Monday, January 31, 2011

Down in the Hood Park

Over the weekend I found myself in Elizabeth City returning again to the rental house (referred to hereafter as the default house).

It was a bittersweet moment because I was doing a walk-through with the outgoing tenants, with no incoming tenants in sight. As soon as I walked into the door the state of the place took me aback as if somebody had hit me with a rake. And what was that awful smell?

Some kind of cleaning product.

The tenants told me rather smugly they had given the place the "military clean" and, to be fair, I couldn't find a speck of dust anywhere.

I watched out of the corner of my eye as my inner petty landlord slung his pack over his shoulder and slumped away down the street. All my grandiose plans and dreams of arbitrary deposit withholding were in tatters.

Things went from bad to worse in the form of my first encounter with the neighbors since the lawn maintenance dispute. As frosty as a frosted up frost cone with a layer of ice over the top for good measure, is how I'd describe our relations.

Our neighbors are German. I don't hold that against them, although I was slightly disconcerted back in the pre-Berlin wall days when we were around the older one's abode and she whipped out a book of Adolf Hitler's paintings.

"He was very talented. Had he been accepted to art school..." and she trailed off.

But we got the message. The failure of one lazy tutor to recognize young Adolf's talents was responsible for the deaths of x-million people.

I encontered her and there was a rather terse exchange about the weather. No mention of the rather obvious fact a new baby had arrived since the last time I saw her and there he was in a freaking heavy car seat wailing about five yards away from her severe Teutonic feet.

Anyway, the point of this post is nothing to do with the rental house or the neghbors but the sketchy hood park we drove past on the fringes of the sketchy hood.

It was so insignificant I had hardly noticed Zara rambling on about it as we drove past it earlier. Indeed I have hardly noticing down to such an art form that I'd probably have more luck than Adolf at being accepted into the Vienna art school.

But as we drove off she started going on and on about the swings.

"I have no idea where they are," I said and headed out of the neighborhood through the dicey part. Then just when we were on the main road she started yelling: "There they are, there they are."

Somewhat bleakly I clapped eyes on one of the most godforsaken hood parks I had seen for a while with three working swings, mere slivers of rubber, hanging over puddles.

I tried to make excuses but agreed to turn back. I really think children have some kind of swing blind spot. If the aforementioned swing was hanging over a goo-infested septic tank with radioactive signs all over the place, they'd still be begging me to go on it.

At closer inspection the hood park was as mean and hoodish as it appeared to be from the road. On the edge of a neighborhood of flimsy shacks with no trespassing signs - even the trees had no trespassing signs for goodness sake - the park was some kind of afterthought.

Reluctantly I agreed it was probably a better bet than trespassing on a hood tree.

It consisted of a basketball court with rusted rings that were bent and twisted and a pleasantly cracked surface strewn with broken glass.

There was one large metal bench that nobody in their right mind would think of sitting on. However, nobody in their right mind would be in the hood park, I figured. It looked like the kind of thing you'd use to smash off fenders in a particularly disreputable scrapyard.

After five minutes of Zara swinging I found myself pacing around and swearing quietly to myself, After 10 minutes I was swearing more loudly. To me it was an old piece of rubber over a patch of filth. To Zara, the hood park, was Elizabeth City's answer to Disney World.

We were just about to escape from the place when  a shifty-looking character sidled over to me with what looked like a joint hanging out of the side of his mouth.

"You %$**&&^^^%%%% maaan," he drawled and shot out a grubby hand.

I had no idea what he was saying. I had an inkling he was begging but the desire to get the heck out of the hood park was rather high on my agenda.

"2.30," I told him with a swift glance at the place on my wrist where my watch should have been. I then grabbed the kids and headed to the car as fast as it's possible to move with an oversized infant seat.

Saturday, January 29, 2011

Postcards fall off the edge

Back in the days when travel was a mysterious adventure and you could drink large amounts of free alcohol on flights and the air hostesses were capable of smiling, writing postcards was an integral part of the experience.

On our great teenage Interrailing trip through Europe I remember sitting on a sunny bank looking at the Chateau of Azay Le Rideau like a pefect little stone sailing boat on a calm mill pond full of lilies, while I scrawled on its image.

Rome was the Colosseum and Barcelona Gaudi's fabulous half finished Sagrada Familia. Then we finished our correspondence to our parents with Mad King Ludwig's fantastic castle of Neuschwantsein, a lunatic white fairytale folly rising from the sunny hills of the Black Forest.

To be fair to Ludwig, it's unclear if he was certifiably mad. Even though the men in white coats took him away, it appears they were lacking the necessary paperwork. The King's favorite saying was: "I wish to remain an eternal enigma to myself and to others."

Fast forward more than 20 years. I received picture mail today on my cellphone and it struck me that picture mail is to the 21st Century what postcards were from time gone by.

So my wife sends me pictures of her dying father from Canada and I send back pictures of the kids. And with a few electronic bleeps we have neatly encapsulated Shakespeare's Seven Ages of Man, me the infant, "mewling and puking" (hopefully not puking too much) and my wife that sad last age of "shrunk shank, and his big manly voice, turning again towards childish treble, pipes and whistles in his sound."

Of course all the world's a stage and when we get close to the drop we send postcards from the edge.

I don't talk about this much but back in the days when collecting wasn't a certifiable disease, I had a large collection of postcards. I could boast the presence of most of the significant castles in Wales in my collection. I could also describe the width of the curtain walls. You wouldn't really have wanted to know me in those days; in fact you would have probably crossed the road to avoid me.

I also had some vintage albums that shed a glimpse on a half forgotten world. In the Victorian and Edwardian days when the main form of transportation was the railway or the steamer, Britain's resorts were in their heyday.

People would board the train to take the seaside air at Blackpool or Scarborough, Yarmouth or Skegness, Southend or Llandudno. I always imagine the whispy smoke from the locomotive in those days as it clattered through the countryside. Inevitably the sky would be egghell blue and the passengers would wear boaters.

I'm sure it rained, but by all accounts these were jolly days when folks would suck on brighly colored rock and stride up and down the pier. Nobody seemed to mind that it wasn't Greece because Greece was beyond their imaginations.

It's hard to fathom now as anyone who has spent more than five minutes in Blackpool or Yarmouth will realize. I used to say there's nothing more depressing than a seaside resort out of season but there is; a seaside resort in season.

Today the grand gothic hotels of yesteryear are often half boarded up and the other half is housing social security claimants. The piers are tatty ghosts of the bygone days, frequented by the occasional holidaymaker who can't afford to go to Spain and amusement arcades whizz and bang a lonely waltz for much of the day. The desperate owners of pubs go for cheap gimmiks like strippers to stay in business while the homeless panhandle outside shopping centers that smell of piss.

The advice I have always given people who are fed up with their lives or their hometown is to go to Margate for a day. Think crumbling promenades, burnt out hotels and jellied eels while hypothermia sets in. If that fails think Chas & Dave.

However, in the heyday of the postcard, Britain's resorts were actually fashionable. Some of the postcards and posters from these days have become iconic images such as the Skegness is so Bracing poster produced by the London & North Eastern Railway (LNER) in 1908 to promote rail travel to the Lincolnshire coastal resort town.

Skegness became famous as the home of Butlins, the cheap and cheerful holiday camp that opened in the 1930s and spawned satires such as Hi de Hi.

I was amazed to find on its website that Butlins still exists, although I doubt if the red coats still get visitors up early in the morning for fun stretches in the exercise yard.

Back in the 1950s and 1960s places like this proved to be an escape from a rigid society for young people and often their first experience of relations with the opposite sex. Postcards also reflected this risque side to the chilly British seaside when the naughty postcard became something of an institution.

The humor on these cards was none too subtle. Take, for example Donald McGill's "A Stick of Rock, Cock." The postcard featured a guy with a large phalic looking stick of rock. If the viewer didn't pick up on the rather obvious allusion the words at the top helped him out. As The Independent noted, Margate Council tried to prosecute McGill, who was in his 70s and living in respectable suburbia at the time. Rude clearly. But hardly worth getting your rocks off over.

Those were the days, I don't know what ever happened to my postcard collection now. Maybe a family member will find it in a dusty attic one day and wonder if there was a story behind it. Or maybe he or she will look at it with the bewilderment that the next generation will encounter at the notion of a vinyl record.

As for poscards, I'm sure the traveler of the future will slip smoothly from place to place without leaving a trace. There will be little time or reason to sit on a sunny bank and write a postcard; instead he'll capture the image and send it somewhere instantly, opting for a suggested message on the key pad.

