Saturday, December 26, 2015

Finding Your Happy Place - Newport News Park

The need for a happy place is probably underestimated in modern society where we are always on the go. Psychologist Dave would highly recommend you take the time to ask yourself where is your happy place. Go ahead and write it down on a piece of paper. If you can't think of a place go for a long walk. There's probably a reason why I'm not a psychologist.

My son's happy place is clearly being on his new Christmas bike. I'm not sure if it's my happy place as he's now bugging me to go out on it every five minutes. Of course, this is where adults are a lot more complex than kids. If he told me he wasn't interested in it, it would get me down but it's also a drag to trail him around the apartment complex 10 times a day, making sure he doesn't crash and burn into parked cars.

Maybe a happy place should be a physical place. Think of that place where you could sit still and be at peace with the world. I recall a villa in Portugal where I could sit on the patio and watch the clouds moving fast over the vineyards. There were white church towers in the distance and the sounds of bells tinkling across the fields. Or there was the sun playing on the roofs of the shining cupola on the church in Positano on the Amalfi Coast. Sadly these are not places we can go back to regularly. In recent months, Newport News Park has been my happy place in that it has been a small slice of wilderness in which I can wander aimlessly shaking my head slowly at the antics of people who believe petty victories are a substitute for life.

I have pulled off the road at all times of the day to walk the trails, sometimes with S but usually alone. I have looked over the marshes as the sun goes down over the reeds and early in the morning. I have walked through the fortifications of the Battle of Lee's Mill where Northern and Southern lives were lost for little gain on April 16, 1862. Even in happy places you can see reminders of the futility of hate. The people who I see are usually in couples or there are families with small kids poking around in the undergrowth. A few decades ago I would have felt self-conscious being alone but those days are long gone. Finding a happy place is all about finding a place where you can be happy in your own skin. We don't always need props. Nature can provide them. Of course, there are other happy places which are not necessarily so beneficial. To name but a few.

1 Cystal meth;
2 Fortified wine;
3 An obsession with Christmas tree ornaments;
4 Listening to Justin Bieber;
5 Believing Donald Trump is the savior of the world.

I hope you find your happy place in 2016.

Sunday, November 29, 2015

The Elf on the Shelf - a Precursor to the Police State

I was interested to read an article in The Washington Post about how the Elf on the Shelf is really preparing your kids for life in a police state.

At least that's the view of Laura Pinto, a digital technology professor. The article, I'm sure has provoked much ridicule. Who could possibly think the cherubic, rosy-cheeked Elf who shows up in play rooms about now, could be preparing our kids for life as future Edward Snowdens?

Well me for one. Back in the days of happy familydom (cue coughing fit) we enlisted the help of an elf on the shelf, called Stuey, to ensure the kids behaved in the run-up to Christmas. Every time they stepped out of line, we warned them Stuey would rat them to Santa. The news would hit the production line at 1 North Pole and it would shudder to a halt. Santa's permi-frost smile would become a grimace Bundy would be proud of and and Stuey's intelligence would result in the kids being allocated a bucket load of reindeer poo in their stockings.

Make no mistake; Stuey was hardcore. He had an unnerving habit of showing up in the most disconcerting of places, like showers and above the cooker, a blue flame threatening to ignite his rear quarters. The kids would wail at the very sight of Stuey and what his silent and sinister intelligence could mean. He was even equipped with a pencil and an incident report sheet. We thought the Tazer might be going  bit far.

To ensure maximum effect, Stuey's entrance was set to the strains of I Always Feel Like Somebody's Watching Me by Rockwell.

Stuey was all watching and all seeing, like the NSA with metal testicles on the back of its truck, a long time before Pinto started warning of the evils of the Elf.

In a recent article she wrote: "It sounds humorous, but hem in their home, it normalizes the idea of surveillance and in the future restrictions on our privacy may be more easily accepted."

You bet. In fact Stuey was so effective we decided not to retire him at Christmas. He would make sudden and dramatic 'guest appearances' throughout the year at times of maximum misbehavior, his elusive smile a thin veneer behind which hatred simmers. To add maximum effect, we'd tell the kids Stuey had been fired by Santa and had all of the passive aggression of a spurned employee.

I'm sorry to say at some point Zara read my previous blog about Stuey and thus discovered he did not move around on his own but required some parental assistance, all of which undermined his power to intimidate. Oh well - Happy Christmas and all that...

Sunday, November 15, 2015

Paris - City of Love and Blood

You don't forget the first time you see Paris, nor the small thrill of excitement you feel. In my case, it could have been the cold. I had taken an overnight ferry and a slow train in the early hours. I was bleary eyes. Now I was shuttling through the endless periphery of the great city at 6 a.m. watching a pale and cold sunlight rise on the pale blue apartments with their shutters.

Soon we were hanging out at the Gare Montparnasse trying to get to grips with the basics of ordering a coffee under the withering gaze of a waitress who looked like a model and had all the haughtiness of someone who dealt with a long series of brain dead British backpackers all day. In Paris, even the rail stations are architectural wonders but little prepared us for the grandness of the buildings that rose up around us. In Paris, everything appears to be laid out with a view to its composition. Buildings, squares and bridges are carefully laid out to be pleasing from every angle. Even the trees seem to have been designed to throw an impressionistic light on the pavements, as if dappled by the brush of Monet.

Paris is known as the City of Light or "La Ville-Lumiere because it was one of the first city in the world to pioneer street lighting. Today it uses lights to a dramatic effect. At night the bridges over the Seine glow with pale white light and the great palaces and museums are lit up like wedding cakes. The chill washes over you when you stand on the beautiful Pont Alexandre III and look at the gold dome of the Invalides lit up against the purple sky. You realize whey Adele filmed that video here.

Paris is also known as the City of Love perhaps due to the seductive cityscape, the legacy of decades of movies and the tacky love locks that were out on the Pont des Arts before they collapsed a section of it. In reality, about 51 percent of Parisians are single.

Nevertheless, there is something seductive about Paris. On my first trip, I slipped out of the cheap lodgings early in the morning and immersed myself amid the blooms and shady fountains of the Jardin du Luxembourg. It remains one of my favorite places.

Later that night we met my French friend Wilfy. He took us to the spot below a wall by the Seine where he told us he took his love interests. On the other side of the dark, lapping water the high vault of the Musee D'Orsay glowed against the evening sky. I asked about Bridgette and if she was going to show up. I had met her in England, and she had told me in a nonchalant way we might meet up Paris. Wilfy shrugged, and Bridgette never showed. Memories came flooding back of Natalie, my first ever love interest from the French exchange trip, and how it had disintegrated under the withering glare of her parents in her pool room. Later that night Wilfy took us around Paris in his car. He took us to some hidden places, palaces that slept in the moonlight, with courtyards filled with checkerboard works of art.

The next two times I returned to the City of Love I was with love interests, albeit not French, Still the city beguiled me with its sudden and unexpected vistas. The feeling of being in the big enamel bath tub in the chilly hotel room watching the Eifel Tower far off and flickering out the frosted window, still lives with me.

It was easy to become seduced by the City of Love, unless you ended up in one of the overpriced pavement cafes or experienced the notorious stand-up toilets. It was easy to block out the undercurrents of hate.

The appalling terrorist attacks of Friday 13, have made it a lot harder to filter out the hate. From now on Paris will always be mired in sadness and images of bloodshed. What those who fell for the marketing myth might not realize is the fact it has often been thus.

