Thursday, October 17, 2019

Outside the Dome

Like the Millennium Dome, my short story for James River Writers was dogged with delays and overwrought. The title was supplied. The rest was my own work without the assistance of opium.




In Xanadu did Kubla Khan 
A stately pleasure-dome decree: 
Where Alph, the sacred river, ran 
Through caverns measureless to man 
Down to a sunless sea. 

- Samuel Taylor Coleridge


Like Coleridge, Brett saw Mongolian emperors in his dreams. The desert’s long and level sands stretched away to an indistinct horizon of mountains folded into the dust, curiously beautiful but as hard as iron. Out there beyond the walls, the herdsmen carved their fleeting lives from the sun-dried mud. 

Not so the emperor. Every morning the lights of the walled city glittered above wasteland and the fires leaped high in the ruler’s vast pleasure dome where gladiators fought and dancers caroused while the screams of men and women at wine-fueled rituals pierced the star-hung canopy above.

Unlike Coleridge’s exotic opium-filled fantasies, Brett’s dreams were fueled by cheap lager from the King’s Head. On nights when he was feeling particularly daring he’d get a pickled egg. He still ended up outside the pleasure dome. 

He woke and clutched at the cold white sheets. He felt like an outsider now and he wanted a warm body. Acres of sterile whiteness stared back at him. Lynda had slipped out.

Two hours later, Brett was pounding the streets in his running shoes. There was no sign of his wife. That wasn’t unusual. He felt better now, pulling in energy from the street vendors and the mishmash of accents in Whitechapel. It often seemed sunless here. Tall buildings snuffed out the light in the narrow alleys and a green fog from the Thames claimed these streets for its own. The west end had been sunnier but nobody could afford to live there, certainly not a writer whose last big scoop had been a piece about musical Shih Tzu collars in Day of the Dog magazine.

Brett took it all in, the smells of coriander and cardamon in the street market, the distant hum or buses and the ragged man on the street corner. The Blind Beggar pub was streets away with its bullet holes where the Krays shot George Cornwall dead. Brett didn’t dwell on the past. He reached into his pocket and touched the tickets. His editor hadn’t wanted them. He had no intention of spending Millennium Eve in a “colossal white elephant” when he could be at home with his family. The tickets were Brett’s if he wanted them. Notwithstanding his editor’s reticence, he felt like Charlie Bucket clutching a golden ticket.

Two days later, Brett looked on as Lynda stood in front of the mirror. The lighter flecks in her raven hair danced around in the horizontal light of the lamp and the velvet shimmer of her blue dress set off her sapphire earrings. He was transfixed for a moment. He couldn’t recall ever seeing his wife this way before. Even his jangling misgivings about the cost of the dress subsided. Perhaps it was all worth it, he thought. Had he been wrong about everything?

She turned and looked at him, a half-smile playing across her features. He smiled but realized her glance went past his shoulder to her reflection in the mirror.

“So you are looking forward to it?”

Her cheeks hardened. He thought how powerful she looked in the half-light, although her beauty seemed other-worldly.

“I still don’t see why we can’t go to the Chelsea gig.”

Brett sighed. “You can go to a house party every week. This is history being made.”

Lynda’s clipped words sent the doubts flooding back. What had happened that night at the party? Why were his friends looking at him so curiously when he opened his eyes? He recalled the way his wife looked at his friend Allen. The room swayed from all the cocktails but it wasn’t a warm and cozy intoxication. He felt left outside the walls of their conspiracy.


_____


Brett had before never seen so many well-dressed people in such shabby surroundings. A long line of velveteen ladies and men in dinner jackets wound up the escalators from Greenwich Station. They crushed cigarette butts with the weight of their polished shoes. Even the homeless people on the margins of the station quit begging to look on in awe. This was no normal night on the Isle of Dogs. The scene was on the cusp of a New Millennium and a different world order. The gleaming canopy of white teflon had risen from a wasteland of toxic ash, tar pits, and unexploded World War Two bombs. 

The lines wound on into the night. Seemingly, nobody had thought about security. But this was a new world order, a world without war and bombs.

Only Lyda’s face harked back to primordial times. Her mascara ran a little down her cheeks. Brett thought her beautiful and severe. Striking bur raptor-like.