But maybe we will lose something by not spending the time. As Albert Einstein said it has become appallingly obvious that our technology has exceeded our humanity.

Friday, January 28, 2011

Egypt - a land ruled by meglomaniacs

It feels a long time ago since I was last in Egypt and I haven’t thought about the place a lot since; not until today when the news bulletins were filled with news from Cairo.

It’s hard to capture Egypt in one blog entry because it’s so expansive. Egypt a great empire thousands of years ago when people in Britain were still living in huts made of cow manure and trying to figure out how a wheel worked.

The pharaohs were the world’s first megalomaniacs. Consider the amount of power Khufu must have wielded 2,580 years before the birth of Christ when he was able to get his devoted subjects to spend 23 years toiling in the heat of the desert moving 2,300,000 building blocks that weighted 2.5 tons each, just to build their ruler a giant headstone, in the form of the Great Pyramid. By all accounts Khufu was a tyrant who spurned a funerary cult.

Today the leader cult is apparent in the middle class Cairo suburb of Heliopolis where a giant statute of Ramses the Great watches over the highway.

Egypt isn’t short of monuments honouring its leaders and according them God like status. Indeed the texts known as the Memphite Theology helped fused Egypt's kings with its gods. In the inhospitable western desert across the Nile from Luxor, two massive and brooding figures sit in crumbling splendour. These are the Colossi of Memnon, statues of the pharaoh Amenhotep III, which were the inspiration for Shelley’s poem Ozymandias.

My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings:
Look on my works, ye mighty, and despair!'
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare,
The lone and level sands stretch far away".

Egypt is full of tales of despots who saw their legacies crumble away. The pharaoh Akhenaten forced his people to abandon the old gods and to worship the disc of the sun, the Aten. He built a startling new city from the lone and level sands that fell into decay just years after his death.

And what of Hosni Mubarak, the present president whose 30 year reign is in jeopardy? While the US harped on about regime change and bringing democracy to Iraq, it said little about the crushing of human rights in countries that were its allies such as Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Libya.

Mubarak may not be as bad as Saddam Hussein but the Iraqi tyrant's personality cult is also in evidence in Egypt where Mubrak's face stares down on the traffic from numerous posters like a modern day Ramses.

It would be ironic indeed if the US mission to bring democracy to the Middle East toppled the regimes of its allies rather than the likes of Iran and Syria.

For me Egypt remains a country that is as fascinating as it is beautiful and at times sinister. The first time I arrived in Luxor, I felt almost suffocated by the dry heat and the exotic nature of my surroundings. We drove past homes without roofs and strange smokey dives where men gathered into the night by the Nile to smoke hookah pipes.

Waking up on the first morning on a Nile cruise ship, the sparking aqua green beauty of the Nile and the lushness of the palms that caressed the river against the harsh desert walls beyond it, were too breathtaking for description. This was the cradle of civilzation in all its savage beauty.

And as we drove through fields of swaying grasses and donkey carts to a distant funerary temple it became clear the way of life here hadn't changed much since the days of the Bible.

And on the dusty road into Cairo a sense of disbelief comes over you that such a huge city can grow and thrive out of such a barren brown wilderness. Slums are piled on top of ironstone cliffs with not a tree to break the bleakness and families live in open tombs in the Cities of the Dead. In the vast Khan El Khalil bazaar, where half blind men push around carts with sheeps heads and the hawkers follow you through the labyrinth it's easy to lose hope.

But in Egypt there are friendly people everywhere. There are people who will escort you across the road, talking about their Oxford education. Before you know it you'll be in their perfume shop, a hopeless victim to the hard sell. Or the other way to escape will be via his cousin's carpet shop or his brother's papyrus shop.

Then at the most blatant tourist spots the sellers will mentally check you out to gauge your nationality before becoming a satire of your nation. "Luvvly jubberly, tally ho and Marks and Spencer," they will cry, as you try in vain to pass yourself off as a Canadian.

The troubles in Egypt make me wonder if the nation will finally shake itself free of the yoke of the tyrants and I'm skeptical about revolution for revolution's sake. For every Czeck-style velvet revolution, there's a revolution like 1879 in France that spawned the terror, the Guillotine and Robspierre, or 1917 in Russia that spawned Bolshevism and the biggest tyrant of them all Joseph Stalin.

And let's not forget the regime in Iran that has been the symbol of protests over the last few years, was the creation of the 1979 revolution that replaced an autocratic king with an autocratic holy man.

Nevertheless what's going on in Egypt is pivotal. In terms of history and significance Egypt is a far more influential country than Tunisia. If a despot is overthrown here, the dictator-ridden Middle East will be asking where next?

Thursday, January 27, 2011

Candy Land leaves a bittersweet taste

Like a visit to Willy Wonka's chocolate factory the sweet experience that is Candy Land can quickly turn sinister when you are up against a six-year-old.

I tried to hold out but after a few hours of pestering I gave in to demands to play the board game, even though I knew I'd be on a slope as slippery as the one Veruca Salt was on as the squirrels propelled her toward the garbage shoot.

You have to wonder about embittered old Roald Dahl working away in a cold shed with shrapnel from the war in his back, writing novels about how bad things happened to children. I can't imagine him getting a book contract today and yet his novels are still loved by children who revel in the macabre.

Candy Land reminds me of a Dahl novel. It's sweet but it leaves a sickly taste. It reminds me of the instance today at work when an email was sent out asking for volunteers to test Valentine's chocolates upstairs. Emails are routinely ignored but this one caused a mass break out of fumblings and heads jerking up like prairie dogs from the cubicles followed by a mad sprint up the faux marble stairs as we elbowed each other out of the way to reach the samples first.

The first one tasted good but by number six I was feeling distinctly queasy as if I was due an audience with my Uncle Ralph.

There are lots of sweet things on display in Candy Land like Gingerbread Plumb Trees and Licorice Castle. Unfortunately after a couple of defeats my daughter isn't one of them.

I hasten to add I'm not a Competitive Dad like the guy on the Fast Show who plays tennis with a young boy and serves him volleys ash if he'sVenus Williams.

Unfortunately, Candy Land is purely a game of luck. You can't cheat, not even to ensure a six-year-old wins.

Bizarrely enough I kept winning game after game, my success inversely proportionate to the length of Zara's face. For some reason I kept turning up Queen Frostine, the character that takes you to the top of the board and almost certain victory.

Then at last after four straight victories to a chorus of screaming and foot stamping, she turned up Queen Frostine. I was relived as it seemed she was about to win. Before she turned up the nefarious arsenic candy cane that took her back to the start of the board, that was, ensuring another win for me.

I wanted to quit but couldn't before she had won at least one game. I even sneakily moved her counter a few paces forward when she wasn't looking. And I avoided my subtle winning routine; you know the one, running in crazy circles round the room with my arms aloft yelling: "yes, yes, yes ....loooooser.'

(joke - BTW)

After yet another success I suggested it was all down to my lucky green counter. It had the luck of the Irish, for sure. If we swapped she would surely find a pot of gold at the end of a syrupy rainbow.

Zara wasn't convinced. Finally we swapped and the rest is history. I won again and the betrayal was up there with Hitler and Munich etc.

We had to play late into the night and well past Zara's bedtime for her to chalk up a few victories.

But even these proved Pyrrhic. By the next morning the late night had left her bad tempered and now she wants me to get her a live squirrel.

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

The King's Speech and my grandfather's brush with George VI

I’m excited that the King’s Speech has been nominated for 12 Oscars.

Well at least I’m as excited as anyone can be on another cold gray January day. As we say back in Blighty “Mustn’t grumble. At least it’s not raining.”

I’m not even sure Brits do say “mustn’t grumble” a lot, even if Bill Bryson says we do.

It’s often the most unusual ideas that make for a good movie and you don’t get much more unusual than a movie about stuttering, even if it is about Royal stuttering.

I have decided I must see it, even if that entails waiting for it to go onto Netflix. I am an admirer of both Colin Firth and King George VI, the former because of his acting skills and the latter for overcoming a stutter and a marriage to Elizabeth Bowes-Lyon, who perfected the expression of a bulldog chewing a very prickly wasp.

Of course it’s typical of the deluded British public that they took the good old right wing Queen Mother to their collective bosoms in the same way as they were fooled into thinking Princess Diana was Mother Teresa’ s attractive twin.

My grandfather who also spent most of his life ducking the verbal brickbats of overbearing women, mainly my grandmother, used to tell me a tale about George VI when I was knee high to a grasshopper, to use an inexplicable cliché.

