Wednesday, March 30, 2011

My trepidation over A-Z blogging month

I signed up to the April A-Z blogging challenge because I am....

A - certifiably stupid

B - competitive

C - don't like feeling excluded

But just a day away I am starting to get cold feet about the notion of blogging every day, on top of everything else. Let's just say I have an idea for A and B but after that it gets difficult.

A theme would be useful, but - like everything else in life - maybe I'll just wing it.

At least my challenge may not be as hard as that faced by one blogger out there.

"I'm going to blog about architectural elements that could be used in dungeons," he declared.

Well good luck with that. Sounds like a great read. But do excuse me if I fail to ever find your blog again.

In this life, anyhow.

Monday, March 28, 2011

Diagnosed with Facebook depression?

As Facebook seems to be taking over the world it was only a matter of time before Facebook Depression was diagnosed.

Researchers disagree on whether it's simply an extension of depression some kids feel in other circumstances, or a distinct condition linked with using the online site, reports.

But apparently there are unique aspects of Facebook that can make it a particularly tough social landscape to navigate for kids already dealing with poor self-esteem, according Dr. Gwenn O'Keeffe, a Boston-area pediatrician.

One of the main causes of Facebook Depression it seems, are those smiley, happy updates.

With in-your-face friends' tallies, status updates and photos of happy-looking people having great times, Facebook pages can make some kids feel even worse if they think they don't measure up.

It can be more painful than sitting alone in a school cafeteria or other real-life encounters that can make kids feel down, O'Keeffe said, because Facebook provides a skewed view of what's really going on. Online, there's no way to see facial expressions or read body language that provide context.

I’m not sure why this study only concentrates on kids. What about adults for Facebook’s sake? I can bet my last moldy tea bag that on a cold wet day I’ll log onto Facebook to see somebody’s pictures of themselves lying on a beach on Hawaii.

They’ll be some comment added about how the Martinis were not quite as satisfying as hoped for.

This is usually a cue to go downstairs and do something almost, but not quite as satisfying, as sipping Martins in the sun. Cleaning up cat sick, for example.

And it’s not just holiday snaps from people wealthier than me, in other words everyone, that has the ability to frustrate and depress. Here’s some recent status updates for example....

Face facts.The lame duck England manager does not give two hoots. That's why he never talks to players, despite being criticised for it. He should be speaking face to face to players like Rio about the captaincy, but can't even phone. That's what he gets paid for. "I hope in the next weeks, I will meet Rio," he's just said. What is he doing? Now Gareth Barry is captain! Capello should just go.

OK but do we really give a rats, Martin…

is about to start "The Woman in White" and is hoping she'll be pleasantly surprised by it

You won’t Sally. It’s tedious. You’ll get more satisfaction from listening to Phil Collins. Well errr.

Changing brake pads...

A useful thing to do I’m sure, Rob. But do we really want to know about it?

What if there were no hypothetical questions?

Oh I actually like this one Tamara. Even if you are a Republican.

Good turnout at the Appraisal Fair...saw some great antiques!

Antiques at an appraisal? And I thought you’d gone there to see a duck billed platypus in heat.

crap day. we're all sick, a batch of leaky nappies mean i have to totally change j&o's clothes every hour or so & now our tyres have been slashed for 3rd time in residents-only garage after we complained to building company again about damp

Well thanks. At least this one doesn’t make me feel depressed about my own life in comparison.

OK, I am going to sleepnow. Been baning my head against my homework and the head really does hurt. But I go to sleep tonight knowing that my Rams (I graduated i q9-something) have done it. I go to sleep that the world knows where Richmond is. God love ya VCU and the Spiders. And let us NOT forget the women's games...The march from Richmond is once again upon the 'league' ...

Thanks Joe. I’m going to sleep a lot more soundly knowing you are asleep and not roaming the streets with your Spiders. And I knew where Richmond was anyhow.

Melting tapered candles in my wine bottles the day after makes my drinking trophies more classy and makes me look like less of an alcoholic.

I like this one. OK I have to say that because she’s likely to read this blog. But it’s definitely an upper, not least because it makes me feel less like an alcoholic.

Sunday, March 27, 2011

Seamus Heaney and blackberry picking

The award of the Irish Times' Poetry Now prize to Seamus Heaney led me to catch up some of the work of one of the few great poets who are still living.

I was familiar with Two Lorries, a pastoral tale that becomes embroiled in the tragedy of Northern Ireland. But I hadn't read much else of Heaney's work.

Blackberry-Picking, for instance, reminds me of those half remembered childhood days when we would be dragged into the Gloucestershire countryside, plastic bucket in hand, to grapple with unyielding briars.

There was something rewarding about toiling for a couple of hours on those autumn evenings, as twlight settled on the soft contours of the Gloucestershire hills, the lonely and lovely escarpments and dells turning russet from drifting leaves in the fall evening.