In the 1790s, the inhabitants of London looked east in horror at the events in Paris. The revolution in 1789 had overthrown the regime of King Louis XVI but it had initially been about the Declaration of the Rights of Man and the Citizen and the lofty ideals that were first developed by the writers of the US Constitution. By 1793, the revolution had turned in on itself and the king was executed. From 1793 to 1974 the Reign of Terror ruled Paris and as many as 40,000 people were guillotined in the streets. Around this time the brutal journalist Jean-Paul Marat was stabbed to death by Charlotte Corday, a young woman avenging the death of a friend. The painting The Death of Marat became an icon of the revolution.

The chaos on the streets of Paris only ended when an ambitious young officer called Napoleon Bonaparte took over the country and involved it in a series of wars and empire building. Napoleon experienced astounding success, establishing France as the most powerful nation on earth, before his empire was eventually dismantled. The world's first truck bomb was invented on the streets of Paris in 1800 in an attempt to assassinate Napoleon.

The monarchy was restored, but the great underclass of Paris, known as the Sans-Culottes set up, the barricades again in 1830 and 1848, overthrowing the monarchy. In 1871 after France's devastating defeat by the Prussians, the barricades went up again, and a radical government called the Commune took over Paris. It was eventually crushed by the French army in a series of bloody days that left as many as 10,000 Communards dead.

Urban design in Paris helped push the Great Unwashed to the sidelines. The beautiful boulevards we see today were a conscious attempt to clear out the slums of Paris and to remove the revolutionaries. Still they festered, out of sight but not always out of mind, in concrete satellite towns.

Although Paris stabilized after 1871, the order threatened to disintegrate again during World War One. With the German front line not far from Paris, massive missiles would hammer into the city on a regular basis, killing people.

In 1940, the Germans succeeded where they failed in 1914 and occupied Paris. Inevitably there was more bloodshed and sorrow as Jews were rounded up to be taken to the extermination camps. In the post-war era, France became embroiled in a bloody war in Algeria that saw frequent bombings in the capital. During one fateful day in 1961 as many as 200 Algerians were rounded up by the security forces in the city and murdered by its famous landmarks.

In 1968, students occupied the Sorbonne and rioted on the streets of Paris. A night of running battles with police left 300 injured, although there were no deaths. In 2005, the city was again the scene of riots, this time by disaffected Muslims.

Notwithstanding the violent history of the City of Love, 2015 will go down as one of the darkest years in the history of Paris, a year when new and more ruthless methods of terrorism were brought to bear. But while the horrors may seem to seem like new ground to us, it's easy to forget that more than 70 years ago millions of people in Europe were being shipped to camps for mass slaughter and thousands were dying each day on the front line. We forget the human capacity to hate at our peril.

Monday, November 9, 2015

Has James Bond Bombed?

James Bond is an odd British institution which, like the Queen, seems to have been knocking around forever.

Growing up, we were exposed to Bond in the most pervasive of ways. Goldfinger always seemed to be on the tele in the 1970s, the seductive voice of Sean Connery mixing up a powerful cocktail with the deep strains of Shirley Bassey.

Daniel Craig as Bond

Then Roger Moore came along. My parents made disparaging comparisons with the great Sean and the plots became as flimsy as Bond's one liners which still worked for him on getting women into bed.

James Bond was an odd concept. He was a spy who killed lots of people in a non-gruesome way. He was a Brit who was clinical and ruthless in what he did, a particularly un-British characteristic in itself.

It's odd to find Bond still making headlines in a very different era, but you have to wonder for how much longer. Daniel Craig is arguably the most effective Bond since Connery but he's admitted to being bored with the role. While Casino Royale and Quantum of Solace and Skyfall were critically acclaimed, the new offering Spectre is described as a bit of a dog's dinner, even if it's served from a classy plate.

Connery was a hard act to follow

Although it may be unpatriotic to say so, Bond movies have always left me a bit cold, although I liked to watch some of the exotic locations. However, the fast cars and the death-defying antics, always seemed to unreal and formulaic to me and there never seemed to be any reason why Bond was doing what he was doing apart from giving movie goers an adrenalin rush. Other action franchises such as Mission Impossible seemed to do it better. In his recent incarnation, Craig has been given more of a past and themes have been carrie across the episodes. It may not be enough to save James Bond, although I have been proved wrong before, recalling how Doctor Who became mired in low budget anonymity amidst ropey doctors like Colin Baker in the 1990s, only to gain a new lease of life in the modern era.

Bond has never been as quirky and imaginative as the Doctor, which gives him less room to get out of a tight spot in the modern era of reinvented superheroes. Nor can he fall back on the work of Ian Fleming which was exhausted rather a long time ago. The other problem is Craig will be a hard act to follow when he decides to do some real acting again, You have to wonder if it's time to give the character a golden gun to the head.

Pointless Bond Trivia

James Bond was the name of the author of a book called Birds of the West Indies. Fleming was rather taken with it as he was a keen ornithologist (otherwise known as twitcher). He thought James Bond would be a great short and unromantic name for a spy. Of course it was rather act as Bond certainly has a thing for the birds.

Saturday, October 24, 2015

On the Death of a Blogger

When I heard Mark was dead it was hard not to think of the words of Auden.

The stars are not wanted now: put out every one;
Pack up the moon and dismantle the sun;
Pour away the ocean and sweep up the wood.
For nothing now can ever come to any good.

Of course, these days we don't learn about deaths from death notices or from conversations with friends but from Facebook. In his most recent incarnation, Mark was a fellow blogger but we went back a lot further than that.


Back in 1990 when I was an idealistic young reporter I was instructed I would be sent to work in the North Devon office, the equivalent of a posting to Siberia. All North Devon comprised of was open fields, small market towns and tumbled cliffs and, of course, Mark Clough - the bureau chief - who was known as The Rock of North Devon due to his longevity.

I found Mark to be initially a dour individual, a big man with a beard and a sardonic sense of humor. Every lunchtime involved large amounts of Bass down the local bar The Corner House. I quickly warmed to Mark who always had a witty anecdote for any occasion and an approach to life that was at odds with the anal people on the newsdesk. I recall one election night when we casually filed our results after getting a drink at the bar. We returned to the office to find the answer phones jammed with angry messages from the newsdesk demanding to know our whereabouts. Mark shrugged it off. I admired his recklessness of spirit.

Although Mark was good company he could be dour. One afternoon he informed me he had been in North Devon for 10 years as he gazed out over the same muddy river about some aluminium shed roofs. He would routinely mutter the words "I can't go on," at about 4 p.m., with a twinkle in his eye that told me his depression was part theatrical. Mark had lived in a picturesque village called Weir Gifford which we nicknamed Weird Gifford because behind the picture postcard image, it was pure poison. When Mark had tried to open up a home for people with mental disabilities in his house, he was met with diatribe of hate from the village. He eventually opened the home and came into work one day with his head in his hands. One of his residents had gone 'walkabout' around the village wearing just a string vest. He eventually left Weir Gifford and moved to Bideford.

When I left North Devon, Mark gave me a lavish send off. He had suffered my idealistic enthusiasm and cub reporter mistakes with good grace and we remained good friends. Looking back I wish I had made a greater effort. He came to my wedding - my first one at least. Mark had the kind of larger than life, reassuring jocular presence, backed by a big heart, that would make you feel better about yourself.

Life took me different places and I didn't think about Mark so much until a friend told me he had won the lottery as part of a consortium. It meant he was finally able to leave North Devon. A couple of years ago, he moved to a Greek island with his family and hung out in an olive grove blogging with a glass of Ouzo in his hand. Had it been anyone else, I may have felt jealous but I was happy that Mark had finally got his time in the sun. He took part in the A-Z challenge with his blog View from the Olive Grove for the last two years and became part of that ramshackle fraternity of bloggers I have been fortunate enough to be part of forever.

