to confirm her worst fears. Dear Sarah - just to confirm I will indeed be spending Thanksgiving in a small bare room worshipping a bust of Leon Trotsky ($9.99 from Target) as I plan to turn America red Wal-Mart by Wal-Mart.

Come to think of it, it's kind of ironic that turning America red  is also a way of describing something Palin would favor - a Republican clean sweep. In Britain the left of center party is red and the conservatives are blue. I digress.

As far as Thanksgiving goes there are a couple of  things to be thankful for. There's a day off work and (um) a day off work.

Of course, like most holidays, the origins of Thanksgiving are muddled.

In a very tiny nutshell once upon a time there were some religious extremists who lived in a rather flat part of England where men were men and your sister was fair game. They escaped to Holland so as they could beat their wives in public, unmolested by the authorities.

However, the Puritans were rather shocked to find coffee houses with large spliffs on the menu so they decided to make a voyage to the New World.

The origins of Thanksgiving in 1621 are described thus on

"In November 1621, after the Pilgrims’ first corn harvest proved successful, Governor William Bradford organized a celebratory feast and invited a group of the fledgling colony’s Native American allies, including the Wampanoag chief Massasoit.

"Now remembered as American’s “first Thanksgiving”—although the Pilgrims themselves may not have used the term at the time—the festival lasted for three days. While no record exists of the historic banquet’s exact menu, the Pilgrim chronicler Edward Winslow wrote in his journal that Governor Bradford sent four men on a “fowling” mission in preparation for the event, and that the Wampanoag guests arrived bearing five deer."

It was actually Abraham Lincoln who invented the holiday as a kind of feelgood event because there was a rather nasty war going on at the time.

The first Thanksgiving is often cited in terms of some kind of multicultural group hug, as a metaphor for caring modern America.

Sadly many people forget that by 1685 New England was plunged into a devastating conflict between the settlers and the Indians known as King Philip's War that led to the deaths of hundreds of settlers and wiped out about 40 percent of the Indian population.

By all accounts the war was devastating to the native peoples. Entire families were sold into slavery abroad and others because servants. The Wampanoag had to sacrifice their culture to survive.

By 1700 tribal leaders would have been entitled to formally ask for a few of those deer back.

Sadly King Philip's War was just the first episode in a long tragedy for the native people.

That's not why I feel queasy, though, this Thanksgiving. Perhaps I'm just not good at being nice. And I haven't even hit the dietary overload button, yet.

BTW there's a caption contest on the go for the Bush photo. My pathetic effort is: "Not now Condi."

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Uh oh - the baby just stood up

Jack Jax stood up for the first time last night.

I was lounging disconsolately on the bed trying unsuccessfully to balance a glass of pinot noir and two novels when Zara started shouting: "Look, look."

Sure enough the boy was standing up ramrod straight in his cot staring across the room and grinning.

Sensible parents of yesteryear would, no doubt, have got straight down to the business of lowering his cot, but as it took four hours and three near divorces to construct it we collectively thought: "Sod that for a game of soldiers."

Rather it was cue to whip out the camera for an improptu photo session and to disseminate the photos out on Facebook within seconds so as a wider audience could tell us how clever our kid was and puff up our egos. I can't tell you how important it is to go into Tuesday with an ego puffed up like a peacock on steroids. You may even get to Thursday without muttering to yourself in the elevator. Or in the case of my office, muttering to youself about the fact there isn't an elevator and you have to do stairs.

Talking of puffed up how unlucky are turkeys in the United States? Not content with a mass cull at Christmas, Americans feel obliged to devour them en masse a month earlier and come back again for the ones that got away. Turkeys are probably the only inhabitants of the US who are trying to escape to Mexico.

Anyhow. After Jaxs's improptu photo shoot, I was inundated with well wishers on Facebook and some of the women even took me aside at work today to tell me how gorgeous Jax is.

All well and good, but already at nine months I can see a worrying picture developing. My female colleages want a date in 18 years' time and all the female infants are already crawling all over his puffy diaper in daycare.