It seemed he was in the Army, although the historical context has been lost in the telling. I still remember the soft light that filtered into the scullery back in those days from a garden fragrant with hydrangeas and the swarms of wasps that my grandmother attracted with open jam jars in the dubious belief that this method would trap and kill every wasp in suburban Birmingham. Time seemed different back then as did the light as if it has been diffused in a sepia filter. And the smells of roast beef were the smells of my childhood.

My grandfather's tale was from either between the wars or some time during World War II in a remote Army base somewhere in England. A bully boy Sergeant had been on my grandfather’s case, hurling insults and taunting him for days. He reacted by doing what you aren’t meant to do in military establishments; namely punching him in the chops.

My grandfather told me how he was paraded in front of the Regimental commander who at the time was the King; or the future King. I can’t recall now if George VI had yet ascended the throne.

My grandfather waited for the commander to hand down his sentence; and he waited. George started and he stopped. He muttered and he stuttered. His stutter was so bad he couldn’t even get the words out to reprimand my grandfather. In the end his features twisted in frustration and he gave up. Instead of sending my grandfather to a military jail he was given unpleasant duties for a couple of weeks; latrine cleaning, boot polishing and the like.

I haven’t thought of this story for years. Not until I heard about the film The King’s Speech.

This made me research George VI’s life to try to find out when he was a regimental commander. But his military service mainly comprised being in the Royal Navy, although in February 1918, he was appointed Officer in Charge of Boys at the Royal Naval Air Service’s training establishment at Cranwell.

I know my grandfather was the co-pilot of an Avro 504, but in 1918 he was headed to Russia to fight the Communist revolution, only to arrive on a ship full of fur coats in fly infested Murmansk where the temperatures were in the 80s.

So I’ll never really know any more about the tale beyond those skeleton memories of childhood and everyone who would help me find out is dead. All of which is rather sad really.

Monday, January 24, 2011

The Witch of the Wine Department

Given that my life seems to be dominated by the prospect of impending death at the moment, it can be good to get away from the house at the weekend.

If you are escape motivated like me you get anxious to get away from most situations. Probably I am unsupportive and insensitive and not grown up enough to deal with the imminent death of my father in law. My wife tells me I’d be different if it was my own parents, but I’m not sure if I would.

It’s an unspoken family policy that we bottle things up, eschew emotion and then jump off a cliff 20 years later. Therapy is strictly for Americans.

So it was with more enthusiasm than usual that I headed to my part-time job demonstrating wine on Saturday. Usually I manage to operate in splendid autonomy. I pick up my bottles, I set up my table. I talk to members of the public for a few hours while plying them with wine. I make enough sales to satisfy the distributor and get to take home the samples to guzzle for the rest of the week. It’s a win/win.

But on this occasion it was a different store and a different set up. Instead of picking up the wine from the distributor (we usually do it under the cover of darkness in the parking lot of a daycare), I was to be supplied it by the wine manager at the store.

I rolled in, slightly late as normal, and was setting up the table when I caught the eye of a short fierce-looking woman in the wine section. I assumed she was the wine manager. She had a name tag that read: “Wine Manager.”

“I had forgotten you were coming,” she said in a tone of voice that suggested this was my fault.

“Oh,” I replied noncommittally. Oh is usually noncommittal, I find.

The ramification of her oversight was that the bottles weren’t chilled. I didn’t have the heart to tell her most of the people who sampled my wine didn’t care about this.

But she went on to tell me ice alone wouldn’t do. I’d have to create a slurry (I’m sure she said slurry, even though I winced at this word, usually understanding it to mean liquefied cow crap). She said I’d have to fill half of the bucket with ice and the rest water.

I headed behind the deli to find some ice. I had filled up half of my bucket and sensed a small but rather angry presence behind me. “You aren’t wearing a hat mister. You have to wear a hat back here,” she yelled.

I assume she was referred to the shower caps that I had missed by the entrance. Now I wasn’t overly concerned that a head lice the size of a hamster would jump from my head onto the Brie because even if I had head lice (which I don’t) they wouldn’t be that large.

I spared her the wisdom of my logic and reached for a shower cap.

But my problems were far from over. It’s an unfortunate characteristic of mine that whenever someone starts yelling at me I become even more useless. Under her withering gaze I tried to manufacture slurry only to find I was totally incapable of working the complex tap system.

By the time I got to the relative safety of my table, I was already feeling my Saturday was going badly.

Sales were low. I made a point of telling the wine manager how sales were always better at the rival superstore and how much I liked working there.

I was in the safety zone for a while until I asked a young guy if he wanted to sample. “I’m 23 but I don’t have my license,” he said.

“No problem,” I said. He sampled and took away a bottle of Cabernet to buy.

Unfortunately the wine manager from hell was back on my case again.

“If they say they don’t have ID they are normally underage,” she instructed me.

I basically told her I didn’t care as he was buying a bottle with his girlfriend who looked about 50-years-old and probably had ID.

Of course I wanted to say…OK if this guy happens to be 20 is his life really going to go downhill because he illegally sampled two Milliliters of Merlot? Will the cops quit chasing down the murder suspects on the mean streets and lock down the supermarket over my actions?

What is it about the US and alcohol anyway? Wal-Mart has a policy to check the IDs of anybody buying alcohol who looks like they are under 40. Since when did 39 become the legal age for drinking alcohol?

I decided not to tell the wine manager about the pub in my home town that relied on 13-year-old drinkers to stay open. I often wonder if the Rose and Crown endures.

Our swords didn’t cross again until an hour later when she frogmarched me to the drain where I had to dispose of the sweet wine and told me the other samples could go to the deli to be used for cooking.

“I normally get to take them home,” I blurted out. Bad move #22. She halted mid march to glare intently at me again. “They let you take them home? Well you do realize these wines are the property of the store rather than the winery’s?”

Even partially polished off bottles apparently. Note to self. Go out back with aforementioned bottles and drink sloppily straight from the bottle.

Shortly after 3 p.m. it seemed she was about to depart. I looked around for some party poppers and silly string.

“OK. Where are your corks?” she asked me out of the blue

“In the trash.”

Cue disaffected sigh from Napoleon Pants.

“I can get them out of the trash.”

Her hands sunk even more deeply into her hips. “I do hope you are joking.”

“Of course,” I responded. Actually I was only half joking. I wanted to follow up with the observation that  nothing would tempt me to dig her out of the trash if she ended up there. I desisted.

Finally she shuffled off, muttering about something inaudibly.

The fortified lemonade taster shuffled over to my table. “She’s kind of by the book,” she said.

“That’s one word for it.”

So we decided it was time to reacquaint ourselves with our products, for purely educational and marketing purposes.

And to toast the departure of the Witch of the Wine Department…

Friday, January 21, 2011

Great rock and roll deaths - and Teena Marie

There are great rock and roll deaths - and then there's Teena Marie's.

Of course, death can never be great but for some of baddest rockers, the way they died has added to the legend and their allure.

Rockers die from gallons of red wine and strange brands of German pills like the ones found in Jimi Hendrix and there are question marks lingering over their deaths. Or big overdoses like Keith Moon (Moon the Loon), the wild living drummer from The Who.

Or like Brian Jones from the Stones, they drown in swimming pools. Seriously how stoned do you have to be to drown in your own swimming pool? Poor Brian must look down from heaven, or up from the other place to cast a withering eye on Keith Richard to conclude life just ain't fair.

Then there's Jim Morrison of the Doors, who apparently died snorting someone else's heroin (you'd think he could have afforded his own) after rock n' roll turned him from a fresh faced American kid to someone who looked like Charles Manson's obese brother.

The women got in the act too. Janis Joplin, who was only in her 20s, but looked like the sort of character who you'd jump in a puddle to avoid at the bus station, died of a drug overdose in 1970, a couple of weeks after Hendrix.

Dying it seemed was in vogue for the stars of 1970, although it played havoc with the recording studio schedules.

The most recent classic rock and roll death has been that of Kurt Cobain of Nirvana, who shot himself in the head in 1994.

But what about Teena Marie? In a way her death at the end of last year was a result of the rock and roll lifestyle but it was hardly due to heavy living.

Appently five years ago Marie, known as the ivory queen of soul was in her hotel room on tour when a large picture fell on her head. She had suffered from seizures and other neurological problems ever since.

It reminds me of the time when a large glitter ball almost took out Boy George on the dance floor. But at least this would have been a more glamorous way to go. The Boy would have gone out having a ball.

