Monday, December 22, 2014

Have a Hairy Christmas Everyone

So 2014 is coming to a close and it's time to execute my cunning concealment plan. Soon I will be in my new manifestation as a taxi driver called Mehmet with a plastic super hero filled with incense on the dashboard and a Persian rug in the back.

Facial hair is a funny thing and there is nothing as strange as the furry rat under the nose, otherwise known as the moustache, caterpiller, lip foliage, nose bug etc. If you think about it the moustache is a strange contradiction. Relentless warlords such as General Kitchener sported one to demonstrate his awaesome masculinity as did evil dictators Adolf Hitler, Joseph Stalin and Saddam Hussein. However, moustaches can work both ways - there was nothing particularly dictatorlike or manly about the  guys in Village People with the handlebars and the leather hats.

My uncle who was the rebel of the family also had a moustache, as well as a bright yellow Ford Capri. Both were consigned to the 1970s.

My own experience with facial growth has been limited. I tried to grow a moustache when I was about 17 but it was a flimsy kind of half-hearted affair. It didn't help that I weighted about 120 pounds so it was shaved off when people made the inevitable comparison with Mickey in Only Fools and Horses.

I have chosen to live for the next few decades cleanly shaven - until now....

Wednesday, December 10, 2014

Kim Kardashian's Backside - a Dubious Cultural Icon?

To get over the morose tone of my last blog post I thought I would write about something more light hearted and totally ridiculous - Kim Kardashian's backside.

The first thing we should know about Kim is she's not a real person. A recent interview in a magazine revealed she looks exactly the same in real life as she does on TV.

However. she's a bit smaller than you imagine. This does not surprise me because most celebs are. I once met Angelina Jolie and thought somebody must have shrunk her pre-interview.

Papermag said of Kim she is smaller than she appears in image "with tiny, almost doll-like ears and feet and hands." It describes her bambi-like hands, eyelashes like feather dusters and compares her to a "beautiful anime character come to life."

The exception here is probably her ass which is about the size of West Virginia. I digress.

However, Paper appeared to be saying nice things about her. Anyone would have thought she had just agreed to take off her clothes on their cover.

Kim recently appeared on the cover o revealing her famous backside although it was curiously shiny, reminding me of those conkers we would buff up back in the day before going out to do battle with other conkers in the playground. Although it would be difficult to say anything profound about Kim's over-exposed bottom, a number of media organizations did, suggesting it might be a cultural icon.

The BBC reported a discussion thus.

"Amid the jokes, there has also been a serious discussion about whether the image plays on crude stereotypes of black women. Kardashian is Armenian-American. The French photographer who took this picture, Jean-Paul Goude, is also known for his work featuring black women, including a shot from the 1970s that features a remarkably similar pose to Kardashian's photo. That has led some claim that there is a racial subtext around these images. A blog to this effect, entitled 'Kim Kardashian doesn't realise she's the butt of an old racial joke' has been liked more than 36,000 times on Facebook."

The other odd thing about Kim is it's hard to think of her as a real person. The more exposure she gets, the more you end up thinking why is she getting all of this exposure. I had a moth eaten old sofa that was more interesting ... but then I suppose I'm the one writing about her. Gah.

Monday, December 8, 2014

December Existentialism

There is a reason why someone out there took the dark and mysterious pagan festivals in the middle of winter and wove them with the Christian ones to create Christmas.

Just pause for a minute to think of December without Christmas, of a month as bare as the trees and a pale wind that whips through your bones. Then imagine no holiday, no turkey stuffing or presents and no chance for a good family fight.

Normally by about now a great existential crisis sweeps over me and this December is no exception. I am going through the motions. I am competent but the great ideas were left behind in some warm haze. In middle age even the lures of clandestine meetings and warm contact is dulled. I think of the glassy eyes of professors from so long ago, of how their great writings were so at odds with their wretched spirits.

Perhaps too they realized the leaden nature of December and the inconsequential nature of the layer of glitter on the foul smelling grey shore lapped by the river. Ha - for this is no Victoria Falls or mighty Amazon, but a brackish river that flows behind the identikit houses. One day years ago an engineer looked proudly on at his dull retention pound behind the gleaming roofs of the homes that are now discolored with age. The engineer is long gone, his obscure name occupying a small plaque on a bench where the kids smoke joints and feel each other up.

Still I wonder about our bench and if you ever think of it and occasionally on the footpath I stop to look at the cool inland waterway and the back yards, with my hand resting on its back. Then I think about dialing the number but your name in the directory gives me pinpricks and I put my phone away.

Instead I go on and the pattern becomes a to and a fro, an in and an out, through the tunnel and into the city with a quick glance at the cranes and back again. And beauty and its pale thin curves fall further away from my mind as if I am recalling someone else's life. Still I think of a gold dome and the thin blue sea and the smell of the lemon grove on the cliffs. Then I imagine myself a specter among the lemons suddenly light and free of December.

Thursday, November 27, 2014

Five Quirky Facts About Thanksgiving

Collective groan. It's that weird holiday I don't understand again when people do that turkey thing a month before Christmas - just because. Don't get me wrong. I can understand July 4. I even celebrate it. We escaped home out of the mosquito-ridden swamps to get some decent tea. But what's with Thanksgiving?

Still, at some point in the early afternoon I'll be invited over to the ex's to be quizzed on the whereabouts of the turkey and reminded about how I forgot to buy rice crackers in July, 2013. I will then be forced to point in the direction of the 40 pound cat.

Nope - thought not

If you want to know more about the historical roots of Thanksgiving you can read my blog Why I'm Still Feeling Queasy after Thanksgiving.

If you can't be bothered here are Five Quirky Facts about Thanksgiving...

1 Hundreds of Thanksgiving days were observed in New England in the 17th Century. Only one church record refers to a feast and there is no further record of a feast for 150 years. Stop stuffing yourselves people - it's historically inaccurate.

2 Although pumpkins have their origin in the New World the first recipe for pumpkin pie appeared in a British naaaaa

3 Sarah Josepha Hale is credited with making Thanksgiving a national holiday. In the days of slavery she believed the holiday would break down America's sectarian tensions - a move that has clearly worked perfectly. She was one of the first women to write a novel and is credited with the verse Mary Had a Little Lamb But She Ate Her Pet Turkey Instead.

