Friday, April 29, 2011

Z is for Zoo

So at last the A-Z blogging challenge is over. It seemed like a good idea at the time but in practice it collided with some busy working weeks, meaning I'd find myself tired and clueless in a quiet room late at night. A bit like now, really.

It's not always easy finding a word that links the appropriate letter to something you really want to blog about. There were mental blogging blocks, for instance P if for Privet, is kind of desperate; O is for Oblocutor is somewhat weird and D is for Druids is plain obscure.

But overall it was fun and like that long distance hike or marathon run we are relieved when it's over but once we have caught our breath and wiped the dust from our feet we miss it; we miss the camaraderie of fellow sufferers and the new friends you made along the way.

So after 25 blogs of painstaking original content, I think it's now how time to cheat and use a re-post (of sorts) on the last post which is probably the literary equivalent of slogging 25 miles of a marathon until the finish line is in sight and then hopping on a friend's motorbike and speeding over the line, to be promptly disqualified.

Having never run a marathon, I wouldn't know, but I ran a half marathon once. And I am totally not bitter about that 72-year-old woman who sped past me in the last 100 yards. How did I know she was 72? Hit men require certain biographical details these days.

But seriously zoo isn't totally a re-post because Trail of the Tiger has finally opened at Virginia Zoo in Norfolk; as opposed to the last time when we acted on misinformation and spent a day admiring scaffolding.

Now the new exhibition has opened we face a new dilemma, namely whether to go back again to the zoo and face the heat and crowds and the maximum number of child strops that can be fit into a closely confined space with animals, or to nobly pretend the zoo no longer exists.

My 2009 post was really about how zoos seem like such fun in principle; until you actually visit them and realize you have paid $10 a piece to stare at elephant dung and gray backside 100 yards away.

So here goes...

I’m not sure if ‘zoo’ is Latin for: “place where miserable children traipse around in the vain hope of seeing animals in hibernation.” If it isn't it should be.

Curiously, whenever we suggest going to Virginia Zoo in Norfolk, I feel an initial bout of enthusiasm, which may explain why we’ve been there about four times in the last two years.

Last Sunday we went to the zoo for Zara because we feared she would feel left out by all the attention being lavished on Jackson less than a week after he was born.

The first time we took her there she was two-years-old and had to be pushed around in her pink Princess stroller. Our hopes she would take an interest in the animals was dashed at the first stop off, the hairy black pig in the barnyard enclosure. It probably has a proper name but, for all intents and purposes it's a hairy, black porker.

After the pig no show we gamely upped the ante, introducing her to camels, lions and finally giraffes and elephants, all to no avail. Our daughter remained listless and disinterested.

In contrast on Sunday Zara was raring to go, talking incessantly about seeing her favorite animal the zebra, because it began with ‘Z’.

Unfortunately, getting my wife out of the house and on the road at the best of times, can be about as smooth and coordinated as the relief effort post Hurricane Katrina.

With a new born baby in tow, I should have started packing the car a week earlier.

We got on the road by 4 p.m., resisting all calls to return for forgotten items.

After speeding through Norfolk we barely made it to the zoo before the announcements that the place was about to close, were sounding out.

So our zoo experience, once again, was a whirlwind tour of animals that gamely failed to present themselves on demand.

At least you can rely on the black pig. He was right on cue, sunning himself and raising his trotters in the air in a foul smelling salute to his audience. Zara was interested, this time and we strided enthuiastically on to see a big old Yorkshire pig, magnificantly obese and puffed up as as befits the largest county in England.

My wife pointed out most of the swine at the zoo were from England. It had never occured to me when I lived there that I inhabited a center of pig excellence.

Things went downhill from then on. We needed water and the Beastro was closed. Nor did the handily-placed drinks machines that dispensed water at $2 a time work.

We proceeded to the nocturnal house, which Jackson should have honorary membership of, but didn't see many of the snakes and reptiles because of the mass of kids crowding around the tanks.

By the time we got to a monkey display, the phalanx of unruly kids had grown into a bristling army that marched on fizzy drinks and Little Debbies. There seems to be an informal rule at the zoo that as soon as someone pulls a camera out to take a picture, this is a cue for a couple of people to stand between lens and subject and not to move until the sun goes down. Or maybe that's just what happens when I take a picture.

We walked on past Trail of the Tiger, a half constructed maze of faux Oriental temples that is due to open at some undetermined time in 2010. Probably December 31. It started me wondering what happens to the tigers during the construction period. Does a flyer go up in the zoo cafeteria asking for volunteers willing to let a tiger sleep on their couch for six months?

The interactive praire dog habitat with viewing bubbles seemed more promising. Zara and myself took turns looking out of the bubbles to see gray mud. We persevered with more bubbles because there was a group of people behind a nearby fence pointing in our direction, leading us to assume praire dogs had been sighted.

My wife later informed us they were pointing and laughing at the stupid people who had missed the signs and were looking through the bubbles for praire dogs still in hibernation.

With the zoo announcements picking up the urgency of an woman who had clearly skimped on lunch and was manically fiddling with her keys, we headed as quickly as it is possible for a family with a five-year-old and a baby stroller up to the optimistically named Okavango Delta.

The real one is the world's largest inland delta in Botswana. The one at Virginia Zoo comprises plastic cliffs and a bit of grassland and water. I've seen worse attempts but frankly you'd have to drink sherry all day to think this resembles the real thing.

At this point Zara threw one of those Catch 22 child strops that are so hard to deal with. She wanted to climb onto the aluminium rhino but didn't because it was too high and screamed at all attempts to be hoisted up there. But when we abandoned the rhino to press on, she screamed that she wanted to go on the rhino.

The climb up the Okavango Delta display wasn't promising; the meercats and a number of less interesting animals were hibernating. Even the fennic fox that can normally be relied on to pose for the cameras had gone AWOL.

There was no sign of the zebras and the elephants and giraffes had forsaken the delights of the delta for their concrete bunkers but at least they could still be viewed.

Only the lions were gamely gathered for the visitors but, by this time Zara was so disconsolate about the rhino setback, she had no interest in seeing them.

The last 15 minutes were a race to the gate to avert the prospect of spending the night at Virginia Zoo.

I hope not to return any time soon. Virginia Zoo is a pleasant enough place compared to the bleak animal jails that masqueraded as zoos when I was growing up in Britain.

But it lacks something. More specifically it lacks penguins. Surely no zoo is worth its salt without feeding time at the penguin pool. 
In fact as we increasingly fall into the listlessness of middle age, when the highs become lower and the lows become business as usual, increasingly I urge disaffected friends and colleagues; think penguins and you will have a wide and idiotic smile on your face in no time at all.
And if the A to Z challenge has taught us one great truism it's this - we all need a personal penguin to help us get through the day.

Y is for Yesterday

Yesterday by the Beatles has apparently had more cover versions than any other song. It’s also one of the most melancholy songs produced by the band.

The suggestion of “all my troubles seemed so far away” points to a golden age when thing were better. Ironically Paul McCartney wrote it when the Beatles were in their heyday.

It was credited to Lennon/McCartney, although the song was written solely by McCartney. In 2002 McCartney apparently asked Yoko Ono if she would allow reversing the credit on the song to read "McCartney/Lennon". Ono refused.

The remaining Beatles would perhaps see the aptness of the song today. Lennon was shot dead 30 years ago, George Harrison has died of cancer, McCartney’s wife died and he’s divorced from that dreadful woman with one leg, after parting with $24 million in the process.

And Ringo Starr is, well Ringo Starr. But at least he narrated Thomas the Tank Engine and Friends.

As a concept Yesterday seems to convey the idea that everything used to be better. But that’s not always the case. Few people who watched today’s Royal wedding can have looked back to the 1981 wedding between Charles and Diana, and thought that was better, although it was quite a spectacle at the time.

Certainly Kate did not appear to be looking around at the seats to see where a potential mistress was sitting as Diana was in 1981.

But there certainly may be days when Wills and Kate will look back to todays’ wedding as a high point and a day when their troubles seemed so far away.