It would be just plain wrong of me to mourn the demise of real rock and roll deaths but there was something curiously seductive about the age of excess when the likes of Hendrix could sleep with more women in one short lifetime than the rest of us if we lived to be 300. And I've heard there's a wild swinging scene in the retirement homes for the over 200s these days.

Instead we live in an age when the worst thing that can happen to a recording artist is a tongue lashing from Simon Cowell.

Thursday, January 20, 2011

My blog award and Wilfred Owen (in no particular order)

How fab is this? I received my first blog award today.

And probably my last ever.

It was the Life is Good Award and it was from Tim Riley at Life of Riles . Admittedly, Tim was actually given the award by PM Taylor at This, That and the Other One, and passed it on, but I'm not choosy.

I'll eat cakes that have been lying around the newsroom for a couple of days. I might draw the line at Tim's second hand clothes, but I will accept the award with my flippers outstretched in the manner of a seal about to be handed a big, juicy kipper.

As I may have mentioned before, Tim's one of the nicest and most regular guys out there in the blogisphere. He's been through family tragedy and wider tragedy, living in Tuscon, Arizona. You'd want him next to you in the trenches but, failing that, in the classroom, which is the next best thing these days.

And, strangely enough, in my brief period on the front line in the classrooms, I'd think of the trenches to get me through. Mainly the war poet Wilfred Owen who'd help me illustrate alliteration and onomatopoeia to the likes of Ed Watson, when he wasn't walking round my classroom and kicking my fan around with his pants hanging down round his ankles. Watson as opposed to Owen.

"Sit down and leave my Number One Fan alone," I'd say in a desperate attempt at humor.


Still I clung to Anthem for Doomed Youth in the belief that it's one of the best war poems ever written. Still I kept a candle lit for Owen who died on the last day of the First World War. Still I thought of Owen and the holy glimmers of goodbyes.

Owen who died for freedom so as Ed Watson could kick the crap out of my fan.

Anthem for Doomed Youth

What passing-bells for these who die as cattle?

Only the monstrous anger of the guns.
Only the stuttering rifles' rapid rattle
Can patter out their hasty orisons.
No mockeries now for them; no prayers nor bells;
Nor any voice of mourning save the choirs, –
The shrill, demented choirs of wailing shells;
And bugles calling for them from sad shires.
What candles may be held to speed them all?
Not in the hands of boys but in their eyes
Shall shine the holy glimmers of goodbyes.
The pallor of girls' brows shall be their pall;
Their flowers the tenderness of patient minds,
And each slow dusk a drawing-down of blinds.

September - October, 1917

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Escape Motivated Again

I admit I stole and cannibalised this posting from a post I made two years ago. I'm fairly comfortable with this because.....

a - nobody ever read this blog two years ago.
b - the only person I'm defrauding is myself.
c - I'm still escape motivated.

This morning I was in the doctor's room with my son. Unlike in England, they don't acually keep you in a communal waiting room here in the US.

Instead they bring you to a small consulting room and then abandon you; after first raising the expectation that you will be seen promptly.

After a swift weighing and measuring session (my son, not me) the nurse said the doctor would be with me shortly. So I spent an excrutiating 20 minutes with an infant who's literally climbing up the walls before the doctor shows up, makes a few pleasant observations and says the nurse will be in with the big, bad needle shortly.

Another 20 minutes elapse. By the time the nurse comes in and looks at my face she's a bit taken aback. My eyes are wild and bloodshot: I am covered in scratches; I am pacing this small cell like Steve freaking McQueen looking for his motorbike.

And now I feel a bit better because at least my posting has morphed into something a bit different from the last one which followed a comment from my course tutor about how adults are all escape motivated.

To be fair I escaped from the course and the subsequent job I secured at a school.

I remember the tutor's comment and its exact time because I was staring at the clock to see how long we had left until I could escape from the lesson.

I've made a mental note to myself to spend a few dollars on a watch battery; it's worth it to alleviate the neck ache from all that clock staring.

I have to agree with my tutor whose name I couldn't spell or pronounce other than remembering it was a name straight out of the Godfather. I'm thinking Luca Brasi but that's clearly wasn't his name, although it sets me off down numerous confused and overgrown thought paths such as why my wife would have named her former cat after someone who is slow witted and brutish. Hang on, that's according to Wikipedia. Which means he probably had the mental acumen of Albert Einstein and was great company at baby showers.

Whatever the merits of Brasi - apparently he was loyal - I total concur with the escape motivated comment.

No sooner have I arrived in work than I am itching to escape. Unfortunately this means a mindless round of visits to council chambers. After five minutes at City Hall I find myself itching to escape back to work.

I'm the sort of guy who paces around impatiently on station platforms waiting for the train to arrive and then after two hours in baggage class facing the wrong way and nursing a flat hamburger that's taken 80 minutes to cool below the temperature of your average red dwarf, I can't wait to disembark.

Unless it's Doncaster, which is like the British equivalent of Newark. You ask directions and are told 'turn right after the two dead dogs on High Street and left again by the three dead dogs outside Smiths.

I've made some notable escapes in the past, although none of them have involved McQueen-style motorbike antics or years of chipping through a prison wall like in the Shawshank Redemption.

It's funny how that always happen in movies. Spend eight years chipping through the wall of any prison I've been to and you'll be nowhere near freedom - you'll end up in the cell of a large homicidal brute who wants to kill you or do other unmentionable things to you for messing up his nice clean wall.

But there are certainly times when escape is the only option. I'm thinking of a beautiful sunny day beside the Sea of Galilee on a press trip when the organizer insisted we had to spend more than an hour in a museum devoted to the woeful remains of an old boat dredged up from the sea bed.

Cue a bathroom break and a sprint to the great outdoors where I bumped into Lorna who had had the same idea and was whining that the guide was treating us like a bunch of school kids.

On reflection, the urge to escape probably goes back to our childhood when we willed the school bell to ring - and that was five minutes into the lesson.

Of course there are times when escape can be construed as bad form. One is usually compelled to sit (or stand) through one's own wedding even though there's a multi layered cake out there somwhere and you want to get to it before some filthy guest, who you didn't want to invite in the first place, gets their dirty, freeloading paws on it.

Ducking out of funerals is also seen as bad form. So too is drinking so much whisky that the room starts spinning round.

But although there isn't much to be said for funerals, the one silver lining is that as a teenager adults don't pay you a lot of attention at funerals. You are abandoned in a room and the bottle of whisky is standing there too, looking as lonely as you. It's surely only natural to want to make friends

Monday, January 17, 2011

From Angola to Chad - my fascination with Africa from a distance

Africa is surely the world's most fascinating but unpredictable and dangerous continent.

I missed out in my youth on the chance to hang out with a group of hippies in an Old Land Rover on the obligatory six month-long crossing of the continent so as I could bore my friends down the pub about how I was almost decapitated by a hippo in the Zambia.

"I could see the whites of the blighter's teeth and smell his breath. Of course, I lived."

But I'd like to make it to Africa one day; the dark heart, as opposed to North Africa, a region I I have visited which owes more culturally to the Middle East than the vast brooding, forested land mass to the south.

I'm particularly fascinated with those little known nations that the tourist people tell us to steer clear of. I have always been a fan of the Lonely Planet guides but I find it amusing how the authors try to put a positive spin on the most inhospitable of locations.

Take Angola, a big country on the west coast. After the obligatory warning about travel outside the capital of Luanda, the guide states: "Despite widespread poverty, inbred corruption and an infrastructure devastated by decades of indiscriminate fighting, Angola holds a lure that few other countries can match."

Or at least it does if you avoid stepping on a land mine.

OK, if Angola isn't bad enough how about the original heart of darkness, the Congo?

Even Lonely Planet is reticent on this one. The bizarrely named Democratic Republic of Congo is "remains closed to all but the most brave-hearted travellers," it states.

The Congo is, in fact, a barely living and breathing denunciation of colonialism. While British rule could be harsh in places like India and French rule indiscriminate, Belgium's one attempt to run a colony was downright horrific, as King Leopold II turned the Congo into a vast labor camp, devoted to the production of rubber.

Mark Twain in King Leopold's Soliloquy wrote: "They remark that "if the innocent blood shed in the Congo State by King Leopold were put in buckets and the buckets placed side by side, the line would stretch 2,000 miles; if the skeletons of his ten millions of starved and butchered dead could rise up and march in single file, it would take them seven months and four days to pass a given point."

