Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Drowning by numbers in the blogisphere

Peter Greenaway’s film Drowning by Numbers was made in 1988, well before the Internet age.

I wouldn’t advise anyone to watch it. It’s utterly confusing but has some nice photography, being filmed in picturesque Southwold in Suffolk.

But it induces a feeling of panic and bewilderment that I’m starting to feel in the parallel universe that is the blogisphere.

We may not realize it, but slowly the Internet is changing us into number obsessed nerds. We are Rain Man where he drops all the matches on the floor and counts them accurately: we are the trainspotters of the 21st century.

Americans are sometimes confused by this reference as there aren’t many trains over here. It’s nothing to do with heroin abuse or the film of the same name.

But back in the '70s when there were a lot of people who didn’t have a life in England, railway platforms were crowded with them; scruffy youths in thick anoraks, their join-the-dots acne hidden by their hoods; or worse still middle aged men with thick red beards, plaid shirts, rubber shoes and heavy sets of binoculars hanging round their necks whose faces broke into child-like grins every time an 08 shunter appeared in the direction of Crewe depot.

I even went on a trainspotting trip with Collectors Club at school, to Swindon works to see locomotives being assembled and dismantled, to see sparks fly and cranes move. When a 47 diesel appeared on the end of the platform these was a rush of anoraks and rustling of papers as the crowd raced to the tracks to cross the train’s number out of their books.

We are so much more sophisticated today. We are beyond crossing numbers off pieces of paper. Or are we?

Ever since discovering the statistics section of my blog about three months ago I have found myself constantly going on there to see the fall and rise of the graph. It goes up and I’m happy; it flatlines – usually about 4 a.m. – and I place the cat in the microwave. On Monday I recorded more than 100 visits in a day for the first time ever, I believe. I got outrageously drunk and ran round the neighborhood naked (OK I made that bit up).

Today it’s on course for half that number. I’m in a blue funk. But, on the positive side, my number of followers rose to 40.

After learning this good news from home I got to work to check on the number of hits my stories were getting. Now the Hampton News page that I administer is almost up to 2,000 followers; my personal Facebook page has almost hit 300 friends – woo hoo. My Twitter page has more than 900 followers, but I had to follow twice that number to get there. Then there are the regular numbers update for my Hampton Matters blog that usually languishes close to the bottom of the regular email updates – must do better but don’t have a lot of time to post hyperlinks because I’m too busy checking stats elsewhere. How many contacts have I got on LinkedIn? I haven’t had time to find out.

The pertinent question to ask is where is this numbers game going and what’s the point? Will my life be any more enriched if this blog has 60 followers rather than 40. Much as I am fond of my followers, I haven’t met any of them. They’re not like disciples. Some of them probably wouldn't even lend me $1 for a coffee. Is this numbers game going anywhere? And if I carry on like this am I going to catch Asperger’s syndrome?

And if I drown by numbers will anyone notice?

Monday, November 29, 2010

The origin of hookers - and other Civil War tales

On face value the American Civil War wasn't very funny. It saw the deaths of hundreds of thousands of people and pitted families against each other. It's about as funny as the Rape of Nanking.

However, humorous anecdotes can be found in the most inhospitable of places and at least a couple of the war's most hapless generals have enriched the English language.

General Ambose Burnside, who oversaw the Union’s debacle at Fredericksburg, is best remembered for his novel facial hair that consisted of a full moustache and big cheek whiskers over a cleanly shaven chin.

Apparently the look wasn’t even hot for the time when the in vogue look was to shave everything except the chin whiskers, resembling a goat ie. A goatee. Burnside’s look wouldn’t even be considered trendy in the seventies unless you'd been doing a lot of drugs. The cheek whiskers became known as "Burnside's" and enjoyed a certain vogue among men of the day. The expression was later mixed around to become known as “sideburns.”

The expression lived a lot longer than Burnside’s reputation. After the defeat at Fredericksburg, his standing was finally sunk in the Mud March of January 1863 that saw his troops bogged down in a quagmire when he had hoped to strike a decisive blow against General Robert E. Lee’s Confederates.

Before the action Burnside had declared: "The auspicious moment seems to have arrived to strike a great and mortal blow to the rebellion, and to gain that decisive victory which is due to the country."

After the action he was replaced by General Joseph Hooker. It seems Burnside had never wanted to command the Union army anyway, but the threat of Hooker being put in charge persuaded him to reluctantly take up the command.

In the event Burnside’s nemesis replaced him anyhow and was no more successful, leading the Union army to another disastrous defeat at Chancellorville in the spring of 1863.

Hooker wasn’t the most popular of generals. One biographer called him a “a conniver and carouser” — because he was quarrelsome, deeply disrespectful of his superiors, a womaniser, a drunkard, and (worst of all) an unsuccessful soldier.

His headquarters were described as a combination of a bar and a brothel into which no self respecting woman would go. His men were also said to frequent prostitutes. It’s said the general gave rise to the expression “hooker”, although there are some obscure references that suggest the word may have been used for prostitutes before the good general’s time.

I’m happy to run with it and give another spectacularly unsuccessful general a legacy of sorts.

Sunday, November 28, 2010

The ghosts of Fredericksburg

We went to Fredericksburg over the weekend. I'm not sure why. Maybe because it was there.

I had heard it was picturesque but by the time we had waited in long lines of traffic on the I-95, to descend on a road flanked by crumbling strip malls, much of our wunderlust had faced away.

Still we made for the historic old town and parked near the bridge over the Rappahannock River. I had expected a mellow span with wide pavements for visits but instead there was just a small, dirty sidewalk that denoted a functional, industrial structure looking over a muddy ravine of skeletal trees.

The bridge faced the hollow backs of buildings, slightly neglected and off-the-beaten track. Instead we hurried with a cold wind on our backs to the main shopping streets, festooned with Christmas lights.

Fredericksburg reminds me off many small towns in England. It has a bustling town center that is a destination in itself. In contrast many American downtowns are shuttered up and empty at evenings and during the weekend, the domain of trash blown by the wind and the occasional down-and-out.

Frederickburg has a downtown bars and stores and cafes. There are cutesy and over expensive carriage and trolley bus rides. Still behind the facade there seemed to be something sadder lurking in Fredericksburg. Many of the shop keepers frowned and looked at me as if I was wearing a T-shirt with the words "Registered sex offender" on it when I walked into their cramped premises pushing a stroller.

The visitor center was a place of glossy brochures and severe old women with glassy stares. Had the recession or the cold wind stripped Frederickburg of its Virginian civility?