4 In 1835 the doctor William Alcott wrote that he was opposed to Thanksgiving on moral reasons as well as medical reasons, lambasting it as a carnival loaded with luxuries. He was also a vegetarian.  if he were alive today he would probably be breaking out the Ramen Noodles - just not the chicken flavored ones.

5 The most famous Thanksgiving poem was written by Lydia Maria Child. It's called "The Boy's Thanksgiving Song" and is best known by it's first line "Over the river and thro' the wood." Nope - sorry - never heard of it but will probably be heading for the woods by 6 pm.

Friday, November 14, 2014

Bill Cosby - American Icon. Rapist?

I haven't worked in marketing for long but long enough to have started waving a red flag at the notion of Bill Cosby's latest Twitter campaign. I don't always do these things as forcibly as should so I would probably be standing meekly at the back of the Cosby suite, waving a small red flag and mouthing the word 'no.'

But it would certainly have been red. Not even remotely orange.

So here's a man who has been accused of a number of  rapes. Oh well then - let's invite people to form a meme campaign around his glittering, sublime, oh so funny, and not in the slightest bit scary date raping personality (allegedly etc).

The results were a bit predictable...

Although this post is in a semi lighthearted vein there's nothing funny about the accusations leveled against Cosby. They date back to the 1970s but only now are they gathering momentum. One of his alleged victims Barbara Bowman claims Cosby drugged her and raped her.

The episode makes me think of Sir Jimmy Savile and anything that makes me think of Sir Jimmy Savile is not good. The famous British DJ and TV host was lauded as a character while he was alive. The stories about little girls were laughed off. Sir Jimmy was influential and did lots of good work for charity. After the death of the venerable Sir Jimmy, the lavish commemorations and the commissioning of statutes of the great man, those allegations of sexual abuse came into the open. It was later revealed that Sir Jimmy had sexually assaulted hundreds of victims of both sexes from the ages of 5 to 75. Sir Jimmy's tawdry soul got away with it because he was a star.

I'm not equating Cosby's alleged acts with those of Sir Jimmy who may have been one of Britain's most prolific sex offenders. But there is a certainly a similarity in the willingness of the establishment to turn a blind eye.

Thursday, November 13, 2014

I Miss Our Little Talks

I have always loved this song because I miss our little talks by Of Monsters and Men. Even when I first came across it I knew a time would come when I would miss our little talks.

I also loved the song because of the feeling of northern solitude it gave me; it make me think of Beowulf and the frigid forests of Scandinavia. It made me think of lands where monsters came out of the mists. It made me think of the fearsome Norse Gods and the long ships on the freezing waves. It makes me want to drive to the nearest IKEA and to buy a van full of uncomfortable beds called Bjorack, or something of the like.

I miss our little talks but know now I was shielding myself from a truism - namely that the heart isn't a coherent whole. It can be divided into many pieces, each one attractive enough and shining like pale glass on the beaches of a fjord on a bright morning, but ultimately as illusive as the sun in these rarified northern climes.

It's a great song whatever you read into it...

Sunday, November 9, 2014

The Sirhowy Arms Hotel Cannibal and the Map of Love

When I read about Matthew Williams who attacked and ate a woman at the former Sirhowy Arms Hotel in Argoed, Blackwood, I was forced to pull up a Google map.

Where in the world was Argoed and how could such an unsettling thing have happened? The news reports pointed to somewhere in Wales. The former Sirhowy Arms Hotel was now a halfway house for homeless people. I had written about such places in sleepy communities across Britain back in the day. Local people never wanted them on their doorstep, thinking they would encourage undesirables. The normal reaction was to label such folks NIMBYS (Not in My Back Yard) but some of the elderly residents of Argoed, may have had a fair point after Williams' sickening attack on a woman he appeared to had a relationship with.

Some locals said the halfway house had been the source of trouble. "We's even had people sleeping rough overnight in the hedgerows," said one villager. I was a bit perplexed by that comment as sleeping rough in a hedge did not seem to be up there with cannibalism.

The Brecon Beacons

In my efforts to find out where this had happened, I pulled up the map and expanded it. The familiar shapes of the Welsh valleys came to me and Cardiff and the majestic River Severn. It was close to the place I had grown up and I was surprised by the feeling of homesickness that swept over me. I remembered that gray day, when the water was as a gray as the milky sky and the mud lapped on the Severn and we pulled a mighty fossil from the river bank, the mud lapping on our shoes. The ammonite fossil was a relic from a prehistoric sea that had lapped here long ago millions of years before Gloucester was the great strategic crossing of the Severn.

I had never thought of Gloucester as a lovable place but slowly it unfolded in the map of love. When I grew up in Gloucester it has lost the strategic significance it had in Roman times when two roads crossed at The Cross, In Medieval times a vast cathedral had risen in Gloucester but it seemed out of place back in the days when I wandered through the avenues of quietly crumbling half timbered buildings past the largest expanse of stained glass in Europe.

The serrated green lines to the north of Blackwood marked the Brecon Beacons, where majestic hills rose like a whale with a smooth back. To climb up their expanse on a sunny day was to ascend to heaven and to look down on a lake like a mirror. The long contours of the mountain range proved to be a map of love and hate. On a day when the mist hug heavy over the mountains I had ascended into the dankness with V. hoping the breathless heights would revitalize our relationship, only to be met with a litany of complaining and the inevitable downward descent.

Llanthony Priory

But to the east the map proved to be more sunny. I saw the Black Mountains and the ruins of Llanthony Priory, one of the prettiest places in all of Christiandom. The memories came flickering back - a smile and a sea of purple flowers winding away to the high hills.

Then I thought of the Golden Valley and how we had woken to see the mist drifting down the river. We had made a pilgrimage here after seeing the movie Shadowlands. The Goilden Valley proved to be illusive and beautiful in an understated way associated with places off the beaten track. We drove through small villages and ate in stone pubs and heard the lilting accents of Wales just over the border. The land of song and dizzy heights.

Raglan Castle

Then we drove along the border past the savage ruins of castles that marked the days when this place was the Gaza Strip of its age. When you walk through the old gatehouses and see the holes where burning hot ash was dropped on attackers, you feel a chill even on the warmest of days.

Perhaps the map of love is not so far removed from hate and cannibalism - the flip side of the human condition that we don't want to contemplate.

Tuesday, October 28, 2014

The Sinister Clowns that are Haunting our Towns

A few stories in the news have  reminded me again of a great universal truth that far too few people admit to themselves, namely...