And, in the words of the poet, is was usually a place where briars scratched and wet grass bleached our boots and a day when gentle gray clouds flirted with the prospect of rain.

Of course there was always the competition, for me to pick more blackberries than my sister. There were those muddy, dizzy and uncertain moments when we would reach too far to get the biggest blackberry in the hedgerow, that was always too high and out of reach.

Which is probably true of life. We'll only achieve the succulent rewards if we reach for the highest blackberry. And blackberries were a simpler concept in those days. They didn't entail downloading about 30 applications. Unfortunately there's no app. for downloading those blackberry picking experiences. I have to instead rely on those faltering memories.

And while I'm all for reaching for the stars but it's a difficult concept when it's a wet Sunday and there's rather a large cache of wine and beer that's ripe for being demolished downstairs in the kitchen. See this post or a variation of it at Rhyme and Reason.

Blackberry-Picking by Seamus Heaney

Late August, given heavy rain and sun
For a full week, the blackberries would ripen.
At first, just one, a glossy purple clot
Among others, red, green, hard as a knot.
You ate that first one and its flesh was sweet
Like thickened wine: summer's blood was in it
Leaving stains upon the tongue and lust for
Picking. Then red ones inked up and that hunger
Sent us out with milk cans, pea tins, jam-pots
Where briars scratched and wet grass bleached our boots.
Round hayfields, cornfields and potato-drills
We trekked and picked until the cans were full
Until the tinkling bottom had been covered
With green ones, and on top big dark blobs burned
Like a plate of eyes. Our hands were peppered
With thorn pricks, our palms sticky as Bluebeard's.
We hoarded the fresh berries in the byre.
But when the bath was filled we found a fur,
A rat-grey fungus, glutting on our cache.
The juice was stinking too. Once off the bush
The fruit fermented, the sweet flesh would turn sour.
I always felt like crying. It wasn't fair
That all the lovely canfuls smelt of rot.
Each year I hoped they'd keep, knew they would not.

Friday, March 25, 2011

Blog Guilt over my Frankenstein's Monster

Blog Guilt creeps up on me unawares. It normally sabotages me at the most unlikely times, unsually when I haven't posted for three or four days.

I'll be standing there watching the beautiful trajectory of a packet of Lays falling from the machine in the empty chambers at work where we used to talk and it will kick in, sending pain through my solar plexus. A co-worker may occasionally ask me if I'm OK.

"Blog guilt," I'll wheeze through the agony. "I'll be alright. If only I"

But in this most taxing of weeks a recurring thought has been nagging and pulling at my subconscious. What if I run out of things to write? What if my week was so nondescript that it's not worth describing. What if I end up having to write a blog about how I can't write a blog?

Or - worse still. What if I have to blog about the efforts I go to to get out of scooping turds out of the cat box?

"Ah, ah, Catbox Back," I scream as I canter round the room holding my spine like one of Degas' dysfunctional ballet dancers.

Paradoxically it was easier back in the day when nobody read my blog.

Except for my four foot-six tall great auntie Agnes in Largs who'd tell me I wasn't too old to be slippered for using bad words.

Not that I had to invent fictitious aunts in those days. Blog Guilt has turned me into a pathological liar, although there was an aunt of that name back in the day. I can't remember much, except being clinically bored and admiring her collection of knitted ladies who sat on toilet rolls in her bathroom.

What was that all about anyhow? Imagine going on a date and being asked what you do for a living.

"I manufacture woollen ladies who sit on toilet rolls."

Blog Guilt is not just about posting. Now it's about not having time to post on other people's blogs. It also involves some degree of wondering why you are following people who blog about their cocaine smuggling and stripping experiences (presumably not at the same time, unless the men in uniform were lending a gloved hand).

I can only think having a blog is a bit like being a famous actor or actress, although a lot less glamorous and well paid. You are only as good as your last blog, just as an actor is only as good as his last role.

And seriously guys - who would have thought Dustin Hoffman would not have got even better after Rain Man or Hopkins would have peaked with Silence of the Lambs and how come Kevin Spacey didn't keep on being uber brilliant after American Beauty?

These questions don't keep me up and night but they make me think. Do all of us hit a peak that we can never again emulate? Does the manufacturer of woolly toilet roll ladies hit a peak of excellence when he whips off a brunette in a nice yellow floral number, who fits so snugy over the roll he knows he will never see her like again? Just wondering.

And like Frankenstein's Monster will these blogs we so deftly create turn around and kill us? To be fair Mary Shelley's protagonist had a fair idea all was not well when he created his monster.