The days of Leopold perhaps confirm that little good ever came from Belgium, except chocolate.

There aren't too many chocolate shops in the Central African Republic, a nation that gets a semi positive write up from Lonely Planet, after the obligatory warning about rebel activity.

I'm somewhat skeptical about a country that can't even get itself a real name, just as I would be a state that was called the Central US State.

"If it’s the 'real' Africa you’re looking for, Central African Republic (CAR) may be it. A country of staggering rare natural beauty, with some of the world’s most amazing wildlife, it nonetheless remains underdeveloped, fragmented and poverty-stricken," the guide says.

Personally I'd rather visit Burkina Faso so as I can tell folks down the pub: "Hey, I'm just back from Burkina Faso" and they can respond "uh?"

You know, it used to be Upper Volta. OK - none the wiser.

Lonely Planer says; "How many of your friends back home even know that Burkina Faso exists? – and wins the hearts of travellers with its relaxed pace of life, friendly people and wealth of interesting sights. From the deserts and unrivalled Gorom-Gorom market in the north, to the green country­side and strange rock formations of the country’s southwest, Burkina spans a rich variety of landscapes."

Great. But we really need somewhere with a travel warning. How about Somalia?

Sure enough Somalia doesn't fail to disappoint. Lonely Planet says it's "extremely dangerous." We saw a few scenic shots of downtown Mogadishu in Black Hawk Down and it looked seriously badass, even if this was filmed somewhere in Morocco. Apparently Mogadishu isn't so bad if you can pre-arrange a party of at least 12 mercenaries to meet you at the airport. I know - you'd rather spend the afternoon in Basingstoke, which is saying something.

But the good old Lonely Planet guide finds a silver lining in the form of Somaliland, a nation, I confess I didn't know existed.

"Amid chaos, there is a success story: Somaliland, which, like a phoenix, has risen from ashes. Discreetly. So discreetly that nobody knows that it has a parliament, a capital, a flag, a currency, a university and multiparty elections! But Somaliland remains in limbo, with very few diplomatic supporters and little media coverage to voice its achievements. "

Safer these days is Rwanda, the scene of horrific massacres in the 1990s. But neighboring Burundi remains iffy to say the least.

And what about Sudan, one of the largest countries in Africa, a place where Bin Laden used to hang out? "Although various ongoing conflicts mean much of this vast nation remains off limits, travel is possible in the northeast, and in parts of the south, where Africa transitions into the tropics," the Lonely Planet guide states.

"The pyramids and other ancient sites littering the northern deserts may pale compared to the best Egypt has on offer, but you can usually experience these without another person in sight," the guide states.

So great, the place may not be very impressive, but at least you won't bump into any Germans in terrible leather shorts. Probably worth sticking with Egypt, all in all, as they'll throw a couple of spinxes into the mix, too.

All of this makes Nigeria, where there were a few unpleasant riots over a beauty contest a few years ago and Kenya whose capital Nairobi is known as Nia-robbery, seem rather tame.

I was beginning to despair of finding an African country that the Lonely Planet people said wasn't worth the effort of visiting. Then I found Chad.

"Long seen by travellers as a place to get through rather than visit, few visitors in Chad do more than spend a couple of days in N’Djaména, the busy, broken-down capital, on their way between Niger and Cameroon," the guide says.

The roads are unpaved, it's scorching and even NGO workers dread this assignment. Even the cost of living is high.

But there are a few surprises, apparently, like like boat rides on Lake Chad or "strolling the shady streets of southern towns where the dusty landscape, fed by small rivers, is interspersed with incongruously green scenes providing a quasi-tropical break from the rigours of the road."

I think I may give that one a miss. It sounds about as interesting as New Jersey.

Why the snow has become Britney Spears

It must have been at least two weeks since the big snowfall, but you still see the stuff hanging around at times at the sides of parking lots, like an unwelcome guest at a party, now black, stained and swept into corners so as passers-by can throw cigarette butts in it.

Or like this huge heap, black and stained by the jail in Newport News, forgotten about and out of sight and out of mind like most of the inmates and this part of town.

Sometimes I point it out a heap of spoiled snow used as a trash depository in  the parking lot of a strip mall to my daughter with a wry smile playing on my face.

"Want to play in the snow?"

"Ugh, Daddy," she'll respond.

Snow angel? Dirt angel more like.

The snow has gone from being fresh and falling news and a dazling new act to being a washed out afterthought. The snow is a child star who has lost her allure. The snow is Britney Spears.

Until it hits me one more time.

Friday, January 14, 2011

James Joyce and a stream of Doritos

Tonight I find myself wondering about streams of consciousness. How easy would it be to write down the first thing that came into my mind? Could I become the next James Joyce or Virginia Woolf, and would I be duty bound to throw myself in a river. Or was it a lake?

It becomes clear to me that I don't know much about how Virginia Woolf died but I'm sure she drowned herself. This makes me think of the swimming underwater scene in Iris; mainly because Kate Winslet was naked. You remember things like that. More so than the older Iris scenes where Judi Dench is losing her mind and bowel control with Alzheimers. I had a friend whose grandfather had it. Horrible disease. He would open the gates to let the cars in where there were no cars.

History has been kind to Joyce even if Ulysses is virtually unreadable to my mind and Finnegan's Wake more so. It's hard to write down the first thing that comes into your mind without thinking too hard about what you are going to write. It's hard not to think of the tart with the cart, or cockles and mussels and Molly Malone. But there - I thought of the clock tower at Culzean Castle and how I got dizzy on a sunny day and my mother had to take me down while everybody else went to the top. And hot and cold rushed in and out of the old stone walls and I stood at the bottom in the manicured gardens and watched them all at the top and I felt so left out.

Have I felt left out ever since? Have I felt that people get to the dizzy heights and I just watch them. But I wouldn't like to climb with crampons and an ice axe because there was a show on this week about two climbers on Mount Rainier who fell down a crevasse and one died and the inexperienced one had to climb up a 70 foot sheer ice wall. It took him about six hours and it was miraculous in a way, more so than those shrines where statutes are seen weeping blood or milk and you stand and watch in awe clutching a packet of Doritos.

I was a weird kid in more ways than one. For weeks I never spoke to other kids. I just made faces. I moved schools a lot and felt dislocation. I could never get in with the camaraderie. I complained once to the teachers about kids making noise during break time and I was reprimanded.

I spent a term running around the playground with my arms whirling around because I believed I was a helicopter. I was a weird kid. I was phased by things mainly Aldibonkers, the head master who taught us times tables using a barking method he picked up in the army. I was easily distracted and when I heard some kids outside the mobile classroom, I turned my head and watched them. Suddenly a shadow fell over me, and he was there, in my face; 5 foot 4 of undistilled anger, his nose purple and transparent, the veins dancing a frustrated waltz.

"Pay attention boy," his hands shook as if he wanted to beat me. He was a repressed beater. His wife never gave him any.

He bawled at me to look at my tables book and I buried my head in it, so deeply that I wasn't coming up for air. Suddenly the light was cut off again and I realized in horror I had missed the cue to put my book down.

"You boy. What are you doing? You are cheating boy. Cheating."

If I had known how to think it, I would have thought 'oh shit'.

But the playground was a bleak place too. Acres of concrete. For years, it seemed, I talked to nobody. I just looked at the spiders in their beautiful silver webs in the undergrowth beyond the wire. My childhood was like the Wall.

Of course at university we watched the Wall. It was Clara's idea. She was the most depressed person I knew. And I knew a lot of depressed people at university. For a while she'd invite me round her room and cook for me or ply me with Tia Maria. But on the night it was supposed to happen, I passed out. I didn't know how depressed she was at that time.

Of course, I was jealous when she started dating my best friend but ultimately relieved. Glenn Close from Fatal Attraction had nothing on Clara. Your bunny would be salami on the first date with Clara if you said the wrong thing. After my best friend decided to finish with Clara (Brits call it packing in, but this term confuses my boss), we were on 24/7 suicide watch. For a while every time we went out, Clara would try to throw herself in front of a car. It was most trying.

I still can't account for that time in Leicester.

Still it's hard for me not to think of James Joyce without thinking of my teacher Mr. Brown. That and Doritos. Mr. Brown was such a fish out of water in a comprehensive school, with his clipped hair and clipped manners. He had studied classics at Oxford. He was probably gay and trapped in a sham marriage, not to mention suburbia. Everyone called him Brassneck. Sometimes they would hide in the bunker at the school mini golf course and shout it out. There'd be big disciplinary action because it was a serious thing to say. I still don't understand what it meant but I felt his clipped, fish out of water pain. I read his fantastic poems and realized he was trapped. When we studied Gerard Manley Hopkins, I wondered if Mr. Brown had chose the poet because he identified with him.