His story made me wonder what it would be like to finally be free of the pressures of the world and to spend the days soaking up the sun in the olive grove while looking at the azure seas of antiquity. I wondered if I could do it, or if the sudden emptiness of the days would undermine me and force me to return to what I knew.

About six months ago Mark did return home, although I could not understand why at the time. He wrote that a life of peaceful apathy was not for him, adding, "All things must pass, nothing lasts forever." Later on, I heard from a friend that he had terminal cancer. In the last picture I saw of him, the rock was a tiny and shrunken presence surrounded by his family. There was a Facebook posting from a friend who had visited him in the North Devon Hospice and today tributes to his passing. In the days to come, like most of those who pass, he will become a mere footnote but I promise to raise a glass to him from time to time.

It's hard to come to terms with the thoughts that come rushing in and the realization that the best die young and we are left with also-rans, although I know that's not true. At times my life seems fractured to a point of breaking but the everyday battles about finance and divorce and child visitation are clearly nothing in the great scheme of things where great men and women go to their maker by the hour. I was honored to know Mark and although my life can seem trite at times, I know it's not the case because I have love and she is my North, my South, my East and West.

Monday, October 12, 2015

Ethelred the Unready was Not Very Ready

Over the last few weeks blog neglect has set in which I know is regrettable for those of you who hang on my every last word. I know where you are and I assume you are in a phone box somewhere near here. Or maybe you are not because it's rather hard to find a phone box even in Britain where just a few are reserved for ceremonial purposes.

Americans are often rather fond of red phone boxes. They have probably seen those cute pictures of them outside museums or honeycomb villages in the Cotswolds. Having grown up with them I'm more cynical. Phone boxes were usually places of last resort. if you went into them you'd be hit by a pleasant aroma of cigarettes and pee. The phone book would invariably be ripped and the slot to put  your coins in jammed up with chewing gum. English phone boxes were never cute and they have now been rendered obsolete by cell phones.

One thing phone boxes have made me realize is we need to be ready for change. We need to be able to embrace tragedy and new love. Recently when my father was taken to hospital for a serious procedure that was rather too close to life or death than I care to think about, the reality of mortality hit me. Unlike most people I know, I have yet to lose an immediate member of my family and I am chronically unready in this regard. Fortunately the operation was successful.

All the time we see people around us who adapt well to change and those that don't. The British Monarchy may not be good for a lot beyond selling tabloids and cutting ribbons, but at least it had thousands of years of pedigree which provides us with a lot of examples of the human psyche in all of its flawed glory. I have always been fond of Etheldred II The Unready due to his inability to get his s.. together. Etheldred ruled from 979 to 1013 and had another stab from 1014 to 1016.

The Official Website of the British Monarchy points out Ethelred became the King of England at the age of seven at Corfe Castle in Dorset, following the murder of his half-brother Edward II by his own supporters. With supporters like that, who needs enemies. I digress.

Corfe Castle

Ethelred was known as Un-raed or "Unready" which meant he was unwise and had no counsel. At the time the Danes - who were clearly unlike the bicycle and peace-loving Danes of today - were in control of large chucks of the country. Their leader Cnut - a man who suffered much from his name being misspelled - was considerably more aggressive than the King and not best pleased by Ethelred's order to kill all Danes.

Ethelred then tried another tactic by giving the Danes a large amount of silver in the hope they would go away - a measure that was unsuccessful and was lambasted by the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle - the tabloid of the day.

In 1013 Ethelred did a runner to France when his throne was stolen by the powerful Viking Sweyn of Denmark. He returned to rule in 1014 but undermined his return by dying in 1016.

So ended a fairly inglorious and forgettable chapter which has something or other to do with adapting to change.

Wednesday, September 23, 2015

Bruno Catalano and the Art of Displacement

Next month I will have been in the United States for 10 years. It's an anniversary that chills me when I think about it because I didn't plan to be here very long. Some of the pain of displacement has gone but it can be hard on family occasions and birthdays to be separated by an ocean.

In the United States I have met two types of Brit - those who say they would never go back even if you paid them a lot of money and gave them a lifetime's supply of jammy dodgers and those who would readily go back but are trapped due to kids or other commitments. I suppose I fall into the latter category, although I am not naive enough to think if I returned I would not miss certain aspects of the US. When I first came here I was horrified by the vast emptiness of strip malls, the ugliness of convenience and the lack of quaintness. Today I have come to embrace the convenience of convenience and the fact I can drive out of my apartment and get anything I want within 10 minutes. In London I would have had to battle traffic or walked through downtrodden streets to a half boarded up store that have stocked a few out of date biscuits.

I don't miss the buses and train so much either - the smell of other people packed against me early in the morning, the chewing gum on seats, the stampede of feet. American embraces your individuality but it also may make you less tolerant. Because America prides itself on speed we don't expect to have to wait and we get more angry when we do.

Although I would miss things, I often feel the deprivation keenly, particularly in the fall. When you grow up in and around the English countryside, you don't always appreciate its beauty. When you grow up in England, you can resent the days your parents forced you to visit a Medieval church hidden down a country lane where rooks have cawed from the tower for centuries. Only later when you look back does the wonder dawn on you.

When you drove across the moors you could curse the bleakness and the winding nature of the road. Only in retrospect do you see how the journey was as precious as getting there.

The French sculptor Bruno Catalano evokes the feeling of displacement in his new work in Marseilles in which his figures miss vital parts. When we go away, inevitably we leave parts of us behind, in some cases our whole being. The dashing poet Rupert Brooke who wrote of "some corner of a foreign field that is for ever England" was buried in an olive grove in Skyros during World War

Yet this displacement can be more subtle; a displaced memory here and there - a yearning for the smell of wood smoke on a fall evening in the Peak District. There's a fear too that if we ever go back we will no longer be able to reconcile our memories with the present. And being a stranger in our home land might be far more frightening than being a stranger in a strange land.

Monday, September 14, 2015

A Languid Afternoon in Key West

The most palpable feeling at Hemingway's house in Key West is the drowsiness of the late afternoon caused by the thickness of the air and the tropical heat that can turn your clothes as wet as the late and great author's pool in the luscious grounds.

Everywhere around the great house bright and heavy flowers bend their dripping petals over the sunlit paths and the six toed cats that are descendants of his felines flick their tails contemptuously at visitors. Hemingway wrote some of his most vibrant works here - For Whom the Bell Tolls and a Farewell to Arms. The house was inhabited by a youthful Hemingway who drank hard and fished hard - but never at the same time. The  "Pop" figure, avuncular with a white beard was a later incarnation, although it's this figure that inspires the lookalike competition downtown.

After barely surviving the humidity of the house we crashed on a bench and watched the preparations for a wedding unfold under a great verdant tree. We were entirely inconspicuous and the world went by without us. A wedding planner was scuttling around, a vibrant ball of spiky energy so at odds with the languid afternoon. We watched the old people in their starched shirts looking anxiously at their watches as if marking out their limited time left on earth and the kids bounding across the grass. Even from a distance we could figure out the family dynamics - the black sheep brother who showed up in a dirty T-shirt and handed a surprised guest his cigarette, the bustling business woman making bitchy asides at the appearance of the bride. Still we were transfixed by this odd and antique ordeal, so much ado and energy about two people seeking to get a fix on each other, when we knew the transient and shifting reality.

Although we knew there haphazard and transient nature of life and love, modeled on the great man himself who went through wives like his novels, we felt curiously tranquil in the garden and supremely at ease with each other.