"How can I describe my emotions at this catastrophe, or how delineate the wretch whom with such infinite pains and care I had endeavoured to form? His limbs were in proportion, and I had selected his features as beautiful. Beautiful! Great God! His yellow skin scarcely covered the work of muscles and arteries beneath; his hair was of a lustrous black, and flowing; his teeth of a pearly whiteness; but these luxuriances only formed a more horrid contrast with his watery eyes, that seemed almost of the same colour as the dun-white sockets in which they were set, his shrivelled complexion and straight black lips."

I've had mornings when I've looked like this myself, although those memories of parties that stopped when the sun came up are fast receeding.

Still the relief of the weekend, washed down by a couple of neat brandies, morphed into a crazy high speed cart ride round FarmFresh, with a six-year-old hanging off the back. After too many rushed lunches at greasy fast food joints, a craving for fruit kicked in and I recklessly unloaded the shelves of peaches and melons, sending geriatrics flying across the aisle in the wake of my reckless fruit quest.

By the time I reached the checkout my tiger blood had kicked in, with a satsuma trace. I could tell by the expression of the old biddy on the till, she knew I was winning.

But at my moment of greatest triumph as I held a pineapple aloft in my outstretched hand, I felt a spasm of pain ripple through my body and my tiger blood was transformed into that of a docile domestic cat. Blog Guilt had floored me again.

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Farewell Liz Taylor

 I missed the real Liz Taylor, the audacious star of the Golden Age of cinema.

To me, I'm sad to say Liz has always been a frumpy and slightly batty middle aged woman with a Mrs. Mop hairdo, who married numerous husbands who came to look more and more like boiler repair men the futher she moved down the foodchain.

All this is a shame because Liz in her heyday was a stunningly attractive actress who had a Goddess like screen presence.

I like to think Liz in her prime would never dream of claming friendship with someone like Michael Jackson, whose only other best friend was a chimp called Bubbles.

Maybe all the high living and Hollywood excess got to Liz and meant she could never grow old gracefully like Sophia Loren.

Like some of the other icons of her time, there are few contemporary stars who could attain the screen presence of Liz in her prime which was when she played the iconic role of Cleopatra in the 1963 movie of the same name.

Cleopatra was legendary for her seductions of powerful men; first Julius Caesar and then Mark Anthony.

So when Taylor became involved in a tempestuous affair with co-star Richard Burton, who was cast as Mark Anthony, the actress became forever associated with the Egyptian queen.

However, unlike Cleopatra, who died suddenly and violently, Liz experienced a long and sometimes less than graceful decline.

The relationship between Burton and Taylor became the stuff of Hollywood legend. By comparison Brangelina, or any other 21st century movie relationship seems like a day out at Wal-Mart.

Burton and Taylor will live on as the ultimate movie couple of the 21st century, even if the reality was their relationship was fuelled by heavy drinking and it eventually fell apart.

So the death of Elizabeth Taylor draws a veil over a half forgotten age when movie stars were larger than life and you didn't become famous by virtue of an appearance on a half baked talent or reality TV show.

I'd like to say I'll miss Liz, but I never really knew her just like I never knew a glittering age inhabited by the likes of Marilyn Monroe and Bogart.

You can't miss what you never had but just sometimes watching those black and white films and those iconic stars of the silver screen I feel a tingle of magic enter the room, and hear a faint echo of the glory long passed.

Before I look up and see the neon lights of the Shell station passing me by.

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Spring in Virginia

Spring seems to have arrived overnight in Virginia. The cherry blossoms are blooming white beside the roads, daffodils crowd the verdant banks beside streams and the fields are a purple haze in the early morning sunshine.

Amid such profusion and new growth and the promise of long days and sunlit evenings, it's difficult to think of the hard iron bound desert road, the smoke from the oil wells and the mangled wreckage of trucks and tanks after a bomber has thudded down from merciless skies bereft of clouds to rain death onto the ground.

Saturday, March 19, 2011

Rediscovering Nick Hornby

I recently rediscovered Nick Hornby. He was in a grubby record shop, discussing a rare bootlegged version from an obscure rock band from 1971. The B-side is an undiscovered gem.

OK, he wasn't. But you know what I mean.

It's been years since I last read a Nick Hornby novel. I believe it was About a Boy, a different life, a different wife, by the swimming pool in Gran Canaria.

This may sound glamorous, but it wasn't. The all inclusive deal cost about the same for two weeks as a train ticket from London to Leeds. But one of the pools had been drained, the food was certifiable and the resort was over populated by Brits in football shirts guzzling from the all inclusive bar.

There's something ironic about paying to get to a foreign country to get away from Brits, only to be surrounded by more.

The local spirits made me go green. I fell sick and have never felt good ever since. Or maybe that's old age.

But at least Nick was a constant. He was writing about nerds than and he's writing about nerds now.