There. I said it. I'm not sure who ever thought men dressed in bulbous shoes with big noses, wild hair and squirty flowers would ever be funny, but he was no doubt demented. Still we are lulled into believing this great lie; we are taken to circuses and encouraged to laugh at the clowns until we wet ourselves (well when we are infants anyhow).

We have a fixed smile even though deep inside we are feeling uneasy not to mention queasy. We turn to our parents, unsure, questioning how such macabre creatures can really be our happy friends, and they turn to us, smiling and clapping and thus perpetrating the great lie that has been passed down from generation to generation - namely that clowns are jovial and funny.

Recently reports of fake clowns engaging in acts of violence in France have undermined the faux feelgood feeling clowns were supposed to give us.

ABC reported on how pranksters dressed as evil clowns have turned up in French cities, some armed with knives, guns and baseball bats. It's part of a trend that started in California a few weeks ago in which scary clowns spooked passersby.

Now the World Clown Association is concerned the trend is giving clowns a bad rap. "People dressed as horror clowns are not real clowns," pointed out president elect Randy Christensen.

This is true unless you believe real clowns are horrific and many people do. There's even a word for a fear of clowns. It's Coulrophobia. Clowns even have their own serial killer, and not a very nice one at that; although, by their nature, serial killers don't tend to be pleasant.

Pogo the clown

Nevertheless, John Wayne Gacy was prolific even for a serial killer. The "killer clown" murdered at least 33 young men and boys. Gacy would dress as "Pogo the clown" - a character he devised himself - at children's parties and charity fundraisers.

Makes me glad we only had lame magicians at children's parties when I was growing up.

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

The Earth Hole

I spent weeks wondering how he did it. The earth in Greg's garden was smooth and a lustrous red. The summer rain washed over it and it failed to lose its coherence. That summer we went to work with our shovels and dug deep into the slick loam behind his house. We carved out a a snug den with a side tunnel that led into it, smoothed out as if some gigantic worm had gone to work on the structure.

The bridge above the side tunnel held strong and the tunnel because a shoot that we could use to slide into the main den. It was one of the most perfect things I had seen in my four years on the earth.

On a chilly day a month later I set out to emulate Greg's hole at the foot of my garden. The clouds were moving fast across the suburban sky, threatening rain. I was alone as my spade bit the thin soil. The earth here was very different from Greg's. It was flimsy and ashen and whenever I dug a clear, clean hole, the soil fell back into it. I thought of the bitter smell of ash in my grandparents yard in Glasgow. A shrubby wasteland fell away to the hedge behind me where the foxes had killed a pet rabbit the previous year.

The stubborn earth coated my clothes and mocked my efforts to tame it. However deep I dug, the earth fell in again. My hole was going to be nowhere as big and deep as Greg's. My attempts as a side tunnel were useless. I looked into the dark heart of the earth and lost all hope. Then the rain started to fall on my face, sending rivulets of mud running into my hole. I looked at the last bright gap in the sky and a hatred of Greg grew in my heart. I started to question the whole basis of our friendship which was forged when I found him eating out privet hedge and invited me into my back garden to strip big chucks off the Mountain Ash tree.

Two weeks later Greg was howling in pain with the bicycle chain trapped in his fingers. I didn't do it but I remember seeing the accident as it was about to happen in slow motion. The reflex that usually urged me to shout out deserted me.

Our friendship failed to last the rest of that fitful summer.

Saturday, October 4, 2014

James River State Park in the Fall of 2014

When your life is fragmented, you pay more attention to the pieces. A uniform mirror presents an unremarkable surface. When it's broken the pieces glitter more brightly at sun down.

When you get older you pay more attention to the moments. In your mind you can see an imaginary egg timer and each one of those grains of sand you were so careless about in your youth, now seems worth re-examining. The voice from the end of Trainspotting urges you to "choose life."

Yet there are so many pressures to do otherwise. There are so many codes and so many ways we stop kids from being kids. There are so many fetters to the free spirit, so many restrictions  on how we should let the breeze fall on our faces.

Recently I took the kids camping to James River State Park. On so many occasions, all of the practicalities have overwhelmed me and I have given up, just one click away from booking. This time I went through with it and almost four hours later the undulating foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains were opening up before us.

The camp site was primitive - which means there are no showers and the toilets are holes in the ground. In other words only places you frequent in case of a serious emergency. But the site itself was gorgeous, a grassy meadow beside the James River. We put up the tent but still the infernal demons returned from time to time. Why give the kid a hard time for dropping wrappers? Why stress about where I was going to get 12 chunky batteries for the mega light?

I put the infernal demons to one side and we set out on a path beside the river. The sky was high and drifting and the crickets sang in the marshes. The corners of the river were coiling slowly and turning brown with fall, but the succulence of the summer was still heavy in the fields. Finally the pettiness and petulance was ebbing away from me in the vast beating heart of nature.

At night we started a fire. It did not matter that the hamburgers tasted like they were some kind of dead animal back in the day. At night we lost the mega lantern that we had spend a fortune loading up with batteries at the camp shop. We used a free give away flashlight instead. The temperature fell away and I stepped out of the tent in the middle of the night. I expected to see stars, but not stars like this. In the heavens above were layers of constellations intermingled with layers of constellations, winding like silvery cobwebs back to the dawn of time and beyond. I stopped there on the wet grass, taking in my own insignificance in the grand scheme of things. I let the cold wrap around me and imagined drifting away in space forever. Then I headed back to the comfort of the blanket.

The next day we walked to Tye River Overlook - the wooden platform that is known as the highlight of the park. The overlook affords a dramatic view of the confluence of the James and Tye River.

In the morning sunshine we read the story of the night the James River flowed backwards. As the remnants of Hurricane Camille moved through the mountains in 1969 it caused massive rainfall, flooding the Tye River and causing the James River to flow backwards, claiming 113 lives. I had never heard of such a tragedy back when I was a child. I felt a passing chill.

Even on the brightest days and in the most beautiful of places there is a darkness lurking in the most unlikely of places.

Saturday, September 20, 2014

What the Heck is the West Lothian Question?

It's high time we stopped our obsession with mid life sex or what was Joan Rivers' doctor doing to concentrate on the things that really matter - namely, what we should do about the West Lothian question.