Ordinarily I don’t hold with rose colored spectacles though and I have little time for people who tell me: “When I grew up we left our doors unlocked. There was no crime. You didn’t have to keep an eye on your kids etc.”

I always feel like asking them if the “good old days” are the ones when the skies were full of German bombers and death camps were being built across Europe. Or are they referring to the trenches, or the days of Victorian poverty when Jack the Ripper slit his victims open on the streets of Whitechapel.

And even if Wills and Kate’s marriage went wobbly it couldn’t possibly end as badly as the 1533 marriage of King Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn.

The marriage ceremony was secret but the coronation of Queen Anne saw the Queen dressed in a cloth of gold with ornate barges following her for four miles down the Thames.

In 1536 the Queen parted company with her head.

We may like to hold onto those sepia memories but the further back you go the more unpleasant a place yesterday seems to be.

Thursday, April 28, 2011

X is for Xylophone

I almost forgot about ‘X’ which would have been rather tragic so close to the end of the A-Z challenge.

Fact is there aren’t many words beginning with ‘X’ and I’m not sure if X-rated counts. But if you pick up a dictionary there are actually more than you think. Talking of which I'd like to take this opportunity to thank Daft Scots Lass for her recent award to Brits in the USA.

Some unusual words beginning with X are xanathareel and xanthic, but people would start looking at me in a strange way if I substituted xanthic for yellow or indeed xanthomic for yellow haired.

I like xanthippe, though. It means ill tempered woman; conceivably you could call an ill tempered woman a xanthippe and escape without being slapped.

Being boring and traditional I will go with xylophone, though. For one thing it sums up the bunker of aspirations that was my fleeting musical career.

At elementary school I harbored dreams of being a musician. I saw the older kids with their shiny trumpets and bugles and felt jealous. Instead we blew listlessly into recorders, which are surely the most uninspiring musical instruments known to humanity.

My manual dexterity was never good. To get to the shiny instruments we had to pass the recorder test. I fumbled and failed and faced the shame of walking to school for two years with recorder in my duffle bag, accompanied by my neighbor with his shiny bugle.

My parents were somewhat relived at my failure as they didn’t have to fork out more than $150 for a brass instrument.

The pinnacle of my musical career took place around the age of 11 when I got to bang a triangle a couple of times in the school play. Mozart eat your heart out.

By the time I went to high school, my musical aspirations had all but drained away.

The music teacher Mr. H, piqued our interest for a couple of lessons by educating us on Dance Macabre before lapsing into his real character – as a lazy, frizzy haired good for nothing.

So for the next x-years music lessons became 40 minutes of undisciplined banging of xylophones and cheaply manufactured Glockenspiels in which the metal notes jumped from their rubber awnings when you hit them.

It would have been more rewarding to hit Mr. H, but he was usually too busy hitting on 15-year-old girls to notice.

Indeed this frizzy haired disgrace to the education system who seemed to believe he was the Bee Gee that got away with his mobile disco, flared pants and 12 inch versions of Soft Cell’s Tainted Love, was the talk of the school and the parents, although nobody seemed to complain in those days.

Frequently Mr. H would turn up at an after school disco holding hands with a girl who had left school a week earlier. The rumors of illicit liaisons in the lecture theater swept the school.

“f… &*%%##@@@@,” one of the physical education teachers said in the earshot of a group of 15-year-old and for one hopeful moment, I thought he was going to punch Mr. H in his hamster chops.

I don’t know what happened to Mr. H in the end but I know xylophones in the wrong hands can make a lot of discordant noise but very little music.

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

W is for Wedding

W is something of a non brainer given all the publicity currently being given to the Royal wedding on Friday.

During the Joy Behar show Larry King was asked about Will and Kate’s nuptuals and the old cadaver quipped back, asking her if a nuclear crisis was still going on in Japan, what about the war in Libya, Colonel Gaddafi etc., didn’t America have a revolution hundreds of years ago to escape from the infernal Royals?

Perhaps someone needs to tell the U.S. TV networks that it’s not a wedding of the American Royal Family.  The closest America gets to Royalty seems to be Donald Trump, judging by the amount of airtime he's getting.

In saying that you can’t really blame the U.S. networks for going big on this one as fairytale weddings don’t come along very often and usually the fairytale doesn’t last long anyway. To give Will and Kate their due, they have already tried the breaking up thing and still want to go through with this.

So the Royal wedding is a distraction from the ongoing torment in Japan and Libya with Syria next. It’s a nice feelgood story featuring two fairly young and presentable people.

My personal beef is the fact that the U.S. news networks seldom cover other news from Britain or elsewhere in the world unless there’s a cataclysm. Last year’s British General Election that led to the first hung Parliament in decades was historic, but didn’t get much air time over here.

And goings-on in countries such as France, Germany and Italy hardly get any air time unless it’s a murder trial featuring an American national, such as the Amanda Knox murder trial in Italy.

Despite my complaints I may well get up at 4 a.m. to watch the Royal wedding for a while. For a start I still have to drown those queasy memories of the last Royal Wedding between Charles and Camilla in 2005.

Hopefully this time most of the hoofs will belong to the horses in the wedding procession.

Kate and Will’s wedding bears the more obvious comparison with that of Charles and Diana in 1981.

When it comes to Royal weddings, it seems we are all unreconstructed lookists.

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

V is for Vermeer

Jan Vermeer is one of my favorite painters because of his devotion to perfection.

Records on the Dutch master who lived from 1632 to 1675 are scant and there's no indication he left his native town of Delft, which appears to be one of those sleepy Dutch towns of weeping willows, verges choked with tulips and mellow church towers that shimmer under the big skies of the flat lands.

There's no evidence that Vermeer did the typical painter things like chopping off the occasional ear and falling into fits of depression, rage and debauchery but we really don't know much about him.

Rather he quietly enjoyed the light and created some of the finest masterpieces known to the history of art, albeit in an economical way. Only 40 of his works have come to light.

"The secret of Vermeer's craftsmanship may be found in a remark by Michelangelo, who said that little things or trifles, done to perfection, build up into great things or art," Thomas Craven wrote in the Readers Digest Treasury of Great Painters.

The Little Street by Vermeer is one of only two landscapes that have come to light. It was apparently the view from his house and typifies a sleepy Dutch backwater back in the 17th century.

I picked up a postcard of this painting after a somewhat heavy night in Amsterdam with some friends years ago and found myself yearning to explore some quiet streets in the weak sunlight.

Monday, April 25, 2011

U is for Underground

The morning of July 7, 2005 seemed like any other on the London Underground, the rickety subway system, that implausibly keeps the city going. There were delays but they didn’t seem anything out of the ordinary.

I was only 10 minutes late to my office at the Palace of Westminster. But my colleague David was considerably later than normal. By the time he arrived an hour late he was complaining about inexplicable delays from St. Albans.

Shortly afterwards an item appeared on the TVs that were permanently on a news channel about an explosion caused by a power surge in the underground.

I was immediately suspicious. Ever since September 11, 2001, death had taken place in the morning, normally on a clear blue day, whether bombs in Istanbul or the Madrid train bombings on the morning of March 11, 2004.

Implausibly we went to a Department of Health briefing on dentistry. But it was cut short half way through by the serious events elsewhere. By now we knew something was badly wrong. Talking teeth in the middle of a terror attack, seemed perverse.

By the time we returned to the House of Commons the usual entrance was blocked off and a special security entrance had been set up. The policeman on the entrance was talking freely about “bombs on the underground.”

It took us 30 minutes to get back to the office by now it had became clear that something terrible was going on. Three bombs had gone off on trains. Knowing the hot confinement of the morning commute underground it was impossible to comprehend the horror. Then TV started to beam pictures of a bus that had been blown apart at Tavistock Square. For one haunting day as the wounded emerged from the tunnels, London resembled Baghdad or Kabul, revealing how thin the veneer between war and peace can be.

Still we sat in the Commons through the emergency statements, although some of us walked or cycled up through the rain to Kings Cross where the walking wounded were still coming out of the tunnels.

Just like 9/11 we all remember what we were doing on 7/7, the day the Underground lost the innocence it had when I first boarded it as an excited child and picked up my first copy of the iconic Tube map, decades earlier.