“God Brett. How much longer do we have to wait. I missed Chelsea for this?”

Brett was just happy to make it under the great canopy where sturdy steel gantries reached up to the spangled roof. An army of servers walked the floor. He found a glass of champagne thrust into his hand. 

He was relieved to see Lynda slugging it down fast. He hoped the bubbly would smooth over the sharp lines appearing on her face.

He was buzzing by the time they entered the Body Zone two more drinks later. A man called Jeff introduced them to the human body. Jeff was some kind of public relations guy. Brett wondered if he had been drinking too.

“So roll up for a fantastic trip into the human body; walk down the passages of the mind. Wind your way up the intricacies of the ..um human arm.”

Brett stared at the giant plastic walkway up the arm and then at Lynda’s. He was more interested in his wife’s shapely arms but their beauty felt remote. She was an alabaster statue, a fragile Greek vase. He touched her to steer her up the walkway. 

Just two hours from the start of the Millennium the people were still filing slowly into the dome. Police officers rushed around the margins of the Dome and Brett overheard talk of a bomb scare. He saw an animated private secretary waving his arms at one of the police officers.

“We couldn’t possibly allow the Prime Minister in before this is cleared up.”

The Minister of Culture had no such qualms. Brett was due at a press conference at 10.30 p.m. He filed into the back of the Play Zone and witnessed the minister resplendent in a pinstriped suit next to giant Lego figures. He thought of a circus clown as the man conducted the guests under the big top.

“We have a show for you like no other. There are barges on the Thames positively loaded with thousands of fireworks. This is a young country again, a new country. When I was a child my parents took me to the Festival of Britain, We still bore the scars of the war in our buildings, our hearts, and our memories. The festival featured the largest dome in the world at the time, rising 93 feet into the South London sky. We know we are the lucky ones tonight. So many of our fellow countrymen and women are outside the dome tonight. But this event is being broadcast on TVs across the nation. We will spread the light, the warmth, and innovation of the Dome.” He couldn’t take it in. The promises were buses, coming into the bay, one after another. You don’t know which one to ride.

Nobody mentioned the cost overrun.

For a few dizzy moments, the minister’s words carried Brett’s thoughts high into the air, into the purple emptiness of the Dome. He wondered if it really would be a new era. His fellow news hacks next to him brought him down to earth. “Bertie’s clearly been taking something in the bathrooms.”

“And what terrible bathrooms they are too. Hate to see them by the end of the night.”

Brett felt light-headed. The bomb threats were unnerving but not serious enough for him to call his newspaper and ask them to hold the front page.

He headed to the Time Zone, his agreed rendezvous point with Lynda. He grabbed another glass of champagne in passing. He had doubts about the Millennium but it was getting better.  The walkways had filled up. He saw Lynda’s sapphire shimmer and found her pressed up against a giant timepiece, reading a note. The crowd blocked his view. When he saw her again she was empty-handed. He met her glance and they glided down the walkways together, gathering up glasses of bubbly to the left and the right. It was almost time.

They took their seats on benches overlooking the central arena. Away to the east Brett recognized the diminutive figure of the monarch. Her head wagged obediently at the Prime Minister. 

The speeches began. The speakers described how the Dome was far greater than a party venue. It was an inclusive space, a harbinger of a brave new world that would bring together the diverse elements of the nation in a “brave, new fusion.” The years of war, strife, and poverty would be banished. The IRA was a forgotten acronym. Trish McIntosh, the Environment Secretary, described how the Dome was a metaphor for renewal. The country would be populated by mini biospheres that would contain a wealth of diversity. They would develop new foods and plants impervious to global warming. The future would wrap them up in its soft, green arms. Still, a chill crept into the Dome from the mirky river left outside in the cold. Brett slipped his hand around Lynda’s waist and she moved obligingly. Midnight came and went and the fireworks flashed above their heads, high over the estuary.

“Do you ever think of Dubrovnik?” he asked.

“Yes. It was magical.”