I can picture myself in 20 years time, old, embittered and hunched over watching grouchily as Jax brings a host of beautiful women to the shack.

And then I'll get all misty eyed and sad for my misspent youth. And I'll get to wondering why I only ever dated women with one eye, twitches, psychotic personality disorders or weighing over 280 pounds when I was his age.

Monday, November 22, 2010

The Daily Dire - pregnant Kim Zolciak and her Atlanta Falcons toyboy

This is the sort of story that makes me cringe, snort and throw up my arms in despair. In no particular order. Normally in the privacy of my own home.

It's in the Daily Mail and concerns Kim Zolciak who - for the uninitiated like me - is a star of Real Houswives of Atlanta and has apparently been made pregnant by her toyboy lover.

So woman who I have never heard of is dating toyboy, Kroy Biermann, who I have never heard of, who is actually only seven years younger than her anyhow. Oh and he's knocked her up and this is the story...

It's exactly what a former news editor and mentor would have described as a "bugger me" kind of story. He didn't mean it in the Etonian way.

For example, Cat caught making miowing noises in garden, Bird seen flying past house, Postal worker seen delivering mail, are all "bugger me" stories because that's the reaction they provoke. Actually the latter is a bit more remarkable in this day and age.

How about Politician is exposed as ethical? - now we are talking about something unusual enough to make front page news.

The Mail seems to think it can get away with a story about this vacuous nonentity by putting it in the Femail Today section. So here's the patronizing subtext. It's OK to feed women a diet of fluff stories because they are (err um) women.

The sad thing is the Mail has always attracted a larger female audience than any other British newspaper. But should we really continue building up reality TV stars to the point that they get delusions of grandeur?

Whatever next - they'll be gate crashing functions at the White House.

This is the most alarming line in the whole piece. "The star, who is promoting her new single, Google Me, isn't planning to walk down the aisle before the birth."

And I don't mean the bit about not walking down the aisle.

If this story doesn't grab you avid Mail readers can always check out. "Larger than life Snooki wears a rather unflattering dress to her birthday party."

I guess it was a close toss-up between this and mass genocide in Darfur.

Saturday, November 20, 2010

Fear and cannibalism on Easter Island

Paul Theroux's recent trip to India as recounted in his new book Ghost Train to the Eastern Star is fascinating but ultimately chilling.

After taking the train through the arid weirdness of Turkmenistan, a land with a ruler so strange and controlling that he renamed bread after his mother, the travel writer's happiness at being back in India is palpable.

But, by the time he leaves India, Theroux has the reaction of a man who has spent hours trapped on a crowded subway train, wedged up the armpits of fellow travelers.

It wasn't the dirt or the heat or the poverty that finally sent Theroux away from India.

"What sent me away finally was something simpler,  but larger and inescapable. It was the sheer mass of people, the horribly thronged cities, the colossal agglomeration of elbowing and contending Indians, the billion-plus, the sight of them, the sense of their desparation and hunger, having to compete with them for space on sidewalks, on roads, everywhere," Theroux writes.

Theroux compared them to ants he saw on rotting fruit on the sidewalk. He said the population of the United States had doubled in his lifetime.

"India was a reminder of what was in store for all of us, a glimpse of the future."

It's a long way both geographically and culturally from India to Easter Island in the Pacific Ocean. While the tall glass towers of the call centers rise above the slum of modern Mumbai, and traffic buzzes and honks in the streets, the enormous heads called moai look balefully over silent and empty brown hills and a wide expanse of bleak, pale blue ocean on Easter Island.

Freezing winds batter these 62 square miles marooned on thousands of miles of empty ocean.

The baleful stares of the statutes give few clues to the horrors and the bloodshed they have witnessed, but archaeologists have pieced together the grim history of Easter Island.

The island was first settled about 400 AD but by the 17th Century the island's population had expanded to about 10,000. By then something had gone badly wrong on Easter Island. The island's natural resources had been exploited to the point of exhaustion. All the trees were cut down and the soil became infertile.

The result was factionalism, mass killing and cannibalism. It took an orgy of violence to reduce the size of the population.

