Thursday, December 31, 2009

One For The Road

On this last day of 2009 I thought I’d give you a belated Christmas present, and something to ponder as you start the New Year.

This is a chapter from my book, Postcards From Across the Pond, (I have mentioned that I wrote a book, right?) and I’m reprinting it here because A) I care about you, B) I want you to see what you’re missing by not having bought my book yet, C) I don’t have anything else prepared right now, and D) I get a giggle every time I read it (yes, I am my own best fan).

So have some holiday cheer, sleep in tomorrow, nurse your hangovers and get your sorry asses ready to hit the ground running on Monday for the beginning of 2010.

One For the Road

Has anyone else noticed that sleeping with your secretary at the office Christmas party is a perfect metaphor for the Holiday season as a whole? I didn't think so, but hear me out anyway.

First there is the overall event, filled with glitter, good cheer and lots of drunken hugging. Add to that the pervasive promise of presents, the excited expectation of secrets soon to be revealed, and you're practically bursting with excitement when the affair finally comes to a head. Then, in a brief, orgiastic frenzy, everything is unwrapped and opened, fondled and forgotten or eaten and drunk until, sated, you look around at the evidence of your excess and feel a rising sense of guilt. You begin to wonder where your resolutions vanished to and now wish the whole thing would just go away and let you get on with your life, or at least stop calling you at two o'clock in the morning in a weepy, drunken stupor.

(Allow me to state, for the record, that I don't even have a secretary and have, therefore, not slept with one; I am making these suppositions based on the observations of those people who do and did.)

The accumulation of days now pushing Christmas further and further behind us serve only as a nagging reminder that, A) it's now merely winter, and B) I haven't taken down my Christmas decorations yet. We're currently entering what I like to call the underbelly of the year, that ragged seam between the festive season and the arrival of spring; a time when getting up would be the hardest part of your day provided the rest of the day wasn't so crappy.

All of this is the long way of saying I have those mid-winter blues, and, while I have often remarked (to the irritation of those I left behind in the Great White Northeast) that winters in England are nowhere near as harsh as they are in upstate New York, they are God-awful dark. In addition to that, the British climate makes full use of what little cold it does produce and has, through centuries of diligent practice, long ago perfected the art of seeping into your bones and sucking your soul out through your nostrils. (Even so, I still wouldn't trade a winter here for one in Albany, but I wouldn't mind swapping with someone in, say, Barcelona.)

Winter in England means evening, like an inconsiderate dinner guest, arrives several hours early, when you're dusted with flour, making the hors d'Oeuvres and haven't stepped into the shower yet, while Dawn, the little tart, doesn't sneak in until most responsible people have already started their day, and even then can't be bothered to offer a suitable explanation. The few daylight hours occurring between these events tend to be muted by low clouds, dispiriting drizzle and the occasion, sad attempt at sleet.

And, to make things worse, all around me I see remnants of the erstwhile festive season--languishing decorations, dead, discarded trees and rubbish bins overflowing with shredded ribbons, crumpled wrapping paper and empty beer bottles--which, like the aforementioned secretary, seem determined to hang around even though they no longer have the capacity to inspire joy and serve only as a reminder of our brief, and perhaps misguided, frivolity.

I guess that means I've come full circle and, though I still have more to say on the subject, I suppose I ought to let you off so you can get back to the business of enduring winter. Besides, I think it's about time I took those decorations down.

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Yes, Virginia

Back in The States, I used to periodically cash in on this brush with greatness: when I was in first grade, Virginia O’Hanlon, who was a friend of our teacher, Mrs. Drum, came to our class near the Christmas Holidays and read her famous letter to us. I was impressed even then. I’m more impressed now. But no one else is, especially now that I live in England. So in an attempt to get some more notoriety from this incidental meeting, I’m taking it upon myself to educate the Brits, and remind the Yanks, of what it’s all about:

In 1897, eight-year-old Virginia O'Hanlon wrote a letter to the editor of The Sun (this was a respected newspaper in New York City then, not the rag famous for its page-3 girls) and the response was printed as an unsigned editorial on Sept. 21. The response was the work of veteran newsman Francis Pharcellus Church, and has since become history's most reprinted newspaper editorial, appearing in part or whole in dozens of languages in books, movies, and other editorials, and on posters and stamps.