It took some effort to pull ourselves from the garden and hit the hot dusty road by the lighthouse. It took some effort to eventually go our separate ways and not to miss the soft and languid warmth of that afternoon in the garden and the touch of the hot wind.

You could have taken someone else

You should have taken someone else

But you should never go on trips with someone you do not love.

Monday, September 7, 2015

Meandering Through the Forgotten Heart of West Virginia

West Virginia is a good place to lose yourself and I wanted to lose myself as much as possible. There's a vastness to this unmanicured wilderness and an uncompromising frontier feel. As we headed south I had no map and Siri failed to cooperate. I stopped at a gas station and and asked about the unfamiliar concept of buying a map. I felt sublimely antique. The woman reached under a shelf, giving me the sort of look reserved for men who ask for porno videos involving turtles. She pulled out 10 maps of Pennsylvania and shook her head slowly.

Elkins, WV

So we drove south with little general idea of where we were going. It was suddenly good to feel the control slip away, to round one of the numerous curves to find a small battered town in the folds of the hills, clinging to the side of the mill or factory that provided its life blood. Everywhere in West Virginia there are ghosts of a past that once throbbed to a stronger industrial beat. West Virginia was once a place where men were men and women - well cooked and hid a few pennies away in the hope they would not be spent on moonshine. There are still parts of West Virginia that are like this as fracking booms. But much of the state seems happy to slide away into its past.

We were hopelessly lost and stopped for a while to wander around Elkins, a not unpleasantly run down kind of place in the heart of the state with some imposing main streets. The people in the hardware store had a problem with the map concept but directed us to a visitor center in the station. The lady behind the counter looked like she hadn't seen a visitor for a couple of weeks but could not have been more helpful. She pulled out a map of the state and offered to highlight the route to Sumersville. I told her I'd be fine without the highlighter. Still she seemed a bit concerned about the likely fate of a British guy and two kids in the heart of West Virginia without even the help of a highlighter. "Be safe," she said as I departed. By this time I was starting to wonder where Deliverance was set.

Summersville Lake

Half an hour later we were back on the road. Zara was navigating and I was beginning to wish I had taken up the highlighter offer. We arrived in Summersville just over an hour later and found a strip of chain restaurants. At Shoney's I was able to observe another curious West Virginia phenomenon. While the young waitresses were always chatty and went above and beyond to help with directions, the older staff seemed to be involved in a perpetual struggle to keep their bitterness in check. Maybe it's something about living in West Virginia for a long time, although it's hard to imagine when you have a pretty stretch of water like Summersville Lake in your back yard.

We camped at a site on the lake with a pool, mini golf and a large bouncy structure that facilitated much bouncing, although not by me. Camping can be like this with kids. You have to counterbalance a night with spindly spiders with some of the luxuries of glamping.

Hawks Nest State Park

West Virginia may lack spectacular tourist attractions but the New River Gorge Bridge is one of them. Opened in 1977, the New River Gorge Bridge is the third highest bridge in the United States and one of the most famous landmarks of Appalacia where deep wooded gorges and valleys have presented obstacles to the population for centuries. The kids were transfixed momentarily before asking if there was anywhere to play laser tag nearby. In the event I disappointed them, taking them on a drive down the gorge to a remote place called Thurmond where an iron bridge and a station house shimmered in the afternoon heat. We walked past a row of buildings that used to be the main street and the kids suddenly became engaged. After the railroad arrive here in 1892 Thurmond became an unlikely boom town. There was a passenger depot here, a freight station and an engine house. The population of the town swelled to thousands and there were hotels, stores and meat packing facilities.

New River Gorge Bridge

In the first two decades of the 20th centuries Thurmond handled more freight than Richmond in Virginia and Cincinnati in Ohio combined. The Dun Glen Hotel hosted the world's longest poker game - lasting a mere 14 years.

Thurmond, VA

Fire, prohibition and ultimately the demise of steam did for Thurmond. Today it's just a row of empty store fronts, preserved with a museum feel for the few visitors who make it here. It's a ghost town but maybe the ghosts have departed. As we walked among the crunching fragments of the town beside the railroad line with the remnants of my nuclear family I got to thinking of demise and disintegration. There are the grand plans and the industry and the bustle, followed by the slow release, the breaking apart, the bitterness and insanity and ultimately the beauty of nature that descends again from the hills and carpets all around it in its embrace. Then one day when we return and walk back along those railroad lines that were once hard and uncompromising and find beauty once again in the ruins.

Friday, August 28, 2015

West Virginia - the Half Promised Land

I had a lot of exotic ideas about where I would take the kids on vacation this year but they never really panned out. The holiday funds were eaten up by lawyers and acrimony and suddenly the summer that began with high hopes of freedom was almost over.

That idea of a villa fringed by palm trees had been receding over the last two months until it was reduced to a tiny tent amid the dust of an obscure lake in West Virginia. I didn't let the downsizing of my dreams depress me unduly. I had never been to West Virginia so it remained a mysterious and uncharted place. And from a British mindset West Virginia seems like a fascinating and insulated place beloved of hillbillies, people who handle snakes in churches and twangy mountain singers.

The trip out did not exactly go according to plan. In hindsight it was probably not a great idea to move my furniture to my new apartment in the morning and embark on a five hour drive in the afternoon to a campsite.

We didn't hit the road until 2 pm and the specter of putting up a tent in the pitch dark aided only by a cheap Wal Mart flashlight was unappealing. Worse still my eyelids were drooping on the road after just an hour before we even reached Petersburg. It was clearly a time for desperate measures - otherwise known as gas station coffee. This stuff can strip paint off walls and it did the job of giving me a massive jolt and keeping me awake, although it failed to save me from a Siri malfunction a few miles north of Richmond. My Siri is actually a man with a British accent but he's still amazingly stupid and once tried to send me to a location in Australia when I was seeking directions for five miles in Virginia Beach.

The Siri malfunction and the inevitably static traffic on I-95 meant that three hours into the drive, West Virginia remained a far off dream. Admitting defeat I pulled over into a Super 8, thus putting off the prospect of arriving at a camp site at 10 p.m. and falling into a half deflated air mattress. I once read in a Rough Guide that Super 8 is the best budget motel and I had few complaints once I had called for instructions on how to turn on the light. I'm not sure if $80 a night counts as budget but it's always a bonus to wake up without roaches in one's mouth I find.

The only downside of the hotel was it was close to the retail park from hell. When you are with kids hell equates to the number of stores and the presence of Five Below.

The next day it took another two hours to reach West Virginia but I am happy to say we made it. We pulled over at a viewing area and took pictures of mountains that looked rather similar to those in Virginia. Then we headed over empty roads and past high hills studded with somber wind farms to reach Blackwater Falls State Park.

If there is one constant about West Virginia it's the fact it seems more empty than anywhere else I have been to. Even Blackwater Falls - a popular state park emptied after hours and there were just a handful of tents and campers in the camp ground.

Blackwater Falls State Park is breathtakingly beautiful. Of course by the time I reached the viewing platform, the five-year-old had seen it and done it and wanted to head back up the path. We also tried some trails - a concept that always leaves the kids whining and groaning. Amid the demands for candy from non existent candy machines, ice cream and crazy bear hats it can be hard to appreciate beauty. But looking back this place was beautiful with the added advantages of not having a Five Below for hundreds of miles.

Monday, August 10, 2015

The Meaning of Scot-Free

When I was recently editing some copy with the phrase "Scot-free" in it, I immediately started to wonder about the meaning of the term. My first reaction was here we go again - this is clearly a reference to Scottish people being cheap.