The drinks had merged into one cheerful cocktail, the bubbles into a great overwhelming circular warmth. He felt closer to her now than he had for many years. Perhaps the distance between them had been illusory. He recalled the emerald green water of the Adriatic below their honeymoon suite a decade ago, the bell towers and the twisted alleys. The nights of love he thought would never end. They kissed suddenly and he caught his breath on the unexpected passion, as if the simple gesture captured years in the cold.

Yet even as Brett cupped her head, the outside world intruded. A small, red-faced man in a uniform was instructing the partygoers to clear the gallery.

“The party’s over folks. Go home.”

As zones dimmed, stewards ushered them towards the gaping flap in the tent that served as a door. Now the cold breath of the Thames reached out to them, ancient and foul-smelling. Two millennia ago the river had welcomed the blacked corpses of the Roman legionaries set on fire by Boudicca’s savages. Outside the Dome, the world in 2000 looked remarkably similar to the one they left behind in 1999. Trash blew past the brownstones and police sirens wailed across the city. The bold new world did not run to an improved train service. Hordes of drunken people pushed and shoved down the platform to the last train out west. They contemplated the grim prospect of finding an overpriced cab.

Brett spied a familiar figure in a sharp black and red dress on the highway. Trish McIntosh was arguing with a cab driver.

“Bloody hell. Cut the crap and just get me to Pimlico,” he heard her say.

Lynda punched his side. “Hold my bag, Brett. I need the toilet.”

He held onto the over-heavy leather appendage that cost half a monthly salary as she headed for the station toilets. The overhead signs flashed the word “delayed.” Groans issues from revelers camped across the station. If he called a cab it might arrive in a couple of hours. Parker remembered his wife had a mobile phone. He reached into the bag to search for it. Something hard nudged his fingers and slipped away from his grasp. Then a piece of paper came away in his hand.

Brett pulled it out into the orange light and read the words. They cut away at the fuzzy warmness; they scraped at the cocoon he felt earlier.

“Lynda. Sorry, we could not be together tonight. I wanted to see it in with you. Til the Mermaid.”

Always A.

Brett recognized his friend’s spike writing. He didn’t need to see the initial to know the letter was from Allen.  He knew the Mermaid too, a place of cheap beer and cheaper bedrooms.

Brett dropped the note back into Lynda’s handbag. Suddenly the street got darker as someone turned off the lights in the Dome. He looked again over that great surface of Teflon, more like a dead whale now than a place that ever lived and breathed. Although the light was dying in the Dome, another band of brightness appeared above it. Parker saw the first milky light of morning over the city to the west of the dome. Soon the dawn would bath the towers and Medieval spires.

Lynda’s fixed smile had returned. She was in set and hold mode as she took back his bag.

“When’s the train babe?”

“It’s later Lynda. Look, I need to visit the bathroom too.”

Brett passed her back the heavy bag and walked to the station. Instead of turning right at the turnstile and dropping in a coin, he kept on walking. A train struggled down Platform 5 but he walked on by. He left the station by the back entrance and a wide vista of the river opened up in the half-light beyond a jumbled of masts where seafarers had embarked on long and dangerous voyages for centuries. Now he felt the cold mud and grass on his toes. He knew there was a path here by the river. He kept walking, heading ever for the salmon-colored sliver of morning in the sky. The Dome grew small behind him. It shrunk into the bustle of the docklands, the old warehouses and the slums of the workers. By the time he arrived at Bishopsgate, the sun would be rising on the river and they would be brewing coffee at the Abbey.




Monday, July 29, 2019

The Leaving of England

The days we leave are always the best of days. There is a pure shaft of sunlight illuminating the marble across the floor and a morning chill outside the heavy door.

Beyond the rambling houses and this comfortable suburbia the landscape beckons. It's a morning to lose yourself in deep lanes with high hedges and fields lined with beech trees and gleaming cowslip above the downs.



You feel the essence of England most keenly when you leave. There's a fresh smell to the air that's lost on the natives. There's a distant hum of planes in the fragile blue sky.  it's a day to find ruined castles clad in avenues of briars or to see the quicksilver of the Thames from a nearby escarpment.

I'm not sure if I'm alone in feeling this essence of paradise lost. I don't believe in Jerusalem in England's green and pleasant land. But I realize now in the leaving that's it's the closest thing to home; England with all its contradictions, its subtle understatements, its hedge mazes that flatter to deceive and it's perfectly landscaped vistas. I feel I was always nomadic and destined to wander. Growing up, I had hated the claustrophobia of the mild hills that held me in; I had yearned for ruggedness, big horizons, and jagged mountain tops to climb.