I liked most of the teachers who nobody else liked. Mr. Macintosh seemed a decent bore, even if his stale coffee breath could knock a horse dead at 10 paces. I steered clear of Mr. Annetts following stories he'd kicked Kevin Rider in the balls.

In saying that I found solace in the simplicity of the Stevenson's Screen and the way it was painted pure white to reflect the sun's rays. I loved its little thermometers. I thought if I could be a weather man when I grew up, life would always be pleasant and professional. I'd cast a discerning eye over graphs, look at fronts coming in and make official sounding broadcasts wearing a tweed jacket.

But I am distracted by fronts, I confess. Even since Mr. Partington (known variously as Rodriguez and Pugwash) due to his resemblance to a Spanish pirate, shattered the sleep of an afternoon geography class when he said: "And this is where the warm front comes over."

Except he didn't say front. He said a word that rhymed with it, and the class howled for hours and hours. Somewhere in some Godforsaken place one of them is probably still howling at the thought.

Inspirationless Friday

Inspirationless Friday is the day when you pay a visit to the ideas store and realize it's almost dry; apart from a couple of packets of Ramen noodes on the shelf.

This is not a good thing when your whole existence involves generating ideas and writing them down.

I blame officials and too many meetings; too much talk and too little action. I was at a meeting this week when I had been reliably informed a certain item would be deferred. I had written up a story on this pretext and was smugly sitting there at 8:45 p.m. waiting to push the send button.

Then I got concerned because the conversation started to take a negative tone. It suddenly appeared as if the whole policy would be ditched. My laptop started making a low battery bleeping tone. When one of the most verbose council members said: "I will try to make this brief" I knew I was doomed.

The policy was thrown out 15 minutes later but not before my laptop had died on deadline.

The daily grind can make us die too; inspiration can easily wither away and be replaced by worry.

Should I be consumed with worry over the fact that if the person who's viewing the rental house today doesn't sign on the dotted line we are headed for Default Towers?

Yes but not, really. There are people dying in flood waters in Brazil and Australia.

When in need of a massive withdrawal from the inspiration bank I have a habit of opening the nearest book and pulling out a random quotation. Here goes....

"Your castle is surprised; your wife and babes
Savagely slaughtered; to relate the manner,
Were on the quarry of these murdered deer,
To add the death of you."

OK here's to giving the random quotation bank a miss. And here's to a Friday when no castles are surprised.

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Wishing away winter

Christmas may be a pagan mismash but at least it sprinkles a little stardust on the dark days of winter.

But while the holidays can revive December, there's no equivalent to January which always feels like the longest and dirtiest month of the year.

In these dog days of January we toil under leaden skies with little sign of respite. Snow has already lost its novelty factor and the cold seems to have been seeping into our bones for ever.

And, I'm not sure if it's just my imagination, but my bosses seem less tolerant than usual. We endure long hours of techiness under artificial lights and we disappear within ourselves. The beach is a distant memory. The swallows flew long ago.

One day I will visit the southern hempisphere where the seasons are turned upside down. But for now, I endure and think of other times, the past and the future - anything but here.

And the people for whom all hope has gone who are waiting to die.

But when the sun comes out on crisp mornings January can be pretty in an austere, blue kind of way.

I have a new route to work and recently I pulled off the road to check out a nature trail. I'd driven past this place on many occasions but never stopped. But this morning I walked through the quiet of the marshes with the towers of the city, distant oblongs smudged out across the river.

There was a copse of high trees and peaceful white lines in the sky. There were pleasing boardwalks across the freezing waters that the sun cast symmetrical shadows on. So I took pictures and for once realized I was no longer wishing away winter.

For a collection of winter poems see my poetry blog Rhyme and Reason.

Sunday, January 9, 2011

Remembering red phone boxes

I always find it strange how red phone boxes have become an iconic motif for Old England abroad. They pop up on all sorts of tourist brochures these day as well as on the covers of guide books.

And while they don't normally taste as good as Yorkie Bars, unless it has been a particularly heavy night on the Boddingtons, they are certainly as asthetically pleasing.

The classic red phone box was designed by Sir Giles Gilbert Scott and there were actually a whole family of models from K1 to through to K6.

Although red phone boxes are a powerful symbol of Britain, they were actally phased out with the privatization of British Telecom in the 1980s when cheap, plastic-looking replacements started to appear, although the classic red boxes have survived in places such as conservation areas and some parts of London like Covent Garden where Brits like to hoodwink visitors.

They are apparently red in most places, including Gibraltar, with the exception of the city of Hull, where the council was allowed to take them over and paint them cream. If you are unlucky enough to live in Hull, you probably lack the intellectual ability to realize your phone boxes are a different color than those in the rest of the country.

It seems strange to me that red phone boxes have become this cutsey emblem of Harry Potter England abroad. When I grew up they invariably smelled of cigarettes from all the butts crushed into their concrete bases and urine from drunken passers-by who would use them as improptu toilets.

Normally someone had spray painted a few anarchy symbols on the side of the boxes and knocked out some windows and, if the phone book was still inside, it would have been half ripped.

I have lots of quaint teenage memories of spending 20 minutes to pluck up the courage to make a phone call to a girl, only to find the receiver had been smashed in, or somebody had taken part in the contest to see how much chewing gum could be crammed into the coin slot.

In the 21st Century, when just about everybody over the age of 10 has a cell phone, these relics of the past are rather irrelevant.

But prostitutes still have to put their calling cards somewhere, I guess.

Saturday, January 8, 2011

Gabrielle Giffords and the trail of tears of America's gun culture

When I became a U.S. Citizen last September the guest speaker, a local Republican delegate, gave a speech on how my fellow new citizens and I were lucky enough to now be able to embrace the right to bear arms, telling the story of a rape victim who would not have been violated if she'd owned a Colt 45.

I thought thanks but no thanks. I've only been in the U.S. for five years but I've stood outside enough crime scenes, including those where small boys have blown out their brains with their parents' guns, to know the downside to the glorious right to bear arms.

So here we go again. US Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords fights for her life after receiving a bullet to the head in Arizona. Another six people including a nine-year-old girl are dead.

For Arizona read Virginia Tech, Columbine, Luby's cafeteria in Killeen, Texas, McDonald's restaurant in San Diego, Red Lake High School in Minnesota and so on.

Just last week at the opening of Congress, Giffords read out the First Amendment.

It would have been a lot more ironic if she had been asked to read the Second.

I don't want to get all stuck up and British about this. The U.S. Constitution is superior to the ad hoc British system in so many ways.

With the possible exception of the Second Amendment, which gives the right to any random nutjob such as Jared Lee Loughner to be given their few minutes of bloody fame clutching a firearm.

Or maybe, as many people tell me over here, I am being over simplistic in my approach and argument that, rather than protecting people, guns make us less safe. I should stick to the safer territory of warm beer and fish and chips.

So I'll retreat into the black and white world of statistics, before moving on to the next blog that I promise will be in primary colors.

Homicides 2009

London, UK - population: 7.5 million; homicides; 130

New Orleans, USA - population: 288,000; homicides: 173

Go figure.

Friday, January 7, 2011

Justin Bieber eclipses Guest Blogger Week

So that's it all over now. Guest Blog Week seems to be over before it's even started. We have taken a final bow and the velvet curtain has brushed our shoulders.

Now we're out by the bus stop in the drizzle with a cold breeze tugging at our coat tails, the smell of the grease paint already a distant memory as we eye the baleful lights of a fish and chip shop far across the wet highway.

Well not in America we aren't. You can't get decent fish and chips here for love or money.

Although pesonally I normally find money's a more effective way of getting fast food than offering the server my undying love.

Well thanks to all of you who sent me entries. I could have dusted off the thumb screws to squeeze that 10th blog out of the blogisphere, but my OCD isn't so bad yet that I need symmetry and an even number.

And thanks for the altruistic messages and all that, but Guest Blog Week also meant I could...

A - Be lazy

B - Get up my blog views by posting more often.

In a way this woked. Tuesday was a record day for Brits in the USA, when I secured more than 250 views. Congratulations too to Rapunzel whose Tales from the Tower was the most viewed guest blog with more than 70 views.