Just yesterday I drove past a rather basic looking hotel in Virginia Beach called the Mac Thrift Inn . Its sign featured a skinny boned Scotsman who was clearly too cheap to afford underpants under his kilt. These old stereotypes endure but is there anything to them?

Interestingly enough, the phrase "Scot-free" has nothing to do with Scotsmen. There's a perception in America that this phrase is linked to the famous case of Dredd Scott.

Scott was a black slave who was born in Virginia in 1799. In a number of high profile court cases he sought to win his freedom before he was made a free man by his owners the Blow family. In fact, the phrase has nothing to do with Dredd Scott or Scotsmen.

In reality the phrase is derived from the Scandinavian word "skat" which is a phrase for tax or payment that migrated to Britain and turned into scot. It was levied as early as the 10th Century as a form of municipal poor relief. It was later used to describe a variety of taxes. In fact, the term scot-free means getting away without paying your taxes.

It's interesting how misinformation gathers pace, though. Like the stereotypes of Scottish people being mean. Although Scotland gave us a number of sayings about saving pennies, Scotland apparently now gives more money to charity than the rest of the United Kingdom.

History can commonly distort facts and these distortions are then taken for granted. Take, for example, the claim that the disturbed painter Van Gogh cut off his ear. Recently, a new book claimed he may have made up the story to protect his friend the painter Paul Gauguin, a keen fencer, who loped of Van Gogh's ear during a heated argument.

This is not so say Van Gogh was a more stable bunny than history has hitheto given him credit. Nobody is disputing the fact he then presented his severed ear to a prostitute who then fainted. What a charmer.

Sunday, July 19, 2015

How Graphic Should Sex Scenes be In Literature?

In my previous novel Red Savanna there were sex scenes but they were somewhat tame, hinting at carnal goings-on but not being overly graphic. This may be just as well because my characters were trapped in a rapidly deteriorating African civil war - a situation that does not make for intimacy or good personal hygiene.

In my second novel Reportage, I decided to ramp up the sex a bit but run up against the dilemma about how graphic the sex should be. In Reportage two young reporters get it on - the staid and slightly pompous Charles and the vampish Penny, Anyone who has worked in newspapers will know they are hotbeds of sexual dysfunction, although my experience tends to suggest British newspapers are more salacious than those in the United States, perhaps due to the vast amount of alcohol we drank to dull the pain of long hours, low pay and constant deadline pressure.

On one newspaper, we expected editors to have affairs with secretaries but it was still a bit shocking to hear one of the admin girls boast about buying a butt plug for the managing director.

One editor even succeeded in getting himself fired by getting into a fight with a pimp over payment of a prostitute. Needless to say all of the players in these various tawdry scenes were married but I assume the recipient of the butt plug was the man  who made the firing decision.

This brings me back to the issue that is occupying my mind about how graphic sex scenes should be before they become the equivalent of the narratives of the soft core porn magazines that were so in demand when I was a teenager. Let's just say we didn't pay much attention to the words.

Still some novelists have gone for the graphic. When I think visceral, I think JG Ballard. Personally I find the sort of terms a gynecologist might use to be a turn off in literature. Who wants to read about vulvas and scrotum?

On the other end of the spectrum there were those trashy bodice rippers with their flowery language that one's grandmother read back in the day. "He caressed her womanly curves" etc.

I turned to help to a website on 10 Amazingly Written Sex Scenes for some help. Some of these are rather raunchy and not appropriate for a blog without the adult filter on it. I was interested to see On Chesil Beach by the incomparable Ian McEwan on this list, not least because this novel is on my bed side table but I haven't got far into it. It's actually about a newly married couple who have sexual issues.

The novel builds up to a crescendo. Yes I deliberately avoided the word 'climax.'

"Had she pulled on the wrong thing? Had she gripped too tight? He gave out a wail, a complicated series of agonised, rising vowels, the sort of sound she had heard once in a comedy film when a waiter, weaving this way and that, appeared to be about to drop a pile of towering soup plates."

Clearly it doesn't get hotter than a pile of towering soup plates. And then there's DH Lawrence - the author who shocked polite society and whose novel Lady Chatterley's Lover was banned in the early 20th Century, but doesn't seem so risque now.

"With a queer obedience, she lay down on the blanket. Then she felt the soft, groping, helplessly desirous hand touching her body, feeling for her face. The hand stroked her face softly, softly, with infinite soothing and assurance, and at last there was the soft touch of a kiss on her cheek."

In the end I decided to just write it and go with the flow. Here's the prelude to naughtiness.

The conversation took an unexpected turn when she started stroking his hand. “Let’s not have our first matrimonial before we’ve even got to know each other. You do want to know me better, don’t you?”

Matthews decided against reminding her it was not their first matrimonial even though he had a reporter’s instinct to correct. “Yes Penny,” he said hesitantly.

“God Charles. I really have pissed you off haven’t I? I need to make it up to you. Let’s get out of this dive and go for a ride.”

“It’s getting late.”

“Oh go to bed at 9 do you?”

Soon they were back in the BMW, Matthews feeling a soft fuzziness from the wine he had drank to soak out Penny’s performance. The high towers of the docklands, the gas holders and gaunt cylinders flitted by. Finally Penny pulled hard right and they went through a hole in the fence and into a rubble strewn yard behind a ghastly concrete warehouse that was rotting away.

“God Penny. Where are you taking me? This looks like a perfect place for a murder.”

“I know. Grim isn’t it?” she said, barely concealing her elation. “Dad owned this place 20 years ago. It was a slaughter house but he got out of the killing business. You were right.”

Matthews made out some crumbling metal cattle pens and a vague sad image of the lumbering beasts going to their deaths  appeared in his mind. Matthews had toyed with vegetarianism. Places like this were the reason why. He looked into Penny’s eyes, wide, possum-like and comprehending in the dark.

“I don’t like meat either. I urged Daddy to drop that side of his business and he did. I wouldn’t mind yours, though.”

He turned to her and she had collapsed her seat. Her skirt had been pulled half way up her pale backside and she was tugging on her panties.

“Come on Charles. When did you last get some action with that zipper?”

“I do OK,” he said, realizing to his chagrin it was probably at least a year.

Monday, July 6, 2015

It's July - Let's Be Total Dickheads

There is something about July that seems to turn people into total dickheads. I'm not sure if it's the humidity or the almost daily rainstorms, but it  has certainly brought a dick head onto every street corner.

This weekend marked the July 4 holiday but I chose not to celebrate the liberation of British people from Americans as I was feeling rather down due to a legal bombshell, so instead engaged in some wallowing in loneliness and self pity.

I wasn't going to go out at all, but eventually wandered the mean streets of River City just before the firework display musing on how I needed to finally cleanse River City out of my system and make a new start. The fireworks, which I expected to be token and derisory were actually rather impressive. Then I saw the obligatory dickhead. I would say he was 18 and he had just lit five sparklers in his baseball hat and was running around yelling, cutting a swathe in the crowd on the sidewalk.

Clearly obligatory dickhead was not aware of the fact that sparklers cause more injuries than any other firework in the country - about 700 every July 4 and they burn at 2000 F. The obligatory dickhead's squeals of excitement quickly turned into yelps of pain but he managed to throw off his hat before the sparklers fried his gray matter - which would have taken about two seconds.

Tragically a guy called Devon Staples from Maine was not so lucky. Staples decided it would be a good idea to place a firework mortar tube on his head and launch off a firework, according to police. He died instantly. His brother, who disputed the head launching account, said there was very little of Devon left.