The West Lothian question reared its head again this week when Scotland voted against independence. Yep the Scots may not be big fans of scones and the plum voiced British Prime Minister David Cameron who would be treated to a 'Glasgow handshake' in some of the rougher bars of Scotland's biggest city, but the vote revealed they like the English really. Or at least they are fond of the Queen's Corgis and her right to shoot deer on their land.

Linlighgo Palace, West Lothian

Renewed talk about the West Lothian question gave me an uneasy feeling of a former life, like those kids who realize they used to be Civil War soldiers who died at Antietem.

Had I not researched this decades ago in preparation for law school interviews? My worse interview was for the University of Bristol, an experience which I stammered through and talked about the virtues of using water cannons on rioters. My interviewer was a communist public law professor. Fortunately, I was from a state school, so was still admitted.

I was admitted without once mentioning those three golden words - West Lothian question.

So without further ado, here's the definition of the West Lothian question - via the Independent.

"The West Lothian question, or the issue of “English votes for English laws”, regards the concept that in a devolved system, Scottish MPs can vote on England-only policies, but English MPs do not have an equivalent say on how Scotland is run because it is led by the Scottish parliament.
The same is also true of Wales and Northern Ireland.
If more powers are now devolved to Scotland as David Cameron has pledged, this means there will be more devolved areas which English MPs cannot cast their vote upon. However, these restrictions will not apply to Scottish MPs."

We are likely to be hearing a lot more about the West Lothian question as Scotland gets more powers, not that this will appease my Corgi-hating Scottish aunt.  So that was worth waiting for? The place around the corner does great egg, lard and bacon sandwiches. I really should not but....

Monday, September 15, 2014

Kate Bush and the Demise of Old England

Americans don't get Kate Bush much. "Who's that wailing woman?" is the usual response I get while one girl tried to persuade me that Pat Benatar has a better version of "Wuthering Heights."

Pause for unpleasant fit of spluttering...

I have always liked Oh England My Lionheart because it takes me back to something half imagined and intangible but if you could put a description on it, to the England after the war when the evil of Nazism had been vanquished and everything would be perfect from there on in.

The England half-imagined would look like the fabled Hovis bread ad. of my childhood, which is filmed on Gold Hill in Shaftsbury one of the loveliest streets in England, made more lovely by the presence of a pub at the top of the cobbled street.

In the 1950s when the images of the dead at Belsen and Auschwitz walked behind a generation like Banquo's ghost, Britain built up the welfare state to provide a net of care from "cradle to grave." The England we grew up in the late 1960s was meant to be a harmonious place - old fashioned and not rich but, nevertheless, good to the core. When I grew up we would tour static old museums and see the Spitfires that brought down the might of the German air force. We would watch films of well spoken pilots with impossible moustaches who stood up against evil against the odds and went home to tea in quiet market towns.

By the 1980s we were beginning to reappraise as greed became good and the police fought running battles with the miners.

And now from a distance England feels an epoch away from the cozy place we grew up in, lulled by children's presenters who were later exposed as pedophiles. I still recall the feeling of terror that swept the underground on July 7, 2005, the day nails ripped through commuters in tunnels and England felt like it was on the verge of a wave of panic that would never subside.

Today the man in the executioners' mask who beheads the hostages speaks with an English accent - continuing a grisly line from the block at the Tower to Tyburn.

Perhaps the image of England as a cradle of civilization was always a cruel illusion. Scratch the surface on any street corner and you will find evidence of Medieval barbarity just a few feet away from WH Smiths.

Tuesday, August 26, 2014

The Lincon Memorial and the Fat App

I took my daughter on a mini vacation to D.C. recently because the need for a cultural injection can get overwhelming when you live in a place known as Tidewater.

I'm not quite sure that's what we got, though, thanks to the fat app. Some time ago Zara was given an iPod. I'm not sure if this is the right term. It's like an iPhone that you can't make calls on but you can do some kind of face time as well as playing the obligatory games.

I didn't think much about it as we left the camp ground and prepared to get our culture vulture wings out. It's funny because I have backpacked around Europe in the harshest of circumstances but as soon as I go sightseeing again I revert to being the worst kind of tourist. The middle aged, efficient woman at the camp ground explained meticulously how to use the bus passes which were also train passes and handed me a leaflet giving clear instructions on how to get into D.C. Still I found myself switching into tourist mode - a pose which involves one hanging out tongue, a slight lisp and cricked neck and obvious questions such as "Is that the bus?" while pointing to a stretchy out sort of vehicle that looked very bus-like.

Once we got to D.C., Zara got all excited about the first monument she saw - some general on a horse on a big plinth and proceeded to take 100 pictures of it and then lost interest.

Undeterred, we pressed on to the Natural History Museum. Zara was briefly interested by the Sponge Bob letter box before disappearing into iPod world. The pouncing stuffed tiger and giant whale got her off it for a short time - not so much the talk about evolution which explained how humans are descended from a rat-like creature called Morgie. The narrator may not have realized the profound effect of that unfortunate name of our great grandmother x million years ago. Morgie was the name of the small girl who released Zara's prize balloon at her fifth birthday and was hitherto shunned for the rest of her existence. Just the mere mention of the name was enough to reawaken ancient horrors - a bit like Palestine. But different, really.

Still there was plenty of time for us to realize that the Washington Monument is a lot further away that it looks and the Lincoln Memorial is even further away than that. The memorial held some interest until Zara found the fat app.

As we are ascending the escalator she is saying : "fat, fat, fatty fatty fat." into the microphone and playing it back into am image of her face with an extra 200 pounds and a wagging tongue in a small mouth hole in the vast expanse of errr fat.

"If you upgrade you'll get another 400 pounds with pustules and break-outs," she is telling me.

"No thanks. Let's save the dwindling account for Starbucks."

A woman at the monument looked less than impressed at the prospect of pustules. Lincoln himself looked rather stony faced, although I am guessing that's the way he looks anyhow.

Still we pressed on against the odds. At the National Museum of American History I tried to describe the significance of the Greensboro lunch counter but by this time Zara has got hold of the old person booth and was proceeding to give herself extra lines and gray hair.

On the way back we sat on the subway train next to a woman who was probably pushing 400 pounds, albeit minus the breakouts. Zara reached for the IPod. I broke into a nervous sweat.

Wednesday, August 20, 2014

The Vietnam Veterans Memorial - A Monument to Hubris

I had always wanted to visit the Vietnam Veterans Memorial because it strikes me as being one of the most moving legacies to the futility and mass sacrifice of war.