Horby's new novel. Juliet Naked, is about a guy called Duncan who's obsessed with Tucker Crowe, an obscure musician who became more obscure by disappearing into obscurity when he was threatening to emerge out of it. There's a lot of obscurity going on.

The novel is written from the standpoint of his girlfriend who, quite reasonably, wonders what she's doing with a guy who flies all the way to Minneapolis to see a restroom where Tucker had a strange and mysterious experience that led him to the aforementioned obscurity.

Well haven't we all had strange and mysterious experiences in restrooms in Minneapolis? Actually not. And why am I using the term restroom that I have never been comfortable with because who goes here to have a nap?

Well there was that Chinese restaurant in London after a few beers too many but we don't want to go there.

Anyhow this seems to be vintage Hornby along the lines of High Fidelity, although I haven't got so far with the novel as I am also trying to reacquaint myself with the classics by reading Jane Eyre.

According to all accounts Hornby is an unassuming kind of guy, a bit like his nerds. Julie Burchill recounts a story of how he once arrived at a pretentious party in London full of aspiring authors who basically gave him the cold shoulder because he looked like a dork. A few weeks later he had a best seller on his hands, while they were still talking about writing one.

Brits like stories of the underdog coming out on top. Hence a series of movies about success against the odds from Brassed Off to The Full Monty and Billy Elliot.

Of course when films like this become popular, Americans normally take hold of them, suck the gritty working class essence out of them and shove them on Broadway.

The Office is a prime example. Take a hilarious comedy that is about a boss from hell, played brilliantly by Ricky Gervais and make your own version minus Gervais and ... oh humor.

Although I know folks who find this show funny so I can only assume there's an American vein of humor I'm not getting as surely as many Americans don't get Blackadder or the League of Gentlemen.

Even Hornby received a US makeover. I'm not sure High Fidelity benefitted much from it. John Cusack was a bit too glam for the lead role to my mind.

The one Hornby book I have nothing to do with is Fever Pitch. It involves Arsenal beating Liverpool at the end and we lost the league.

It brings back painful memories. The last gasp tension and gloating face of my Arsenal supporting room mate (oh no another American term), smug, meaty and  ripe to be slapped.

Blog postscript - be carefully when searching for photos of Juliet, Naked. I'm not sure what that guy's wife was doing with the goldfish but PETA might want to look into.

Thursday, March 17, 2011

A Day in the Life, Pripyat and all that nonsense

Today I had to wonder. There are people in Japan searching for survivors; there are people in Japan trying to douse nuclear reactors with water. There are journalists disappearing in Libya.

And what am I doing? Some research on an access dispute to a private beach.

I'm not saying for a moment I'd be volunteering to stand on the edge of a nuclear reactor with a watering can. Let's just say I've seen pictures of Pripyat, the ghost town near the Chernobyl power station in the Ukraine. I've seen the fun fair rusting away in a post nuclear time warp. I've seen the deformities.

But also it seems incongruent that I seem to have spent most of this week being bitch slapped over trivialities: I've been caught up in tedious details over budgets and interpretations by people who have had a sense of humor bypass operation.

"Hmmm Mrs. Jones. It seems your sense of humor is in the surgical waste dump. I'm sure you'll do very well without it, thank you very much."

And can you say what you really want to say? Can you take a breath and just tell them to get a life because there are people dying in Japan and Libya and Bahrain.

The world's been so crazy of late that people have even been dying in New Zealand and, I mean, nobody's supposed to die in New Zealand because it's safe and staid and stuck in the 1950s and peopel still have net curtains and the only cause of death is normally old age.

Yet against such a background of death and despair do people gain perspective? Not in my experience. They twist and they turn and get lost down blind alleys of obfuscation. And they pull me down those dark alleyes with them. Right now I could use a ball of string to get out of this maze.

It sounds like a cliche but I'd like to do something for kids. If I carry on like this I might be a contender for Miss World. Assuming I looked differently and was a different sex and all that. I'd like to do something for world peace. I coulda been a contender, I coulda been somebody instead of a bum.

I'd like to do something where I made a tangible difference, beyond that of causing a local authority to drop its policy manual. I'd like to say I'd helped install a water system for an impoverished village. I think I could do third world poo now; just not radiation.

I'd do anything, to be honest, to ensure I didn't become that worker in Califonia who died at his desk and his colleagues didn't notice for a couple of days. I can only assume he wasn't on the coffee rota.

Anyway I've just remembered this blog post was meant to celebrate my 100th follower. I can't thank you folks enough because I had about 20 followers this time last year. And I know I am biased in this but I have no doubt I have the most fantastic, articulate and erudite followers of any blogger out there in the crazy blogisphere.

And I also wanted to thanks Lidia for the award I received today, which I'll shove on the mantlepiece next to the three ducks on the wall and the couple of Oscars.

For Excellence in Sound Editing on a 5 minute Film about Papua New Guinea.