He rarely gets any credit for it, however.

Dear Editor:

I am 8 years old. Some of my little friends say there is no Santa Claus. Papa says, 'If you see it in The Sun it's so.'

Please tell me the truth; is there a Santa Claus?

Virginia O’Hanlon
115 West Ninety-Fifth Street
New York City


Your little friends are wrong. They have been affected by the skepticism of a skeptical age. They do not believe except what they see. They think that nothing can be which is not comprehensible by their little minds. All minds, Virginia, whether they be men's or children's, are little. In this great universe of ours man is a mere insect, an ant, in his intellect, as compared with the boundless world about him, as measured by the intelligence capable of grasping the whole of truth and knowledge.

Yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus. He exists as certainly as love and generosity and devotion exist, and you know that they abound and give to your life its highest beauty and joy. Alas! How dreary would be the world if there were no Santa Claus. It would be as dreary as if there were no Virginias. There would be no childlike faith then, no poetry, no romance to make tolerable this existence. We should have no enjoyment, except in sense and sight. The eternal light with which childhood fills the world would be extinguished.

Not believe in Santa Claus! You might as well not believe in fairies! You might get your papa to hire men to watch in all the chimneys on Christmas Eve to catch Santa Claus, but even if they did not see Santa Claus coming down, what would that prove? Nobody sees Santa Claus, but that is no sign that there is no Santa Claus. The most real things in the world are those that neither children nor men can see. Did you ever see fairies dancing on the lawn? Of course not, but that's no proof that they are not there. Nobody can conceive or imagine all the wonders there are unseen and unseeable in the world.

You may tear apart the baby's rattle and see what makes the noise inside, but there is a veil covering the unseen world which not the strongest man, nor even the united strength of all the strongest men that ever lived, could tear apart. Only faith, fancy, poetry, love, romance, can push aside that curtain and view and picture the supernal beauty and glory beyond. Is it all real? Ah, Virginia, in all this world there is nothing else real and abiding.

No Santa Claus! Thank God! He lives, and he lives forever. A thousand years from now, Virginia, nay, ten times ten thousand years from now, he will continue to make glad the heart of childhood.

For more information: click here

Friday, December 18, 2009

The Santa

My favourite season and my two favourite poems welded into one; what more could I ask?

The Santa
By Edgar Allen Moore

Once upon a yuletide dreary, while my brain with sleep was weary
and sugar plum visions danced in children's heads beyond the bedroom door.
Not a creature here was stirring; mamma in her kerchief was worrying,
I in my winter's cap was touring presents lying on the floor.
Train set, race cars, aircraft carrier and a purple dinosaur;
all in pieces on the floor.

Ah distinctly I remember it was in the chill December
and the moon its eerie light upon the fallen snow did pour.
Presently I heard a clatter, wondering what was the matter,
straight I spied an elf much fatter than any elf I'd seen before.
Drawn by reindeer in a sleigh this elf drew up outside my door.
Parked and sat, and nothing more.

Then this burgundy elf beguiling my wan spirit into smiling
By the jolly countenance and fir trimmed uniform he wore.
“Elf,” I said, “these reindeer brought you, but really don’t you think you ought to
let them go. If PETA caught you, they’d firebomb your house for sure.
Are you immune from PC zealots? Tell me why,” I did implore.
The fat elf smiled. “I’m Santa Claus.”

Then, me thought, the air grew colder, and my flagging spirit grew bolder,
cheered by memories of my pleasures drawn Christmases of yore.
“Santa,” I cried, “these memories hold you, like angel wings they do enfold you,
Sweet Virginia could have told you: doubters tried and failed before
to bend you to their narrow purpose and make you something to abhor.
Quote the Santa, “Never more.”

Be that word our sign of parting, elf or saint, I said, glad heartened.
Whether Coke created or sent by legends from the lusty days of yore,
you remain the true Yule Spirit, Scrooge himself was glad to hear it,
my soul is light, my mind is clear; it sadly was not so before.
But now this light will shine its tiding ever from my bosom’s core
I’ll keep the season evermore.

Thursday, December 10, 2009

Cat On A Hot Tin Roof - Audience Review

This isn't a review site, but I do like to mention some shows and movies I see that I think are notable. In this case, while the production was fine (and some might say superior, what with the voice of Darth Vader playing a lead role) the audience was far more remarkable.