Just as there is a long and twisted saga to the Vietnam War there is a tale behind this stark wall that contains 58,272 names on reflective stone from Karnataka in India.

It was designed by Maya Lin, who won a design competition as an unknown 21-year-old architecture student, and immediately stirred up controversy.

James Watt, a Secretary of the Interior under Ronald Reagan, even denied it a building permit initially. James Webb, initially a supporter, said: "I never in my wildest dreams imagined such a nihilistic slab of stone."

The strength of the opposition led to a more conventional memorial - The Three Soldiers - being placed near to the Memorial Wall. Lin objected to an idea to place it near the entrance to the wall and a compromise was reached.

Like many other projects that are controversial at the time, the Wall has since become accepted as an institution, and is as integral part of the D.C. landscape as the Eiffel Tower - another project that caused an outcry - is to the Paris skyline. It evokes many feelings including starkness and solitude and there is much that is poignant about the reflections of trees and passing clouds on the names of the vanquished.

The Vietnam War is still is less comfortable fit. For a while I read widely about the Vietnam War in the vain hope of finding a justification. It became clear this was less a war of design and ideology than a slippery slope - as smooth as the wall itself - that dragged hapless American presidents deeper into the mire - leading to unspeakable horrors on both sides.

The veterans paid twice over - both in terms of the physical and psychological trauma they faced and the fact they were shunned and mistreated when they returned home from the misplaced war that America lost. The wall is stark but its most powerful aspect is the sheer volume of names in small type that run away to a distant vanishing point. This is less a monument as a warning about futility, the dangers of stubbornness and why we should always question the motives of those in the faceless offices and big mansions before heading blindly into the jungle.

Sunday, August 3, 2014

The Terrible Great War is Remembered in Ceramic Poppies

It's hard to imagine today when war remains a far off concept aired on CNN in dusty and dry places. It's hard to imagine the feeling on August 5, 1914 when Lord Liverpool announced how war had broken out with Germany.

While the wars of the 19th Century had been bloody, few people could have realized what was in store for them. In fact many expected a swift victory. Yet by 1914 mechanism had marched faster than the hooves of cavalry forces to the point when it could tear armies apart with impunity.

The new dynamic became obvious as the Germans marched into France. Germany was acting on a plan drawn up in 1905 called the Schlieffan Plan in which General Count Alfred Von Schliffen had concluded Germany could not fight a war on two fronts and to be decisive it should deal a decisive blow to France in the west.

Germany invaded west through Belgium setting the scene for the First Battle of the Marne from September 6 - 12, 1914 in which the Germans were repulsed from capturing Paris. Less than a month into the war it was apparent how flesh was no match for shells and the French lost 250,000 men at the Marne, the Germans a similar number and the British more than 12,000.

As it became apparent that the Germans would not easily knock out French, both sides stated to dig trenches and the four years of mud and blood and abject terror that characterized trench warfare ensured.

Now and again the combatants would try to break the deadlock with costly offensives. During the Somme offensive from July to November, 1916, Britain lost more than 350,000 men, France more than 204,000 and Germany more than 465,000 men. The figures fail to convey the full horror of the battlefield, of men cut to pieces on wire, or lacerated by guns, suffering agonizing deaths in shell holes in no mans-land. Few battles in history have so aptly summed up the futility of war. The Somme secured the Allies a few hundred yards of blood drenched soil.

While we associate World War One with the trenches of the western front, there was an equally bloody war going on between Russian on one side and Germany and Austria Hungary on the other in the east. Indeed the Russians suffered higher casualties than any other army, serving as a catalyst for the Russian Revolution.

In the south the Italians were fighting the Austrians in the mountains and there was a bloody war in the Balkans while the bloody and abortive attempts of the allies to attack Turkey at Gallipoli, was one of the most tragic episodes of a war steeped in tragedy.

It's hard to imagine such horror in retrospect and a war that was fought for no real purpose. Once while driving through France, I came across the River Somme and a dark curiosity came over me. Then I remembered Uncle Charlie who rocked in his chair and talked about nonsense, never once recalling his days as a stretcher bearer at the Somme. It was true for much of the country that those who came home seldom recalled the horror that was the Great War. Some were driven mad by the sound of shells and disappeared into homes to die in obscurity 70 years later.

Yet I was filled with a curiosity to see the plain white crosses spreading across these bare hills and the massive memorial that rises from the bones of the ground at Thiepval to those missing who never came home from the Somme, hideous and heavy with the weight of the names on its sides.

We should never forget the War to End All Wars, which held the seeds of another war every bit as horrible 25 years later, but I have seen little publicity about the anniversary of the First World War, given its significance.

However, in London a beautiful exhibition at the Tower of London called Blood Swept Lands and Seas of Red by Paul Cummins is a poignant reminder of what was lost. It will be officially unveiled on the anniversary of the declaration of war on August 5 and features 888,246 ceramic poppies planted in the moat of the tower, each one representing a British military fatality in World War One.

Lest we forgot.

Thursday, July 24, 2014

Woman Spends $30,000 to be Like Kim Kardashian - And She's British!

Let's admit it we have all wanted to be someone else at some point in their lives. What guy has never wanted to have the star appeal of George Clooney and the fortitude of Winston Churchill.

I can't speak on behalf of women but there are clearly women I can't imagine any women wanting to be like such as Joan Rivers, Rosie O'Donnell and Kim Kardashian.

All of which makes the tale of Claire Leeson doubly horrifying. I don't use exclamation marks lightly for the record.The 24-year-old has just spent $30,000 trying to be like her air headed role model, reported the New York Daily News.

Claire Leeson

The worst thing thing about this very sad tale is that Claire happens to be British. Pause for a moment of sad and quiet reflection.

"I'd love to be able to market myself the same way that Kim has," she told the Daily News. "Even if I had half of the fame Kim has, I'd be happy."

The original

Becoming Kim entails getting hair extensions, a boob job, teeth whitening and extensive tanning treatment; in other words everything you need to be 100 percent fake. It also involves running up massive credit card debts to finance the massive transfer of weight from brain to bum.

I'm not sure what to make of this because after what seems like decades of seeing images of Kardashian in magazines and on the TV, I still have no idea who or what she is; and what she does apart from tacky. She doesn't even seem to have adopted any African kids to my knowledge; yup Kardashian is famous for being famous - a sort of more famous version of Katie Price (AKA Jordan). This is apparently the sort of woman who has a kid called North West. OK I'm bored now and rather upset that Brit girls can't adopt better roles models such as Nora Batty.....