Or do the ghosts still walk in a town that was steeped in blood just over 150 years ago?

Just before dawn on Dec. 11, 1862 the same empty mud-bound Rappahannock River that I gazed down on was alive with men who were building six pontoon bridges for the giant Union army. The army succesfully crossed the river and the first urban combat of the Civil War began. More than 5,000 shells slammed into Frederickburg, the precursor to an era when artillery and bombs would increasingly come to be used against civilians.

If there was euphoria on behalf of the Federate army, it was short lived. During the long day of Dec. 13 114,000 men in Maj. Gen Ambrose Burnside's Unionist army were employed in action, many of them against almost impregnable Confederate positions on high land to the south of the town. With little apparent plan their commanders sent them slowly uphill into the mouths of the guns.

Thousands were slaughtered in one of the most one sided battles of the Civil War. When hostilities died down and the stars decorated the frosted skies, the cold night of Dec. 13 was filled with the screams of the wounded and dying on the blood soaked flanks of Marye's Heights. Richard Rowland Kirkland, a Confederate army sergeant,  gathered canteens and in broad daylight, without the benefit of a cease fire or a flag of truce, provided water to numerous Union wounded lying on the field of battle.

The story of kindness amid so much brutality earned Kirkland the name "the angel of Marye's Heights" and a statue in his honor.

The Union army suffered 12,653 casualties while the Confederate army lost 5,377.

Notwithstanding the scowls of a few store assistants it seems Frederickburg has become a much friendlier place in the space of 152 years.

Friday, November 26, 2010

Bitchslapped over Thanksgiving

Forgive me Father for I have sinned, and not for the first time. In retrospect my cynicism over Thanksgiving, expressed both on this blog and on social networking sites, was ill advised in a nation that has embraced me to its puffy turkey breast.

My Facebook posting provoked a few responses reiterating the core values of Thanksgiving - God, family, the star spangled banner and turkey. I feel like I have been bitch slapped by 50 states.

I now realize I violated these core values by mentioning Indians, wigwams and such like.

And people looked at me in a funny way at work today. Or maybe I was just paranoid. Certainly the server at Starbucks was less friendly than usual. I'm not sure if it was because of my anti Thanksgiving postings. For a start, I don't think she knows my name. Even so.

I mean Thanksgiving wasn't so bad, even if the baby did scream for three hours. There were no members of the extended family round here this year and hence no arguments or accidents with knives.

Heck there's even some wine left for the weekend. I'm prepared to give Thanksgiving the benefit of the doubt.

Those Black Fridays we love to hate

Five years later the expression “Black Friday” still strikes terror into my heart and sends me down alleyways of painful introspection.

Half a decade ago I had just arrived in the USA and was still adjusting to the emptiness of not getting on the tube every morning and going past the security guard into the heart of government: from grabbing a coffee at the chic outlet in Portcullis House or taking my Members of Parliament out for drinks at a Japanese restaurant to get the scoop.

Instead of pigeons and red buses circling outside my window and the high towers of Westminster Abbey, I found myself staring balefully through crepe myrtle trees, listening for the occasional passing truck.

From being in demand I was a nobody in small town America who couldn’t even get the editor of the local paper to take much interest. My interviews with Kate Winslet, Tony Blair and Hugh Grant didn’t interest him at all. He wanted someone who could trot along to a board of education meeting and report on the date of the next one.

By November unemployment in small town America was getting to me. I inquired about a holiday job at a local clothing store and was taken on.

I still remember my interview with the sallow woman who would be my supervisor in a room full of surplus coat hangers. Brushing cigarette ash off her jacket Linda (not her real name) said I’d have to shape up and make my quota of selling customers sky high interest store cards, or I’d be fired. Employees didn’t have many rights, although we were allowed a 10-minute break if our hands started to bleed.

My first day of work would be the day after Thanksgiving – known as Black Friday. I had no clue what this entailed, but I was told to arrive early, about 5 am.

Even today I can recall the feel of the parking lot when I drove in out of the darkness of a North Carolinian morning. Not even a bleak, windswept morning in the wastes of the Gobi desert or the Siberian steppe can feel as empty as the acres of rotting concrete behind a shopping mall in the American south.

Forlorn and lonely employees huddled in cold corners waiting for the lights to come on and for Black Friday to start in earnest. I played it cool and realized too late I was trying to get in the wrong door. By the time I arrived at the correct one I was already tardy on my first day. Unsmiling Linda opened the door and met my blabbering explanation with a stare that would have frozen the Polar ice caps at 20 miles.

“And I thought you guys were meant to like Brits,” I felt like blubbing.

Soon I was put into the frontline on till 2. Fortunately they had not had time to train me in the higher academic arts of cashiering, so I was left to bag up purchases for the masses and I mean masses. For hours during the morning they came at us like a tsunami. My rudimentary bagging skills weren’t up to the task but were probably equal to the salary of $7 an hour.

But after a few hours a strange thing happened. I was marooned in a regressive part of North Carolina in a low paid job with a boss who had all of the social skills of a cadaver; I was adrift in a foreign country with all those myths about an English accent opening doors shattering around me, and yet suddenly I started to have fun.

My fellow workers in purgatory turned out to be an eclectic bunch. It took me about 5 seconds to deduce Marc was gay due to the conversation he launched into about Boy George and Madonna, Rachel turned out to be as funny as she was acerbic; she was fiddling on the tills while making an application for a criminal justice course and Denise – well Denise, kept passing gas. This had the double effect of sending us into convulsions of laughter in front of customers as they reacted as if they had hit a brick wall at the till.

We all crowded round one till because the veteran shopworker on the other – Miss Shirley, was too much of a “witch” for anyone to work with. Eventually we drew lots for who would go and work with her.

Over the next few weeks the mall started to enter my soul. Hanging out in the mall burger joint with my store name badge hanging to my shirt like a moniker of shame, I would wonder what had happened to my life. Miss Shirley would berate me and call me “Bubba,” Linda would harass me about those elusive credit card sales. I realized society never realizes the plight of the humble shop worker who is forced to see the worst side of humanity with little support and spend hours on his or her feet for meager pay.

There were some fun times stacking jeans while Marc bitched about everybody in the store and Rachel ridiculed people. It was nice to find black humor in the most unpromising part of small town America.

But in the end Marc was let go. Linda explained to me he was “a bit funny” which I took to mean homosexual. Some of the others drifted off too and I got a call from a newspaper.

I left the store and those hours of loneliness beside the Izod shirts to someone else, I left the garish strip lights and cheap jewelry to Linda who was half dead, partly because her husband had run off with a Canadian, and Miss Shirley who was three quarters poisoned and one quarter mean as a raccoon in a trap.