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Japan's Ground Zero

Once a long way from here in a quiet country church in England I reported on a Japanese film crew making a documentary about the regiment from Norfolk that fought in the Far East in World War Two.

There was one veteran who showed up at the church who wouldn't cross the aisle to meet the crew. In fact he wouldn't even talk to them.

He told me how his comrades had died agonizing deaths amidst the heat and flies along the Burma railway. He told me how they fell to the ground, their ribs sticking out of their emaciated bodies, only to be beaten mercilessly by their Japanese captors.

Later he was shipped to the mainland of Japan in a prison ship where the prisoners of war were stacked like pieces of meat in a festering hold, in a dirty great hole bored down through the middle of the ship, amid sewage and the dead and dying.

In comparison the salt mine in Japan seemed easier. The biggest threat to his life was the daily bombings by American planes.

The veterans' words went to the heart of the strange place Japan occupies in our minds and hearts. How could a people outwardly so passive and gentle, endulge in acts of such cruelty?

Yet if you watch Clint Eastwood's excellent movie Postcards from Iwo Jima, it's apparent there was something else going on  here, the Bushido Code of honor going back to the Samurai days that death was nobler than defeat. As America retook countless islands, the Japanese soldiers would commit suicide en masse; often woman and children would throw themselves off cliffs rather than surrender.

Today Japan is unrecognizable from the nation that burned from the millions of bombs that fell on it during the war. The unassuming Japanese dedication to whatever they took was channelled into creating an economic miracle.

Even though the nation has been hit badly by the recession, Tokyo remains a vision of the city of the future, with as little poverty as there is space; a frenetic city where the virtual and real worlds are often hard to untangle.

The tragedy that has befallen Japan over the last week is as unfathomable as it is catastrophic. Before the earthquake people were going about their unremarkable lives in suburban Japan, watching the fields and neat houses flit by on the bullet train. Shortly afterwards the bullet train was no more, buried under the rubble brought in by a dirty tide that swept these quiet regions back a few centuries in the face of a few minutes.

In terms of their magnitude the events in Japan are as cathartic as the volcano that destroyed Pompeii or the eruption of Thera off Greece that blasted the middle out of an island and appears to have led to the demise of the Minoan civilization on Crete.

In the midst of tragedy the Japanese have retained their dignity. The aftermath of the earthquake and tsunami may have reduced this part of Japan to a wasteland but we have seen quiet forbearance and none of the anarchy seen in Haiti after last year's earthquake.

And there's a sad and ironic postscript that the nation used as a test bed for our most destructive weapon in 1945, should suffer the ill effects of the same technology when it was used for a constructive purpose.

I hope if that veteran in the far away church meets some people from Japan again he will find the time to forgive. The old hatreds and feuds seem very distant now and the works and strifes of man, very puny compared to the terrible enormity of nature.

Monday, March 14, 2011

The Dreaming Tower Blocks of Barking

A friend from Florida is visiting England at the moment. She's been busy posting lots of quaint pictures of Canterbury cathedral on Facebook.

Bizarrely there's probably enough American in me now to do the same, although I'd draw the line at Buckingham Palace, otherwise known as the world's most expensive lunatic asylum.

Still I find it funny that my friend's experience of England will be nothing like my own. Because for every visit to a stately home, every overpriced hedge maze or quaint pub, there was a visit to Blockbuster in Barking.

For the record Barking is the east London borough closest to where I used to live. I valued Barking because it made me realize there was somewhere worse than my home.

To prove it I'd take a brisk walk occasionally over the graffiti-bound iron bridge up Barking Creek (without a paddle) and past the tower blocks where lots of shell shocked asylum seekers from Kosovo would stare at me grimly.

But normally I'd drive to Blockbuster because it was only a two minute walk down a concrete street strewn with dog mess, an alley where kids were smoking crack and a pub where exceedingly loose women used to hang out, mostly out of their tops and out of the window while guys with cigarettes cussed each other out over the snooker table.

At least in the relative safety of Blockbuster I'd breathe more easily knowing the only danger here was being sold an overlarge bag of M&Ms and a crappy video by the kids there who thought the only things worth watching involved Kung Fu.

Barking had very little going for it. If the streets of London were paved wth gold, the streets of Barking were paved with chewing gum.

It also stank with the odor of a vast sewage treatment works down on the Thames. There were people who lived down there on the wrong side of the landfill, hollow eyed in cavernous concrete spaces like the towers in Clockwork Orange, although these were actually south of the Thames.

Nor was it easy to escape from Barking. Driving east you would keep going for miles through the largest council estate in Europe in Dagenham, and the Ford plant that no longer made cars, just parts of them.

Beyond Dagenham was Rainham, the most sorry assed run down and ragged apology for a town in London and beyond that a host of nefarious concrete monstrosities in Essex, such as Basildon, the 'new town' whose inhabitants are as wide as the M-25 and twice as dense.