Now I don't know anymore. I'll miss the cozy pub gardens, the stores that never change their names, the half-smiles and the memories of those high banked lanes we drove down as kids. Does the place we grew up define us or are we a reflection of the stops along the road?

Right now I'm not sure but I'm missing the places I never got to see and the people I meant to catch up with who slipped by because there was not enough time. England has gone on without me and better mortals. The vaults of Westminster Abbey are full of the learned and the powerful, yet today they have less influence than the men and women in red jackets on the tickets desk. We are just a moment in time but we should take the time to watch that shaft of sunlight play on the marble floor because it's part of this blessed plot, this earth, this England.


Monday, July 8, 2019

Stan the Funny Man

Random thoughts and images occur to me often. Today I had a vivid memory of Stan the Funny Man.

Stan knew my grandmother. Some kind of agency put him in touch with her. I'm not sure why or how or what agency would really want to put anyone in touch with my gran.



I remember Stan being tall with a large nose. He walked into the antique dining room, bringing his large nose in tow. He muttered a few inaudible things and stared at the clock. Then he continued to stare at the clock that ticked out the awkward seconds. After what seemed like an eternity, he walked out. 

My gran described him as a "funny man." I believe he may have shown up to perform odd jobs from time to time without any real purpose.

When I think about it "odd jobs" is a strange kind of British expression. It doesn't really mean odd jobs. An odd job is repairing a broken drain with a dead peacock. But odd jobs really means inconsequential or occasional jobs.

Anyhow, the description of Stan as a "funny man" and his strange presence instilled fear in us as children. I truly believed Stan was some kind of Sandman or character from Friday the 13th who would whip out a knife and hack us to bits. The subtext here was people with mental disabilities are dangerous folks and we should fear them.

Much of my grandmother's world view was shaped by the fear of people who were different. She would cross the road if she saw black men approaching, which means she must have put herself in a fair bit of danger by crisscrossing the roads of Birmingham.

Time really stood still at my gran's place. She resisted electric washing machines and Empire mugs and spoons lined the cabinets. This was the cozy world of the Britsh Empire and Queen Victoria where people with dark skin were kept at arm's length and far away in colonies like India. I've joked about the good old days when half the world was colored pink on the atlas without coming fully to terms with the evils of colonization and the ownership of other nations and other people.

The nature of Stan's disorder eludes me. Maybe he was born that way or he suffered shell shock in the trenches. I doubt if few people apart from me remember him now and he seemed to lack family. The dining room where the clock carefully chimed out the dawns and evenings of the days and the vanishing chink of light remaining in our lives is long gone. Stan and my gran are stencil memories along with the lavender wallpaper,  the faded blues and pinks of the hydrangeas down the walkway and the jars full of jam put out to trap wasps.

I worry sometimes that the vestiges of prejudice live on. Disorders didn't happen to us and our family. They happened to other people. Yet now I have a young relative with autism. I hope one day when he's picking his difficult path through the world nobody will ever call him a funny man.




Monday, June 10, 2019

P is for Positano

It doesn’t get much better than your first sip of strong Italian coffee on a patio awash in the morning sun overlooking Positano. I wondered if anywhere could look and smell more like heaven than the Amalfi coast? The villas fell away below me,  in a harmonious symphony of balconies and terraces, down to the dull golden cupola of the cathedral. The lemon grove was fragrant and the morning light slid across the moss-encrusted stones on the terrace. Each vista and even the shape of each iron chair was a work of art.



This would be paradise … but for these Americans.

It was a paradoxical thought that immediately marked me out as an ingrate. They had paid for this trip. Had it not been for the Americans I would be back at home staring at the bare ribs of a gas holder. But now I was here, I longed for solitude. Or different company. Or a bit of both.

The night before we had driven up to Ravello, perched high on the cliffs of the Amalfi Coast. I was driving around the hairpin bends when I heard a series of high and pained signs.

“Ooo, ooo, ooo.”

I almost crashed the rental car. Was the MIL having a seizure?