First of all, about fifteen minutes into the first act, when the house was in silent thrall of the drama being enacted on the stage, they let in more people. These people moved through the rows in front of us, behind us and even right up in front of the stage, saying, "Sorry," "Excuse me," and making people stand up to block and drown out the acting.

I'm surprised James Earl Jones didn't stop what he was doing and say, "Okay, you folks take your time getting to your seats and settling in. We'll wait."

As far as I knew, if you showed up late for a performance, tough shit. Wait until the interval, give them a synopsis of the action and then let them in. That will teach them to catch an earlier train next time. My wife and I were an hour early and we came from Sussex.

As if this intrusion wasn't enough, a while later, a mobile phone began to ring, and it belonged to the lady sitting next to us. It was one of those obnoxious musical ring-tones that gets louder and louder and this woman rooted through no less than three bags in a frantic scavenger hunt for it as more and more people became aware of the noise and turned their attention from the stage to where we were sitting.

And then, when the woman finally, finally unearthed her phone, instead of apologetically (and with copious amounts of chagrin) switching it off, she flipped it open, checked who was calling and answered it!

"Hell-o,” she said. “I'm in a theatre, I can't talk."

What the FUCK? She just DID talk!

This left me shaking my head in awe, convinced nothing else could surprise me. But then, during a 5-minute pause between scenes, a stand-up row erupted in the front row.

At least that's what I think it was. There was a sudden and alarming amount of shouting in front of the stage, then everyone in front of us stood up to get a better look. All I got to see was a knot of people surrounding the action and a gaggle of usherettes running around talking into hand mics and listening to earphones as if they were Secret Service members in charge of protecting the President.

If War Horse gave me the best overall theatrical experience I have ever had, Cat On a Hot Tin Roof provided the most interesting audience I have ever had the misfortune of sitting through.

At least the show was good.

Saturday, December 5, 2009

Thanksgiving Leftovers

I don't really have a post this week (very busy times for all of us, you know) so I thought I'd take advantage of this down time to throw up a hodgepodge of items I had on my list but never got around to writing about.

(You can take "throw up" as a metaphor if you like, but I will try to make this as tasteful as the traditional "First Week of December Turkey Casserole" at the very least.)

Currently, I am engaging in another time-honored holiday tradition called "Waiting in Line at the Post Office." I arrived just after they opened but the queue was already out the door; the only good thing about that was it has, briefly, stopped raining.  So while we're here, let's talk about some unconnected trivia:

Ah, the power of my web site! After my last post, more lights have begun appearing around the town—not many, but a few. The black hole that was the Bishopric now has festive lights strung in the trees so it no longer looks like this:

but now looks like this:

How much effort and expense could that have taken? No more than half an hour and £6.00 at Poundland. Yet they had to be shamed into it by my previous blog post. (I know they must have read it and been spurred into action by justifiable guilt; what other explanation could there be?)

In other news, no one here seems to know what 1,000,000,000 is called.

Traditionally, a British billion is a million millions, or 1,000,000,000,000, which is a US trillion. Granted, this is falling out of fashion but it was the standard until a few years ago. However, no one has been able to tell me what increment comes after the American million. If it's not ‘billion,’ then what is it?

My boss, who was a math teacher in a former life, couldn't tell me, so I went to the bank and asked, "Hi, I'm Trish, How Can I Help," but she puzzled over the query and had to retreat to the back room to consult with her mates while the queue stretched out behind me and I apologetically explained that I hadn't meant to take so long, I was only doing it for a joke. (Now you see why my wife doesn't like to come into town with me.)

Eventually, I'm Here To Help Trish returned with the pronouncement:

1,000,000 = Million
1,000,000,000 = Billion
1,000,000,000,000 = Trillion

I thanked her and, in order to keep the queue from turning in to a lynch mob, left without pointing out that the combined knowledge of the entire bank staff was patently wrong. My next stop was Waterstones Book Shop and the Oxford English Dictionary, which unequivocally states that 1,000,000,000,000 is a British Billion, though it does note this is falling out of favor (or, favour, if you will).

It did not, however, tell me what 1,000,000,000 was, and further confused matters by telling me that a British trillion is actually 1,000,000,000,000,000,000, or "a million, million, million."

