Friday, September 30, 2011

Like Columbo at Times


I'm the first to admit it can be hard doing the same job day in day out, without many pay raises for the last 100 years, but I have found myself strangely energized of late.

I put this down to a number of investigations that I have been carrying out. There's something to be said for this game of cat and mouse that can end up with you exposing what they didn't want exposed; that can give a voice for the little guy when nobody else cares. You feel a bit like Columbo at times - sneaking up to people and saying "just one more thing," or more likely writing it in an email.

It has its downside too. I see the glances, the disingenuous comments and notice the way rooms can sometimes fall silent when you walk in.

It's a funny rule of journalism that the more successful you are, the more people are likely to end up shunning and disliking you. But when you have a beat sometimes you find yourself working with the same people you are holding to account.

As journalists there are many times when we consider selling out to the world of PR and so many journalists have gone down this route. Ironically they can often be the more tight lipped and unhelpful press officers we deal with, perhaps because they have the inside track.

But this email I received from an old pal D. who sold out down the line has convinced me to continue to live in semi virtuous poverty for a while yet.

Macca,



I see you want to be my friend, business schmooze or whatever virtual frottering Linkedin sponsors. Frankly I'm not entirely sure why I joined...bit like Facebook...it's all a bit anal high maintenance for me.


Any hows it has nevertheless prompted you to send me...or rather it has automatically prompted an e-mail that relates to you. Which at the risk of sounding dangerously positive is a good thing. I think I'll put that in "" ...a "good thing" like people do in Sunday supplement columns. Bit of word and structure play there. You see I'm having a something of a linguistic outing far from the corporate tedium of the NHS where the managerial watch word is: "say nothing" but if pushed "say even less" and whatever you do pass the buck and evade taking responsibility for anything. You may have intimated from my tone a degree of dissatisfaction with my lot and you'd be right. And to think some - may be most - people spend their entire working lives embalmed in this sort of bureaucratic quarter life.


That said I'm now the proud owner of two very smart bathrooms and a selection of good looking internal oak doors, some of which have actually been cut by the fitter to actually fit the door frame. Only some mind.


It makes it all so worthwhile.


How about you?


Yours slightly disenchanted,


D.





Monday, September 26, 2011

Why it's time to unfriend Mark Zuckerberg


It says much about the power of the social networking site Facebook that on one ticker on the TV news this week controversial changes to the site were the second item after the slide in share values. Our regression to a second Stone Age is surely insignificant compared to that freaky new layout on Facebook.

It's certainly confirmation that almost by stealth Facebook has gone from being a novel way of tracking down old friends to becoming an integral way that we spend our time, or waste our time, depending on how you look at it.

But after a number of years the novelty is beginning to wear off and the seemingly inexplicable changes put into place by founder Mark Zuckerberg are getting on our nerves big time.

We woke up one day this week to an inexplicable and messy format in which a strange live update feature was going on in the top right hand corner and lots of anger about the changes was going on in the postings. By the end of the day a full scale Middle East style revolt was underway with punters threatening to jump ship en masse to Google +

In some ways this has an amusing aspect because nobody told us to open a Facebook account. It's not as if we voted Zuckerberg into the White House.

Zuckerberg has no obligation to Facebook users, yet citizens have been yelling about it like they're paying him to take away their trash and he's just announced he's cutting the service to one pickup a month.

But there are some good reasons to defriend Mr. Facebook. For a start his obsession with knowing more and more about us strikes me as a bit 1984, albeit Big Brother by consent. New features apparently will include a live update that will be able to stream all sorts of choices we make onto Facebook. An example given was all of the music we download could be streamed onto Facebook.

My first reaction to this was how dull. People post enough utter drivel consciously onto Facebook without the need for drivel to be updated subconsciously. Let's admit it. Who hasn't spent at least 10 minutes on Facebook looking at wedding photos or baby pictures of a complete stranger. Cue the obtrusive thought that most babies and brides look similar, particularly ones we don't know. Imaginary finger gun to the head for another 10 minutes of our lives wasted.