But I can never see Black Friday in the same way since and that canned Christmas Perry Como stuff sends a shiver through my soul every time I hear it. And not in a pleasant way, either.

Thursday, November 25, 2010

Obama, turkeys and why Thanksgiving makes me queasy

It's going to be a long day. It's not even 10 a.m. and my first Thanksgiving as an American citizen is making me feel queasy.

I feel like I have emerged from a dream in which Lawrence Welk and the Osmonds took me for a singalong in a giant cake oozing pink vanilla icing where they promised me I would meet Barry Manilow and he would croon: "Oh Mandy."

It started with some schmaltzy stuff on TV. I have no clue what because I found myself clicking the TV manically looking for one of those crime shows where they nail the man who mutilated the prostitute through a DNA sample from a hair or nefarious bodily fluid. At the same time I am thinking about my recipe for Thanksgiving lunch and wondering when I'll get a battery for the remote control.

And what about those Facebook messages from friends over here? People posting about how grateful they are to be alive and in the bosoms of their families, how much they love God, how happy they are to be Americans blah blah.

Then there was the personal email we received this morning from the President. How nice that Barack takes the time to personally email every American citizen.

"When Michelle and I sit down with our family to give thanks today, I want you to know that we'll be especially grateful for folks like you. Everything we have been able to accomplish in the last two years was possible because you have been willing to work for it and organize for it."

Sorry. Having a few problems with that mid sized a-word Barack (my voice suddenly gets all sinister Sarah Palinesque) . Have you been to Guantanamo Bay recently? If you did you might realize it's still open.

The warm Thanksgiving messages are nice in a way but I can never buy into this kind of thing. You can take the Brit out of Britain but you can't take the cynicism out of the Brit.

I can only conclude that as a journalist and someone who has flirted with academia that I have a predisposition to be Godless, as Palin herself put it this week.

Maybe I can  tweet her to confirm her worst fears. Dear Sarah - just to confirm I will indeed be spending Thanksgiving in a small bare room worshipping a bust of Leon Trotsky ($9.99 from Target) as I plan to turn America red Wal-Mart by Wal-Mart.

Come to think of it, it's kind of ironic that turning America red  is also a way of describing something Palin would favor - a Republican clean sweep. In Britain the left of center party is red and the conservatives are blue. I digress.

As far as Thanksgiving goes there are a couple of  things to be thankful for. There's a day off work and (um) a day off work.

Of course, like most holidays, the origins of Thanksgiving are muddled.

In a very tiny nutshell once upon a time there were some religious extremists who lived in a rather flat part of England where men were men and your sister was fair game. They escaped to Holland so as they could beat their wives in public, unmolested by the authorities.

However, the Puritans were rather shocked to find coffee houses with large spliffs on the menu so they decided to make a voyage to the New World.

The origins of Thanksgiving in 1621 are described thus on History.com.

"In November 1621, after the Pilgrims’ first corn harvest proved successful, Governor William Bradford organized a celebratory feast and invited a group of the fledgling colony’s Native American allies, including the Wampanoag chief Massasoit.

"Now remembered as American’s “first Thanksgiving”—although the Pilgrims themselves may not have used the term at the time—the festival lasted for three days. While no record exists of the historic banquet’s exact menu, the Pilgrim chronicler Edward Winslow wrote in his journal that Governor Bradford sent four men on a “fowling” mission in preparation for the event, and that the Wampanoag guests arrived bearing five deer."

It was actually Abraham Lincoln who invented the holiday as a kind of feelgood event because there was a rather nasty war going on at the time.

The first Thanksgiving is often cited in terms of some kind of multicultural group hug, as a metaphor for caring modern America.

Sadly many people forget that by 1685 New England was plunged into a devastating conflict between the settlers and the Indians known as King Philip's War that led to the deaths of hundreds of settlers and wiped out about 40 percent of the Indian population.

By all accounts the war was devastating to the native peoples. Entire families were sold into slavery abroad and others because servants. The Wampanoag had to sacrifice their culture to survive.

By 1700 tribal leaders would have been entitled to formally ask for a few of those deer back.

Sadly King Philip's War was just the first episode in a long tragedy for the native people.

That's not why I feel queasy, though, this Thanksgiving. Perhaps I'm just not good at being nice. And I haven't even hit the dietary overload button, yet.

BTW there's a caption contest on the go for the Bush photo. My pathetic effort is: "Not now Condi."

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Uh oh - the baby just stood up

Jack Jax stood up for the first time last night.

I was lounging disconsolately on the bed trying unsuccessfully to balance a glass of pinot noir and two novels when Zara started shouting: "Look, look."

Sure enough the boy was standing up ramrod straight in his cot staring across the room and grinning.

Sensible parents of yesteryear would, no doubt, have got straight down to the business of lowering his cot, but as it took four hours and three near divorces to construct it we collectively thought: "Sod that for a game of soldiers."

Rather it was cue to whip out the camera for an improptu photo session and to disseminate the photos out on Facebook within seconds so as a wider audience could tell us how clever our kid was and puff up our egos. I can't tell you how important it is to go into Tuesday with an ego puffed up like a peacock on steroids. You may even get to Thursday without muttering to yourself in the elevator. Or in the case of my office, muttering to youself about the fact there isn't an elevator and you have to do stairs.

Talking of puffed up how unlucky are turkeys in the United States? Not content with a mass cull at Christmas, Americans feel obliged to devour them en masse a month earlier and come back again for the ones that got away. Turkeys are probably the only inhabitants of the US who are trying to escape to Mexico.

Anyhow. After Jaxs's improptu photo shoot, I was inundated with well wishers on Facebook and some of the women even took me aside at work today to tell me how gorgeous Jax is.

All well and good, but already at nine months I can see a worrying picture developing. My female colleages want a date in 18 years' time and all the female infants are already crawling all over his puffy diaper in daycare.

I can picture myself in 20 years time, old, embittered and hunched over watching grouchily as Jax brings a host of beautiful women to the shack.

And then I'll get all misty eyed and sad for my misspent youth. And I'll get to wondering why I only ever dated women with one eye, twitches, psychotic personality disorders or weighing over 280 pounds when I was his age.

Monday, November 22, 2010

The Daily Dire - pregnant Kim Zolciak and her Atlanta Falcons toyboy

This is the sort of story that makes me cringe, snort and throw up my arms in despair. In no particular order. Normally in the privacy of my own home.

