Monday, April 26, 2010

A storm approaches

On the indistinct water's edge where the crumbling land meets Hampton Roads, these fishermen seemed to be more wary of my camera than the approaching storm.
Behind me Tidewater Community College was a low slung and abandnoned mass of concrete bunkers following the recent relocation of the Suffolk campus.
In front of me trash blew across the tumbled breakwaters and into the oily water, to float away north to the darkening towers and coal mountains of Newport News.
The fisherfolk also seemed fleeting, transitory and wary of identification.
The storm was already swallowing up the western sky, shutting out the blue like a curtain of iron, while the wind was whipping up the water.
If the fishermen were fazed by it all they didn't show it as they continued to cast out their rods with scarcely a glance to the western skies.

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

The Age of Adventure

Looking over slabs of cracked concrete and sodden parking lots as is often the way during these interminable afternoons at work, I am struck by how the world has changed and the days of adventure are as dead as the cold remnants of my coffee cast into the trash hours earlier.
To be fair I have never planned an expedition across the wastes of the Kalahari desert or returned half frozen from an obscure ledge in the Himalayas. I have never even been forced to eat my dog which I'm told is the act that separates the men from the explorers.
I have never set out across the Pacific on a rudimentary raft like Thor Heyerdahl and his crew on the Kon-Tiki expedition or charted an unknown waterway like John Wesley Powell who stumbled on the Grand Canyon, which is no small thing to tell your kids.
And had I organized an expedition where would I have gone? There are no unchartered places; there are few empty spaces on the map. There is no wilderness big enough for a modern day Lewis and Clark to find.
Nor is there enough space on this constricted and much charted planet for those heroes who I had half forgotten about such as TE Lawrence, whose exploits as Lawrence of Arabia brought some of the romance back to a public mired in horror at the bloodshed of the Western Front.
Lawrence was a classic 'boy's own hero' beloved of a generation growing up in Britain in the early 20th century.
The Empire and the glorious days when half of the planet was pink, spawned many heroes in its day. Only with the benefit of hindsight has it become clear that Empire that the sun never set on was as corrupt and unforgiving as anything the French or Germans could ever impose.
These heroes lived courageously and died in the call of duty. Tennyson wrote of Gordon of Khartum who was killed in the Sudan. "Warrior of God, man's friend, not here below/ But somewhere dead far in the waste Sudan/ Thou livest in all hearts, for all men know/ This earth hath borne no simpler, nobler man."
But to me Horatio Nelson was nobler still and is England's greatest hero. The diminutive admiral had all the elements of a storybook hero; a humble background, a reputation for acts of brazen courage, an affair that scandalized polite society and a hero's death at Trafalgar in the midst of his greatest triumph.
Today there are no heroes and warfare is a mechanised mismatch of smart bombs and technological capabilities.
We can see the unforgiving wildernesses and Polar wastes from the comfort of a cruise liner; we can fly above the deserts and jungles where explorers died of dystentry or from the wounds inflicted by poison darts.
And we are surely the poorer for it.
In my adolescence I charted the course of suburban rivers and fought the willows upstream. I was entranced by the small time forbidden wildernesses of the overgown railway line and the chance of sudden death in the form of an express train.
And in my late teens I spent nights in terraced homes meticulously plotting long distance hikes that we made along the cliffs of the Pembrokeshire Coast Path, the South West Way and the West Highland Way.
Waking up in a tent on the lonely and lovely north shores of Loch Lomond was hardly the stuff of Captain Scott. When one of my friends announced he was going outside and would be gone some time he was usually clutching a roll of toilet paper.
But waking up to a new mountain and clouds drifting across Rannoch Moor was a mini adventure.
For so many years now I have been closed off from these big horizons. The urge to explore had been curtailed by the leaden wheels of prams or the call of duty.
Yet lately something has stirred in me like the half memory of the road less trodden that leads through an olive grove and gives tantalizing views of the shimmering Aegean beyond.
The feeling makes me turn to Tennyson again to re-read Ulysses and to think of far off places and adventures on the ringing plains of windy Troy.
But the only thing ringing tonight was my trolly at Wal-Mart. The one with the squeaking wheels that runs to me like a lost puppy dog every time I'm there.

Monday, April 12, 2010

Beachy Head

I love this picture of Beachy Head, not just because it's unusual to get such a shining, azure day that sparkles on the chalk in England, but because it reminds me of youthful irresponsibility.
Beachy Head is big and it's brash. it's the highest chalk sea cliff in Britain; it's like the white cliffs of Dover on acid.
And the lighthouse nestling at the foot of the cliff like a twist of seaside rock, a perfect afterthought of a little light house, completes the composition and makes the scale of this 530 ft. high beast apparent.
If Beachy Head had a personality it would be a large, raw boned Cockney fellow. He doesn't hail from Dorset or the gentle shales of East Anglia, but prefers the gaudy pleasures and amusements of Brighton.
I think of Michael Caine, in Alfie - or maybe even Get Carter.
Because like Jack Carter, Beachy Head has a sinister side. Since the 1600s the chalky rocks tumbled at the foot of this great behemonth have been stained with the blood of jumpers, making it Britain's most popular suicide spot and the third most popular place in the world to jump.
It seems jumpers are keen to make a spectacle and their mark on a landmark. Rather than a concrete car park in Basildon they would rather free fall from the magnificent heights of Beachy Head or from the world's number one suicide spot, the graceful span of the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco.
Today the railings at the top of the sea cliff are festooned with signs giving the Samaritans helpline number. It hasn't helped much.
But most of us are content to gaze on Beachy Head as a style icon and a cheeky chip of old Britain.
It's no conicidence that the Mod scooter goes crashing to the ground off Beachy Head at the end of the film Quadrophenia.
If it was off a hillside in Swindon, it just wouldn't have been the same.

Saturday, April 3, 2010

An unhealthy addiction to Twiglets

This season I am mostly missing Twiglets.
While it can hardly be said that the wheat-based snack shaped like small twigs was a fashion accessory back in Britain, now I am parted from Twiglets I miss my addiction to their tangy knobliness.
Driving through London, through the jarring stops and starts and roadways that suddenly turn into bus lanes, I needed something edgy. Twiglets provided that high. Before I knew it a large bag had been emptied and my hand and gear shift were brown with their residue.
At times like this napkins were a plus as Twiglet-Pants can a job interview wreck.
Americans never understood the attraction. My wife didn't see the point of Marmite, so understandably didn't see the point of a crunchy snack dipped in them.
Of course, those us who have been lucky enough to enter the inner sanctum of Twiglet-world know there's no Marmite, although there's yeast and vegetable extract.
So while connoisseurs have short shift with the Mr. Bean episode in which he runs out of Twiglets and breaks off tree branches and covers them with Marmite, we can sympathize.
When I emigrated to the US I didn't realize the Twiglet cravings would take over my life. Brits who have gone Stateside fail to tell you about such weighty matters.
But as you board the plane for the final time they give you that grave, knowing look as if they can see you five years down the line as an anxious, Twiglet-deprived wreck.
Desperate times call for desperate measures. There's a British shop in Hampton that sells Twiglets, although a small packet costs about six times more than it would in Blighty.
Do I succumb or will this merely fuel an addiction that will end up with me homeless and destitute in a hood somewhere near you?

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...