Do we really want to read that Jim Black from seventh grade, who we never really liked and never had anything in common with the last time we saw him - 27 years and five days ago - has just listened to You Can't Hurry Love by Phil Collins and is about to listen to some Lady Gaga?

Now I'm not really technically minded but I understand another of Mark's big ideas is a timeline log on everything we've done on Facebook in the last 12/24/48 months...whatever. Like we want to be reminded of that time we drank too much Sangria and wrote an status update, that nobody responded to, about our undying love for the cat.

Quite simply Mark has had his day because he seems to see Facebook as more than a social network - as a vehicle to take over the world; because all this increase in personal stuff out there is intended to appeal to advertisers rather than users and just because we have so many pseudo friends on Facebook that it's become boring.

There are plenty of other reasons to defriend Mark. For instance, he's a millionaire but he looks like he's 15-years-old; he's one of those annoying types of people who's brilliant at everything he does - classics, geekdom, fencing etc.

He dates a Chinese girl. That's not a reason to defriend him, of course. But apparently before the couple's first trip to China in 2010, Zuckerberg studied Mandarin Chinese every day before the trip to become fluent. Ironic, really, given that China's firewall bans Facebook.

It may be hard to warm to Zuckerberg but it will also be difficult to withdraw from his creation. Many of us in 2012 casually check out Facebook in the way we visit the water fountain. It's not fun but it's habit. And those other social networks can feel lonely in comparison.

It's probably time for radical change and the era of antisocial networking. On the antisocial network we have a limited number of friends and they are all uber grumpy. There's no "like" button but there's  "dislike" buttons for everything. And defriending is expected; defriending with abuse is better - until it gets to the point where we are just floating around in our own misanthropic network of one, disliking, muttering and grumbling in a cyber universe where nobody is listening. And there's a button for all of them.

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Reviving those steam train dreams


Steam trains; they run through our imaginations don't they? At least if you are from a certain generation when the generation before grew up with them. Our imaginations run with the Flying Scotsman, with the Mallard as it runs fast and linear over viaducts and the emptiness of the border hills; past hale people in windy villages who marvel at its prowess and wave their hats as it rushes by.

When we were kids we had train sets and we formed a lifelong bond with the claret of the London, Midland and Scottish Railway and the green of the Great Western, God's Wonderful Railway and the streams of vapour the locomotives left in the gentle hills of Devon.

Nothing bad ever happened when stream trains were around, except the displeasure of the Fat Controller. Nobody ever fought or threw up on a train and the world was full of infinite possibilities. You just has to ride the mainline to take them. Looking back the world of railways probably seemed that way because nothing bad happened in our childhoods and the sun always seemed to shine. And the cliche back in those days that every small boy wanted to be an engine driver held true.

Sure there were snakes in our Eden. When Yvonne's husband took us up to his attic to see his giant train set, we gloried in the locomotive rushing through the tunnels and the neat little station houses (never trust someone who spends so much time making small buildings from match sticks). There was something too intense in his gaze, a desperate and maniac glint that we picked up on in the split second it takes a signal to turn from amber to red, although we weren't to know he'd be smashing her skull around the dining room just hours after we departed.



But we had our trains to catch and to rush on to the next memory. On holiday we took the North Yorkshire Moors Railway to Pickering and the briars and the blackberries waved at us in the lee of the hills. So we drank tea as the afternoon shadows lengthened on the grassy banks of the castle. Of course, perfect days are a moment in time and a trick of the light. Later I saw films in which hulking great black stream trains rushed out of the snow like angry giants, garish great red stars on their tanks, to take the citizens of Moscow away to the Gulags and to starvation. And those trains in Germany and Poland that packed the people into trucks like cattle and locked the doors on their final trip to the ironbound place with the tower where the furnaces churned away through the night.



But back in those days I was shielded from the mean reality of the human spirit. Night trains were cozy places and the clickey click narrative of the sleepers lulled me to sleep and the promise of a fresh new morning under the wonderful crags and steeples of Edinburgh that seemed to soar into the weak and hopeful air.