Another accident in Orange County, Texas could have been avoidable, methinks. A 28-year-old man called Tommie Woodward decided to ignore signs that stated "No swimming - alligators," jumped in a bayou and even yelled "blank the alligators" before the aforementioned creatures had him as a late night snack.

It should not really be necessary to point out that fireworks and alligators are inherently dangerous but maybe that's not as obvious as I thought. I know July sucks folks but please resist the temptation to be another dickhead.

Thursday, June 25, 2015

Five Little Known Facts About the Confederate Flag

The Confederate flag has always struck me as distasteful. I feel something unpleasant in my gut when I see it. It makes me think of rednecks swilling Miller Lite, arm less shirts and those old re-runs of the Dukes of Hazzard. The feeling I get isn't as strong as if I see a Swastika but it's along those lines.

Now in the wake of the terrible Charleston church killings in which a white youth who took pictures of himself with a gun and the flag, killed nine black worshipers, politicians have been racing to distance themselves from the Confederate flag. The Republican party has been in the vanguard with Mitt Romney leading the way. In the past some Republicans have defended the right to fly this flag which is odd really when you consider Abraham Lincoln was a Republican.

The Confederate battle flag still flies close to South Carolina's capitol

I'm not sure this flag should have any place in the American psyche but the fact it does says much about the American psyche. There have also been reports this week of a large upsurge in demand for products with the Confederate flag on, perhaps in anticipation of a ban.

Locally people have been going even further and calling for the removal of Confederate war memorials from the Civil War which frankly I think is stupid because these soldiers died in large numbers, admittedly fighting for a disturbing cause. The Confederate flag flying in official places is a different matter entirely.

Here are five little known facts about the Confederate flag.

1 - It was never the official flag of the Confederacy. Instead, it was the battle flag of the Army of Northern Virginia and the Army of Tennessee.

2 - The Confederate battle flag came into widespread use during anti desegregation protests in the mid 20th century. It's modern use is closely mired in racism. It was adopted by South Carolina politician Strom Thurmond who ran for president on a segregation ticket.

3 - Mississippi, which has a good claim to be the most backward and depressing state in the US, is the only state to feature the battle flag in its state flag.

4 - The battle flag was also called the Southern Cross.

5 - General Robert E. Lee, who led the Army of Northern Virginia, was closely associated with the flag but he rejected the symbols of the Civil War after his defeat and no flags flew at his funeral.

Monday, June 15, 2015

Echoes of Jaws as Sharks Attack Kids on North Carolina Beaches

Sharks are attacking kids off the beach, there's screaming and panic in the water and the Mayor said there wasn't time to get people out of the water. It sounds like a certain movie but alarmingly this was what really happened over the weekend at Oak Island in North Carolina.

The wounds from these shark attacks were no mere graze. In both case kids lost arms on a beach where a girl had suffered less serious shark injuries a week earlier.

Just a day earlier I had been at North Carolina Aquarium showing the kids the famous shark tank. Of course shark attacks are rare, I told them. The sharks drifted graceful and silver in the tank, never showing any sign of turning vicious and attacking the large fish they shared a tank with. Still, there was something disconcerting about their button eyes. It would be cliched to say there was not a spark of humanity in them because sharks are, afterall, fish. You would, expect them to be cold fish. Nevertheless, their eyes are rather chilling.

I've never been to Oak Island but I've been down to Wilmington. It gets so humid on the North Carolina coast that it's unbearable not to go into the water. However, the victims in these attacks were only up to their waists in water.

George Burgess, the director of Florida's Program for Shark Research at the University of Florida's Museum of Natural History, said blacktip and spinner sharks frequent this coast and can get up to seven feet long. He said they only tend to bite people in "mistaken identity" situations when they think splashing arms and legs are normal prey.

Mistaken identity or not, it's harrowing to lose a limb and these sharks seem rather focused.

Oak Island Mayor Better Wallace said it all happened so fast there was little time to get people out of the water.

Although there are clearly echoes of Jaws Mayor Wallace has a long way to go to become Mayor Vaughn who said: "It's all psychological. You yell barracuda, everybody says, "Huh? What?" You yell shark, we've got a panic on our hands on the Fourth of July."

Friday, June 12, 2015

OMG - Twisted Around Like a Tornado Girl

Most reporters have been saddled with covering car accidents at some time or another and it's not always easy to find people who can talk about what happened. News editors, naturally seemed to live in a parallel universe and to believe that every accident scene is populated by an army of people who are waiting there to give their account to the media.

Of course TV reporters have the upper hand in this regard. There are people who are dying to get on their local TV station no matter how hokey it is. In my days as a reporter I spent more time than I can remember, trying to find eye witnesses who would give lively quotes. In saying that there was always the danger of finding a witnesses who would give too many quotes and hog the limelight. I thought about this when I saw the video footage of "twisted round like a tornado girl,"

My first reaction to this clip was to ask what she was on.

My second was who goes to Burger King to get a "piece of burger."

My thought thought was just another confirmation of why I never want to visit Mississippi.

This video is like looking at a second car wreck. "This attention whore looks like a horse on cocaine," stated one unkind commentator. Sort of true, though, even if the polite term is flamboyant witness...

The woman in question is apparently variously called Ruby Evans or Courtney Barnes. She has been on some kind of reality TV show and a parody song is on its way. I have no idea why I have wasted five minutes writing about this person or why anyone else should.

Monday, June 8, 2015

Fixated by Naked and Afraid

I haven't watched much tele but of late I have become fixated by Discovery's Naked and Afraid. It's the show where total strangers get their kits off and try to survive in a jungle or another godforsaken wilderness for 21 days.

My fixation isn't due to prurience. Believe me - after a couple of days in the jungle, naked and sweaty bodies have little allure and the show blurs out naughty parts anyhow.

I'm more interested in what this show reveals about the human psychology because it can be a bit like The Lord of the Flies on reality TV. The show starts with two strangers - a man and a woman - who are flown to a remote places such as Borneo, Colombia, Brazil etc. and then told to strip in front of each other.

The contestants usually have some kind of survivalist background. Typically, they treat the first day like some kind of nudist vacation, skipping through the jungle or sand dunes and musing on the beauty of the wilderness. Then the reality that they have no shelter or water will occur to them a couple of hours later.

It's at this stage that the things we take for granted such as supermarkets and air conditioning kick in. Watch a few episodes of Naked and Afraid and you will never complain about the 300 pound man or woman in front of you at the Wal-Mart check out who is meticulously describing each item he has bought to the cashier.

Although building a house from palm trees on a desert island may seem romantic, the contestants soon find they dehydrate quickly in temperatures of 100 degrees and finding water is no easy job. Drink from a stream and you could catch some terrible tropical disease. You need fire and methods of purifying water but contestants have spent five days on this show trying to start a fire. The happiness of the contestants when they get a sip of water is worth savoring but a couple of days later hunger sets in and you realize killing animals in the wild or eating safe plants is no mean feat.

On one challenge the contestants find coconuts only to discover rats had eaten them and they were crawling with lice. The male contestant set up traps and manage to kill multiple rats which the woman would not eat, prompting the man to become increasingly crazy and to describe his pleasure at devouring their ratty entrails. This particular contestant had no girlfriend at the start of the episode and it unlikely to now either.

That's another interesting thing about Naked and Afraid. We start to see how people behave when they are deprived of water and food and it's not pretty. In one show the most chilled of guys who prided himself on his skills as a life coach started bitching out his partner who spent 20 out of 21 days whining.

Naked and Afraid also raises questions about traditional gender roles, especially when we see the men trying to hunt and the women doing domestic tasks such as cooking and repairing the home. Is this nature or nurture? Did humans fall into these traditional roles for a biological reason based on strength or has society conditioned us to take them up.