There's something, but not everything to be said for the Essex steryotype where men are tattoed and sell second hand cars and girls have peroxide roots and spend a lot of time in the back of them.

Barking is where London and Essex meet. I doubt very much if my friend will clap eyes on its pale tower blocks emerging from the green murk of an East London morning, or its scruffy little street market selling knock off towels.

I'll concede there are some hidden attrations; a small church where Captain Cook got married and the Bard of Barking himself, Billy Bragg.

But since he didn't accept my Facebook request I ain't doin' no favors for him am I? Unless you count posting Between the Wars.

Sunday, March 13, 2011

Just the sea and me

My wine tasting assignment was at the air base on Saturday. It was considerably better than the marine base the week before, at least after I had managed to get through the check point.

I confess these places make me nervous. Woman in khaki with large gun asks for my driving license; I tug on my over sized wallet spilling business cards from the last 20 years all over the car and try to retain the last shred of dignity as a I coolly mutter: "Here goes," as I hand her my ATM card.

One time at Fort Monroe I handed the grumpy security card an out of date registration document.

"Last year's," he snarled at me, throwing it back through the car window.

I proceeded to very slowly and meticulously root through a bundle of papers. "Ah my school attendance record from 1982."

"Nope. Not that one. Nope," I said, Very slowly. A large convoy of vehicles was backing up behind me.

I eyed Mr. Grumpy Pants and told him I'd have to search the trunk. Maybe it was beneath the remnants of last year's camping expedition.

"Did you want to know about the hike to the waterfall?'

"OK. Just go though. But remember it next time," he capitulated.

I think I got off topic. The air base is better than the marine base because hardly anyone visits the marine base store. And those who do walk right past the wine section to pick up hard liquor.

After three hours of standing in an aisle reading the labels of other manufacturers' wines you start muttering to yourself. That and stalking the aisles to rugby tackle passers by, drag them to the table and force them to sample wine. This is not a good idea in a venue where shoppers have grown muscles on their muscles.

Nothing much happens at the marine store. Except a couple of weeks ago when someone tried to buy a gun that went off and injured a passer-by.

There were other samplers at the air base including a woman of advanced years who in the words of Leonard Cohen was "100 but she was wearing something tight."

Mavis was offering Southern Comfort, in particular to Brian, a guy of advanced years who strutted in wearing leathers.

"You want to go on the bike today?" he drawled pointing to the Harley he had strategically parked so as it was visible through the doors.

Marvis went on about hot flushes associated with the menopause. Brian got closer and closer to her sampling table radiating phony sympathy. You could almost hear his leather trousers throbbing like the engine of his Harley.

If he got any closer he might as well have lay on her sampling table like a submissive giant gray haired leather fly seeking Southern Comfort.

Mavis detailed a few more health problems from her shopping list. Brian finally strutted off like John Wayne. What is it with guys who ride Harleys? And why are they always so old?

At least I sold a lot of wine and spent three hours talking to human beings instead of labels.

By the time I left th store spring was in the air and I headed for the beach.

Sometimes you have to get away. Sometimes you have to get to the sea. Finally the air was warm with the scents of spring. Out at the nature reserve the reeds swayed gently in the wind and people with dogs meandered back from the beach.

But there's something refreshing about being alone on the beach. Maybe this is our natural state, as lonely figures on the beach watching the ebb and flow of a gentle tide.

From the earliest days man has looked at the sea and yearned for far off shores.

Some foam crackled around my feet and a gentle tide sloughed in. It was strange to think the same sea had been scouring out the land and dragging so many people to their deaths thousands of miles away.

Friday, March 11, 2011

Photo blogs - Robin Jackson Lawson

As of tomorrow I'm going back to being myself.

It's a sobering thought after running all these great photo blogs but it's hard to hide from yourself for more than a week.

So I'll be back to grouching about the normal grouches as quickly as it takes to spot a pair of hideous stretch pants in Wal-Mart.

But first I'd like to take this opportunity to run some photos taken by Robin Jackson Lawson. I first noticed Robin's pictures on Facebook and the klpetomaniac in me screamed: "I want to steal them for my blog."

Amazingly Robin doesn't have a blog yet. Those folks further north in Virginia are just getting used to electricity, apparently.

Anyhow Robin's photos certainly have electricity. The lighthouses and bucolic rural pictures have an aspirational quality that makes me want to go to these places - right now, as it happens.

Thursday, March 10, 2011

Photo blogs - Joon Powell

I worked with Joon Powell for a while when we were employed by a newspaper in North Carolina. We made the best of our inhospitable surroundings, generally finding humor in the most bleak and unprepossessing of situations. Coffee helped me forget I was no longer in London.