So perhaps it was natural when we took the kids for a ride on the Kent and East Sussex Railway that we should seek to recreate a half remembered world of steam. It was easy enough in the recreated station buffet. Life usually feels better when you are eating. And the steam train bound to Bodiam Castle arrived on time.



But after less than 10 minutes of gentle pastoral fields, hedgerows and sheep it started to come apart at the seams. Jack Jax proved to be an uncontrollable ball of energy climbing over the table, and falling off and kicking and screaming. The only solution was Captain Chardonnay and Mr. Merlot and then some more. By the time we got to Bodiam Castle we were buzzing and barely able to make a straight line across the pretty downland to this picture postcard moated fortress that we found hard to bring into focus.



Remarkably we made it back to the return train but the Jackson nightmare resumed. By now the weather had turned cold, the fields had turned dull gray and the journey became a curse rather than a blessing. And a funny thing happened on this toytown line; suddenly a woman started screaing "help" and a man went rushing down the train. It seems an unhinged passenger had kicked the female steward in the leg just a few minutes outside Great Snoring Bottom, or somewhere to that effect.

It reminded me of the loss of my railway dreams many year earlier. Quite frankly it was like turning a page of one of the Rev. W Awdry's books to see the Fat Controller having a pee on Thomas the Tank Engine.

Monday, September 19, 2011

Back to the Dreaming Spires of Oxford



My series of blogs about my holiday to Britain was interrupted by events I couldn't ignore such as the 10th anniversary of 9/11 and generally my train of thought.

The sad fact is three weeks back into the daily grind it's as if I have never been away. My break seems like an unfathomable interlude or like a golden country only half remembered as viewed through a rain stained casement.

In Shadowlands, the Oxford academic CS Lewis dreams of escape to the Golden Valley on the misty hinterlands of Wales. But to me the Dreaming Spires of Oxford, as Matthew Arnold described the university skyline, always has a golden glow.



Oxford is about the past and while sadly I can't claim to have spent three years in this cloistered world, I had friends who went to Oxford. There were parties and bus trips and fleeting summer days on Christchurch meadow.

Still the Oxford that fires our imagination is from antiquity. Who could not read Brideshead and not want to be with Sebastian and Charles in this elite world of yesteryear? And as Brideshead takes a bleaker turn, the student pranks take on an enriched glow of a world half remembered that we can never go back to. It's a world away from the perfunctory reality of the Army that Charles finds himself in when he again sees the towers of Brideshead and two worlds away from Sebastian's sad decline into alcoholism and illness in a different country entirely.



It's the emotional intensity of Brideshead that, to my mind, makes it one of the best novels every written. It's that sense of love lost that can never be recaptured along with the recklessness of youth and those sunny days under the Dreaming Spires that we thought would never end.



But I could go back to Oxford and did, although negotiating its streets with the world's longest rental car, dubbed the Sausage Mobile, made driving into town a challenge. Parking is more so. We found a street but had to consider remortgaging our house to feed the meter.

Then there was the small matter of Zara's cousin James, who had come along for the ride, to add to the joy factor.

James had already endeared himself to me by declaring with the certainty of a five-year-old: "You are very old aren't you?

He followed this up by telling me. "You have a very large tummy."

We set out to find an authentic pub and, for once, were rather successful in this endeavor. It was called the Royal Oak and it was pleasant with the early afternoon sunshine slanting through the windows, even if this was hardly Brideshead Oxford.



Finally we headed into the city center but I was conscious of the time ticking away on the parking meter. Oxford gets a bad press sometimes but there are few experiences better than losing yourself down mellow lanes of Cotswold stone and wandering around the lawns of the colleges; in this case St John's that amazed with its cloistered elegance and intricate architecture. It looked far too ornate for anyone to study here.

Keeping the clock tower of Christchurch, the college where the rich and famous send their offspring, in sight we headed down the main street. But then disaster struck in the form of a shopping center, and I found myself sidelined with time running out on the meter, in the sort of mall that could be found anywhere in the world.



After a costly detour I prevailed, but spirits were lagging all round. By the time we reached Christchurch Meadow, a chorus of whining had replaced any enthusiasm showed earlier. As we trudged towards Magdalen College, I gave up on the idea of walking across the fields to see the classic view of the skyline.