Whiny women is something of a theme but that's not to say this plays out with all couples. In one episode an overweight guy spent 21 days sitting on his backside in the palm hut while the woman risked heat stroke, attempting to find food. The woman was taken off the show, suffering from extreme dehydration and the man completed the challenge. Maybe we can try too hard when we can sometimes achieve results by sitting on our backsides.

The deterioration of couples in Naked and Afraid gives a frightening glimpse into why the settlers in Jamestown turned to cannibalism and why there are more wars in Third World countries. Let's not forget this is only a 21 day challenge and there's always the fall back of dropping out and going home. It's frightening to imagine Naked and Afraid as reality but it's exactly what our predecessors faced.

There are also some heart warming episodes among the poisonous snakes and rats such as the episode in which a pig headed chauvinistic former Marine who was holed up with a vegetarian woman finally learned about mutual respect in the jungle. The scene where she brings him a dead toad to snack on when his machismo had washed away, bordered on the moving.

The other thing I wonder about this show is if anyone had sex. It's hard to imagine when you are malnourished and you stink and tics are eating your eyelids but I have to wonder. They are naked afterall. There are certainly scenes in cold places where sharing body warmth makes total sense. If anyone is doing the extremely dirty out in the jungle, nobody is showing it on TV, which I am really fine with.

Friday, May 29, 2015

Why Proposal Branded a Wedding Crime Was Not What it Seemed

There are a lot of images out there that are reasons to get uptight about - people being beheaded and persecuted, for example. I would suggest this is not one of them.

For an hour on the radio as I drove into work yesterday all of the conversation was about an incredible wedding faux-par in which a man proposed to a woman right in front of the bride and groom at a wedding. The female voice on the radio informed listeners that she would bitch slap anyone who had upstaged her wedding in that manner, adding that women are planning their big day from the age of three onward. Really?

The picture was posted on Reddit where it was viewed 1.3 million times in 24 hours. It attracted more than 1,000 comments - most of them scathing.

The Daily Mail ranted about the picture. Its reporter had clearly been granted an exclusive to the inside of the bride's head. "Her smile says 'congratulations', her eyes say something else entirely," the article stated while noting the guy who proposed went to the trouble of placing his bottle of beer on the bridal table before getting on one knee.

William Hanson, author of the Buffer's Guide to Etiquette was enlisted to say that while happy couples can be irritating on their wedding day (or any other time for that matter), it's never acceptable to upstage the bride and groom by proposing on their wedding day.

A day later some of the outrage at the commission of the ultimate wedding crime was removed from the situation. It turned out the bride - the same one whose expression clearly masked hate - had suggested the proposal. Oh and the lady being proposed to was the bride's sister.

But, of course, a viral picture paints a 1000 words - most of them scathing and we know best cos it's on social media - right.

Thursday, May 21, 2015

Is This The End of Palmyra?

One sultry night in Luxor I got into a conversation with a group of Australians outside a hole in the wall cafe. I still recall the thick heat of the air and the walk a few hours earlier through the majestic ruins of the Temple of Luxor.

The pretext of the conversation was to borrow a roll of toilet paper. My partner of the time was having issued and inevitably there was no paper in the rest room of the cafe. Toilet paper is something of a must-have in Egypt. Even if you jettison the other basics of living. Fortunately, the Australians were well equipped hardened travelers.

The girl told me that had backpacked trough Syria and Lebanon and visited the lands of the Bible and the great temples of antiquity. She had seen the great ruins of Palmyra rise from the desert in Syria. This great city was built in the 1st and 2nd centuries, combining the influences of ancient Greece and Rome with that of Persia.

Although the Middle East has never been stable, I was fascinated by the girl's comments and decided I wanted to see Palmyra myself. Of course I never did. I got back on the Nile cruiser and drank some more cocktails. Even so the notions of these ancient civilizations continued to fascinate me. I visited Ephesus in Turkey, Caeseria in Israel and Dougga in Tunisia.

Such places seemed to defy the notion of the past as a place of darkness and barbarism. There was romance and the thrilling sweep of history in these cities in the sand.

I haven't thought about Palmyra much until this week. I never made it there and probably never will. Today the savage armies of ISIS are in Palmyra and it will probably be leveled by the end of the week. A city that had withstood 2,000 years of conflict including two World Wars in the last century may soon be no more.

I'm not sure who visits Luxor anymore but Egypt is governed by a regime so paranoid that you can be arrested for photographing certain places and the country's first democratically elected president in many decades has been sentenced to death.

On one side are the despots and on the other the maniacs. Egypt's new rulers may be frightening but at least nobody is dismantling the pyramids.

It's hard not to feel a lingering sadness at the death of civilization and the darkness that is descending on the desert. That sense of decay, ruin and the loss of glory the was described by Shelley in Ozymandias as as relevant today as ever.

My name is Ozymandias, king of kings:
Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!"
Nothing beside remains: round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare,
The lone and level sands stretch far away.

Saturday, May 16, 2015

Days of Dust and Drift

I drive or walk past the house every day but it still disturbs me. Some of the old whiteness lingers but its dark heart is showing through the valiant white paint. The creepers have strangled the chimney, glass has fallen out inside the windows and the rampant vegetation has taken over the back yard.

It bothers me to see it because it bothers me to be back in this small town, even though it was my choice. River City was a pin on the map between the beach home of a now departed relative and the big conurbation. It reminds me of how I have been too long in this place, this country, this phase. The road out of here to there and back gets longer every day.

That old house disturbs me more because I remember when it used to be a home. Of sorts. I remember the kids' bicycles on the lawn. They guy who worked next to me. An odd guy. Introverted. Depressed maybe. I liked him.

When he gave up his job to be alone with his books for a year or so, I never bothered to visit him. Maybe I would have looked through him in the same way as I look through so many people I once knew in this town. There were rumors about things his wife was doing; a job in California that never came through. Then nothing, Just this house that fell apart by the day until it stood abandoned with a For Sale sign that is teetering over in the yard. The For Sale signs in this town are permanent fixtures. The houses never sell.

Sometimes I wonder whatever happened to them. Do families rot away like old houses or re-form and re-align and find new vistas? I wonder what dark deeds occurred between those four walls. Or maybe the darkness is in my head and there was no drama - just long days of dust and drift. Which are far more frightening when you think about it.

Tuesday, May 5, 2015

A General Election a Long Way Away

There's an election back at home on May 6 but you'd be excused for not knowing living over here.

When I was much younger than today the General Election was a massive defining event that dominated media coverage for weeks and whipped the whole country into a frenzy. It, therefore, gives me an odd sense of dislocation being over here and hardly being aware of the main players, let alone every twist and turn. It's not even easy to get British news on the British news sites because sites such as the Guardian, the Daily Mail and BBC have been Americanized - even if you type in Thank goodness for the reactive folks at the Telegraph.

I feel rather sadly disconnected from it all now. I met David Cameron, who happens to the the Prime Minister, on one occasion. I may have met Liberal Leader and Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg once, but seem to have forgotten. Labour leader Ed Miliband looks like he should be a playground monitor, I don't want to think too closely about the UK Independence Party and some Green party person.

The polls are close but demonstrate that while much has changed much remains the same - the election will either be won by Labour or the Tories, even if they need a bit of help from someone else.

When we grew up in the 1970s people were either fundamentally red or blue and it's still that way. You believed in the working man or woman in a flat cap or you had floral curtain and china cups and fondness for fox hunting. we were Labour in a fairly unenthusiastic way. There was a minor rumpus when my mother voted for Margaret Thatcher one time. She never repeated the mistake again but continued to flirt with the Liberals for some time. In the divisive 1980s I did some canvassing for the Labour party and joined a university group where people shouted a lot, sported frightening hair cuts and went on about Trotsky until I realized there were more exciting temptations such as beer and women.