So what do they call a proper quadrillion? The mystery deepens.

And finally, British clothing is pants. (For those of you light on the lingo, "pants" is a mild insult, as in, "having to work on Thanksgiving Day is pants!") Anyway, I've been on a quest for pants, or underwear, lately because, frankly, the ones I brought over with me nearly eight years ago are starting to show their age. I've tried British Home Stores and several brands from Marks and Spencer but, with one notable exception, they were all, well, pants.

The BHS line fell apart after a few washings, as did one M&S line. One of M&S lines, however, wore well and was every bit as snug and comfy as my traditional fruit-of-the-looms. (If any of you are beginning to suffer from Too Much Information syndrome, I invite you to move along. I won't be insulted, honest; I wouldn't want to hear about your underwear, either.)

American underwear after 7 years

British pants after 7 months

The problem is, I can't find the 'good' line again. I've looked in every M&S I have been in and even wrote down the make, model and serial number for comparison and still cannot find any. They say, "Better to have loved and lost," but I would prefer not having found any good pants than knowing there are perfect pants out there somewhere, hiding from me.

Another fashion anomaly involves shirts:

US Shirt

UK Shirt

Enough said.

British shirts do not come with sleeve sizes. You get a neck size and just deal with it. This makes me look somewhat silly when my cuffs stick out 6 inches from my suit coat sleeves, so one day I came up with what I thought was an ingenious solution: I put rubber bands around my arms just above my elbows to hold the sleeves at their proper length.

This worked well enough, and back at home when I removed my suit jacket, I expected my wife to look at the rubber bands and exclaim what a great idea they were. Instead she just looked puzzled and asked, "Why didn't you borrow mine?"

Apparently, croupier-style arm garters are standard apparel here in Britain. I now do borrow her pair (I had seen them before, I just thought they were some sort of bracelet) and I have to say it is really cool dressing like a Wild West bartender. All I need is the vest and the handlebar moustache.

The queue has moved a bit. I'm nearly inside now and should be out of here in time for lunch. This, you see, is another British tradition—a Christmas queue filled with people mailing packages all over the world and the only time they can do it is between nine and noon on Saturday morning and the Royal Mail sees to it there are never more than two tellers on duty at one time.

Traditions: what would Christmas be without them?

Seriously, if this is true, why are they bragging about it;
why not make the service less complex and confusing instead?

Sunday, November 29, 2009

Bah, Humbug!

Horsham, the quaint and picturesque market town where I make my home, traditionally kicked off the Christmas Season with a fireworks-infused Christmas Lights Turning-On Ceremony that attracted thousands.

A few years ago, however, the town said the fireworks were too expensive, so they cancelled the ceremony and simply turned on the lights without any fanfare.

This year, however, they have gone a step further, and decided to not even put up any lights to speak of.

The local paper put a brave face on this situation by saying there “fewer Christmas lights” this year. That’s like saying Jordan has a few less IQ points than Einstein:

The Carfax in years past

The Carfax, this year.

Middle Street looking toward West Street in 2003.

The same view today, where the most festive item on the
two streets is the cheerful glow of McDonald’s Golden Arches.

The Bishopric in the glory days.

The Bishopric as it is now, not even any street lights!!!

It is a real shame when a town as famous as Horsham is for festive lights descends to such a miserly display. Other, smaller town have better displays than Horsham does.

Heck, my own flat has a better display than this!

Sunday, November 8, 2009

Review: War Horse

War Horse is a book by children's author Michael Morpurgo. The book was made into a West End play and my wife and I went to see it this past weekend.

You must see this play.

It was, without question, the most dramatic, moving, thought provoking and technically dazzling piece of theatre I have seen. Ever.

We admittedly benefited from sitting four rows from the stage, where we could feel the vibrations of the horses hooves, experience the shock of the shells, smell the smoke and see the sweat on the faces of the actors. But even if we had been sitting in the balcony I am fairly certain I would still have left the theatre in an exhausted daze.

The technological marvels do not stop with the horses, but they are the major part of it. They become so believable as living creatures that they even had their turns at taking bows to riotous applause. The set, too, was an amazement, and the large cast kept the action flowing flawlessly from scene to scene, going from the carnage of the battlefields to the bucolic tranquility of the farmyard with fluid ease.