It's hard to imagine the terror and bloodshed in this barren and baleful land, hemmed in by the unforgiving tides and isolated from the world, but shatteted bones in caves confirm the killing was going on, even as the first Europeans set foot on Easter Island.

Sergio Rapu, an archaeologist commented: "What was once an elevated and tightly controlled society had broken down, almost to anarchy."

The tale of Easter Island is reminiscent of the fictional breakdown of civilized society described by William Golding in The Lord of the Flies.

But what if Easter Island is a microcosm of a larger world? We are exhausting natural resources at an alarming rate and medical advances are fuelling overpopulation.

As Thomas Mathus wrote at the end of the 18th Century. "The power of population is indefinitely greater than the power in the earth to produce subsistence for man."

He is yet to be proved right, but there's still time.

My apologies for writing a serious blog entry and neglecting Kim Kardashian. I don't expect it to happen very often.

Thursday, November 18, 2010

Royal weddings and toe curling affairs

This week I'm glad I don’t still live in Britain - and not just because of appalling November weather and the notion of freezing to death in some greasy diner in a seaside town they forgot to close down.

For the benefit of anyone who has been in a coma this week or a capsule on a one way journey to Mars (sadly Sarah Palin isn’t going this far), the announcement of a Royal engagement between Prince William and Kate Middleton has not just been hugging the headlines; it has been stealing them and making a getaway.

The relief is almost palpable for people who like this kind of thing. The last Royal Wedding in 2005 was between Prince Charles and Camilla. It reminded me of a mating ritual in the reptile house of a zoo.

Even the date had to be moved because the Pope died. I have a wedding mug with the wrong date that I thought might make me some money one day. Unfortunately we ended up using it for coffee to the extent that Charles and Camilla’s heads have worn off. Probably no bad thing. Don’t want to scare the kids and all that.

There are always plenty of headlines on those magazines you see at Food Lion about the hell of Charles and Camilla's wedding but it's really hard to know. These are the same magazines that bang on about George W. Bush and Condi. Rice.

Britain hasn’t had a feelgood wedding between two young people since that of William’s mother Diana and his father Charles in 1981. It’s still hard to believe William is related to Charles but the older William gets the more his father’s genes appear to kick in. Expect him to be talking to plants soon.

And Will and Kate seem somewhat less dysfunctional that the young Charles and Diana. Julie Burchill in a hilarious column in the Independent picks up on Charles’ telling comment “Whatever "in love" means, that was made in a post engagement interview.

In typical acerbic style Burchill writes she “could only imagine my interest being piqued this time around if Diana's son repeated the creepy line which his worthless, hypocritical father came out with all those years ago when asked if he was in love with his radiant young fiancée, Diana Spencer.”

In retrospect we know ‘whatever “in love” means' translates to “Camilla on the side.”

So Wills and Kate seem to be sensible enough young people and Wills has succeeded in avoiding some of his brother Harry’s jolly japes such as showing up to fancy dress parties in Nazi uniforms.

It remains to be seen if this is enough to make a Royal wedding a success story in contemporary England.

And if you think this is me being over cynical I would point out I was idealistic about this sort of thing once; in 1973 to be exact when I was six-years-old and Princess Anne married Captain Mark Phillips.

I asked my mother if I could see the ceremony and if this Princess was beautiful I had never seen a real princess.

My mother said she wasn’t and Princess Anne resembled a horse.

And really it all seemed to gallop downhill from there. There was Fergie and Andrew and those embarrassing toe sucking pictures and Charles’ rather infamous comment to Camilla where he said he wanted to be a Tampax.

It seems the days when Royal aspirations ran high are long gone. No danger of Charles being beheaded like his famous namesake for seeking to run the country.

It would be nice if the Royals could set their sights a bit higher. Or failing that, at least have affairs that are not totally embarrassing, before the inevitable Royal divorce.

It’s funny but notwithstanding the last few decades that have reduced the House of Windsor to a real life Carry On film, Americans are still, by and large, willing to buy into the dream of fairytale romance.

Which is strange really when you consider that this is a nation that couldn't stomach the madness of King George.