It's in the Daily Mail and concerns Kim Zolciak who - for the uninitiated like me - is a star of Real Houswives of Atlanta and has apparently been made pregnant by her toyboy lover.

So woman who I have never heard of is dating toyboy, Kroy Biermann, who I have never heard of, who is actually only seven years younger than her anyhow. Oh and he's knocked her up and this is the story...

It's exactly what a former news editor and mentor would have described as a "bugger me" kind of story. He didn't mean it in the Etonian way.

For example, Cat caught making miowing noises in garden, Bird seen flying past house, Postal worker seen delivering mail, are all "bugger me" stories because that's the reaction they provoke. Actually the latter is a bit more remarkable in this day and age.

How about Politician is exposed as ethical? - now we are talking about something unusual enough to make front page news.

The Mail seems to think it can get away with a story about this vacuous nonentity by putting it in the Femail Today section. So here's the patronizing subtext. It's OK to feed women a diet of fluff stories because they are (err um) women.

The sad thing is the Mail has always attracted a larger female audience than any other British newspaper. But should we really continue building up reality TV stars to the point that they get delusions of grandeur?

Whatever next - they'll be gate crashing functions at the White House.

This is the most alarming line in the whole piece. "The star, who is promoting her new single, Google Me, isn't planning to walk down the aisle before the birth."

And I don't mean the bit about not walking down the aisle.

If this story doesn't grab you avid Mail readers can always check out. "Larger than life Snooki wears a rather unflattering dress to her birthday party."

I guess it was a close toss-up between this and mass genocide in Darfur.


Saturday, November 20, 2010

Fear and cannibalism on Easter Island

Paul Theroux's recent trip to India as recounted in his new book Ghost Train to the Eastern Star is fascinating but ultimately chilling.

After taking the train through the arid weirdness of Turkmenistan, a land with a ruler so strange and controlling that he renamed bread after his mother, the travel writer's happiness at being back in India is palpable.

But, by the time he leaves India, Theroux has the reaction of a man who has spent hours trapped on a crowded subway train, wedged up the armpits of fellow travelers.

It wasn't the dirt or the heat or the poverty that finally sent Theroux away from India.

"What sent me away finally was something simpler,  but larger and inescapable. It was the sheer mass of people, the horribly thronged cities, the colossal agglomeration of elbowing and contending Indians, the billion-plus, the sight of them, the sense of their desparation and hunger, having to compete with them for space on sidewalks, on roads, everywhere," Theroux writes.

Theroux compared them to ants he saw on rotting fruit on the sidewalk. He said the population of the United States had doubled in his lifetime.

"India was a reminder of what was in store for all of us, a glimpse of the future."

It's a long way both geographically and culturally from India to Easter Island in the Pacific Ocean. While the tall glass towers of the call centers rise above the slum of modern Mumbai, and traffic buzzes and honks in the streets, the enormous heads called moai look balefully over silent and empty brown hills and a wide expanse of bleak, pale blue ocean on Easter Island.

Freezing winds batter these 62 square miles marooned on thousands of miles of empty ocean.

The baleful stares of the statutes give few clues to the horrors and the bloodshed they have witnessed, but archaeologists have pieced together the grim history of Easter Island.

The island was first settled about 400 AD but by the 17th Century the island's population had expanded to about 10,000. By then something had gone badly wrong on Easter Island. The island's natural resources had been exploited to the point of exhaustion. All the trees were cut down and the soil became infertile.

The result was factionalism, mass killing and cannibalism. It took an orgy of violence to reduce the size of the population.

It's hard to imagine the terror and bloodshed in this barren and baleful land, hemmed in by the unforgiving tides and isolated from the world, but shatteted bones in caves confirm the killing was going on, even as the first Europeans set foot on Easter Island.

Sergio Rapu, an archaeologist commented: "What was once an elevated and tightly controlled society had broken down, almost to anarchy."

The tale of Easter Island is reminiscent of the fictional breakdown of civilized society described by William Golding in The Lord of the Flies.

But what if Easter Island is a microcosm of a larger world? We are exhausting natural resources at an alarming rate and medical advances are fuelling overpopulation.

As Thomas Mathus wrote at the end of the 18th Century. "The power of population is indefinitely greater than the power in the earth to produce subsistence for man."

He is yet to be proved right, but there's still time.

My apologies for writing a serious blog entry and neglecting Kim Kardashian. I don't expect it to happen very often.

Thursday, November 18, 2010

Royal weddings and toe curling affairs

This week I'm glad I don’t still live in Britain - and not just because of appalling November weather and the notion of freezing to death in some greasy diner in a seaside town they forgot to close down.

For the benefit of anyone who has been in a coma this week or a capsule on a one way journey to Mars (sadly Sarah Palin isn’t going this far), the announcement of a Royal engagement between Prince William and Kate Middleton has not just been hugging the headlines; it has been stealing them and making a getaway.

The relief is almost palpable for people who like this kind of thing. The last Royal Wedding in 2005 was between Prince Charles and Camilla. It reminded me of a mating ritual in the reptile house of a zoo.

Even the date had to be moved because the Pope died. I have a wedding mug with the wrong date that I thought might make me some money one day. Unfortunately we ended up using it for coffee to the extent that Charles and Camilla’s heads have worn off. Probably no bad thing. Don’t want to scare the kids and all that.

There are always plenty of headlines on those magazines you see at Food Lion about the hell of Charles and Camilla's wedding but it's really hard to know. These are the same magazines that bang on about George W. Bush and Condi. Rice.

Britain hasn’t had a feelgood wedding between two young people since that of William’s mother Diana and his father Charles in 1981. It’s still hard to believe William is related to Charles but the older William gets the more his father’s genes appear to kick in. Expect him to be talking to plants soon.

And Will and Kate seem somewhat less dysfunctional that the young Charles and Diana. Julie Burchill in a hilarious column in the Independent picks up on Charles’ telling comment “Whatever "in love" means, that was made in a post engagement interview.

In typical acerbic style Burchill writes she “could only imagine my interest being piqued this time around if Diana's son repeated the creepy line which his worthless, hypocritical father came out with all those years ago when asked if he was in love with his radiant young fiancée, Diana Spencer.”

In retrospect we know ‘whatever “in love” means' translates to “Camilla on the side.”

So Wills and Kate seem to be sensible enough young people and Wills has succeeded in avoiding some of his brother Harry’s jolly japes such as showing up to fancy dress parties in Nazi uniforms.

It remains to be seen if this is enough to make a Royal wedding a success story in contemporary England.

And if you think this is me being over cynical I would point out I was idealistic about this sort of thing once; in 1973 to be exact when I was six-years-old and Princess Anne married Captain Mark Phillips.