Soon Zara and James were falling out over James' habit of going through gates first and Jax was wriggling around and hurling his sippy cup at middle aged dames. The excursion across the meadow seemed to be taking us in the wrong direction. At this point James announced his need for a "number two."



In the space of about 40 minutes to Dreaming Spires had become the Bleeding Nightmare. Fortunately we found a coffee bar and I went outside to take some photographs while we waited for the coffee to arrive. This turned out to be a mistake because James was shouting across the coffee bar from the toilet "Uncle David, Uncle David."

My wife urged me to make haste to the bathroom because a group of old, learned and sour faced gentlemen were looking clinically unamused.

"What is it James?"

"I need someone to wipe my bottom."

"Oh God."

Later we made a route march back to the car. The parking meter had long since expired and we passed some of the most beautiful streets of Oxford in the late afternoon sunshine. Walking down these cobbled streets past the Radcliffe Camera and the Sheldonian Theatre, it becomes apparent that Oxford in places is every bit as pretty as Paris or Sienna.



Miraculously there was no parking ticket on the car. That happened two days later. And James continued to amuse as he projected his privileged lifestyle without even realizing it.

"So when you are grown up who will do the cleaning and cooking, James?"

"The Mummy."

"And the garden?"

"The gardener."

And after a series of private schools, he'll probably one day end up gazing up at the Dreaming Spires, en route to a merchant bank and long hours, before the dream fades like the Oxford of Sebastian and Charles and he wakes up in a pinstriped suit and the micro meal in the dog.



But I never had Oxford so it's not there for me to lose. Its squares and cobbled streets will never remind me of lost love or lost youth. I can return and catch glimpses and see it as an outsider would. Tourists are often derided but there's something to be said for being a tourist from time to time.

Friday, September 16, 2011

Adam and Eve and all that stuff



I admit God passed me by for most of my life, although I went along to confirmation classes to get a sup of  wine underage on a Sunday and joined the church choir because I had the hots for a girl called Cheryl; someone has to have the hots for a girl with the same name as one of the singers in Buck's Fizz.

I've spent most of the rest of my life with a skepticism for religion which all the threats to the well being of my soul have failed to quench. For a start hanging out with all those horny devils down below and having a BBQ every night sounds like more fun than lounging around on a cloud all day with a giant harp.

So when my daughter recently developed an interest in the Bible; coincidentally after a few too many summer school classes at church play groups, I was somewhat disconcerted at first.

But finally I got into reading the Bible to her at night; not because I'm about to see the light and start spouting off about how we should divorce people with Alzheimer's. Rather because there was actually some interesting stuff in there and I missed many of the nuances in a younger life.

We started at the beginning, of course. God created the universe etc. I had previously missed the fact that no sooner had God created man than he charged him with naming all the animal and birds. Now I'm not being funny but if someone had just thrown me together from a few handfuls of earth and he charged me with naming all the animal and birds, I'd be somewhat pissed.

There are 5,490 species of animals alone and 9,998 birds. That's before we even get to amphibians and reptiles. Fish remain a grey area; there are 31,300 of those. To give this task to one man strikes me as the most unfair kind of delegation. You wouldn't even have time to enjoy the Garden of Eden, let alone chomp on apples from the forbidden tree.

If this wasn't enough God ripped out one of Adam's ribs while he was sleeping and whipped it into a woman. Nowhere in the bible does it say if this was a spare rib or if Adam really wanted his rib morphed into a chick. On the second day Eve whipped up a list and instructed him to load the dish washer and take out the garbage.

There's also rather an ungallant moment that I picked up on my latest reading of Genesis. When God came over all angry about the apple stealing incident Adam said something to the effect of: "It wasn't me guv - that chick you put down here gave me the apple and I ate it."

OK then there's some stuff about snakes being somewhat badass and God making them eat dust for eternity, that and the occasional Indian villager. And women, the Bible says, will always hate snakes. I have actually dated women who hate snakes. In saying that I know women who hate spiders and rate and the Bible doesn't have much to say about them.