The next day a mood of foreboding swept over me as I boarded a District line train and looked suspiciously at the passengers around me. And as I read about Britain’s home grown suicide bombers in the Times, an eerie feeling washed over me.

The face staring at me from the paper was that of Mohammad Sidique Khan, a classroom assistant from Leeds who was the leader of the suicide bombers. It freaked me out because it was so familiar. It freaked me out because it was from the interview I did with him as a freelancer on the Times Educational Supplement a year or so earlier.

I found myself wishing I had paid him more attention, even though he was only the secondary interviewee. I found myself wishing I hadn’t erased over the tape.

Friday, April 22, 2011

T is for Teacher

Sometimes people ask me if I regret giving up teaching after a couple of months.

I normally answer them with an unequivocal 'no'

I admit I resisted the urge to erase a photograph of my airless, lightless dungeon classroom from my cell phone for more than a year. You could make out the chipped desks, just not the giant penis that G. had drawn on his desk in indelible marker that I would shield from the head of department by standing in front of it during classroom inspections.

Much has happened at the school since I left and my brief presence there is probably forgotten by most. The head of department and number of other English teachers have departed. And the coach - the only guy the most unruly students seemed to be genuinely frightened of, for fear of being dropped from the team - has departed under something of a cloud after he was arrested for sex with a 16-year-old.

Maybe every six months or so I will check the faces on the school website. Invariably the website will be out of date, with the exception of the coach whose face was removed as efficiently as Trotsky was airbrushed out of the snapshots of the Russian revolution.

I still shudder at certain names and faces on the website, remembering terse emails and requests for acts of petty bureaucracy.

When I thought of teaching I always thought of some of the inspiring orations at assemblies when I was a student. But when I became a teacher we never had assemblies with the exception of a special discipline event in which the principal spent the best part of an hour barking out all the different ways students could get in trouble including the dress code.

I am aware now I failed in my end of the bargain. When a female student turned up in a skirt that appeared to be too short, I failed to get out a tape measure to check her out and send her to the office. It just didn't seem right; when a guy showed up in what appeared to be a gang T-shirt I failed to get into a discussion about whether this really was a gang or maybe a rap star or maybe (more confusingly) a rap star who resorted to gang lyrics. I simply turned a blind eye, which is not the done thing in teaching.

I still see some of my students occasionally. I gave H. a half smile but she was too busy shoplifting at Wal-Mart to notice, I swear that was R. who served me at McDonald's last week. I considered saying: "If you had studied Lady Macbeth's Act I soliloquy And fill me from the crown to the toe top-full of direst cruelty more you have made it to Arby's." I resisted the urge.

Recently I was doing a wine tasting when I saw the principal walking my way. Cue to don a funny hat and moustache and to do a swift 180 and to stare intently at bottles of Cupcake. The funny thing is I doubt if she would have remembered my anyhow.

But there are certain faces that bring back good memories too. I find myself concluding school would have been a lot more fun if not for the students. My teaching career was going swimmingly until the day the kids arrived.

So now I am left with a truck load of materials that I payed thousands of dollars for that I don't know what to do with. I tried to use a few in my occasional stints as a tutor but families tended to pay me not to show up.

My friend who lasted less than two weeks at a high school near here said had a bonfire with them the day they let her out.

But I can't bring myself to part with them so easily, thinking I might need them one day.

Just like I might need the miniature Portuguese sword that my father bought me back from a trip to the Algarve.

But at least I have a new found appreciation for teachers and I certainly don't begrudge them a couple of months vacation.

I am posting this early because I am going away to the mountains for the weekend, thus taking the closest thing to a blogging break one can take during the A-Z challenge.

Thursday, April 21, 2011

S is for Suits You

Let's face it; there are so many possibilities with 's' that writing a blog about the Suits You duo is like picking up the best letter and hurling it in the sea - which is another good 's.'

There is sand and sea and shells and Shelley and sleep (which sounds like a good idea), not to mention the Smiths and smells and shopping and Sears and why someone should sink Sears into a subterranean sinkhole of slurry.

Not to mention sarcasm, the lowest but paradoxically the highest form of humor.

Talking of humor Ken and Kenneth from the BBC's Fast Show were two characters who spawned a million impersonations and ensured we could never walk into a man's suit store again without a smirk.

The sketch succeeded because the store reminded us of so many dated men's apparel stores that we have been in before, formal and in something of a time warp with that canned, tinkling music.

The store assistants are middle aged, impeccibly dressed and overly formal.

Except in the case of Ken and Kenneth they also turn out to be utter perverts who would unleash a tirade of filthy suggestions, seemingly unable to contain themselves. The obvious discomfort of the reserved customers, makes the sketch successful.

I can never watch the Fast Show without thinking of Trevor, a former colleague, who lived and breathed these characters. You'd be minding your business in work when he'd jump up from behind a desk and hit you with an "Oooooo Sir."

The Fast Show was apparently aired in the US where it was called Brilliant. It's most famous fan is Johnny Depp who appeared with the Kenneths in a sketch in The Last Fast Show Ever.

The worst thing about this sketch was it was very difficult to resist uttering the words "suits you Sir" whenever I found myself in a tailors thereafter.

I still bear the mental scars from the glares of the shop assistants.

R is for Ruins

Once I was walking in the Black Mountains of Wales and rounded a conical hill to come upon a lush green valley. There nestled in the hills were the ruins of an old medieval priory, seemingly forgotten by time and wrapped up in the greeness and the morning mist and the verdant silence of the hills.

I have always been fascinated by ruins. For me a ruined castle is far more romantic than an inhabited and well maintained palace like Windsor Castle because it seems to be a metaphor for the struggle we will always lose against nature.

That ruined monastery was Llanthony Priory and it remains one of my favorite spots.

But if ruins chart the time of man on the earth a Medieval priory only scratches the surface. A number of places vie for being the oldest ruins on earth but some of those are found in Mesopatamia, now an arid and war torn land that is modern Iraq.

The land between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers is known as the "cradle of civilization" because cities appeared here as long ago as 5300 years before Christ. The Sumerian civilization not only built stone cities but was one of the first to produce writing and to condify laws.

The Great Zigurat of Ur was built in the 21st Century BC and has survived fairly intact, not least being near the site of a battle in 2003 when American troops invaded Iraq.

Like so many other ancient civilizations the glories of Sumer and later Babylon and Assyria were in contrast to the modern day nations of the Middle East, plagued in recent years by poverty, hopelessness and  tyrants like Saddam and Gaddafi.

Of all the ancient civilizations Greece is one of the most interesting, not least because it invented modern day concepts of democracy and philosophy.

The ruins of Delphi high in the moutains are among the most evocative. Here at a temple the spirit of Apollo was asked for advice through the Pythia, a priestess.

The Roman civilization has left numerous ruins. Those at Pompeii are among the most fascinating because of the tragedy that hit the city in 79 AD when it was destroyed by lava and ash from the volcano Vesuvius.

The ruins in Tulum, Mexico are much more recent, dating from AD 564 but their breathtaking position abovea white beach on the coast put them on my must visit list.

So too are the massive ruins of Angkor Wat in Cambodia, a massive Khmer temple built in the early 12th century and now partly reclaimed by a jungle of creepers and vines.

Unfortunately these ruins are firmly on the wish list. My reality has been dark and brooding castles and abbeys on the moors.

Carreg Cennen Castle in Wales is one of my favorite ruins, given its spectacular position on a high hill overlooking the sweeping Welsh countryside. The castle has a history of intrigue and "Merlin's Cave" underneath the castle can still be explored.

Tintern Abbey on the English border close to Wales is one of the country's most famous ruins. It was painted by Turner and inspired the poet William Wordworth imore than 200 years ago in an era when ruins came to be romanticised to the point that landowners built false ruins known as "follies" in their grounds.

In Lines Written A Few Miles Above Tintern Abbey, Wordsworth wrote.

Five years have past; five summers, with the length

Of five long winters! and again I hear
These waters, rolling from their mountain-springs
With a sweet inland murmur.—Once again
Do I behold these steep and lofty cliffs,
Which on a wild secluded scene impress
Thoughts of more deep seclusion; and connect
The landscape with the quiet of the sky.