The rather sobering news for all you guest bloggers is the majority of my hits came from a blog I wrote a few days earlier in which I made a passing reference to, ugh, here goes...  Justin Bieber.

For some reason that I can't fathom hundreds of folks, mainly from Brazil, hit on this retarded looking school boy.

Does this mean I will have to bite the bullet that all Americans are meant to have in their homes in case their kids demand a second pop tart, and actually listen to my first ever Justin Bieber track, having just realized he wasn't the kid in Home Alone.

I fear it does.

Guest Blog #9 - Zombies - Paranormal Pursuits

After the crazy week I've had that has slowly turned me into the undead, signing off guest blog week with a post on zombies is apt. Paranomal Pursuits is a bit out there; it's paranormal to say the least and it's writer Alyson is one of the co-founders of North Ohio Paranormal and has been investigating sites all over Ohio for the last three years.

Right now zombies are everywhere. Or at least it feels like it. TV,movies, the radio, books… you just can’t seem to escape them. They are slowly taking over, just as zombies should. So what’s our great fascination with these things? Essentially, they’re just hungry humans. Hungry humans that want to eat other humans. So why is everyone so obsessed with them?

Honestly, I think part of the appeal is that we know we are superior to them. You can’t help but watch a zombie movie without planning some sort of brilliant escape or zombie attack plan. For the most part, they are easy to kill. Who doesn’t like an easy target when you’re holding a rifle (or bow, or flame thrower?) It’s fun to try and outsmart a monster and zombies aren’t too difficult to outsmart.

They also give us an easy way to excuse otherwise gratuitous violence. I had to chop his head of or he would have eaten me mentality is totally acceptable. And fun.

Zombies make us feel fast, because they are soo slow. They make us feel smart because they are so unintelligent. And they make us feel good because they are so bad.

Thursday, January 6, 2011

Guest blog #8 - She Was My Friend - A Chronicle of Dreams

Rek's blog's only a couple of months old but it's already receiving a lot of interest. I found this post very touching. Thanks to everyone who has submitted material for Guest Blog Week. Ideally I'd like a couple more to round it off. Send to

Tears roll down her cheeks as she checks the obituaries...sure enough that smiling face she can never forget staring back at her, sadly accusing,"you never visited". Proof in her hand of the grim reaper and his sadistic taste for young lives...

The breakfast turns cold, untouched as was dinner the previous night. Her mind taking her to a nostalgic journey more than a decade old. She had just graduated when they met for the first time as interns at their auditing firm.

She liked her on sight...Nita as she softly remembered.. Nita was different : ambitious, intelligent with no qualms in flaunting it, a dreamer, eccentric even. Maybe that was the reason for the contempt that the other girls held for her. It was part jealousy and part groupism - the odd ones always ignored or mocked.

Nita spoke of her family, her work, her dreams, her fears...she was just a sweet girl trying to make a mark on the world but when have narrow minds seen a person for what they truly are?

Audits with her were never boring, intelligent conversation, work, fun, sharing filled the days. Nita was a reflection for all that she stood for and may be that's why they got along so well. When others in the office would ask how she could bear to be seen as friendly with the "weirdo", she simply smiled and replied "Birds of a feather flock together".

As time went by, as it has for aeons, she moved to other projects, other jobs...they still kept in touch, met occasionally but not as before. Life went on, job, marriage, problems, responsibilities but she still thought of her . They met a few times more, at her marriage as Nita's parents was friends with her in-laws (small world, she had thought back then) and a couple of family functions....and then for quite some years they lost touch completely...

She looked at the damp paper, thinking of the bear hug and the huge infectious grin with which Nita greeted her(the surprise element at her wedding) and between guilt ridden sobs wished she had reached out to her when Nita had been on dialysis (she had never known, the secret kept till her last days), when Nita had got her promotions and had few genuine friends to celebrate it with, when a speeding car knocked her dead as she crossed the highway to her office a week after her 31St birthday.

.......Its been five years since Nita moved on to a painless, hopefully better place but the sadness and the ache of regret still lingers as fresh as see, this story is close to my heart, for Nita was my "weirdo" friend and a small part of me wishes that I had, had a chance to say my goodbyes.....

(Real names changed to protect those left behind and respect the ones who have moved on.)

Guest Blog #7 - Learning to Swim - Vodka Logic

In the beginning, to misquote some famous book or other, there was vodka. Vodka Logic was one of my earliest followers back in the day when my blogisphere resembled the hollow surface of the moon. Let's face it, there's a logic to vodka. Just not at this time in the morning when I find myself implausibly awake.

Learning to Swim-A true story

I was learning to swim,
At the age of eight,
Back in the summer of '68.

The water was clear,
I didn't think I was ready,
Mother reassured, and kept me steady.

The old castle had fallen,
The water it's moat.
Would I be able to stay afloat.

A fortnight we stayed,
In Wales on holiday.
In a Roman home made of stone and hay.

I finally jumped in,
With inflatable swimmers.
And closed my eyes to the waters glimmers.

Afraid at first,
I splashed about.
Trying to be brave and not shout.

Mother stands close,
And my sisters cheer.
The other shore didn't seem so near.

I kept on trying,
And stayed in the water.
Wanting to swim, the youngest daughter.

The moat and me,
All through the day.
And by sundown......I was swimming away.

Wednesday, January 5, 2011

Guest Blog #6 - New Chapter, the Naked Redhead

The Naked Redhead is always a good read and it's still not porn. This is a recent and very poignant posting on moving on and all that....

New Chapter

Yesterday I officially closed a chapter in my life and began a new one.

I moved into an apartment all by my lonesome for the first time in my life...sans husband, gay roommate (the best kind), or boyfriend. The place is a disaster, but it's mine, and I already feel at home, despite an outdated kitchen, rickety floorboards and horribly drafty windows.

I went ahead and painted my bedroom a bright fuchsia...not necessarily because I like fuchsia, but because for the first time, I don't have to consider a male's perspective on how I decorate.

Because kids, let's just face it...I have a bad serial monogamy problem. I have a very, very bad "fixing" complex. And I have a super horrible habit of neglecting what I need to do for what I perceive others needing me to do and be.

I'm not complaining. I'm really not. "It's better to have loved and lost..." and all that shit. That statement is something I believe (although, if we're being honest, I do have moments where I wonder if I've missed my shot. I've had more love in nine years than some have had in a lifetime. Maybe that'll be it for me. I guess I should feel lucky, but sometimes it reeks of loneliness). But I also need some time to be free. To be me. To explore my full be stupidly busy, to put my nose to the grindstone, to work, to find out what I'm truly made of.

And you guys? It's already been so fruitful. I was contacted last week to do work for a dream gig of mine, I've booked more speaking engagements, I've made some of the most wonderful friends I've ever had, and I'm tapping into places I didn't know existed. You know, inside. Of me. And whatnot.

Ahem, anyway.

This new chapter has not come without pain, but it's a story with a happy ending. And I cannot wait to tell you all about it.

Guest Blog #5 - Tales from the Tower - The Good, the Bad and the Serial Killer

Rapunzel's from Manchester, England, a city where dating may be difficult if all of the men are as happy as Morrissey. I'm posting this blog on the condition she isn't a Man U. fan. She says of the post "This is one of my first posts which seems to set the tone for the rest of the blog - single girl failing miserably in her search for her Mr Right!"

The Good, the Bad and the Serial Killer

When you have 20 unopened emails it all seems so promising...

I'd put up my online dating profile after much deliberation (a male friend advised me my first one was crap and then the dating site itself didn't approve the second one - I didn't write enough about my hobbies seemingly! Maybe cause I don't have any? Note to self: must get some hobbies.)

I'd chosen a photo that hopefully gives a true idea of the way I am (after being told the pet hate of men on these sites is meeting up with women who look nothing like their photo. It was quite hard to find one that shows my size, height, my hair, dress sense as well as one that shows I love X-Factor but hate mushrooms.)

I'd waited a bit to see if I was even going to get any mails and then had paid up in order to be able to read and reply to them.

I was now good to go. With 20 mails to read I was bound to have struck lucky...

Opened number 1. Looked like a serial killer. He even commented on how evil he looks in his photo, like he was proud or something.

Number 2 had no photo so could have looked like a serial killer.

3 had plenty of photos but unfortunately they were all just of his torso, showing his muscles.

At last! Number 4 sent me a nice funny mail, his profile is nice and so is his photo. Things are on the up!

Number 5 is 50. And yes, by 50 I mean years old. Does my photo suggest I'm looking for someone closer to my dad's age than my own?