Anyhow God said to the woman after that small misunderstanding with the apple: " I will increase your trouble in pregnancy and your pain in giving birth. In spite of this you will still have desire for your husband, yet you will be subject to him."

Run those last six words by me again.

By this stage I am getting somewhat freaked out because it has become clear to me my daughter can recite whole passages from Genesis almost flawlessly, whereas I can't even recite what I had for breakfast.

So God sent Adam out of the Garden of Eden and made him cultivate the soil from which he had been formed, which is a rather disconcerting idea. Then Adam and Eve had two sons, Cain and Abel. Cain offered his harvest to God and Abel offered the best part of his sheep.

But while God gave Abel positive reinforcement he rejected Cain's offering, leading Cain to kill Abel. Now I'm getting into it at this point because it occurs to me that while I have always known that Cain killed his brother, I never really knew why; and to be honest God should have know better than to show favoritism in my humble opinion. Not that it in any way excuses killing one's brother. I did once feel like killing my brother after he developed anal tendencies when I dropped crumbs in his new car, but in reality it wouldn't have gone further than a quick punch in the side.

Needless to say Cain is even less popular with God after the killing and he is banished to the East of Eden in a land called "Wandering" to toil in some even less prepossessing soil and come up with the names of the animals Adam left off the list; like the duck billed platypus, for example.

Then Cain and his wife had a son and named him Enoch, in anticipation of rivers of blood, perhaps. And then..

Hang on. You don't need to be Columbo to have a 'just one more thing' moment at this juncture. If Adam and Eve had just two sons where exactly did Cain's conveniently unnamed wife come from?

Sign me up to Bible studies, baby.

Now I'm getting a guilt trip, no doubt followed by a freak bolt of lightning that will hit me in bed. What if my posting leads me to lose another follower after the mystery person who unfollowed me last week? And I turn to the front page of the Bible and see an inscription from Proverbs written by a Sunday school teacher called Barbara who I have a vague gray and bespectacled memory of. It's from 1981. The poor woman is surely dead now and she would rest uneasy in her grave at my many blasphemies.

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

7x7 Awards


Tim Riley at Life of Riles was kind enough to include me in the 7x7 awards. I was tardy in responding but appreciate the inclusion. Come to think of it I believe Tim was responsible for the only other award I’ve ever received but I’m OK with that because I don’t really understand award ‘etiquette’.

Here’s how it works – list your top blogs under these categories and then pass the award on to seven others.

Most Beautiful: Stars in the Sahara may have been the most beautiful or maybe just the saddest – Stars in the Sahara

Most Helpful: I'm not sure much in my blog will help anyone make sense of anything but at least The Origins of Hookers is helpful in explaining, err, um - the origins of hookers.

Most Popular: This one is a no brainer. I hate to admit it but Who or What is Justin Bieber? has attracted 21,159 page views. But who’s counting?

Most Controversial: It’s hard to come up with one as quite a few of my blogs have the odd controversial line - maybe anything to do with Mel Gibson - this one was so controversial it attracted a single comment.

Most Surprisingly Successful: I whipped out rather a lot of blogs during the A-Z Challenge, I have been surprised at the number of hits I keep receiving for I is for Island.

Most Underrated: It received a lot of comments but not so many hits – maybe James Joyce and a Stream of Doritos, my attempt at stream of consciousness was one of my more underrated blogs..

Most Prideworthy: I’m probably guilty of not using enough pictures of the fam. In my blogs – so I’m proud of Libertines, West Wycombe Park and Austenland. – although there’s some prejudice, too.

And now, with the gravity of a church pastor who passes the communion chalice to his flock, I pass this on to seven more outstanding bloggers. This is a rather arbitrary process as all of the bloggers I follow are rather outstanding….



I Know, Right

Life By Chocolate

Dribble from the Quill

Scotland Here and Now

Happy Frog and I

Dancing with Daisy

Nubian

Saturday, September 10, 2011

A very dead day for news


September 11 is to my generation what the assassination of JFK was to the previous one. We all remember what we were doing on September 11, 2001.