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Q is for Queen

Not many things have remained constant in my life. My parents haved moved from the house where they used to live and recently moved again.

I often find it difficult to answer when people ask me where I'm from.

But as the world speeds by leaving us in its slipstream, as mobile phones become BlackBerries and then iPhones, the Queen of England remains an unchanging relic of yesteryear like an old gramaphone in the corner of the room that remains because it's an institution.

Who would have thought that in 1977 when God Save the Queen by the Sex Pistols was released to coincide with the Silver Jubilee of Elizabeth II, the Queen would still be going strong more than 30 years later while the Sex Pistols were long forgotten with their creator Malcolm McLaren dead?

The most remarkable aspect of Queen Elizabeth is the fact that in all this time on the throne she has changed so little with the times. Her voice could be straight out of a black and white movie from the 1950s and her wardrobe is timeless.

In many ways Elizabeth was an accidental monarch. When her uncle Edward VIII took over the throne in 1936, few considered her an heir. But Edward got himself mixed up with an American (it happens to us all) and the rest is history.

After Edward abdicated, Liz's father George became George VI. Elizabeth fell in love with Prince Philip of Greece and Denmark in 1939. The date is somewhat alarming because she was only 13. They married in 1947. The union was somewhat controversial because Philip was foreign born and had little financial standing. Elizabeth's mother apparently initially referred to him as "the Hun."

Philip even had Nazi links through his sisters and while nobody has pinned Hitler loving sympathies on him as they did the Queen's uncle Edward, Philip managed to spent the next five decades developing a stellar reputation for telling tactless racist jokes and putting his foot firmly in his over sized mouth.

In contrast Elizabeth, who was crowned Queen in 1952, succeeded in being inscruitable and totally controlled for the much of the rest of the century. It's a well know fact that the Queen has blue blood and doesn't partake in low bodily functions like the rest of us.

Elizabeth's coronation in Westminster Abbey is the stuff of folklore; one family in the whole street would have a black and white TV and everybody would be in their home, drinking tea and cheering Her Majesty through the snowscreen that was the early days of television.

This tale is so hackneyed it could be completely wrong. For all I know it may have been a mass riot.

By the Silver Jubilee in 1977 we all had TVs. I can remember the cheap plastic Union Jack hats and all the street parties with jelly and crisps. We had crown making competitions in school and the whole nation seemed to love HRH, aside from the Sex Pistols.

By the time of the Queen's Golden jubilee in 2002, so much seemed to have changed. For an article I walked the streets of Ilford in East London tracking down the people who held street parties in 1977. There were few street parties in 2002. Most of the organizers had moved away. One couple took me conspiratorially into their home and told me how the neighborhood was unrecognizable from 25 years ago.

Most of the homes were now occupied by people from the Indian subcontinent who had no appreciation of the monarchy and no national pride, they told me, not to mention a new influx from Eastern Europe.

Also much had happened in the intervening time to the Queen herself as fissures appeared in the once seamless Victorian facade of the Royal Family. The Queen described 1992 as her "annus horribilis." It says much about the Monarch herself that she could use such an expression, one most people would equate with an anal infection, in a formal oration.

In 1992 the Queen saw the divorce of her daughter Princess Anne and Captain Mark Philips and the separation of Prince Andrew and Sarah Duchess of York.  The chances of a reconciliation had been scuppered by pictures in which the Duchess, known as Fergie, by the tabloids, was getting her toes right Royally sucked by her financial advisor.

Worse was to come. The marriage between the Queen's eldest son Charles and Diana, Princess of Wales, was also falling apart as Charles became involved in equine pursuits and Diana got involved in a questionable relationship with a chap with red hair who reminds me a bit of...

It says much about the Queen that the fire at Windsor Castle seemed to upset her more than the relationship failures of her children.

But the one event that seemed to affect the public the most was the death of Diana in a car crash in Paris in 1997. As a huge un-British outpouring of grief swept the nation, the Queen remained holed up at Balmoral in Scotland and wouldn't even fly the Buckingham Palace flag at half mast for a few days.

The Queen's subsequent capitulation was captured in the movie The Queen, which blamed Philip for much of the Diana fiasco.

As an aside the whole Diana business failed to move me. I always saw her as something of a glammed up clothes horse who'd jump on good causes to milk publicity. But strangely enough I recently saw a documentary that made me rethink my past cynicism. She really seemed to care too much and make too many unglamorous visits for this to be a massive publicity stunt, even if much of it may have been to fill a void in herself.

So what are we to make of the Queen in 2011 as she approaches her diamond jubilee next year? She seems like a relic of a Britain of the 1950s, when there was a white face in every house and women swept the floors wearing rollers. She seems firmly rooted in the last century, if not the one before that, while William and Kate espouse a new more multicultural Britain.

But while the Queen doesn't command the loyalty of her subjects that she did decades ago, who have been wondering for some time why they contribute to much money for her to go hunting in Balmoral and to keep somany Corgis, you have to admire her resilience.

She outlasted Sid Vicious and McLaren and she's still going strong while Brit Pop is a fading memory. Margaret Thatcher once spoke about going on and on until her vision was recognized but there's a younger generation out there who have never heard of her any more than they have heard of Duran Duran.

In contrast the Queen has seen 12 Prime Ministers come and go starting with Winston Churchill. And she's still going strong.

Monday, April 18, 2011

P is for Privet

The first friend I ever had was also my strangest friend. And, believe me there's lots of competition.

Walking round the condos tonight with my daughter, playing our favorite game of counting frogs, I realized that America doesn't have many privet hedges.

While England's suburbia comprises swathes of green and iron gates set in hedges, America has white picket fences.

Back where I grew up in suburban Birmingham we didn't have much. Our flying saucers were old tires and my play car was an old iron bath my grandfather had put wheels on, much to the consternation of an elderly neighbor who had the bruises to testify to the weight of the thing.

But heck - we were rich in privet hedges back then.

That's how I met Gregory Spencer; I came out of my house one day and saw his torso sticking out of the hedge, his face buried among the tiny leaves.

At first I was annoyed. Brits are taught to be territorial about their privet hedges from an early age.

He withdrew his head, looking rather startled and told me he was eating the hedge. Would I like to do lunch?

I tried a few of the bitter leaves but they weren't entirely to my taste.

"Tell you what," I told him. "There's a big old Mountain Ash tree in the garden. Maybe you'd like to partake.'

I don't think I actually said partake. I didn't know that word then. Still the tree was my absolute favorite. We'd climb it and jump into the neighbor's garden, ostensibly to piss her off.

The boy, who identified himself as Gregory Spencer started to salivate as soon as he saw the tree. In no time at all we were stripping bark off it with our teeth and devouring the trunk.

In hindsight I wondered why my parents didn't stop us. But come to think of it my parents didn't stop us doing much. For instance all of our holiday pictures from Spain feature me wearing a bucket on my head. I was convinced it was as cool as hell and I looked like a Knight of the Round Table, whereas in fact I looked like a dorky kid with a bucket on his head.

Any rate Gregory became my first firm friend and we'd hang out in the woods and do the sort of things kids do, mainly eating tree bark and hedges.

Eventally as all great childhood friendships do, ours soured. Those leaves ceased to be so succulent. It may have been the time Gregory got his hand caught in the chain of my bicycle.

Or perhaps it was the time my mother disparaged Greg's chain smoking, hard nosed mother and I told him: "My Mum says your Mum's a cow."

Unfortunately Greg relayed this information to his mother and I was called into a Spanish inquisition like forum in his living room, complete with comfy cushions, to be asked: "Did your mum call me a cow?"

Strangely enough my memory of these distant days behind the hedges of suburbia are fleeting like the sun slipping in and out clouds. Some are vivid and others are obscured. I can't even remember the answer I gave to Gregory's mother, although our friendship didn't last.

Still it's funny to recall those days and good to invite my blog friends into my privet world.