If you live anywhere within range of London, you do yourself a disservice if you fail to see this play; it will be an experience that will stay with you long after the applause fades.

Thursday, October 29, 2009


... of the Third Annual UK/US Meeting - Southeast Chapter

No, this isn’t another “24 Hours” post, though if you haven’t posted yours yet, there’s still time.

These are the minutes of the annual meeting of the UK/US Forum members, southeast chapter, more informally known as me, Howard and Molly getting together for a couple of pints. My wife has attended in the past, as has Mrs. Howard and an occasional guest, but the three of us form the core group. And so, finding myself without adult supervision on a weekend in mid-October, I decided to nip over to Lewes for another meeting at the Dorset.

Lewes is a fetching, mid-sized town with a castle, a bustling main street and a river running through its center. It’s friendly, negotiable and has so many landmarks it is impossible to get lost.

I got lost.

Somehow, I missed the castle and the river and ended up walking out of town on the opposite side from where I wanted to be. I eventually had to ask directions from a woman in a Volvo who was kind enough to direct me back toward Lewes’ town center and the Dorset pub.

Lewes. A lovely town, but easy to get lost in. If you're clueless.

One day, I will discover the secret of travelling around Britain without getting lost.

I still managed to arrive at the meeting bang on time and, after order was called (two pints of Harvey’s and a lemonade), we got down to the business at hand. (Once you reach a certain age and imbibe a certain number of drinks, this business generally centers around the appalling state of the young people today; I won’t bore you with details.) Later in the afternoon, however, when the pub suddenly filled with people dressed as cavalry officers, WWI soldiers and smugglers with their trademark striped shirts, discussion turned toward the upcoming Guy Fawkes festivities. And before events became too blurry to recall anything, I learned a thing or two about the Bonfire Night.

Society members in waiting

The first thing I learned was that the guys in the striped shirts were supposed to be smugglers. Prior to this, I was unaware that smugglers had a uniform and that it consisted of a striped shirt. (Good thing I never applied for a job as a smuggler; I would have failed the interview the second I walked through the door wearing a charcoal grey suit and maroon tie.) I also learned that dressing up is a big part of the bonfire celebration, which mirrors our Halloween tradition nicely, though they leave the ritual shake-down of the neighbors to the Americans.

There are, it turns out, a number of Bonfire Societies in Lewes, alone, and Bonfire Society chapters in nearly every town in Sussex (and, for all I know, Britain). In fact, there are so many Bonfire Societies, that they begin having bonfires as early as August. This allows each society to put on a bonfire and invite all the other bonfire societies in the area to the party, which having them all on the same night would preclude. For reasons that I don’t recall, Lewes is the Big Daddy of bonfires and the actual 5th of November Bonfire Night is always held in Lewes and, from all accounts, it is a thing to behold.

A Bonfire Society in action.

If you like a party and don’t mind being in the center of a crowd of about 75 thousand, torch-wielding people, I recommend you go there; it will be an experience you will never forget. If, on the other hand, you shy away from that sort of thing, you’ll have to settle for talking about it in a pub with people who live there, like I do.

When it appeared that the beer garden and pub could not hold any more ersatz smugglers and cavalry officer, they suddenly disappeared.

“The bus must’ve arrived,” Howard explained. “They’re going over to the bonfire in Hastings tonight.”

From there, my meeting notes get a little wooly. The only thing I am certain of is that I managed to find my way back to the train station, and negotiate two connections on my return journey, without getting lost.

I think I’ve finally uncovered the secret of travelling around Britain.

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

24 Hours: Horsham

My Friend Marsha wrote a book. (Okay, she’s not really my friend, but as a fellow expat from the Americas – when I say it that way I can include Canadians – and fellow writer, I feel like we’ve connected on a deeper than “exchanged-a-few-emails” level.) It’s called “24 Hours: London” and it goes through a diurnal cycle, listing what you can do, where you can go and how you can entertain yourself during that particular hour (e.g. naked disco dancing at 22:00 -- ).

To help her launch it, I thought I do a tribute post, in the best, “I know a good idea when I steal one” tradition:

24 Hours: Horsham – the Baby Boomer Edition

05:00: What are you doing up? Nothing is open. Go back to bed!

06:00: There’s still nothing open, but the kettle is on. Make yourself some toast and oatmeal.