I recall being in an interview with Press Association; I wanted a job, the news editor didn't seem to want to give me one; the power was all his and I didn't get a job. I got bought off with a promise of work experience.

Meanwhile out there in the big world beyond my crushed ego America seemed to have all the power and the tall buildings. But something very strange and sinister was about to happen out of a beautiful blue sky.

"It's a very dead news day," the news editor told me. As he uttered those words the first jet was already moments away from crashing into the North Tower.

This was American Airlines Flight 11, a Boeing 767-223 with a capacity for 158 passengers with 92 on board, that had left Boston's Logan International Airport at 7.59 a.m. At 8:49 a.m. it crashed into the North Tower. It's hard to imagine the terror on board a flight of passengers who had only recently woken up to realize their lives were going to end. There was no time even for a final coffee and even if they had time to realize they were going to be forever a part of history, the thought would have been scant recompense for losing their lives in such a callous way.

I took the tube back to Bank where my wife to be was working at the offices of a Canadian company at the same time as the men in red scarves were terrorising two flights with razor blades. She wasn't my wife at that point. I can't recall if my divorce papers had come through but by a quirky trick of fate 9/11 was our wedding anniversary. I don't recall much about my former wife now, although I remember her bra size.

At Leadenhall Market I noticed a large crowd of people in a bar around a TV set. I assumed they were watching cricket, although I had no logical reason to make this assumption.

Leadenhall Market always made me think of Rory, a character who worked with my wife with a curious faux Italian accent that made him sound retarded. "Fishmooonger," he'd say, drawing out the vowels. He's show his dedication to his wife by buying expensive fish from the market. However, he'd undermine it somewhat by boasting about Rachel, a "gorgeous" woman from his gym who he was having an affair with.

When Rory's wife found out he ended up with a lamp wrapped round his head. It was somewhat fitting as I believe he came from Milan where the models would wear hats that looked like Rory's accident.

But when we entered the office Rory didn't want to boast about being a sex god with a funny accent. He seemed agitated.

"Two planes have flown into the World Trade Center and a tower has fallen down," he blurted.

"No way." Frankly we didn't believe him but nor was this the sort of thing you'd make up.

So I listened to the radio as the South Tower fell. And I found a TV to watch New York wrapped in smoke. And I shuddered and felt chilled to the core because less than two years earlier I had been up in the Windows of the World and on the roof of the World Trade Center that was so much higher than anything around. And I had thought at the time there could be nothing more terrifying than jumping from those towers, that looked onto the roofs of skyscrapers far below.

But people did.

We spent much of the day trying to talk to relatives in America. But the lack of phone lines added to the feeling of Armageddon. And there was still a hijacked plane up there.

I'm not sure if I can see the bigger picture of 9/11. Did it mark the turning point in America's future and the beginning of a long decline? Or did it mark the moment that America woke up and united again.? Ironically it may have marked the moment the fortunes of the extremists also turned because people abhorred the horror of this day. The Battle of Little Big Horn may have been Sitting Bull's finest hour but it also sealed his fate.

I don't really know the answer to this question but I know it marked the day when the Medieval savagery of Kabul and Mogadishu came to downtown New York. Out on the streets of the Square Mile people cringed at the sight of airplanes flying low overhead and groups of people hugged and wept in the street. Many of those big corporations in the center of London had offices in the Twin Towers.

I was glued to the TV but the events took on an air of unreality toward the evening. My thoughts strayed, I had a couple of beers and it was as if 9/11 had never happened. On the tube I even found myself in a jocular mood.

Then a complete stranger informed me I was annoying him and suggested I stepped out for a fight. The terror would come to the Underground too and when it did it was a lot more awful than a guy seeking a flight.

For me 9/11 was the start of a new climate of fear although history can teach us this is nothing new. But I started to get used to that sickening feeling of horrified fascinaton with the news from Madrid, London, New York, Bali, Egypt or Mumbai. 9/11 is confirmation that our cosy notions of civilisation exist only to a point; it's confirmation that the unexpected can happen and there's an inexplicable darkness in the human soul that may take us by surprise when it bursts out of a clear blue September morning.