Sunday, April 17, 2011

O is for Oblocutor

Here's to hoping that this one threw you. In a bid to overcome a shutdown at the ideas factory for 'o', I found a site devoted to obscure words.

An oblocutor is one who denies or disputes. I thought it was better to blog on this than on obsolagnium, which is waning sexual desire due to age.

One of my best friends at college was an oblocutor. Had I known the term 20 years ago rather than 20 minutes ago I would have surely accused him of being an oblocutor; it would have made me seem more of a smart ass, which was the whole point of a university education.

That and getting one's liver pickled.

I'll call my close college friend Barry, although it's not his name. Barry had some good qualities but also a few rather unfortunate ones such as being the most oppositional and argumentative man alive.

If you told Barry the dawn was pretty he'd tell you it was ugly. If you happened to tell him it was midnight he'd swear it was midday. Our political disagreements often ended up as unpleasant verbal altercations which was odd considering we had the same left of center leanings in those days.

But the good news was if you lost an argument there was always scope for covert operations. Barry was allergic to fish which meant the nuclear option of nailing a kipper to his door while he was asleep became a tempting prospect. I wasn't alone in covert ops. as Barry had a knack of annoying the other room mates too.

Invariably kipper nights occured on the eve of Barry's desperate attempts to pull girls out of his league. He'd carefully plan the invite on the pretext of a coffee and some help with politics homework over the breakfast table.

These unsuspecting victims would be hesitant to start with. Their feet would turn to ice and they would try to jump out of a third floor window when Barry would show up at the table betroot red and twitching in a kipper induced funk.

Oh the joy of those student days.

Of course my attitude to Barry was rather inconsistent. While his contrariness would drive me crazy, I wasn't particularly well endowered in the friends department, so I'd still hang out with him.

Nevertheless his love of an argument could be off putting. One day a couple of Jehovah's Witnesses came to the flat. Now there's an unwritten rule that when Jehovah's Witnesses show up, you have to firmly tell them to go to hell - although come to think of it that probably wouldn't work because they've showed up at the door to warn us we are all going to hell anyway.

So what does Barry do? He invites them in so as he can flick through Watchtower and take issue with it as well as the whole basis of their religion. He was rushing off to studies, so he invited them back for Round 2 of an ecumenical argument at a later date.

I remember returning from the faculty on my bike to see their heads bobbing around in the window. Then when I showed up the Jehovah's Witnesses were actually trying to extricate themselves from the flat. If I pressed them hard enough they would have begged for a blood transfusion, just to escape from Barry.

Inevitably I ended up going Interrailing around Europe with Barry as well as my sister. Two minutes out of Victoria Station it dawned on me that this was a bad idea when we disagreed on the type of filling for the rolls we should use the communal funds on.

By the time we reached the Loire Valley it was war. We wanted to go to Nimes, Barry wanted to go to Arles; we wanted to take a day train, Barry wanted to take a night train. We wanted to go at a fast pace, Barry wanted to sit at a restaurant and watch the world go by for three hours.

My sister and I constantly out voted Barry but it merely stored up resentment. Half way round Europe we decided to go our separate ways. Barry said our itinery was too demanding and he wanted to chill in the south of France.

But later when we returned to England, we found he's visited all of the same countries we made it to, anyhow.

I lost contact with the Oblocutor General a few years ago when I lost his email address. I sent him an email saying I assumed that was his email address.

I half expected a reply saying of course it wasn't. I miss him in an oppositional kind of way.

Saturday, April 16, 2011

N is for Nicole

Of course, I had to devote N in the A-Z challenge to my awesome wife who has inexplicably endured my company and my landfill car for a decade.

Nicole is my rock and the person who has always been there for me etc. but I don't want to be too gushy being English and all that.

Still it does seem a long time since we were last in Paris and I ended up trying to unsuccessfuly eat that over expensive bar tab.

Fortunately a return back to the city of eternal love and extortionate bar tabs is beckoning again in the summer. I can't wait.

In the meantime I'm thankful to Nicole for keeping me on the straight and narrow, most of the time, and for slapping me back on to it when I slip off it.

I'm short of ideas for 'O' BTW.

Friday, April 15, 2011

M is for Magazines

I almost didn't make the A-Z challenge today due to work commitments and I'm writing it with half of my brain disconnected and a glass of wine floating somewhere round my head.

So, in desperation, I grabbed a clutch of magazines tonight; the tawdry ones they sell at the supermarket checkouts, although not the really weird ones that proclaim alien invasions and the end of the world. Does anyone really buy these?

Back in Britain there was a newspaper called The Daily Sport that was full of topless women and thought the idea of a good story was to print a half naked 300 lbs woman or a man with a tiny aerial superimposed on his head with the title: "Aliens Spotted in Basildon."

I sincerely hope it's died a death.

These magazines are more mainstream. My high speed review begins with In Touch Weekly, a magazine with a cover story about how Kendra and Hank have been "torn apart by another woman," a ripping tale if ever I read one.

Kendra is apparently famous for being one of Hugh's trio of girlfriends at the Playboy mansion. Needless to say the devotion of this trio of bimbettes was attributable to his physical appearance rather than his vast wealth and they would all date him at the same time were he a retired postman living in a trailer park.

Kendra is apparently known for a porno video she made. Or was it a record she set on University Challenge for naming the capitals of all of the world's countries?

Sorry In Touch - this story doesn't grab me. Frankly you expect someone like Hank to go and find another pneumatic blonde once he's worn out the replay button on the remote control of his video.

On to the next. Scarlett Johansson's "risky romance" with Sean Penn, who is twice her age. Scarlett is so infatuated she's "turned into a puddle of insecurity," perhaps because she fears Penn, will keel over and pop his clogs if he doesn't rush off on a relief mission to Haiti first.

In Touch is so predictable. Courteney Cox is also in a "risky romance" because she's frolicking on a beach with someone instead of going back to his husband who has quit sex with drawfs for the weekend, to work on the relationship.

In Touch has the oh-so-boring Who Wore It Better? section and the obligatory Britney Spears failure story; she's being controlled by her handler. What is she? A lion.

The story about Katie Holmes and the "gummi-gate" shock horror, reeled me in, though. No her daughter Suri did not actually buy penis shaped gummies, she just picked them up.

"Oh wow, those aren't Swedish fish," Holmes exclaimed.

Unless you count penis shaped Swedish fish, that is.

The rest of the mag includes yet another dull story about Katie - she "fluctuates from robotic to rambunctious."

Well - to be fair - don't we all? We work in an office, right. When we're released we fluctuate.

Katy and Russell - The Honeymoon's Over - yeah, yeah - they got on the plane and went home, right.

Magazine editors probably rely on Brangelina even more than Katie and Tom, so it's no surprise to see an Angelina story. She's apparently gone and got a tattoo bearing the longitude and latitude of Brad's birthplace in (ugh) Oklahoma.

Insiders say she finally gave in to Brad's requests to settle down and stop racing round the world gathering new kids. But in return she demanded a permanent commitment, which is where the tattoo comes in.

My advice to Brad consists of four words and not in this order; for, hills, run, the.

If you can find any in Oklahoma.

Angela and Brad also feature on the front cover of my second hastily grabbed, mag - Star.

Brad is caught in a "nude scandal" with a sexy costar - well aren't scandals always better when they are nude?

Sadly the aforementioned nude scandal seemed to comprise of a costar talking about how hot Brad looked when he stripped nude in the movie Troy and saying she wished she was in a nude scene with him. Err that's it.

If she exclaimed: "Eh oop chuck. He looked better than Donald Trump stripped down and rolled in lard," it wasn't reported.

Angela didn't exactly dump Brad, according to the article; she did something far worse. She dumped the kids on him.

Star has the normal boring best and worst dressed pages. The What's Wrong with Lindsay Lohan's Face supplement with encylopedia to follow, Katie Holmes nonsense and an article about Gwyneth Paltrow being "caught canoodling" with someone who is not her husband. But why are magazines allowed to get away with this? I mean using words like canoodling that don't mean anything specific.

Th obligatory Courteney Cox beach story is also here and it's too dull to even read. And inevitably Britney's "on the brink," although on the brink of what we don't know. Having another cup of tea?