Later in life I wrote about politics, although the people I interviewed have mostly vanished to sunken old homes in Surrey or wherever politicians go to be put out to grass. I remember a terse exchange with a grumpy Michael Heseltine at a suburban railway station and a pint with John Gummer who remarked on the noteworthy cleavage of the woman behind the bar. One time at the House of Commons while involved in a scintillating talk about badger culls I turned around to see a frail but somewhat fierce elderly woman and momentarily made eye contact with Margaret Thatcher.

For many years the Tories dominated and Labor was the underdog. Then the tables were turned and the country was ruled by Tony Blair who may as well have been a Tory anyhow and infamously got stuck up George W Bush's pants leg.

From a distance much of the emotion has gone out of British politics. I can't really relate to much of the Facebook hatred I see about David Cameron who seems cuddly compared to Margaret Thatcher - although the same could be said about a nest of wasps. And it's hard to feel much sympathy for the Lib Dems who spend the last four decades saying their time would come when they could be part of a coalition government and would push through voting reform that would change their fortunes.

Four years ago the Lib Dems finally got their moment in forming a coalition government known as Con Dem Nation. Now they are struggling at about 10 percent in the same old voting system that dogged them in the past.

When it comes to British politics, the faces may be different but the old notions of red and blue and left and right, still linger.

Friday, May 1, 2015

Goodbye to All That A to Z Angst

So that was the A to Z Challenge. It's all over for another year and with it those nights of hastily completing a post before midnight. I'm not sure why we do the A to Z Challenge. Maybe we just do it because it's become an institution like that other April institution, taxes. OK it's more fun than taxes but most things are apart from French kissing a camel.

That old apple badge - so passe - embrace your inner snake

This year I experienced very little A to Z angst due to the fact I wrote all of my posts in advance. There were a couple of chapters where I realized I had lost parts of a document and had to hastily revise but I didn't sweat the challenge much.

Nor did I hop as many blog as I would have liked or get as many diehard followers as I have picked up in previous year. Some of them followed me on this exhausting blogging road before finally fading away like the spectral ghost on the last days of Shackleton's trek who faded in and out of the snow.

If I am to be honest some of the blogs I found along the way left me as cold as the explorers on that nightmare ordeal across the ice. They left me asking why. I wonder now if blogging has lost some of the novelty it seemed to have five years ago or maybe I'm jaded and disconnected. I've seen a lot of good bloggers disappear along the way but this is probably symptomatic of life, friends, lovers and all of the rest.

Maybe because I spend so much of my day in the blogisphere I don't get out enough to choose life. Or maybe life changed imperceptibly over the last few years and became bloodless, our pulse replaced with a Tweet or an invitation to wish someone we barely know happy birthday on LinkedIn.

I'm not going to blame the challenge, though. My blog views were shrinking as fast as Bruce Jenner's man parts before this challenge. Now I am celebrating a very big spike. Call me fickle but there's such as thing as blog hit high.

Of course, like many people out there I have had invasive thoughts about not doing the A to Z Challenge again but the one year I sat it out it felt a bit like being in solitary confinement while the cool kids got to play on the adventure playground. I'll be back next year but I don't want to just go through the motions. It will be spectacular - no more A for apple right.

Thursday, April 30, 2015

Z is for Zoetrope

Sometimes I felt my life was like a zoetrope spinning in a circle, giving fascinating glimpses of light and dark in the cylinder before finally slowing down. One autumn evening somewhere in France, I found myself sitting at the table of a pavement café with a strange hunched up fellow who reminded me obliquely of Quasimodo, or at least my perception of the Victor Hugo character from the novel and the film.

I had spent the day in the town square, painting the lovely limes and sycamores with their russet, yellow and vibrant leaves strewn like a tapestry across the windows of the old stone houses. Nobody had bothered me except a few visitors and one had attracted my attention and promised to see me the next day. As I filled up the long hours turning my brush on the canvass, I allowed myself to think ruefully of the brief period when I was a household name in Britain, if not France. Today when I gave people my name, nothing registered.

The art world had moved on a long time ago. Painting was passé. You only made a name for yourself if you displayed your filthy bed or a pile of bricks and called it art.

Quasimodo slugged back his absinthe. He had an English accent which was incongruous with his appearance as a ragged French peasant.

“So when did you last see Yvette?”

“It was about a year ago when I was invited to her 30th. I can’t say I fancy her new husband much. I offered to do a painting of them and can you believe he turned me down?  Said he didn’t have the time to pose. Yvette seemed a bit mortified.”

“Is he an utter shit, or just a shit in the making?”

“Oh not utter. Just too busy for family claptrap. Well who isn’t?”

And a distasteful image of Geraldine calling me a drunk came to mind. It slid away again with my second absinthe. The wedding had been the last time I had seen Geraldine too, although that had not been the time she called me a drunk. She called me it quite a bit after re-finding God. God and Marcel. I distanced myself from the Holy Trinity with a few drinks too many on occasions.

“Is he as bad as me?”


“Yvette’s husband, of course. Thought I’d lost you then.”

“Christ no. I keep meaning to give them that big, empty villa.”

Quasimodo grinned to himself and his fat shoulders trembled and strained his cheap shirt. Finally he continued.

“Look. If I haven’t said it enough, I wanted to thank you for putting me up at your place all this time while I get back on my feet.”

I started at him sharply. Now I had severe grey eyebrows my gaze could shatter a glass at 20 paces.
“Please do not get back on your feet again, as you put it.”

“Yes I know. I mean not like that. But not every fellow can paint like you. I used to be eaten up with jealously but now I mean it’s different. I can really appreciate your work.”

I laughed and refilled his glass. “Everything is different. That’s life. If you stayed the same you would have died. That or I would have killed you.”

“Like I tried to kill you,”

“Ha. Something like that, but I would have done it properly,” I told him. “You know my place is humble but you can stay here as long as you like. You may be interrupted by traveling artists or musicians but they are usually fun. Get to know them. You may learn a lot. You may learn how not to become an ass again.”

I looked him over from his irregular stubble to his overgrown brows. Monty was unrecognizable from the Monty of a previous age. Monty had been humbled and humiliated in jail. His spirit had been broken but here he was hunched over his absinthe. Middle aged, overweight, unattractive and yet far closer to perfection than he had ever been before in his life. There was a cool breeze now under the trees and the sounds of a mandolin drifted across the square. The silence between us was as comfortable as the worn out bar and the easy glances of the middle aged American across the bar who had heaped lavish praise on my work today.

“So are we going to head down to the Riviera soon?” said Monty.

His eager puppy dog voice seemed so incongruous in a big hunched over character with Dickensian brows.

“I’m sorry Monty. Like said I’m going away tomorrow. I need to go back to the Greek islands. I may be gone some time, hopefully not like Captain Oates.”

“How long?”

I shrugged. “ I met a drifting kid in the square today. I got him to do some painting and he showed great potential. I haven’t seen that sort of thing for a while. I said he could come along for the ride and learn the trade.”

Monty looked oddly perturbed for a moment and then he swigged back the absinthe.

“God. This is good stuff. One more and I’d convince myself I could be an artist too,” he said.
“Well I’ll drink to that. Just don’t become a stockbroker again right.”

And with that I helped the large figured get to his feet and saved him from knocking chairs across the bar.

Many thanks for reading the novella Transitions on the A to Z Challenge.