Thursday, July 10, 2014

Belgium Fan Wins Modelling Contract from World Cup

Belgium may be out of the World Cup but the fun is just beginning for one fan whose iconic Viking image was spotted by a modelling company that signed her up.

Although Vikings didn't come from Belgium when I last looked, Axelle Despiegelaere may not care much after she was spotted in Brazil and signed up by L'Oreal.

As someone who is always being contacted by modelling companies who want to photograph me in gray sweater vests or trash can liners, I know how it feels.

Not all of the fans at the World Cup have been having quite such fun as the 17-year-old from Belgium. The famously glamorous Brazilian supporters were looking a bit down in the mouth after their 7-1 defeat by Germany.

Efforts to ward off Mick Jagger clearly failed. The Rolling Stones frontman has a legendary curse in which every team he supports falls on its backside. In the Germany v Brazil game he was supporting - you guessed it - the team in yellow.

Now the Brazilians have to face the prospect of seeing their arch rivals Argentina playing in the final of a World Cup that cost so much it threatened to push their economy under.

After the game against Brazil, it's hard to see anyone stopping Germany but Argentina are likely to put up a stiffer contest - let's face it a group of boy scouts would have. When it comes to the coolness of fans Argentina might well edge this one.


um Germany

If they want to find a silver lining the Brazilians might want to look north to Honduras. The most violent nation in the world, outside the obvious war zones, finished the World Cup with 0 points - yes that's even less than England - and, judging by this picture - they also have the world's ugliest fans.

As a bit of a post script Axelle Despiegelaere apparently lost her modeling contract after a picture of her on a hunting trip emerged...rendering this post rather meaningless. Go Argentina..

Monday, July 7, 2014

My Blog is Monty Python's Dead Parrot

I try not to check the stats on my blog too much because it tends to resemble John Cleese's parrot. A combination of infrequent postings and lack of interaction has indeed turned my blog into the Norwegian Blue.

At least as it's flushed down the toilet, somebody might remark on its beautiful plumage. You never know.

In past years I have had a three pronged strategy to counter blog disaffection. Namely:

1 Blog more about Justin Bieber
2 Blog about Bieber
3 Blog about that annoying little Canadian s...

I fear the wisdom of the strategy has now deserted me as nobody even cares about Bieber these days as he slides into an icky pool of whatever Lindsey Lohan slid into years ago.

We were fond of whatshername from a Fish Called Wanda

Real talent is enduring and it's seen in characters such as John Cleese and Michael (not Sarah) Palin. Recently I bumped into an ardent Fish Called Wanda fan, which reminded me of how I had forgotten much about the film apart from the bit where a concrete block falls on a small dog and Palin's stutter.

All of which reminds me I must be fundamentally sick.

The reality is Cleese and Palin can make most things funny, even dead animals. Enjoy.

Tuesday, July 1, 2014

Team USA Takes on Belgium - Five Random Facts About Belgium

Every four years - assuming they are in the World Cup - Americans get all excited about the game with the iniquitous 's' word.

Team USA colors

America has an ambivalent relationship to the game Brits call football, preferring the odd game with shoulder pads and numerous stops. But with Team USA on a roll, America is again getting all excited about proper football.

It's sobering to think that the Americans do this as a sideline but still seem to be more successful than England at the World Cup with a motley collection of players who would be fighting for a first time place in your average Premiership side. American pubs fail to rival the fervor of those back in the England when a game is on, but maybe that's not bad thing.

So today it's on to the mighty Belgium - a team I know little about but are apparently fifth favorites to win the World Cup.

It's a bit hard to get worked up about Belgium in the same way as one can get worked up about the Geermans and the gnashing Uruguayans, although Waffle House is doing its bit by stating it doesn't believe in Belgium waffles. Well I don't believe in Waffle House - except as a last resort when everywhere else is closed.

The few times I have  been to Belgium I have loved the architecture and the beer, less so the inhabitants who tend to shun deodorant.

Here are five little known facts about Belgium.

1 - Brussels Spouts really do come from Belgium where they have been grown for 400 years. They also acquire the texture of snot if cooked in a certain way. They tend to taste worse.

2 - Belgium produces 22 kg of chocolate for every person in the country. And it's a lot better than Hershey's.

3 - Belgium has enforced compulsory voting. If you fail to vote you are dragged out of your home and pushed under Jean Claude Van Damme's arm pit.

4 - The highway system in Belgium is so brightly lit it's the only man made structure on the earth that's visible from the moon at night.

5 - Belgium has the oldest shopping center in the world - the Galeries St Hubert in Brussels which opened in 1847 for the buying of top hats.

Wednesday, June 25, 2014

Ernest Hemingway Reprise

I hesitated briefly as I saw the reassuringly thick spine in the library and finally grabbed it from the shelf. Hemingway to me feels like an old friend who can piece together the disparate pieces of my life, who I had half forgotten about long ago.

The first book I read by Ernest Hemingway was Islands in the Stream when I was in my teens. The thick tome seemed to be about drinking and boating and more drinking and boating and generally sucked and made me think of Dolly Parton and Kenny Rogers.

I was staying with an uncle who thought he was clever with his quips, like the time we stood in the men's room on the ferry and he whipped it out and proclaimed: "This is where the big boys hang out" to the disgust of the elderly man in the next urinal. Well the uncle is now the old man and if he was on the ferry the old man and the sea. His kids are adults with their own lives and Hemingway is still the big boy of a certain kind of literary genre, his hunting, fishing, shooting presence looming large over swathes of Florida and Cuba.

Hemingway was a man's man perhaps but he eludes pigeon holing. My next read was For Whom the Bell Toll and nobody who reads about the smell of pine needles and the night the earth moved with passion, can ever write him off as literary red neck.

For Whom the Bell Tolls is in many ways Hemingway's finest piece of work, harking back to the days of the Spanish Civil War and a half-imagined idealism we thought we had left behind. The book is devoted to Martha Gellhorn, the reporter Hemingway left his wife for to embark on another torrid and ultimately failed marriage.

Still there is something alluring about the idea of passion amidst the ruins of an under siege Madrid hotel frequented by the press corps. In the days when the news mattered and no longer rose and fell on the latest Tweet, the Spanish Civil War represented a clash of ideologies and as well as a testing ground for the terrible weapons of war that Adolf Hitler was about to unleash on Europe.