I asked my mother if I could see the ceremony and if this Princess was beautiful I had never seen a real princess.

My mother said she wasn’t and Princess Anne resembled a horse.

And really it all seemed to gallop downhill from there. There was Fergie and Andrew and those embarrassing toe sucking pictures and Charles’ rather infamous comment to Camilla where he said he wanted to be a Tampax.

It seems the days when Royal aspirations ran high are long gone. No danger of Charles being beheaded like his famous namesake for seeking to run the country.

It would be nice if the Royals could set their sights a bit higher. Or failing that, at least have affairs that are not totally embarrassing, before the inevitable Royal divorce.

It’s funny but notwithstanding the last few decades that have reduced the House of Windsor to a real life Carry On film, Americans are still, by and large, willing to buy into the dream of fairytale romance.

Which is strange really when you consider that this is a nation that couldn't stomach the madness of King George.

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Sarah Palin and the "lamestream" media

Can you actually believe a show is now being aired on TV called Sarah Palin’s Alaska?

Well this is surely going to be one of the shortest and shallowest shows yet to make prime time.

In saying that it’s amazing how seemingly unintelligent people can stretch out shows. Anna Nicole Smith had an unreal kind of reality show and there are actually people who really do try to keep up with Keeping Up with the Kardashians.

The Washington Post reported that TLC scored the biggest series launch in its history Sunday -- about 5 million viewers -- with the unveiling of  Sarah Palin's Alaska.

That crowd rivals the 5 million bagged by AMC's zombie series "The Walking Dead" when it debuted on Halloween. Coincidentally, that was also a best-ever series launch for that basic cable network.

I’m tempted to compare the two although that would be slightly churlish as I haven’t actually seen Palin’s show. Still I imagine her walking round like the walking dead, making her hokey asides, muttering in a confused manner when asked about what newspapers she reads and promising to highlight parts of Alaska that Russia’s visible from.

Edward Flattau, in the Huffington Post blog made a more considered critique of Palin’s environmental credentials. What credentials, you may ask.

“The lady on your television screen extolling the majestic wilderness panorama and spectacular wildlife of Alaska is the same individual who as governor sought to spread oil rigs across the nation's last great intact wilderness ecosystem, namely the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge in the northeast corner of the state,” he wrote, going on to detail numerous other crimes against the ecosystem including the aerial slaughter of wolves and bears from a helicopter.

I guess that’s what folks do for a social life in Alaska because there aren’t many Ruby Tuesdays.

One of my biggest beefs against Palin is her continual dismissal of the media because, frankly, we’re not very nice to her. Like a mantra she says “lamestream” media over and over again as if hoping the moniker will stick.

If we were unlucky to have a Palin presidency she would probably aim to ban the traditional media from the White House, altogether and Tweet all of her Presidential announcements.

As someone who has worked in the “lamestream” media for long enough to be half lame, I have come to value its importance. Week after week my colleagues defy the odds, not to mention budget cuts to media companies to tell readers what’s really going on in their cities.

Only this week I revealed how a city council discussed giving $1 million in taxpayers’ money in gift cards to its employees in a discussion held behind closed doors.

Watergate it isn't but without the “lamestream” media who would be there to tell hard working citizens how their money was being spent.

Not Sarah Palin for sure – she’d be off somewhere shooting wolves from a helicopter, yelping and committing certifiable offenses against the English language.


Friday, November 12, 2010

Bored shiftless by Katy Perry

In random and listless moments I find myself thinking about Katy Perry. No. Not in that way.

I really do wonder what’s the point of Katy Perry because her music sounds like the bland tinkling stuff that emanates from department store escalators and, frankly, her eyes are too close together.

I realize this may make me sound shallow but at the end of a dull Friday at work writing about local politics, I don’t really care. George W. Bush’s eyes are also too close together. I rest my case.

Talking of shallow, I wonder if anyone has ever analyzed the lyrics of Perry’s songs. Has Harvard set up a course for Katy Perry lyrics studies? Cue images of bearded academics sitting in a circle pondering the meaning of “I kissed a girl, just to try it.”

“We can see the clear linkage and effect between this sentiment and some of the causational factors behind Chairman Mao’s Great Leap Forward…”

These lyrics are from Katie’s latest hit that’s called something so bland it’s slipped my mind. Something to do with teenagers.

Let's go all the way tonight
No regrets, just love
We can dance until we die
You and I
We'll be young forever

Well that’s profound isn’t it? It raises the rather existential question of how one can be young forever if they have just shuffled off their mortal coil dancing.

But at least Perry has given me some ideas for a Friday night. Yep – I am going to go all the way tonight. All the way to the ABC store that is.

Come to think of it there is one Perry song that I have time for. It contains the line: “You change your mind, like a girl changes clothes.”

I think I like her, come to think of it. She’s the best. Let’s make her an ambassador for world peace and let her adopt truck loads of kids from Malawi.

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Celebrating ... my 100th blog entry

This isn’t any old blog posting on cats or the weather or celebrity meltdowns or the general quirks of my life, my innate suspicion of superstores, elderly men wearing dew rags who ride Harleys or that most sinister strata of society otherwise known as circus clowns.

This, cue drum roll, is my 100th blog posting….

In my own distorted dream world I feel like one of the less auspicious Oscar winners. You know the kind of guy I’m talking about. He stumbles up hesitantly to the stage to receive an Oscar for longevity in sound recording, his bowtie is slightly askew, his hair is unkempt, he’s spilled red wine on his tux. and nobody is listening to his overlong speech because they’re waiting for Angelina Jolie.

Still I mumble on, suddenly conscious of the fact my flies are undone. I shouldn’t have worried about it. The magazines would only take note if I was de Niro.

“I started this blog 22 months ago on a template that looked like wallpaper from Jackie Brown. I was a lone soul in the blogosphere. Nobody even commented on one of my entries for six months.”

A lonely late shift on a chilly February night sat beside the police scanner prompted me to start blogging. It all flowed from that night.

Slowly the followers joined up to follow. I now have more than Jesus. But only if you restrict that calculation to the disciples. Let’s face it – 23 in almost as many months isn’t exactly prolific.

And while my new look and decision to make my blog sexier, resulted in a spike of visits that looked like the ascent of Everest, I was disconcerted to see my intrepid climber appeared to have fallen off a precipice a couple of weeks back.

But it’s not the raw numbers but the faces that count. In the time I have written this blog I have met many interesting people in the blogisphere and made some special friends … I’d like to thank my producer etc.