The National Enquirer is the trashiest looking of the three. It looks like the sort of publication people in remote parts of Arkansas use for toilet paper.

Frankly I don't care about the shocking headline confession: "I killed Kirstie Alley's Mom"

Still the Enquirer is the only one of these publications that occasionally crosses over to mainstream journalism. None of the serious media outlets took the story of John Edwards' affair and love child seriously at first until the Enquirer provided cast iron proof.

There's a rather alarming picture of Goldie Hawn, 65, "getting frisky with a talent agent mogul" half her age in London.

How strange is this turn of phrase? If someome asked you how your day was would you reply?

"Quite tolerable, actually. I got frisky with a talent agent mogul."

There's the obligatory Courteney story that indicates to me she did not want to keep it quiet, as well as a piece about John Edwards contemplating jail and suicide; in no small part due to the Enquirer.

Possibly the biggest non story is Oprah 'raging' at Dr Phil. She feels he "stabbed her in the back" after learning he and and his staff tried to steal an interview guest she had already booked. How will she ever get her life back on track after such an ordeal?

But the story that fails most spectacularly to live up to its billing concerns a "treasure trove of secret documents that rip the lid off the private life of Hollywood's most storied couple - Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton."

I'm always up for spot of lid ripping at the weekend so I read on. A neighbor waited for 40 years until Liz died to reveal the contents of the treasure trove.

And they reveal (drum roll) the couple faced constant pleas from producers and actors who wanted to work with them, and they faced numerous difficulties remodelling a nine bedroom home in Mexico.

It seemed they were besieged with plumbing problems and construction delays while Liz had a few plumbing problems of her own, leading to gynecological surgery in 1970s.

Do people really routinely buy these magazines? I mean if not for the purposes of writing a blog on the A-Z challenge. On to the next.

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

L is for Liverpool FC

I bleed red and, while this isn't unusual there's a difference between bleeding solid Liverpool red and weak and spineless Manchester United Red.

(given that most people who bother to comment on my posts are women - and numbers have been relentlessly dwindling through this A-Z thingy - the very mention of football, will have turned off anyone who would normally comment).

I say football because I have an aversion to the s word - every time the s word is mentioned an English person dies somewhere in the world I'm told.

The funny thing about my support for Liverpool is the fact I'm not sure why I support Liverpool; I just do.

This post would be far more interesting if I could write. 'On the bleakest of days we went down the hill and past the smoke stacks, with my father and grandfather treading a path trod by generations before.

'And we stood on a freezing terrace that smelled of urine and ate eyelid flavor pork pies and tried to keep warm in the horizontal rain. But it was all worth it because 5 minutes from the final whistle Big Stan Higgenbottom hacked at the ball from the edge of the penalty box and it flew into the net, subjecting Scunthorpe to abject defeat.'

The reality was the fact that an annoying kid in the playground tried to force me to support Manchester United and I rebelled.

Also Liverpool were the team of the '80s; skillful, industrious, and joyful to watch. We took the league and Europe by storm.

Even after he had gone, Liverpool reflected the vision of Bill Shankly, a dour and hard working Scotsman from a humanitarian, socalist background.

While Manchester United had managers who drover Mazeratis wearing sheepskin coats with fat cigars hanging out of their chops, Shankly and his successors just got on with it.

I never visited Anfield as much as I should have done but once you get there,there's nothing more rousing than hearing the Kop sing: "You'll never walk alone," although as unemployment soared in "Boys from the Black Stuff" Liverpool in the 1980s, it threatened to become "you'll never work alone.'

The 1980s may have been a shining decade for Liverpool FC but in the end the strains of the decade on a ragged city on the edge that always felt more like New York than genteel England, took its toll. There was the outrage of the Heysel Stadium riot and the tragedy of the crowd crush at Hillsborough.

In the end Liverpool went from being immortal to becoming became just another team looking back on the glory days and failing to emulate them, although admittedly we had more glory to look back on than most.

Foreign managers and players came and went and, worse still, Manchester United gained a dour Scotsman of their own and became what Liverpool used to be. And bad Americans bankrolled Liverpool before the arrival of the nice American from the Boston Red Sox.

On so many occasions Liverpool have promised so much and achieved so little. My wife is now accustomed to my bouts of spontaneous swearing after checking out the results on the BBC on a Saturday afternoon.

Still there were highlights, most recently the Champions League final of 2005.

A new manager, Rafael Benitez, had failed to improve Liverpool's performance in the Premiership which we were slipping down. In the final against AC Milan, Liverpool were 3-0 down at half time. Anihilation beckoned. I left the pub in despair and resolved not to watch the second half much, or only from behind the sofa, being such a gallant loser.

Then, against all odds, Livepool clawed back three goals in the second half and went on to beat the Italians on penalties and to lift the trophy.

It was one of those glorious nights that seemed to have been lost in the mists of Liverpool's more glorious past.

Inevitably Liverpool flattered to deceive and haven't won much of consequence since.

Two managers later we are back with Kenny Dalglish, the man who gave Liverpool their last league title in 1990 and we are back to our old ways of beating the top teams and then losing to also rans.

Still, and Liverpool fans have been saying this for the last two decades, belief is finally returning again.

We have said this a few more times than I care to recall but maybe next season will be our year. There's always next season.

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

K is for Kangaroos and Koalas

As well as a host of considerably less friendly creatures that hang out in Oz.

I figured as Americans are always telling me I'm Australian I might as well blog about it, even though I've never set foot in the place and I missed the chance on "A".

The conversation usually goes something like this.

"Whereabouts in Australia are you from?"

"I'm not."

"Oh so you are...."

"Yes British."

"But you sound like the Geico lizard."

"He's British."


It amuses me that I could pass myself off as an Austalian and most people would believe me. I could even adopt steroetypes, wear a hat with dangling corks, say "g'day mate" and carry a boomerang around sure in the knowledge that not everyone would realize I was taking the piss.

I can understand the confusion. Australians do sound a bit like the inhabitants of certain parts of London. If you are from Britain you can tell the difference but it's harder if you are from far away. When I first arrived in America the accent of Alabama didn't sound so different to that of New York.

Still Australia must be one of the strangest places on earth, an enclave of sunburned Anglo Saxons amid the swamps and deserts, snakes, in short the most seriously un-Anglo Saxon place on the planet.

It's the most popular place to emigrate to from Britain but Brits can sometimes have a culture shock.

I remember talking once to a mildly spoken couple from up north who had never dealt with anything more sinister than the next-door-neighbor's Jack Russell.

Suddenly they were going out in the garden and finding themselves dodging venemous snakes and large hairy spiders dangling from the washing line.

They returned to the dank terraced streets of Barnsley and lived happily ever after.

There's also a strange kind of tension between Brits and Australians. Brits are derided as "Whinging poms," a claim that seems to have some merit judging by a few ex-pats sites I have visited.

The Brits usually exact their revenge by pointing out the Aussies are descended from the prisoners and undesirables who were shipped centuries ago from England to Botany Bay.

In The Happy Isles of Oceana, this giganic island is treated none too kindly at times by the American writer Paul Theroux.

"Most of its people live at its shores and beaches, so its edge is bricked and bungaloid, the rest an insect haunted wilderness of croaking wind and red desert," he writes.

"The Australian Book of Etiquette is a slim volume, but its outrageous Book of Rudeness is a hefty tome," wrote Theroux who said the knack is being intensely rude in the right tone of voice.

I've never found going up to a colleague with a big smile on my face and using my most pleasant tone to tell her: "Your hair simply sucks today," has lessened the impact of the inevitable slap, but then I guess I'm not Australian.

In reality Australia has a lot more culture than Theroux gives it credit and there's genuine talent on this vast island once you've purged yourself of those frightening childhood memories of Rolf Harris and his didgeridoo.

As an aside adults must have thought I was retarded as a kid.

"Keep digging and you'll get to Australia."

It was enough to make me put down my spade and scream: "Not before I get to the molten core of the frigging earth."

It was like those adults who told you Santa would come down the chimney when it was readily apparent to me that we didn't have one.