07:00: Costa Coffee will be open in a while if you want a frothy coffee and a breakfast muffin. McDonalds and Starbucks will be open, too, but don’t go there, not unless you’re happy to feed the American corporate giants.

08:00: A nice morning stroll along the Causeway to St. Mary’s churchyard. Nothing stirs a bit of joie de vivre like spending half an hour or so communing with dead people.

09:00: Time to queue up outside the Royal Mail office with the pensioners. Or you can queue up outside of Waterstones and vie for a seat at the Santa Fe café.

10:00: Swan Walk Mall is in full swing now; time to do your bit to help Britain out of the recession.

11:00: Elevenses at the Black Olive. Try their bacon butty, it is to die for.

12:00: Have a walk around the Forum and admire the sundial, dedicated by her Majesty the Queen. While standing next to it, ask passers-by if they have the time and tell them that the sundial is broken and is stuck on 6:37 PM.

13:00: Wander through picturesque Horsham park; you can linger by the bandstand and have a light lunch at the Café in the Park or sit on a bench to watch the children in the playground.

14:00: Uh oh! Here comes PCSO Davenport. Someone has complained about a pervert sitting on a park bench leering at the children; time to move on.

15:00: There is still time to pick up a bale of toilet paper and a sack of crisps at Poundland. Bring lots of change.

16:00: Have a browse through Beales and stop off at Café Nova on the first floor, just to admire the look of exquisite boredom on the faces of the waitresses and marvel at how long it can take a coffee shop to produce a cup of coffee.

17:00: Five o’clock; time to roll up the sidewalks. If you haven’t bought it yet, it’s too late now.

18:00: You have your pick of restaurants on East Street—Horsham’s own Restaurant Row; from the plain to the posh, it’s there. And if you’re really feeling the pinch, you can find a bargain dinner at the chippie, Panda House Chinese Take-away or the KFC on the Bishopric. Dine early and you’ll beat the rush.

19:00: Just enough time for a quiet pint at the Stout House.

20:00: Thanks to the Nanny State, it’s back home for a Bolivar and brandy on the balcony.

21:00: If you have Freeview you can get channel Fiver and watch CSI, CSI, CSI, …

22:00: …and CSI…

23:00: A nice cup of tea and a good book in bed.

24:00: A comfy pillow and a warm duvet.

01:00: You may find you’ll need to get up for a wee about now.

02:00 – 04:00: What do you care? You should be asleep like a normal person!

Sunday, October 18, 2009

Grace Darling

To me, one of the best, unexpected side-effects of living in Britain is that memories from my youth are often confronted with their reality here. And while reality can sometimes be disappointing, it is always a thrill to find myself walking down Drury Lane (where, if anyone had any sense they would open a pub called “The Muffin Man”) or playing “Pooh Sticks” on the actual Pooh bridge in the original Hundred Acre Wood, or standing on the bank of the river where Virginia Wolfe drowned herself.

Great Britain, it seems, figured large in my early life, which was likely due in equal parts to my grandfather having been born there and the fact that, until very recently, they ruled the greater part of the planet. In fact, I can’t think of any other country I might have moved to that played a more prominent role in my upbringing, with the possible exception of Israel (“Is that the REAL Sea of Galilee? Can I walk on it?”)

Accordingly, while we were on holiday in Craster, we took a jaunt up the coast to Bamburg where I came face-to-face with that quintessential heroine, Grace Darling.

I knew of this courageous, northern maiden from a song on the Limelighter’s Through Children’s Eyes album, which happened to be in my family’s meagre record collection and which I played nearly continuously from the age of 6 to about 13 when I took up cow-tipping (we didn’t have cable TV or Game Boys back then; you found your amusements where you could).

The specific song from the album was entitled, appropriately enough, “Grace Darling” and was a humorous, audience participation song about a young girl who braves a storm to rescue nine drowning sailors over the objections of her cowardly father. The song held a particular fascination for me because, despite the overtly humorous presentation, my mother told me it was true, which fired my imagination. At least until I took up cow-tipping.