My first serious follower was Vodka Logic and I can rely on her to comment on my postings come hell, high water or an overdose of the clear liquid that always make me throw up. Cue polite applause for http://snickerbaraddict.blogspot.com/, ladies and gentlemen.

Then there’s Tim Riley, an everyday guy who succeeds in writing sane entries while working as a teacher of all things. http://tjriles.blogspot.com/

Meredith from the Enchanted Earth was a constant commentator until a recent death in her family but I hope she returns to blogging soon. Here’s her link anyhow http://www.theenchantedearth.com/

And Julie Magers Soulen is an occasional commentator who always says such nice things, even if my blog entry has been doused in sarcasm. Her pics are pretty good too. http://juliemagerssoulen.blogspot.com/

I can always rely on Nubian to bring me crashing down to earth, in the best possible way. I can’t supply an address because she recently took her blog private. Apparently there are some unpleasant folks out there who like to post written bile. The sad aspect to this is I’m sure it pushes their numbers up to the heights of blogisphere.

Former Sun editor Kelvin Mackenzie knew as much when he demanded the headline Gotcha on a story about the sinking of the General Belgrano with the loss of 323 Argentinian lives.

And I have newer followers to thank such as Petty Witter - http://pettywitter.blogspot.com/, Christopher of Notes from Underground, http://christophersworldletters.blogspot.com/ and Emm from Emm in London - http://missus-emm.blogspot.com/.

However, a very special mention is reserved for Betty Manousos at Cut and Dry http://cutand-dry.blogspot.com/ whose consistent praise is enough to keep one going on a cold November day when the doughnut tray is empty. I know Betty devotes hours to writing positive comments on numerous blogs and, obviously has reserves of patience that I lack. Her crisp photos and posts always make me feel upbeat.

And her furniture always looks a heck of a lot better than mine.

By now I realize my audience is groaning the aisles, in anticipation of the arrival of Angelina or Julia Roberts. I must take this tawdry plastic Oscar and return to the obscurity of my sound room. But first, ladies and gentlemen I must perform a small pirouette and take you back to the unpromising place where it all began. My very first blog post called The Scanner....

My best friend most evenings is a gray box about 8 inches by 5 (I'm not nerd enough to have measured it).

It's called a scanner and picks up messages on radio channels used by the emergency services. Given that I'm close to the scanner, physically as well as emotionally, I should give it a name, although I wouldn't spend a lot of time thinking about it as if it were a child.

We're not friends of choosing, rather we are thrown together by circumstance. My scanner is like a big, sweaty tattooed sailor who one is forced to bunk next to on a transatlantic crossing. You try to strike up a conversation but after "nice green anchor - did it hurt?" is met with a monosyllabic mutter, you give up and spend the next week listening to him snoring.

I haven't started talking to the scanner yet. That would suggest I had finally lost the plot like Max - the eccentric kid at school who talked to his feet and whose metallic voice was famously heard coming from behind a toilet cubicle on a field trip addressing the toilet paper: "OK paper -now for it."

I should be careful. In the wonderful new world of Facebook, MySpace and Twitter (whatever that is) people from school can track you down.

The other day I was contacted by the kid brother of a guy who I only have a dim recollection of from school.

"Do you remember me?"

"Of course, you were the kid who um...how is Bob anyhow."

"Just lost his job and was at home living with his parents but he's out of there now."

"Great, well that's progress - of sorts."

"He's in jail."

I digress. Max isn't the real name of the kid who was friends with the toilet paper and nor does my scanner have a name. I'm thinking of christening it Sam. It's slick and androgynous. It lends itself to inflated claims and is an ad man's dream. Nobody can scan like Sam. Scan with Sam and you'll uncover a Scam. When you need to Scan Sam's your man.

On balance Sam is probably a better name for a scanner than Sebastian.

A scanner called Sebastian wouldn't be satisfied with 75-year-old males with fluid on their lungs, or threatening groups of people with firearms.

He'd want to blow out of this place and go to a cocktail party.

And I'd want to go there with him.

Sam has limitations. I couldn't live Sam's world for ever.

At least he's kept me entertained. The talk of the suspicious sandwiches left on the seat of a Ford Taurus aroused my interest along with the suspect sighted with "unfortunate hair."

And while the language of the emergency airwaves is normally prosaic in the extreme, it has its moments when police dispatchers start shouting about multiple shooting victims and people jumping out of the window during fires.

This is a cue for me to jump up from my desk, alert my good friend the snapper and head in her (sometimes his) car to the scene of the outrage where I'll be greeted by a happy little reception party of blue lights and yellow tape.

Sometimes Sam can be wildly inaccurate to the point of requiring medication. The building that collapsed on an old woman in a storm in Hampton turned out to be a tree limb that had scraped her window.

Recently a colleague asked me if I had a portable scanner that I could take around in my car. I'm sure such things exist because the 21st century is an Aladdin's cave of portable gadgets, but I don't trust Sam in my car.

Maybe there's a small scanner device - a son of Sam - that will fit round my wrist so as I can wear it 24/7.

That way I can jump out of bed every time someone points a gun at a cashier in Newport News, dream in crackly, truncated sound bites and be at his beck and call.

It's a bad idea, though. Sam's like one of these slightly tacky people who are instantly written off when they first come to work at a company.

People mock him behind his back and say he wears slip-on shoes because he can't tie laces. It's a bit embarrassing when he quotes the company motto.

Then one day you wake up and he's your boss. That's when the problems really begin.

Monday, November 8, 2010

Fall in Virginia, part 2

Although the nights are closing in and those dark and endless days when we drive to work in the dark and at home in the twilight will soon be upon us, it's not too late to get outside and to see and inhale the last flourishing of the year before it all fades to a steely gray.

While at times I admit to feeling homesick for the seasons in England, for the springs and the daffodils and the primroses that choke babbling brooks on the moors, I have to admit fall is more beautiful in Virginia.

Instead of the russets and browns as autumn gives way to winter at home, in Virginia the trees suddenly burst out in primary colors of vermillions and yellows that become a crazt artist's palette against the clear blue skies.

On days like today I look desperately around the gray walls of the office and long to escape; to walk the path less trodden, beside the lake with the rolling hills a blue mirage in the distance.

But when it comes to encapsulating the mellow crispness of autumn in verse, I'm forced to turn back to England to John Keats, a poet who barely made it out of the spingtime of his life.

To Autumn surely remains the greatest piece of writing that's ever likely to grace the fall.

To Autumn: John Keats

Season of mists and mellow fruitfulness!