Working in rural North Carolina often involved driving long distances to talk to people who were frankly batty. You started to know how Napoleon felt marching all those thousands of miles only to be assailed by frost bite and the savagery of the Russian people.

Our first job was the Elizabeth City ghost walk. I tried not to mention it but there was a terrible smell in Joon’s car on the way back. We mentioned skunk – I just assumed it was her car in general.

However, when the smell followed me up the steps of the newspaper office to my desk I realized I must have stepped in the mother heap of all doggie doo doos.

It took some time for Joon to exact her revenge. But there was the time when she didn’t appear for one of my more offbeat assignments.

So I ventured out alone into the wilds of North Carolina to meet a man who was living in his tent after his house burned down. With his rather frightening dogs and gun collection. What joy.

Joon later returned to gamely take portraits of the tent dweller who threatened to brew up some moonshine.

Joon, who now lives in Tennessee, has been involved in projects above and beyond the barking people I sent her out to meet.

She took portraits of those people who suffered from the reduction of elimination of their health care when the TennCare program was cut and specializes in pictures of weddings and babies.

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Photo Blogs - Artful Nuance

Today's featured photo blog is Artful Nuance the work of Russian-born Toronto-based artist Olga Kotova.

Snow and ice seem to dominate the blog which may be something to do with the climate up there in Canada. Her studies of flowers are also interesting. Given the general grayness of Toronto in the winter, I'm highly impressed with the way Olga brings out vibrant colors in her photography. Her work certainly puts the cool into cold.

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Photo Blogs - Julie Magers Soulen

I'm featuring a few of my favorite photo bloggers this week. I know there are lots of photo blogs out there but notwithstanding how innundated we are with images there are still some photographers who have to ability to make me stop in my tracks and slow down a bit.

Julie Magers Soulen falls into this category. Actually her photos make me want to live in Colorado and listen to John Denver songs. They also make me want to buy a better camera....not that... So do visit Julie's blog.

Monday, March 7, 2011

Feeling all Luddite in Best Buy

I put off a trip to Best Buy for at least two years but the technical side of my existence was reaching case critical.

There’s an ad. when a guy goes on about how your computer is in trouble if it takes more than 10 seconds to react.

I want that guy’s number so as I can call him up and scream: “I’d kill for 10 seconds – try 10 minutes.”

And as for blue screens, if I was a successful actor (which I don’t believe I am) I’d be a star of the blue screen.

I’d be sitting there while that interminable hamster wheel turns round and round on the screen, wringing my hands together saying “winning Charlie, I’m winning.”

It has been a while since I’ve been to a store that deals with merchandise pertaining to modern technology, so Best Buy was a frightening experience.

Technophobia runs in the family, I’m told. My grandmother used a mangle instead of a washing machine which explains why she wasn’t invited to many social events. She didn’t do buttons.

Our family’s one attempt to introduce her to the late 20th century by buying her a microwave floundered when she heated up an apple pie for 30 minutes rather than 30 seconds, securing an unscheduled visit from the nice folks from the fire department.

I found Best Buy full of concepts I didn’t fully understand: iPads, iPhones, iPods, iTunes, i-m-confused, Wiis, Kindles, U-boats etc.

I mean I’m all for reading but how sad that we’re even reading novels on cyber pads, leading to the demise of book shops that are among my favorite places in the world.

We asked the geek at the counter if he could fit more capacity, plonking our big old prehistoric tower on the counter. He stared at us as if we had fallen from Mars, shot appalled glimpsed at the tower and flicked a large flake of dandruff from his hair onto his specs as he informed us our model was outdated and would only take 2 kilo bites of Dodge ram.

He totaled up the work to almost $300. “You might as well buy a new platform.”


Over in the sales department they had a great deal on a new lap top for just $399, with four times as much capacity. We stared glassily at the salesman as he spoke about hard drive capacity.

It sounded like a deal so my wife went off to deal for more than an hour while I let my daughter beat me at a computer game.

“Great deal,” my wife informed me an hour later. “After all the packages it only cost just under $1,000. We’ll even be able to access email.”

“How fantastic.”

Access to my blog may be somewhat limited this week but I am still out here, lost in cyber space. I’ll be transferring my memory between platforms. I think I’ll be running some guest blogs this week. Featuring photo blogs. That kind of thing.

Thursday, March 3, 2011

Celebrating the world's most drunken country - Moldova

I’ve never been to Moldova but in the immortal words of Sheryl Crow the brochure looks nice.

What am I talking about? Even if you were unlucky enough to find a travel agency still open in 2011, you probably won't find any glossy brochures with bikini clad girls drinking Martinis in Moldova.

If there was a brochure you might find a picture of a smelly old sort supping industrial strength vodka from a milk carton on a park bench.