“Gorgee, gorgee, gorgee.”

“What now?”

It was the MIL’s reaction to the sight of the moon over the water. I was relieved we didn’t have to get an ambulance up these roads.

Another day we were at cookery school. The terrace of the trattoria was high above the cliffs. Positano was a splash of the watercolorist’s brush below, inked against the sea. We made ravioli badly by hand and drank too much. I fell to musing on the nature of happiness. Was it possible to be truly happy? How could we feel such unease in Paradise? B became over friendly to the instructor. We laughed and drank some more Chianti. This inability to assimilate, to blend in with the cliffs that ran away like breakers is not just an American thing. As humans, we are always dissatisfied with our lot. We want what we don’t have. Even here in this postcard-perfect place, we feel ill at ease. Only later will we look back longingly to the terraces of Positano.

Today we are on the coast road. The sea below us is sparking but cruel. It is like the MIL. It would buoy the swimmer to the surface, bathe him in sunshine and drag his spine onto the backbreaking rocks. 

MIL is across the road. They are visiting a tile shop to plunder the goods for the yard back home. They want to create a little slab of paradise. The MIL is wearing her hair scraped back in the Italian style. She’s thinking Sophia Loren. I’m thinking Marlon Brando from The Godfather. 

They never bought that slab of paradise or shipped the tiles. Still, I like tiles. They are calming. One of my favorite museums is the Museu Nacional do Azulejo in Lisbon, often known as the Museum of Tiles.

Their garden near the sound in North Carolina became a small oasis in its own way. There was a trickling fountain and a bird bath. It was a refuge from the angst and uneasiness their company brought. They are long gone from that place. My last memory of the MIL was white and lifeless and as detached as the statutes that stare out at the sea from the cliffs of Ravello, Positano and Amalfi. 


It’s true I felt some sadness but much of it was for what might have been. Why when our lives are so finite do we waste them in petty power struggles? Our stone is too brittle and time cracks our fine features. Why do we parcel out love in such small measures and take back what we give? We pass though Positano too fast and it remains for the rest of our lives a vision of loveliness in the rearview mirror.

Tuesday, April 30, 2019

O is for Oxford

O is for Oxford and "oh dear. I never made it." It's the last day of the challenge and I'm still out there lost on the open road. At least Oxford is a good place to lie down and never get up. When you lie on the grass of the water meadows and rise to see the Oxford skyline, you can be forgiven for imagining you are in a netherworld where anything is possible. The Dreaming Spires are certainly evocative.




It occurs to me now that it has always been sunny when I have visited Oxford. Still, the skyline is out of reach. On one occasion, I saw some people from the north of England. They watched students playing croquet on one of the lawns of the ornate colleges and muttered something about "posh people" in their broad vowels. Oxford is as distant as it ever was for many of us.

In Jude the Obscure, Thomas Hardy wrote of Christminster, an ancient university that Jude yearned to study at to better himself. Christminster was loosely based on Oxford. In the end, the "New Jerusalem" the stonemason idolized remained steeped in privilege and was out of his reach.



Clearly, there is something magical and inspiring in the air of Oxford. Charles Dodgson, better known as Lewis Caroll, wrote Alice's Adventures in Wonderland here in the 19th Century. He was a scholar and teacher at Christ Church, the most prestigious of colleges. The college's refectory was used in the Harry Potter movies.

In the 20th Century, C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien were both on the faculty at Oxford University at the same time. Lewis' relationship with Joy Davidman, an American who died of cancer, formed the basis of the movie Shadowlands. It's vintage Anthony Hopkins, reprising his self-effacing persona in Remains of the Day before he started eating people's faces.



It's probably not surprising that Oxford spawns so many fantasies. It's an ancient and cloistered place, far removed from the outside world. It's the sunny opening of Brideshead and the jolly japes with Aloysius, the teddy bear. It's long day punting on the river and the morning bells that ring across the misty fields from the tower of Magdalen College. it's a place that flatters and shimmers in a fragile dawn sun and disappears when we reach out to touch it.


Wednesday, April 24, 2019

N is for New York City

Nobody forgets the first time they see the New York skyline. I first saw it on a trip to the Big Apple in the 1990s.