So I'd like to visit Australia, but not in the sense of a friend of a friend who went camping in the outback and never came back again.

It's assumed he was eaten by a croc but Australia can be unpredictable like that. Go further out to sea and the Great Whites might get you, or the invasion of deadly jelly fish.

In many ways Steve Irwin with his ill fitting shorts and macho snake and croc grabbing antics came to typify Australia to the outside world, even though more traditional wildlife documentary makers cringed at the sight of him.

And there was a curious irony that a man who handled the world's deadliest snakes in the heart of the outback was killed by a sting ray, an animal kids are encouraged to pet at aquariums.

So while I'm often mistaken for an Australian, I'm not sure I'd make out out there. I'd probably resort to being one of those whinging poms, complaining about the dust and the heat and the lack of Mars bars.

This post on an ex-pats site made me sit up and think, not just about Australia but also my periodic homesickness in America.

"I have just returned from the UK nothing has changed - it is cold, it's grey, everybody still whinges and looks miserable - thank God I left.

"When I read the comments on this site -- do they sell Cadbury's chocolate, can I buy Branston Pickles, if these are the type of things that worry people about coming to Austraia then stay in England. Yes we do sell these things in major supermarkets but I hardly think they warrant a chat forum."

Monday, April 11, 2011

J is for Jacksonian, Jackass

If you think the only controversial presidents of the United States appeared in the 20th Century and America's founding fathers were learned and genteel men in white wigs, think again.

Andrew Jackson, the seventh president of the United States from 1829 to 1837, rose from illiteracy and poverty from a log cabin near the border of North and South Carolina, to reach the White House.

In contemporary terms it was like Trailer Park Wayne showing up at the Oval Office with a six pack of Miller Lites hanging out the trunk of his Firebird.

Jackson was a polarizing figure who fought numerous duels in his time.

I'm sorry to say the Brits were probably a good deal to blame for what transpired. During the Revolutionary War when Jackson and his brother were held captive by the British, Jackson refused to clean the boots of a British officer, leading the officer to slash at the youth with a sword, leaving Jackson with scars on his left hand and head, as well as an intense hatred for the British.

This early experience was to come back to haunt the British at the Battle of New Orelans, not to mention to impact the quality of tea served in later years at the White House.

Jackson earned a reputation as a brilliant and ruthless commander in the war of 1812, against the Indians and later the British at New Orleans where Jackson's 5,000 soldiers won a decisive victory over 7,500 British.

Unfortunately nobody had bothered to tell either side the war was actually over before the battle had started. Now had I lost a limb or two only to find out the war had been over before the battle, I'd have been somewhat miffed.

Jackson ran for President in 1824. I'll leave the details for the history buffs, but suffice to say he was stitched up by the genteel old boy network, despite securing the largest vote of any candidate.

The subsequent election of 1828 between Jackson and the incumbent John Quincy Adams was as dirty as any contemporary elections, notwithstanding the lack of television and internet campaigns. Jackson's wife Rachel was called a bigamist, a charge that was technically true but related to a failed divorce attempt many years earlier. Rachel died shortly before her husband's inauguration.

Jackson took it extremely badly but was still able to open the White House to the great unwashed for the inaugural ball, although apparently a drunken mob trashed the place, leading Jackson who had withstood the British and the Indians, to beat a hasty retreat.

Jackson's presidency included a number of high profile feuds and a bitter battle against the Second Bank of the United States. Jackson had an aversion to paper money which makes his subsequent appearance on the $20 bill all the more ironic.

Inevitably, Jackson was the object of an assassination attempt, by Richard Lawrence, an unemployed and deranged housepainter from England, who aimed a pistol at Jackson, which misfired twice.

By all accounts the president wasn't interested in Lawrence's explanation that he was the desposed English King Richard III, dead since 1485, and set about Lawrence with his cane.

Jackson left a number of legacies. His opponents and cartoonists ridiculed him as a "Jackass." Jackson liked the insult and the donkey later became the symbol of the Democratic party.

But another of his legacies is far more sinister, the relentless removal of the Indian people west from their lands and the harrowing migration known as the Trail of Tears.

Although fiercely loyal to his friends Jackson treated those perceived as his enemies with little mercy.

As an aside the comments on various websites about the redesigned $20 bill appear less than helpful. One commentator suggests Jackson "still looks stoned."

A second suggests that's why he was nicknamed "Stonewall" Jackson, confusing the President with a Confederate Civil War general.

Sunday, April 10, 2011

I is for Island

By the time the soaring mountains of the Isle of Skye appeared on the horizon it was clear my relationship with V. was destined to plummet.

In a matter of about three days we had succeeded in making the transition from heady student days enamored rapture to a low grade form of loathing. Even for me this was some kind of record.

If I could trace the schism to one particular moment it would be the instance when I stepped out of the shower and onto V's towel at a bed and breakfast in the Lake District. Just an hour we had walked up hill from the waters of Windermere in a relatively happy mood. Yet for some reason V freaked and the resulting bad blood kept surfacing on strategic bends in the Scottish hills.

I have always loved islands but the brooding hills of Skye failed to heal the rift. We sat for what seemed like tortuous hours in a low ceilinged bar and drank in vain to recapture the magic. Overnight we had become one of those perfunctory couples who can share a meal in a restaurant with barely a grunt or a glance in each other's direction.

The next day when we encountered two Americans who needed a lift, we both almost bit through our tongues in our eagerness to offer them a ride round the island, even though my small red car was hardly up to the task of accommodating these two wholesome guys who had recently returned from some kind of military service.

On winding roads I drove north hoping to catch a glimpse of the erriee pinnacles knows as the Old Man of Storr. Sadly mist and a curtain of gray rain hung over the mountain; but at least the pair formed a wholesome American buffer between V and myself.

Unfortunately when I pulled to the side of a road that narrowed suddenly in place, to let a car past, my inadequate car became stuck fast in a bog. I could see my approval rating with V. that had already sunk to single figures plummeting into the minus zone thanks in her expression that was about as welcoming as the misty rock faces of Skye.

In contrast the Americans seemed like dependable sorts who would never allow their cars to get stuck in a bog and would probably be far too considerate to step on towels for that matter. Years later I heard my (by then long ago ex) girlfriend had ended up marrying an an American. I never got a chance to check out his towel stepping credentials.

A long line of cars built up on that dreary day on the Isle of Skye before a man with a rope drove past and stopped to put me out of my muddy misery. The Americans declined a lift back to the mainland the next day and the bickeringfest resumed.

I never went back to the Isle of Skye but I always wanted to return on a clear sunny day when I could walk up to the Old Man of Storr and see the shining sea beyond the shaggy backs of the hills.

Islands have held a special attraction for me for many years be they the enchanted outcrops in the middle of lakes or formidable rock formations which gulls wheel over.

They encapsulate the idea of escape and solitude and coming to terms with ones own thoughts. The remote island that Robinson Crusoe was shipwrecked on in Defoe's novel is often seen as a template for western imperialism, while the island William Golding set The Lord of the Flies on was used as an allegory for concepts of civilization and the descent into savagery.

The Irish poet William Butler Yeates depicted a small island on the Lake of Innisfree as a place of perfect harmony and solitured surrounded by the beauty of nature.

I WILL arise and go now, and go to Innisfree,

And a small cabin build there, of clay and wattles made;
Nine bean rows will I have there, a hive for the honey bee,
And live alone in the bee-loud glade.

There's some debate about how an island can be classified. Great Britain is, of course an island, but it's too large to be seen as a remote self contained place of the kind Yeates had in mind. Here are some of my favorite islands.

1 - Lindisfare, England - with its ruined monastery and castle on a high rocky knoll, Lindisfarne, also known as Holy Island is an empty and magical place of vast sand dunes off the cost of Northumbria that feels like an escape from the world. The island is famous for the Lindisfarne Gospels.
2 - Burgh Island, England - This small island of the coast of South Devon is accessible by a tractor at low tide. It boasts a famous art deco hotel and has associations with Agatha Christie.
3 - Sanibel Island, Florida - off the coast of Florda, Sanibel is known for its pink beaches and sea shells. Although over touristy in places, it boasts a large unspoiled nature reserve.
4 - Ocracoke Island, North Carolina - the end of a long chain of barrier islands on the Outer Banks, Ocracoke is a place where time seems to have stoody still with a small lighthouse and fishing village.