Tuesday, September 6, 2011

Libertines, West Wycombe Park and Austenland


Summers in Austenland are strange and confusing. No sooner had we passed the temples at West Wycombe Park in the heart of England than a fairground hove into view in the fickle early afternoon sunshine.

Zara has an inbuilt device that hones into bouncy castles. “Bouncy castle, bouncy castle,” she yelled before the inflatable turrets had even revealed themselves above the trees. Soon we saw the fairground in all its glory. Boats with the necks of swans were drawn up in the lake and a merry-go-round turned slowly in front of the fa├žade of West Wycombe House. Pink streamers flew from pink chairs on the hillside. In short everything was pink, which happens to be Zara’s favorite color.



But this pink dream started to unravel before our eyes as we walked up the hill towards the house. Soon it became clear this was not a working fairground but a film set. In other words here was a bouncy castle that was not for bouncing on. In the world of a six-year-old this is the equivalent of presenting a child with a large bar of sparking candy and whipping it away. In most circumstances the whole day would have dissolved into a flood of tears. Fortunately, we had also taken Zara’s cousin James along, and she didn’t want to be seen in fully fledged strop mode in front of her cousin.

We breezed through the fun fair and asked a man dressed in period costume about the movie. It was apparently called Austenland and starred the hairdresser from Legally Blonde. I may be naive and out of the loop but this didn’t sound like an advertisement for an A-list movie. I was hoping he’d at least have said Kate Winslet or Helena Bonham Carter – I’d have settled for Meg Ryan, to be honest. Further research suggests he may have been referring to Jennifer Coolidge whose breakthrough was in American Pie (oh dear).



I would have been slightly more impressed had he mentioned Keri Russell who has won a golden globe and is also in the movie and Jane Seymore, who I have heard of.

The plot of the romantic comedy revolves around a 30-something, single woman who is obsessed by Mr. Darcy-as played by Colin Firth in the BBC adaptation of Pride and Prejudice. She decides to spend her life savings on a trip to an English resort catering to Austen-crazed women.

(pause for Jane Austen to perform a few dozen somersaults in her grave).

Ironically the past of West Wycombe hall probably provides a better plot that this movie. It was built in the 18th century by the notorious libertine Sir Francis Dashwood. It was built in an era when rich young men, known as dilettante returned from an almost obligatory Grand Tour and realized Italy was so much better than England in the rain. They would then set about getting second rate Italian artists to recreate the ceiling of the Sistine chapel back at home and filling the grounds with as many faux Roman temples as they could hold; presumably so as they could smoke as much opium as they could get their hands on and pretend they were back in Tuscany.



(Why does smoking opium always sound a lot more exotic and innocent than "taking heroin?")

Dashwood, who shows up in one portrait in a funny turban with a large glass of claret in his hand, appears to have been a fun kind of guy.

"Sir Francis Dashwood built West Wycombe to entertain, and there has been much speculation on the kind of entertainment he provided for his guests. Judged against the sexual moral of the late 18th century, Dashwood and his clique were regarded as promiscuous; while it is likely that the contemporary reports of the bacchanalian orgies over which Dashwood presided in the Hellfire caves above West Wycombe were exaggerated, free love and heavy drinking did take place there,” Wikipedia states.



Strangely enough the wizened old guide who gave us a tour of the house, neglected to mention sex once, although she was horrified to find some props from Austenland peppered around the house including a furry pink telephone.

“I, gosh… I’ve never seen anything like this,” she complained picking up the telephone with the air of a nun who has just pulled a large vibrator out of her wimple.



When I visit National Trust properties In usually get more pleasure from the grounds than the house itself and this was certainly the case at West Wycombe park, although five-year-old James was starting to get a big frisky for my linking.



“Can I kiss you?” he asked Zara in the Temple of Venus, only to be met with a scowl. There had been too many dubious goings on at the Temple of Venus in the past for my liking. It might not be allowed in Austenland but as soon as I got back to America, I realized I might have to take advantage of the Second Amendment.

Saturday, September 3, 2011

When you are tired of London



London wasn't a homecoming because it never felt like home. I grew up in the provinces and we looked at London is if it was some gigantic blood sucking spider which you never drove into, let alone lived in.