As we trundled through the drabness of Queens, we turned a corner and the tall towers appeared. The Empire State Building pierced the afternoon sky like a giant syringe. New York was both intoxicating and frightening.

About half a dozen of us visited New York. My life was falling apart at this stage. We were mostly journalists and we drank too hard in as many places as we can. We stood on chairs in the White Horse, the famous Greenwich Village pub where Dylan Thomas had his last orders shortly before his death.




Mark wore a "Friends" T-shirt but we were anything but friends. The hate simmered down the long boulevards of Manhattan and across the Brooklyn Bridge. In the end, I struck out on my own. My only real friend was my copy of  Wolfe's The Bonfire of the Vanities. 

I found the Tenement Museum on the Lower East Side. It's a fascinating place which relives the hard lives of the Irish, the Italians, the Jews, the Poles and others who scraped a living n the Big Apple in the early 20th Century. This put my first world angst about marital breakdown and the like into perspective.



Later on, I took the elevator up the World Trade Center and felt sick and dizzy looking down at the roofs of buildings far below. I never imagined that a few years later people would be jumping to avoid the flames in the stricken structure. We still don't imagine. We know the details but we can't put ourselves there.

We are prisoners in our own puny frames. Our trails and tribulations can be utterly consuming but they are nothing compared to the bigger picture. So why can it be so hard to see the world from the point of view of others?

Almost two decades later, I visited New York with my kids. The Empire State Building no longer looked like a large syringe but the Chrysler Building was as silver and serene as ever. The World Trade Center is replaced by the giant Freedom Tower. The sky over the tall buildings was a timeless azure from Liberty State Park in Jersey City. The ghosts had not gone entirely but they were hidden well, in dark alley in Chinatown or in the shadows of Central Park as the sun goes down.



Saturday, April 20, 2019

M is for Mesa Verde

This is a repost but Mesa Verde is the kind of place that lives on in the imagination long after you leave the canyons.



Walking the Petroglyph Trail reminded me of the microscopic nature of our world. One man is a small speck in the great gorges out west and not even a pinprick in the vastness of the Cosmos.








In this borderless wilderness, we are all destined to wander companionless like Shelley's moon for much of our micro existences. The ancient people recognized as much when they carved the petroglyphs in Mesa Verde in the rocks that were once part of an ancient sea.

There is sad beauty to this park that shimmers in the afternoon sunlight. You feel it when you view the empty windows of the cliff buildings and imagine the world of the ancient people.

Being in the desert fulfilled a dream from long ago when the swing would point west and I would close my eyes in the setting sun and think of cowboys, stream trains and cacti crowding the skyline. The old cliff dwellings of Mesa Verde in Colorado live on in my imagination now. I think of the faraway world of the ancient people and the words of Willa Cather from The Song of the Lark.



"From the ancient dwelling there came always a dignified, unobtrusive sadness; now stronger, now fainter - like the aromatic smell which the dwarf cedars gave out in the sun - but always present, a part of the air one breathed. At night when Thea dreamed about the anyon - or in the early morning when she hurried toward it, anticipating it - her conception of it was of yellow rocks baking in the sunlight the swallows, the cedar smell, and that peculiar sadness - a voice out of the past, not very loud, that went on saying a few simple things to the solitude eternally."

You can view the full post about Mesa Verde here.

Friday, April 19, 2019

L is for London

When a man is tired of London, he is tired of life" - Samuel Johnson






London is one of the world's greatest cities and you never really run out of things to do here. Still, living in London can wear you down, The days were long and started and ended with a mile long walk to the tube station. London is a place where you work hard and play hard. After work, it's straight down the pub, back on the Tube and doing the same thing the next day.

Rather than being one great mass, London is a collection of small villages. Admittedly, the mile-upon-mile of brick in the East End could be depressing. After too long in London, you want to escape to the countryside but it seems to take forever to get back to the city.



I was fascinated by London but never swept away by its beauty like in Paris. Today when I go back it's as a tourist. I take pictures of red phone boxes, I check out galleries. I probably end up flaked out on a bench at the National Art Gallery No. I don's ask the locals if they've met the Queen. I'm not quite so American yet. I get tired in London but I'm not tired of the city.