Hemingway's idealism may have been misguided but there is no giant of his stature around today to raise Cain as ISIS unleashes a Medieval barbarity on the land Abel's brother was vanquished to.

Next came A Farewell to Arms, a Secondary School text about Hemingway's exploits in Italy in World War One. The novel is laced with a deep pessimism but is an iconic as the image of a soldier and his girl alone in the rain against the massive ornate eaves of Milan Cathedral.

Years later I introduced A Farewell to Arms to a class of 10th Graders and felt the pessimism of the novel wash over me at the failure to see it induce any spark of interest in the computer game infected eyes of the young.

So perhaps that was it. Hemingway is an anachronism with no value to the modern world. He's a passing fancy and a reason why men wear false beards in Key West.

I also read The Sun Also Rises as it moves from Paris to Spain, laced with booze and the existentialism of the Lost Generation, but curiously alluring and fascinating. I cannot read the novel without yearning for Paris or Pamplona and the warm breeze and smell of the Mediterranean.

The other brushes with Hemingway were non literary such as the brief visit to La Floridita bar in Havana where he sobered up on daiquiris after a morning of writing and chain drinking whiskies.

Hemingway blew his brains out in the end in Idaho of all places - far from the Tropics and far from Spain. He is long gone but not forgotten like my memories of his prose. I'm looking forward to revisiting For Whom the Bell Tolls.

Sunday, June 8, 2014

How the Message of Born in the USA is Lost 30 Years On

It's hard to believe the iconic Bruce Springsteen song Born in the USA is 30 years old. The year was 1984 and I distinctly remember the powerful riff and belting lyrics along with a image of blue jeans and the American flag that seemed to make this a tub thumping, jingoistic song that made me feel distinctly uneasy.

In 1984 female protesters were chaining themselves to the gates of RAF Greenham Common in protest at the arrival of American cruise missiles, while miners were fighting pitched battles in the streets of northern towns as the Conservative government sought to dismantle the mining unions. It was tempting to see everything in terms of black and white and left and right and to believe Britain was on its way to becoming the 51st state of the USA.

Springsteen's song appeared to be more of the same, a none-too-subtle celebration of American triumphalism.

One of the song's biggest fans was George Will, a conservative columnist who hailed it as a "cheerful affirmation" of all of the good things about America. His pal Ronald Reagan who happened to be President at the time was impressed and he referenced Springsteen and his song of hope during his re-election campaign.

In reality Reagan was fooled by the upbeat nature of the song. If you delve into the lyrics, it quickly becomes apparent that Born in the USA is ironic and about the emptiness of the American dream from the perspective of a Vietnam veteran.

Down in the shadow of penitentiary
Out by the gas fires of the refinery
I'm ten years burning down the road
Nowhere to run, ain't nowhere to go
Born in the USA

A BBC article pointed out Springsteen's song isn't the only one to be misinterpreted. You may not want to play Every Breath You Take by the Police at your wedding because it's about the stalkery kind of love. Nor Does REM's The One I Love go down in the annals of top romantic songs as it contains the line: "This one goes out to the one I’ve left behind/A simple prop to occupy my time."

Friday, May 23, 2014

Richard III Comes Home to Leicester Of All Places

You have to spare the odd thought for King Richard III. Demonized as a scheming hunchback by Shakespeare, and found with his skull smashed in, the King now has the ignominy of being laid to rest in Leicester cathedral.

England has a lot of fantastic cathedrals but I do not believe Leicester is one of them. Apparently it looks like this; still better than those makeshift places that they call churches in the US, but even so...

When we last caught up with Richard he was not doing splendidly at the Battle of Bosworth field in 1485 when he was offering his Kingdom for a horse but ended up with his head staved in anyway.

In 2012 the remains of the king, with a curved spine and the previously mentioned bashed in head, showed up under a parking lot in Leicester. If you have not been to Leicester you may not appreciate what an un Kingly resting place this is. Parking lots in Leicester are generally for having fights and throwing up curries in.

Richard was dug up and a legal battle began over where he should be buried.

a group calling itself the Plantagenet Alliance, argued it was the medieval king's wish to be buried in the historic northern city of York -- the city they claim was closest to his heart. Not only is York pretty but it has more of a kick ass cathedral than Leicester.

York Minster

On its website, the Alliance -- reputedly made up of people who are distantly related to Richard III, and headed by Stephen Nicolay, his 16th great nephew -- set out its argument to have him reburied in York.
"We believe that the proposed location of Leicester is wholly inappropriate for the burial of King Richard III, who had no connections with the town beyond his horrific death, bodily despoliation and appalling burial in a foreshortened grave," it said.
Lovely Leicester
Eventually they were unsuccessful and Leicester won. The folks at the University are even saying it might bring more visitors to the city, although that would involve them ignoring its abject ugliness.
Maybe I am jaded by my horrendous night at the Park Hotel when a drawer fell on my feet and prostitutes were tumbling down the stairs.

As well as all of the bad publicity about being general evil and killing the Princes in the Tower, Richard III falls foul of that joke about the Irish guy who goes to the library and demands a book called "Dick Shit."

The librarian is confused until he explains: "Richard the Turd."

Saturday, April 26, 2014

The Most Annoying Song of the Year = # Selfie

It's only April (I think it's still April); which is, of course, the cruelest month boasting the sinking of the Titanic, the Hillsborough tragedy, the Boston marathon bombing and the capsizing of a South Korean ferry, not to mention the A to Z Challenge. Have I smugly mentioned how I did not do it this year? Only 20 times, right.

Also by April I already have a winner for the most annoying song of the year. This one is a radio channel changer, one that makes me jerk my hand to the dial - or as my local radio station states "Put your Nob on Bob," and desperately switch channels as the car veers across lanes.

The song is #Selfie by the Chainsmokers and it sums up all that's wrong with our gadget, Instagram, Twitter, selfie obsessed society: "She's such a fake model. She bought all her Instagram followers." I also suspect it's something of a satire.

OK. Whatever. I don't have time to write anymore. I have selfies to take. Enjoy the video.

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

On Ashes to Ashes by David Bowie

If there is one song that sums up the madness and complexity of the world it has to be Ashes to Ashes by David Bowie.

I love this song, and not only because it reminds me of business as usual ie. that sense of walking on Mars feeling like a clown as a large tractor threatens to swallow us up but the fact it contains the line: "I've never done good things, I've never done bad things. I've never done anything out of the blue."