My parents had no interest in London but I was lured to visit by the sheer scale of the place, the numerous places of interest, the beautiful people and the in-crowd feel that attracted but ultimately served to remind me I was an outsider.



Still I could relate to those young kids who ran away from their homes in bleak northern towns, only to end up in the blighted streets around King's Cross.

I never ran away but I moved there eventually and sometimes I wished I had stayed longer.

Now years later I was back, adopting the guise of a visitor, trying my best to do the objective thing of ticking off the sights. The first thing that struck me taking the train in from Kent, apart from the high fare, was the closeness of this great metropolis to the country. Rather than a smooth transition, I found myself looking out over rolling fields unchanged for centuries at one station, and bleak concrete flats looking over sickly strips of grass at the next.



But London really is different from anywhere else in England. It has its own smell and feel. There are gray/green railway bridges, tube station signs and dozens of city villages with cramped homes backing onto graffiti strewn railyards that sell for the equivalent of $500,000. The are upscale restaurants on even the most unprepossessing high street and beggars walking ragged dogs dogs on strings just a few yards away on the pavement.

Being a tourist is daunting because there's far too much to see. I headed for Southwark Cathedral first. I'm not sure why - maybe because it's the least known cathedral. Southwark tube station was a good bet but I was unable to find it initially. I headed to the Oxo tower which has become a precinct full of the most upmarket boutique stores imaginable. These outlets were so trendy, they seemed to defy the notion of a country in the grip of a recession. I avoided going inside to ask directions because I knew I would be sneered at.

The Oxo tower boasted an upscale roof terrace and a sign to a public viewing gallery. I got in the elevator for the top floor only to meet the gaze of a well coiffured gentleman in an Armani suit, who seemed alarmed to hear I was also going up to the restaurant floor.

Once on the top floor I inquired about the gallery and was haughtily ushered to a small platform past curious dinners spending more than $100 a head for lunch who had probably never seen anyone using the gallery before.

From here I walked the south bank where a soaring glass shard is rising up into the ever changing London skies. Just a few streets south of here the store fronts get meaner and the high rise estates that helped spawn the recent riots appear. But the south bank teems with business people in expensive suits and overseas visitors flitting from one attraction to another. When I finally found Southwark Cathedral it seemed diminished, hidden and overwhelmed by the tall buildings around it. While the Globe Theatre and the Tate were marked with numerous signs, the church was hardly recognized.



I did the whistlestop thing; I took in the Tate Modern but the heat seemed oppressive and I quit after one gallery.



After walking round a vast pile of porcelain sunflower seeds by the Chinese artist i Weiwei, I felt this was as far as I could go.



The work is said to refer to hunger because sunflower seeds were a staple during the Cultural Revolution. Chairman Mao is also said to have referred to himself as a sunflower, and his people as the many scattered seeds.

London can also feel like a vast multifaceted sunflower at times that shines brighter than the rest of the country around it.

By the time I reached Trafalgar Square, passing a group of frighteningly hairy ladies on Whitehall, I had just about had enough of tourist London.



I have always found Trafalgar Square ungainly and forced as if it's trying too hard to be a great world space. Like Paris' Place de la Concorde it's ungainly and pompous. Far more satisfying are quiet and elegant public spaces like the Place de Vosges.



Trafalgar Square was also packed with performers and groups of young people babbling away in a dozen different languages. Surprisingly it gained a certain grace through the camera lens.


Fighting off my fatigue I headed into the National Gallery but crashed out despondent on a bench in front of Stubbs' iconic horse Whistlejacket and watched museum staff berate Italian visitors who were violating the "no photography" rule.



I realized if I didn't get out of the gallery and immerse myself in a warm beer I would probably keel over at the magnificent hoofs of Whistlejacket.

"When a man is tired of London, he is tired of life; for there is in London all that life can afford," Samuel Johnson once said.



I looked around at all of the young people packed onto the Tube and started to wonder. I wondered how I endured the heat and the crowds. And I wondered if I had missed the big picture from time to time by enduring London rather than living it.