Let's face it, we'd all want a drink if we found ourselves in landlocked gray Moldova, squeezed between the must-visit destinations of Romania and the Ukraine.

And quite a few drinks pass the lips of the Moldovans. Apparently Moldova is the drunkest country in the world, according to the World Health Organization.

Moldovans drink a liver pickling 4.81 gallons per person a year, which apparently averages out to a fair amount because babies aren’t meant to drink, although Moldovan babies probably chug vodka in their formula bottles.

When I first clicked on this link I fully expected Britain to be the most drunken country in the world. Because we always do so badly in the World Cup, we deserve a break. We need to win something. But it seems Britain (notwithstanding the presence of Scotland) is only the 17th most drunken country in the world.

When you've dodged fights and a cascade of projectile vomiting on a night out in Romford, Essex (and that was just the girls) this ranking is frankly hard to believe.

But it seems the Eastern Europeans are cornering the market in heavy drinking, with contries including the Czech Republic, Russia and Hungary also in the top five.

It's certainly no surprise that the United States, which received an honorable mention, did so poorly in this study ending up as only the 56th most drunken country in the world.

I only had to to see the horrified expressions of Americans on a Brits trip to New York I attended more than a decade ago, to realize swaying around on bar stools, holding cigarette lighters in the air, is not the done thing in the USA.

I also have vague memories of the bemusement on the face of the taxi driver as I told him to "hang on a minute" while I tried to get Gareth out of the garbage can.

Cruising down Park Avenue was cool, until we realized we had no idea of the address or location of the apartment we had checked into earlier that day.

"Yeah. It's got a canopy and there was a guy with a hat standing outside," I told the taxi driver.

Apparently Yemen is the least drunken country in the world, coming in at 188th place in the World Health Organization survey.

And a violent uprising is being held there at present.

Who says a drink makes you want to fight?

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Naff tourist attractions of our time: Presidents Park

I always love to find a naff tourist attraction so imagine my joy on the way to Williamsburg today when I took a wrong turn and found Presidents Park.

The site of a collection of gigantic white heads in a wooded glade was enough for me to cut across a few lanes of traffic clutching my camera, almost causing a six vehicle pile up.

Presidents Park closed down last September when it ran out of money. I assumed it had been there for decades but apparently it only opened up as a tourist attraction in 2006.

In presidential terms it would be William Henry Harrison, the ninth president of the United States who decided not to wear a coat or hat when he took the oath of office on a rainy day and made a two hour speech. A month later he died of pneumonia.

On a sunny March day the heads were quietly gathering mold and bird droppings in silence while the fence around them was steadily rusting away. Nodoby cared about these big old presidents gathered in beffudlement under the trees. I was amazed by the size of the busts but less so by their craftsmanship.

As one reader rather drily described Presidents Park beneath an article describing its demise it was like "Easter Island for the lame."

Apparently there are 43 giant busts in the park and that of the 44th president lies unfinished in a workshop somewhere.

Owners of the park said failure to secure the 44th bust was a tipping point, and the Obama statue, would have been a huge boon to the business, possibly even saving the park.

Oh really. It's not as if Barack Obama is ever on TV is it?

The mind boggles about what the park's owners are going to do with these giant busts. It's not your average member of the public who will say: "Forget the garden gnome Mavis. Let's get a 20 foot high bust of James Polk for the rockery."

Ever since the Griswalds went on the hunt for the world's largest ball of string, I've been somewhat fascinated by America's strangest and naffest tourist attractions, not to the point of obsessing at 4 a.m. or anything.

The string ball was fiction but apparently the world's largest twine ball can be seen in Darwin, Minnesota. When in Minnesota and all that, I guess.

More correctly it's known as the "World's Largest Twine Ball Rolled By One Man" because a rival twine ball in Cawker City, Kansas, is regularly added-to by visitors and townspeople. Darwin feels that this is cheating.

Someone should perhaps have told twine man to get a life. But obviously he didn't. Apparently the creator died of emphysema, and the townfolk figured 30 years of exposure to twine dust, did for him.

Other gems are contained in a website of the worst tourist attractions in America. They include Seattle's wall of brightly colored chewing gum, the world's largest ball of paint (sadly the world's largest hairball disintegrated, after choking a few dozen cats), The Barbed Wire Museum in Texas, The National Museum of Funeral History (another naff Texas museum), and South Dakota's Corn Palace which looks like a mosque but is a veritable shrine to corn.

You have to be a special kind of person to want to visit these places, either that or you have to live in somewhere like South Dakota.

All of which makes those busts of presidents or the tedious model villages I used to be dragged around back in England as a kid, suddenly seem like a great day out.

I Don't Queue : Does That Make Me Unpatriotic?

I'm bemused by the scenes from Westminster today. People are queuing for 24 hours to see a wooden box. OK, it's a fancy box surround...