Well perhaps I have loved too much and too recklessly but at least I can say I have not hated with an equal vigor. Still I feel bad for making others feel bad and there's that proverbial thin line that stalks me in my sleep and threatens to flip me from one side to another like a shutter opening and closing -from good to bad, from black to white, in and out of the sun until I am dizzy from the infernal flickering.

Am I good or bad? The answer is probably somewhere in between but there is little room for shades of grey on a planet that's either cast in darkness or light - strung out in heaven's high, hitting an all-time low.

So what is the meaning of Ashes to Ashes? I'm sure there are dissertations on this subject. I think it probably means Bowie had taken too many drugs when he wrote this. Still I will never get over getting my fix of this song.

Thursday, April 10, 2014

Why You Are Totally and Utterly Mad

It occurs to me that you are totally mad. You know who I am talking about you. Loopy. Bonkers. Three bricks short of a load and the load was unstable to begin with. Don't get me wrong; I am not mocking mental illness, even if I am the only person I have met in this country who doesn't resort to a rattling bottle full of pills. Rather I have come to the conclusion, more through passing observation than an empirical study, that most of us are a bit off keel.

No, not that kind of madness - one step beyond

I have some examples.

1 He stands in my room and I see him shudder inwardly at the sight of my in-box. I know it has affected his equilibrium for the rest of the day.

2 She Tweets until 2 a.m. about the virtues of skinless cats. She complains about being tired the next day and bemoans the way her enthusiasm for the skinless cat is waning.

3 She talks to her feet on the sidewalk. When she sees I have noticed, she quickly pulls out her phone and pretends she was in a conversation with a party other than her toes.

4 She texts me and leaves voicemails in the night asking the price of my rental house, two days after I told her it was $999. She tells me she wants to strike a deal because she can't afford $30,000 a month and her grandmother has gout.

5 She writes on her blog that she won't be on her blog for a couple of days oblivious to the fact none of us are the sun and if we go out the whole world will die. Nope we are Pluto, lost, lonely, cold and insignificant out there fighting to be even recognized as a planet. But didn't we used to be planets? Just give me a week again as a planet damn it.

I can't chide people for being mad. There are seriously days when I look in the mirror and the lights are on but nobody as at home. Apart from the mice that have built a nice little home in my mind - thank you very much.

When in doubt blame Lana Del Rey. Gosh she is fantastic - when will I kick my obsession?

Sunday, April 6, 2014

On Fossil Beach, York River

Zara wanted me to blog about her fossil hunting exploits. I was fine with the idea because it can be difficult to decide what to blog about, especially without the big pointy stick up the bottom that is the A to Z Challenge. But it's not all bad; I can lie back in a hammock and drink Margaritas, metaphorically speaking, while the rest of you wake up in the night in a cold sweat doing despicable things to your teddy bear, just because you have no idea what to write about for X.

Yesterday we drove up to Fossil Beach at York River State Park. The kids were initially disappointed because they had spent an hour-and-a-half in a car only to be faced by a half a mile hike and a tiny secluded beach on the river that was not full of ice cream stalls like Virginia Beach.

But the lure of finding fossils on Fossil Beach took over. There's a huge pile of them at the top of the wooden steps as well as a warning that you can't take them away, which must please countless parents who don't want to wake up next to a dirty great fossil, which almost leads me to that story about my room mate who got hideously drunk and ended up in bed with his grandmother - I digress.

Fossil beaches are few and far between but I like them because they awaken the collector in the young imagination. Who can forget the leaden grey skies and the crashing waves of Lyme Regis where we pulled fossils from the cliffs back in secondary school? Who can forget the day Johnnie Briggs stole my prize ammonite and the long and bitter wait for vengeance that came in the form of liberal coating of joke slime that clung as nicely to his backside as it did his classroom chair.

Zara liked collecting fossils anyway and had accumulated a hefty stash by the time the sun was falling low over the river. Jackson found one that promptly exploded revealing itself to be a lump of mud. The day was going splendidly until Zara trod on a sharp fossil, incurred a small cut on her foot, demanded a piggy back to the car and when I declined insisted on making a video to send to her mother about my cruel fossil hunting excursion.

Next week stay tuned for croc taunting in the Congo....

Tuesday, April 1, 2014

A Tale of Three Camdens

I always liked Camden Town in London even if it made me feel old and terribly untrendy. Camden is grungy and edgy and full of street markets with New Age clothes and girls with dreadlocks and nose rings. The pubs are raw and ready and one strep away from spit and saw dust.

There are the catacombs which are not catacombs but grimy old railroad arches that host a dazzling array of the weird and wonderful accessed on the rickety Northern underground line. There are the railroad lines and the canals and the skeletons of heavy industry that has been refashioned as arts venues in cases such as the Roundhouse - a former railroad turntable converted into a theater. I visited it once to interview the director longer ago than I care to imagine. When the same sex marriage ban was overturned in England, Camden raced to be the first place to hold a ceremony.

Camden made me think of fuzzy nights out; the mingling of smells, beer on the pavement and the remote hope of bumping into Damon from Blur.

When I found myself in rural North Carolina reporting on the trivial doings of Camden County, I rued the comments of my friends who made the London comparison. Camden was and still is a backwater. Its politicians looked at me as if I had fallen from Mars and some of them made a policy not to speak. My backside bears the scars of long nights on the hard benches of the court house, listening to their deliberations about landfill applications.

Although I have left it behind I am still haunted by the lonely swamps of Camden and find myself driving on its empty roads.

Then there is another Camden where I might think twice about setting foot in. Survey after survey highlights Camden, New Jersey as the most dangerous city in America.

"The first thing you notice about Camden, New Jersey, is that pretty much everyone you talk to has just gotten his or her ass kicked," reported Rolling Stone.

Camden is Detroit without the saving factor of tall buildings to avert the eye. It's drugs and gun shots and unemployment and racial tensions.

"It's an un-Fantasy Island of extreme poverty and violence where the police just a few years ago essentially surrendered a city of 77,000," the magazine reported.

Suddenly those quiet swamps don't seem quite as depressing.

BTW - good luck to all of you who are doing the A-Z blogging challenge. Thanks for the mention Jean about how my piece about not being bothered to do the A-Z Challenge, inspired to do it and good luck to Juliette for doing it on err umm doors. Also good luck to my old pal Mark who has taken the plunge from his Greek Island...