5 - Koh Samui, Thailand - Koh Samui has night life, temples, unspoiled beaches and lush jungles. It's a bit like South East Asia in miniature.
6 - Capri, Italy - the boat trip to the famous blue grottos may have been a con, but Capri is still a gorgeous spot, although you have to be extremely rich to live here.

7 - Skellig Michael, Ireland - this inaccessible rock off the coast of Kerry boasts an amazing monastery that clings to the vertinginous sides.

8 - Zante, Greece - Zante or Zykynthos is a firmly on the package tour itinery but an olive grove, the lush mountains and turquoise seas are never far away. It's shipwreck under towering cliffs on the west of the island is one of the most photographed images on travel publications.

9 - La Palma, Spain - the lushest and most unspoiled of the Canary Islands, La Palma boasts a massive volcano, the Caldera de Taburiente, with a width of 9 km (6 mi) and a depth of 1,500 m (4,921 ft).
10 - Easter Island. Unlike most of the islands listed here, I've never been to Easter Island off Chile with its mysterious moai heads, but it's on the list.

Saturday, April 9, 2011

H is for Horror

"Zombies by their very nature are inconsistent," whines Steve Coogan's embarrassing creation Alan Partridge as he has a "pop at the undead" in the lobby of a travel motel.

But horror films are more about cringing in fear than laughing and they loom large through my childhood ever since I hid behind the sofa as the sight of makeshift monsters such as the cybermen in Dr Who.

We've been fascinated with horror ever since silent shorts created by film pioneers such as Georges Méliès in the late 1890s, the most notable being his 1896 Le Manoir du diable (aka "The House of the Devil"), followed by classics such as the Hunchback of Notre Dame.

And let's face it, who hasn't at some time or another stumbled around the living room with a contorted face mumbling: "The bells, the bells."

Universal Pictures made the horror film popular in the 1930s with films such as Dracula and Frankenstein and the rest is horror history.

Although I used to be a fan of horror films as a teenager my interest waned as it became clear a three hours fest of gratuitous gore can become very dull. Today I have little time for slasher movies such as Halloween, A Nightmare on Elm Street or anything involving Chucky, a diminutive doll with a seriously bad attitude.

To work for me horror movies need to have atmosphere, a smattering of subtlety and suspense. A plot that goes beyond a psycho with a large knife and bad teeth helps as well.

Here's 10 of the best in no particular order.

1 - The Curse of Frankenstein - It's hard to go wrong with Mary Shelley's classic plot and this 1957 film was groundbreaking in the development of the Hammer Horror brand and the careers of Christopher Lee and Peter Cushing.

2 - The Birds - this 1967 Alfred Hitchcock movie was pioneering for its time, foreshadowing later Hollywood epics.

3 - The Exorcist - the hair raising 1973 classic was banned from British TV for many years, although I'm not sure why. Perhaps children would want to emulate it my making their heads do a 360. Won 10 Academy Award nominations.

4 - Carrie - this 1976 film was one of the first screen adaptions of a Stephen King novel and an object lesson on how not to pick a prom date.

5 - Jaws - Steven Spielberg announced his arrival with a bloody splash and a grinding of sharp teeth in this 1975 blockbuster. Although not in the classic horror genre, the director's use of suspense make Jaws a classic.

6 - Alien - Executive Officer Kane (John Hurt) feels more than a little discomfort when he gets a tummy ache. The rest is movie history in a film that announced the arrival of Sigourney Weaver.

7 - The Shining - Another film based on a Stephen King novel, the Shining is a powerful psychological piece directed by Stanley Kubrick. Jack Nicholson stole the show and the line  "Here's Johnny!" was voted as the #68 movie quote by the American Film Institute (out of 100).

8 - Bram Stoker's Dracula - For me this 1992 film directed by Francis Ford Coppola has all the ingredients of a classic horror tale, fear in a bleak castle as well as love and passion and it's beautifully filmed.

9 - Arachnophobia - this comedy horror film might not make many people's top 10s but my fear of spiders ensures I'll end up clutching the side of the sofa whenever it comes on.

10 - The Blair Witch Project - the 1999 film pieced together pieces of amateur footage and was a surprise hit. I went to see it and, although I wasn't entirely convinced, I found it eerie and unusual enough to include in this list.

Thursday, April 7, 2011

G is for Gloucester

OK. Gosh. I never thought this A-Z challenge would be easy but to be fair I didn't think it would be so hard either.

When you write for a living you learn to write through the bad times as well as the good ones.

But I can certainly say under normal circumstances I wouldn't be blogging tonight. Sleeping, albeit fitfully seems like a better idea. And maybe too I am detecting a lethargy from some of those fellow bloggers out there too who set off at such an enthusiastic clip. The initial following frenzy seems to have eased off. I just wish I had more time to read the blogs of all these new followers. Unfortunately blogging duty calls.

So, in terms of a marathon, 'g' is the bit where you realize you have lost your first wind, but there's still a long blog slog ahead and you want to save some of that energy for the end. My role as Michael Caine's body double in Zulu - that kind of thing.

I've never run a marathon but I've run a couple of half marathons, the first in Gloucester - cue clumsy cogs that turn slowly into the theme of today's blog.

I'm not really from anywhere. When Americans ask me I always say London because it was the last place I lived in Britain and, chances are they may have heard if. But if I'm from anywhere I'm from Gloucester where I lived for a good decade and went to school.

Gloucester's a funny place because it's frequently overlooked or written off as unappealing and industrial.

Yet if you shoved it in the middle of America, it would probably become a major tourist attraction. For a start it's historic. Its center The Cross, follows the lines of the original Roman city of Glevum built a few decades after the death of Christ.

Gloucester boasts a massive cathedral that has been a place of worship for 900 years, although it's not on the A list of Britain's cathedrals with Canterbury, Westminster Abbey, Salisbury, York Minster, Lincoln and Durham.

And hidden down a winding street in the cathedral close is the Tailor of Gloucester Beatrix Potter Museum and Shop, celebrating the author's book and sketches of the city.

Even the old docks that were rat infested and derelict warehouses when my family first moved to Gloucester have now been converted into waterside restaurants and antique stores.

Despite this my memories of growing up in Gloucester aren't sophisticated ones. They revolve around historic pubs that were frequented by louts with ill grown moustaches; they involve fights and stolen bicycles. They revolve and revolve until the room of some badly lit pool room starts to spin.

Gloucester had rugby and machismo, but there was little sophistication. It had a chip on the shoulder that's typical of provincial English market towns. While nearby Cheltenham had its grand Georgian boulevards, the literary festival and the races, Gloucester had shabby concrete shopping precincts with fountains that never worked.

I'd like to think I grew up watching art house movies in bijou venues but the reality was a bag of Wotsits on the broken seast of the Odeon which watching a Rocky movie with a girl who looked a lot better in the dark, although that didn't stop her trying to grab one's Wotsits.

Spiritualism didn't happen much on the streets of Gloucester but there were the occasional tranquil moments when I walked the cathedral cloisters in spendid isloation and wondered if I would have turned out differently if I hadn't gone to a comprehensive school but had instead been instructed in Latin at the fee paying cathedral school.

Perhaps because of the memories of so many queasy nights, I couldn't wait to escape from Gloucester.

But later when I worked in London for a number of papers, one was based in Gloucester. I went back and the old streets seemed familiar but strangely different, my old school shruken in stature while the weeds had grown, my old estate long past its 1970s prime and falling into disrepair.

Most disturbing of all, I saw a grubby guy begging in the streets of the city center. He looked disconcertingly familiar. As I walked past I realized I'd been looking at Gallager from my school, a kid who dropped out to sniff glue and take just about every substance known to man and Keith Richards.

Could it really be that while I had spend two decades working all over the country and seeing as much of the world I could afford to, he had been rotting away on the streets of Gloucester?

It made me think of a Smiths song but I'm not sure which one.

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...