Close bosom-friend of the maturing sun;
Conspiring with him how to load and bless
With fruit the vines that round the thatch-eaves run;
To bend with apples the mossed cottage-trees,
And fill all fruit with ripeness to the core;
To swell the gourd, and plump the hazel shells
With a sweet kernel; to set budding more,
And still more, later flowers for the bees,
Until they think warm days will never cease,
For Summer has o'erbrimmed their clammy cells.

Who hath not seen thee oft amid thy store?
Sometimes whoever seeks abroad may find
Thee sitting careless on a granary floor,
Thy hair soft-lifted by the winnowing wind;
Or on a half-reaped furrow sound asleep,
Drowsed with the fume of poppies, while thy hook
Spares the next swath and all its twined flowers;
And sometimes like a gleaner thou dost keep
Steady thy laden head across a brook;
Or by a cider-press, with patient look,
Thou watchest the last oozings, hours by hours.

Where are the songs of Spring? Ay, where are they?
Think not of them, thou hast thy music too, -
While barred clouds bloom the soft-dying day
And touch the stubble-plains with rosy hue;
Then in a wailful choir the small gnats mourn
Among the river sallows, borne aloft
Or sinking as the light wind lives or dies;
And full-grown lambs loud bleat from hilly bourn;
Hedge-crickets sing, and now with treble soft
The redbreast whistles from a garden-croft;
And gathering swallows twitter in the skies.

Saturday, November 6, 2010

Facebook is freaking me out

I wouldn't say I have a suspicious mind. I now realize that person who was following me in the Chevvy Cobalt tonight may not have been specifically tailing me. He was behind me for four miles, though. He turned left when I turned left. He turned right when I turned right. He was wearing shades on a cloudy day. His face was partially obsured but I swear it was the face of a serial killer.

My suspicion that he was following me was alleviated slightly when I turned off the interstate and he kept going. Or maybe this was a ruse to make me think he wasn't following me.

Then I got a bit freaked out at the mail box. Someone was loitering behind me as I unlocked my box. I could feel the hairs on my back standing on end.

I turned and an elderly lady smiled at me. I wasn't fooled. Oh no. I was acutely aware of bizarre story of the elderly Caucasian man who was rumbled by airline officials in Canada who discovered he was a young Asian man.

Now I assume most elderly people are really teeagers. "Don't be fooled by how slowly they move," I'll tell anyone who cares to listen. "Most of them are drug dealers, disguised as old prunes." Tell them loudly you know their real identity and they'll jump out of the blocks like Carl Lewis on acid.

I gave the elderly lady an oblique look because I was starting to wonder if she was really the man who was following me in the Cobalt. I glanced at the parking lot and sure enough a Cobalt was parked nearby.

I retreated to my home only to find out I was being stalked on the internet. A man called Mr Godogo from Nigeria was offering to put $1 million in my bank account. I know bad things happen in Nigeria and this guy had my number. Well my email address at least.

But the most stark evidence I am being stalked came from Facebook, which I am told is some kind of networking site. I don't use it much owing to my cautious nature. Fifty visits a day is quite enough, thank you very much.

I'm most freaked out by the "People you know" section down the right hand side of the screen. How the hell does Facebook know that I know them? Or rather knew them. Clearly there's an operation going on here like the one the British ran from Dublin Castle in the early 20th Century when a network of informers kept the Irish in their place.

How else can I explain the fact this site regularly produces a picture of my mother-in-law, my ex-wife, the estate agent in England who defrauded me of 1000 sterling and the tenant who refused to leave our rental home, leaving us with a bill of a further 1000 sterling and all this after I had generously donated my bicycle to her, on the understanding she paid for a second wheel.

We live in sinister and troubling times my friends and social networking is as incidious as the bugs the Soviets used to place in hotel rooms of diplomats visiting Moscow.

I must end this post now to get some more medication from Walgreens but hold onto that thought....

Friday, November 5, 2010

I wish Phil Collins would get out of my hair tonight

I normally like to hear British imports on my local radio station.

But although I am normally loathe to denigrate a fellow countryman, I am at a loss to understand America’s continued obsession with Phil Collins.

On a dull day driving through the strip malls of suburbia there are few sounds more depressing than hearing Collins droning out You Can’t Hurry Love or Sussudio. It’s enough to make you take up residence in Lowe’s as it has all the excitement of a day out shopping for bathroom fixtures.

I assume Collins’ popularity in America is down to the fact he’s so boringly mainstream which makes me want to find out if there’s anything exciting about this guy.

Certainly not his name. Rather than having an exotic or embarrassing real name, it turns out Phil Collins is short for Philip David Charles Collins. And he doesn’t seem to be related to the Irish freedom fighter/terrorist Michael Collins.

Collins was actually born in the suburbs, in Chiswick, London, where the loudest thing going on is the twitching of net curtains. There is little evidence of teenage rebellion or drug abuse.

And while Collins played a criminal in the movie Buster, he wasn’t a very bad one.

It probably says much about Collins that he moved a few years ago to Switzerland, a nation famous for cuckoo clocks, chocolate and banking institutions, but not its untamed rockers.

The rumor that Collins said he would quit England if a Labour government raised the income rate, also added to his reputation as part of the conservative establishment. He’s since said he actually emigrated to Switzerland in 1994 because of a woman who lived there.

Still it was enough to lead Noel Gallagher from Oasis to quip before the 2005 election: “Vote Labour. If you don't and the Tories get in, Phil is threatening to come back.”

Apparently Collins has been married three times but it doesn’t make him a lot more interesting. The report that all three left him because they were forced to listen to A Groovy Kind of Love and decided it wasn’t, is entirely fictitious.

I just wish my local radio station would stop thinking Phil Collins still is, or ever was, groovy.

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

Paris Hilton and the era of the oxygen thieves

Forget the election and the ability of the House of Representatives to find unattractive speakers - the big news of the day was surely the fact Demi Lovato, is pulling out of a concert tour with the Jonas Brothers to seek treatment for "emotional and physical issues."

This is mildy disconcerting because I thought young stars were meant to become famous before they had a meltdown; think Britney, Lindsay and Paris Hilton.

Lovato is apparently a star of the Disney channel but I wouldn't know her if she walked past me in the street, which is frankly unlikely, although I'm sure my daughter would recognize her instantly.

Maybe one of Lovato's advisors can tell her she needs to become more high profile before she goes bonkers. If she needs a role model there's always Charlie Sheen, who was recently found half naked and trashed in his hotel room after a screaming women in his closet raised the alarm, and is now divorcing wife number three - that's the one he's accused of pulling a knife on.