Tuesday, April 16, 2019

K is for Kent

My first visit to Kent was the bleakest introduction possible to one of England's most fascinated counties. I struggled with some nefarious illness, smallpox or cholera - actually tonsilitis I think. I recalled the taste of dried beans in my mouth. I tried to convey this to my parents but they didn't get it. On the third day, I thought I was better. I walked weakly along the seafront of Margate with my father to the grey sands and a chill enveloped me.



It's strange to think my parents ended up in Kent so many years after that early family holiday and now my father is more likely to be the one walking gingerly in the cold wind like a five-year-old with tonsilitis.



There's a lot more to Kent than Margate but for some reason, that holiday was suffocated by the British summer. Even the famous white cliffs of Dover were shuttered and grey and my parents declared themselves disappointed with Dover Castle. I'm not sure how anyone can be disappointed with Dover Castle but such is life.

Kent is a rich tapestry. There are prehistoric ruins and the stump of the last lighthouse that was abandoned by the Romans before the barbarians arrived from Germany. In the dark days of the 1940s, the white cliffs became a symbol of the last outpost of civilization in Europe.

There is far too much to Kent to describe in these lines. It stretched from the ragged ends of London to the sweeping North Downs, the marshes and coasts and the magnificence of Canterbury and its great cathedral. Then there is Rochester and its gaunt castle.





Still, it took me many years from the taste of beans in my mouth and the gloomy guesthouse with its mirky wallpaper somewhere in the 1970s for me to warm to Kent.

Monday, April 15, 2019

J is for Jockey's Ridge

It's not always easy to keep going. On days we are trapped in a cage of our own making. Those carefree days when we could soar and fly a kite are relegated to a half-forgotten past. I was always fascinated with sand dunes and flying kites high across the wispy marram grass. The most beautiful place I remembered from childhood was the island of Lindisfarne and coming upon a pristine and undiscovered wilderness of dunes beyond the ruined abbey.




The shore at Lindisfarne seemed little changed since the Vikings came ashore here. In the long years past I have dreamed of the place half a dozen times.




Jockey's Ridge in North Carolina, the highest sand dune in the eastern United States took me back. I have climbed the dunes with the kids a few times and flown kites into the high blue. These miles of sand like strung out from sea to shining sea, in this case, the Atlantic and the Albemarle Sound.




I wonder sometimes why we head to the sea for solace. Is it a self-fulfilling prophecy because people have done it for years? Do the waves and the calls of the gulls lull us back to childhood? It's hard to know but there is something about the feel of the end of those sun-kissed days that puts it all in perspective. It's tempting to let go and to drift where the current takes us.

Sunday, April 14, 2019

I is for Isle of Wight

Isle of Wight is a county in Virginia and an island in England. I'm a bigger fan of the British version here. The Isle of Wight is like the country in microcosm. There's a Medieval castle, A National Trust home, the white cliffs of the Needles, gently crumbling seaside towns and a pretty thatched village. The Isle of Wight has Smithfield and that's about it.



 Our memories fade to sepia but I still recall the bright bands of the sand at Alum Bay back at home as we spooned them into glass vessels. I assume the chair lift down to the beach is now an overhyped and overpriced tourist attraction but the beach was empty in those days.



Even Blackgang Chine, the UK's oldest amusement park on the Isle of Wight seemed tranquil back in the day, although I'm sure it was not. Today a 'saver' ticket costs 74 GPB. I'm not quite sure what the saving is. If you are disabled and over 60 you can get in for 20 GBP. given that Blackgang Chine is perched on the edge of a cliff this seems like a risky undertaking when you can check out garden gnomes outside people's homes.

At least it's free to get into Windsor Castle Park in Smithfield and there are some pretty views across the marshes. In fact, once I Smithfield Station I found myself geographically confused and imagined myself in Suffolk, England. The slow meandering rivers and the way the gentle light plays on the reed beds reminds me of long afternoons on the estuaries of Eastern England. Suffolk, Virginia is nearby too. I'm not sure why the settlers couldn't be more original in their choice of names.





Outside the Dome

Like the Millennium Dome, my short story for James River Writers was dogged with delays and overwrought. The title was supplied. The rest wa...