Question my choice of photo again at number 6 as he states in his profile that he 'abhors TV.' I'm sure my photo clearly suggests I love X-Factor, Greys Anatomy, Home and Away and many other quality programmes.

Number 7 tells me he's only looking for 'no strings attached.'

Number 8 likely to be looking for the same as he asked if I would be interested in someone well-endowed. Does well-endowed ever mean tall cause his profile says he is 6ft 5. Nope? I didn't think it did.

A nice normal guy for number 9. Feel slightly better...

Number 10. Aged 56. Appears that I spoke too soon...

Number 11 is a bit of a contradiction...funny mail but really serious looking guy in his photo.

12 has told me I seem 'elegant'. No-one has ever described me as elegant before. Probably cause I'm not. Definitely need to change my photo.

13's message to me consists of 'lol' this and 'lol' that. Now with only six more messages to read maybe I'm not in a position to be fussy but I'm just not a big fan of lolling.

Number 14 says he can be a 'perfect gentleman or semi-thuggish depending on the needs.' At least if I feel like I'm need of a slap I'll know who to contact.

15 is 5ft 5.

16 is aged 59. I think I'm going to cry.

17 has sent me an absolutely hilarious mail...hurrah! Then I look at his photo...Good Lord no! He looks like the child catcher in Chitty Chitty Bang Bang.

I don't think I need comment on number 18. I'll just let you read his mail...'wow--you have done something to me with just a picture--what kinda voodoo do you do when you do that thing you do--hot damn--what in the hell just happened to me--can you please email me--we need to chat--and i am far from crazy--but no--really--i don't know what just happened, but i have to chat with you--what did you do to me--lol--'.

Number 19 lives in Birmingham so says he isn't expecting a reply but just wanted to say hi.

And finally number 20...nice enough but all his mail says is hi and how are you? A bit uninspiring. And I'm not sure he'd really like my answer at the moment. How am I, number 20? I'm in disbelief that I've just paid over £40 for this....

Tuesday, January 4, 2011

Guest blog #4 - A Daft Scots Lass - Midnight Adventures

The latest guest blog I'm featuring A Daft Scots Lass is not for the faint hearted. The f word is sprinkled about like confetti after a wedding. Reminds me a bit of those on the edge nights in a Glasgow pub. I thought I'd use this one rather than the one about the dying of public hair. Keep those guest blogs coming....

Last night I had one of my epic adventure dreams again. It was a cracker!

I dreamt I was dueling with an alligator's tail. He was a fekkin monster, thrashing his tail and bearing his teeth, making growling noises and spitting at me (I don't think aligators can spit but its MY dream remember).

Nevertheless, I had the manoevers and grace of a professional fencer - advance lunging all over the place and swishing my impressive blade in Ballestra. Oh yes, I was on top form...

After a lengthy struggle with the hideous beast who was now foaming at the mouth, I gave him the Prise de Fer and lobbed his tail right off with one swift chop! He ran away like cowardly lizard that's just lost his tail (somehow, I don't think aligators tails grow back) but I managed to run after him and finish him off. I pounded my sword into his leather like skin over and over to make sure he was completely defeated (quite horrific, if I think about it now)

But in my dream I was jubilant with a HUGE smile plastered on my face!

The huge alligator just lay there, still and quiet and I started jumping up and down with my hands in the air, like I had just won a gold medal at the olympics. I was full of joy and was whooping triumphantly. I took a picture of the dead alligator with my cellphone to share on my blog (I even blog in my dreams).

Now comes the bizarre bit...I decided to skin the alligator and chop him up tiny cubes. Skinning the alligator was easy (in my dreams) I peeled that Bastid like a fucking banana. Then, I used his skin to make a killer pair of Hooker Heels and matching clutch bag. Bonus!

I used the cubes of meat to make an enormous pot a bubbling alligator stew and sold it at the local fair wearing my new heels and clutch bag!

With the left-overs I made alligator kebabs and stored them in my freezer.

Am I a sick puppy or what???

Guest blog #3 - Dancing with Daisy - It runs in the family

In the prelude to her blog Daisy writes "Life is a dance full of poetry, music, joy, sadness, inspiration, and gratitude." This just about sums it up. I thought this post from November was poignant because it touches on the unremarkable but also remarkable aspects of an everyday life which, in the words of Anthony Powell, is a dance to the music of time.

I have come to the conclusion that my family has a hard time saying goodbye. I can remember when I was growing up and the aunts and uncles and cousins would come to our house for a visit. They would stay for a while. Maybe we would have dinner together or play cards, maybe we wouldn't.

One thing we could always count on, though, from the time they first mentioned that it was time for them to go home until the time came for them to actually pull out of the driveway and start to head for home, at least half an hour if not forty-five minutes or maybe even an hour would have passed.

They would say something like, "It's getting late. We probably ought to go home."

Then we would talk and say how nice it had been to see them and how we'd have to get together again really soon. Then we'd get off on a tangent about something or other and talk for another ten or twenty minutes. This would all happen while our guests were still sitting firmly planted on the couch, not having even made a move in the direction of the door yet. Eventually, they would remember that it was indeed getting late, even later now than when they had first noticed it, and they really did need to get home.

They would then stand up from their seats and head toward the door. On the way to the door and then standing just inside the door, not yet actually opening it, we would pretty much repeat what we had said earlier on the couch about how nice it was that they had come to visit and not to wait so long until we saw each other again. Once again we would somehow start talking about the garden or how we kids were doing in school or perhaps a bit of news about someone in the family we had forgotten to discuss earlier, and still the door is closed and no one is leaving the house.

Stage three of saying goodbye began when our guests finally opened the door and headed outside. Of course, being the good hosts that they were, my parents would walk out to the car with them, and we kids would tag along behind too, all of us chatting all the way. Now the guests have finally arrived at their car and are sitting inside and ready to head off. They have the car windows rolled down and my folks are leaning over looking in and all of them are still talking away and saying goodbye. At last, the car is put into gear, and it rolls out of the driveway with everybody inside it waving at us and we standing there in the driveway waving back at them until they are out of sight. This is how my family says goodbye.

I go to the nursing home three times a week to visit my mother. As you might think, each time I visit her and then tell her goodbye as I'm leaving, I can't help but wonder if this will be the last time I have a chance to tell her goodbye. As far as I know, she is not at death's door quite yet, but yes, she is in a nursing home, not in very good health, and she has had a full life. Her birthday is this Friday. She will be turning 80 years old.

When I am ready to leave after visiting her, she always wants me to push her in her wheelchair from her room down to the lobby by the nurse's desk so that she can wave goodbye to me while I am walking out the door there, and again as she watches out the window at me in my car as I pull away. It is part of her being a good hostess this saying goodbye. Even now, when some days she struggles so much with her speech that even getting a "goodbye" out is a major feat, this continues to be something she wants to do. If nothing else, she can still wave at me. I know those waves of hers say so much more than goodbye. They say, "I'm so glad I got to see you," and "God be with you as you go," and "Take care of yourself," and "Don't forget to come back," and "I love you."

When my grandmother (my mother's mother) was about the same age my mother is now, and we would go to visit her, always when we left her, she would say, "Come again when you can stay longer." It didn't matter how long we had been visiting her. Even if we had been with her all day long, she would still say that. She had trouble saying goodbye. She didn't want us to leave. My mother is the same way. When I go to visit her, she doesn't want me to leave. She doesn't say what my Grandmother said, but perhaps she would if she could. It is easy to see she is reluctant to have me go. The longer we can drag out the goodbyes that we say, the more time we can spend together.

I am reluctant to have her go too. I think we both know that with each time that I visit her, it is me that is telling her goodbye, and it is me that is walking away and leaving her, but each of our goodbyes these days are practice ones much like the ones from the family visits of my youth. These goodbyes are the ones said while still on the couch in the house. These are the goodbyes said while walking to the door and pausing there before opening it. These are the goodbyes said while sitting in the car in the driveway with the windows rolled down.

Although it appears with these goodbyes that I am the one who is leaving, it is actually my mother who is leaving. These are the goodbyes said before the car drives away. I know when the time comes for that final goodbye, when the window is rolled up and the car is put in gear, she will actually be the one leaving, looking back and waving at me. I'm not looking forward to that time. In fact, I am having a difficult time thinking about it. I, like my mother, and like her mother before her, have a hard time saying goodbye. It runs in the family. It's just the way we are.

On Blog PTSD

Now then. What the heck. It seems I had forgotten about my blog completely rather than just neglecting it this time. To return after so long...