I have Charlie to thank for proving life does begin at 40; even if it's not quite the kind of one I want to lead.

In saying that there would be something mildly amusing about telling my co-workers on a Monday when asked about my weekend. "It was OK - apart from the screaming porn star locked in my closet" rather than. "Took the kids to the zoo. Went to Food Lion."

Charlie like Lindsay Lohan has successfully achieved the status of becoming an 'oxygen thief' - a star who is using up air and airspace that could be put to a more charitable use like feeding the homeless, although, to be fair, at least Charlie still has a show and evidence of talent.

In contrast stars like Paris Hilton and Kim Kardashian are famous for being famous and are best known for exposed cleavage, sex tapes etc. and being generally rich and annoying.

The best parallel across the pond is Katie Price, known as Jordan, who proved it is possible to build a career on the shifting foundations of 30 G breasts. This hasn't stopped Price managing to hug the headlines for the best part of a decade due to dubious stunts and liaisons and her willingness to take part in vacuous reality shows.

Jordan even ran in the 2001 British General Election using the slogan "For a Bigger and Betta Future," on a manifesto promising free breast implants, more nudist beaches and a ban on parking tickets.

She has a way to go to rival Paris before she becomes Queen of the Oxygen Thieves.


Monday, November 1, 2010

Riding the bull market - North Carolina style

Can there possibly be any career more crazy than riding bulls for a living?

If you took a straw poll in mall near you it would probably take you half the day to round up anyone brave enough to jump on 2,800 pounds of bucking bovine, but here I was on Saturday night back in the dirt and the cold, watching the listless bulls butting the bars of their pens and the cowboys clicking their spurs, somewhere way off the beaten track in North Carolina.

One of the cowboys, Josh Faircloth remembered how many years he’d been bull riding.

But he'd lost count of the number of injuries he’s sustained.

As part of the culture of what’s dubbed the “toughest sport on earth” or at least the “toughest sport on dirt,” as it was marketed at the 10th annual River City Bull Bash over the weekend, riders don’t complain much about their injuries.

Instead they swaggered like the cowboys of the old west that they emulate, stared moodily like Clint Eastwood into the middle distance and spat a lot into the dirt.

The bulls didn't need to spit. They looked formidable enough by just being bulls.
Faircloth was one of the competitors at Meyler Farms Arena. Although he didn’t win, he came to the competition with an impressive record in bull riding and has just returned from the Bull Riding World Finals in Las Vegas where he rode Big Tex, one of the top five bulls in the world.

I neglected the tell him the only way I'd get anywhere near Big Tex was if he was on a plate in a restaurant smeared in Worcestershire sauce.
Faircloth, from Randleman in North Carolina, has been riding bulls since he was 14, when he started jumping on the backs of his grandfather’s beef cows on the farm where he grew up.

“My cousin started riding bulls and said ‘Let’s go down there and buck grandpa’s beef cows.’ So we got down there, built a little chute and I thought I liked this,” he said.

Now 21, Faircloth said he still thrives on the excitement of the big event.

“It’s the adrenalin rush. It’s a lot of fun and you never know what will happen next,” he said.

But he said the sport is very dangerous. “I’ve had broken noses, broken ribs, several concussions. Nothing really serious yet — knock on wood. We all know the dangers and we know it can happen any time but I don’t look at is as any different from jumping in your car and going somewhere.”

He believes he’s been concussed about 10 times, but has lost count.

That's nine more times than me and that one time on the rugby field was enough to make me lose count of my fingers.

Although North Carolina is not as commonly associated with bull riding as states such as Texas and Oklahoma, Faircloth said the sport is taking off here. “Really, today North Carolina has many weekly bull ridings. Within an hour-and-half’s drive from my house I can be at a bull riding every night of the week — it’s getting on the map for a lot of good bull riding.”

Although Faircloth has lost count of how many competitions he’s won, he said the sport is too unpredictable to ever be confident.

“You can be at the top of your game one minute and ride the best bull in the world and you still have to do it again. One mistake and you’re bucked off,” he said.

Bull riding isn’t just about the rider. The success of a score depends on the unwillingness of a bull to be ridden. A rider will get a higher score if he stays on the back of a bull that kicks and bucks harder.

To register a score, the rider has to stay on the back of the bull for at least eight seconds, a feat that eluded many riders Saturday night.

“Your bull is half your score. You want a good bull,” said Faircloth. He rated most of the bulls at the event as “even.”

Beau Bowman, a veteran bull rider from Pennsylvania, said the battle against fear is part of the bull riding equation. “It’s definitely a total mental game more than a physical game. The best I have done as far as bull riding, physically I wasn’t able to walk and do a lot of things. I basically didn’t think. It made it so easy.”

Bowman seemed a bit agitated before the event. He told me to seek him out at the end but the cold defeated me and I left before the event ended.
Bull Bash organizer Carey McNeill, who has a long track record as a bull rider, has been bringing the Bull Bash to the Elizabeth City area for a decade now. While it’s a major logistical exercise, he pledged to keep holding the event, the only one of its kind in the area.

“Bull riding is the ultimate man against beast competition,” McNeill said. “It goes back to the old gladiator days.Even though it’s not a team sport, the camaraderie is really outstanding. The guy in first place may be helping another guy who’s got a good chance of beating him.

“These guys don’t get paid unless they win. They ride injured, they ride a lot of times when they shouldn’t ride. It’s a lifestyle more than anything.”

On Friday and Saturday 35 riders from 12 states faced the bulls. Caleb Laws from East Lansing, Michigan won Friday’s event and Will Jennings from Elizabeth City finished in second place.

Saturday’s competition was won by Chad Vanamburg of New York state.

The competition began with Old Glory being paraded around on a horse and the competitors lined up behind trails of burning gasoline as well as the release of one of the most feared bulls in the area, Dismal Swamp Jack, into the arena.

McNeill had hoped for about 5,000 people on Saturday but the actual figure was about 1,500. The event was originally scheduled for August but put back because of bad weather.

As I  left the strains of Springsteen's Born in the USA were blasting out.

"Born down in a dead man's town

The first kick I took was when I hit the ground
You end up like a dog that's been beat too much
'Til you spend half your life just covering up."

The lights were flickering in an ambulance where of the competitors who had been dragged half way round the arena by an angry bull ,was being treated.

I went away thinking: "Sod this. I'll take my chance with hairdressing,or septic tank cleaning. Anything except bull riding, really."

Lost by the Sea

 A tiny tragedy in an ocean of sadness makes barely a ripple. Still, I was taken aback to receive an email from a former wife (the one I nev...