Fast forward, um, a number of years. I’m in Bamburg, and there is Grace Darling, the original, the one and only. Not surprisingly, the truth of her story varies somewhat from the humorous song of my youth, but I was still pleased to meet her:

Grace Darling was born in Bamburg and, at a very young age, moved to the Longstone Lighthouse with her family. At 4 Am on the 7th of September, 1838, the Forfarshire—a 150-ton steamship—sank after crashing into the rocks offshore. At 7 AM Grace, who was 22 at the time, spotted nine survivors clinging to the rocks. She and her father then set out to rescue them.

If there was any truth to the idea that Mr. Darling was anything less than daring, it was probably due to his reluctance to put his daughter at risk. As it was, they both set out and rowed through the gale, reaching the men about an hour later. They took five of them back and then her father and two of the survivors rowed back out for the remaining four.

Although it wasn’t quite the single-handed rescue that modern myth espouses, it was enough to capture the admiration of a (one must suppose) fairly bored nation. Offers of gifts, money, proposals of marriage and opportunities to take her story on the road and perform it for audiences in London poured in. But Grace, a modest and shy girl, turned them all down, refusing to prostitute herself and her story. She continued to live with her family at the lighthouse and died four years later of tuberculosis.

The Grace Darling Memorial; notice the oar at her side.

Maybe she should have taken her chances with the road show.

Seems they made a prostitute out of her after all.

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

The Tour; a Reminiscence

The Tour is over, so now it’s time to sit back, relax, pour myself a big glass of Pinot Noir and reminisce about those halcyon days of travelling the world.

I have to say, The Tour was one of the best ideas I stole from people who are smarter and better at marketing than I am; it’s cheap, simple and has the potential to introduce you to a much wider audience. And it might have actually worked if I had kept in mind that it was supposed to be a promotional tour. As it happened, I met so many great people and began having such a good time that I became caught up in the adventure and usually forgot to mention the book.

Still, it was very worthwhile, and as I sit here sipping my noir, I can look back on some memorable moments and interesting tour statistics:

- Visits: 26
- Furthest: this was a tie between Suzer and Vicki Gray, both in Australia
- Closest: Marsha, from London
- Most Memorable: sitting on Wendy’s porch drinking mint juleps
- Most Fun: going on an outing with Jen and her Girl Guides
- Most Relaxing: this is a tie between Andy Mont in Tenerife, Paul Allen in Catalunya and Debs in Murcia; I love sitting in the sun drinking beer
- Most Exotic: being hosted by an Azeri (Scary Azeri) in London
- Most Hectic: visiting Kat and her family on the USAF Base in Suffolk
- Most Ironic: posting a virtual tour post while actually being in the place I claimed to be (Brainard, NY)
- Second Most Ironic: visiting Northumberland, then going home and posting from Bizzywig’s blog as if I were in Northumberland
- Most Amazing Coincidence: posting about an unsung fingerprint expert on Brit Fancy’s blog and finding out she was the great-great-granddaughter of the man I wrote about
- Biggest Shock: showing up at Mickey’s place in Massachusetts, prepared for a bloke weekend of drinking beer and catching some American football on the tube, only to discover Mickey is not a guy but an attractive woman

It is also worthy of note that, of the 26 people who hosted me, 23 one of them were woman. I don’t know quite what to make of that, but it sure was nice.

And one final Tour statistic:
- Books sold: 3

C’mon people, you’re not keeping your end up!

Seriously, thanks again to everyone involved for making this a success. Now I’ll have to look around for another good idea to steal.

Thanks and Good-bye from

Michael Harling is the author of
“Postcards From Across the Pond – dispatches from an accidental expat”
“Laugh out loud funny regardless of which side of the pond you call home. Bill Bryson move over, there’s a new American expat in town with a keen sense of humor.”
-- Jeff Yeager, author of “The Ultimate Cheapskate”

Buy the Book:
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Visit the Home Page:

Sunday, October 4, 2009

Craster, the Castle and Beyond

Like many of the towns and villages in this coastal corner of the Northeast, Craster has a castle. And a golf course. As near as I can tell, both are the “must have” features of any successful municipality and, thanks to an uncharacteristically sunny day, we explored both on a wander along the Coastal Path.

Every town I have ever been in has three guys who seem to be paid by the Council to hang around to add local color and enhance the atmosphere. These are the guys who do this in Craster.

Craster’s castle dominates the town but sits a comfortable distance away, separated from everyday village life—and busloads of tourists—by a kissing gate and a picturesque expanse of sheep pasture. It’s a lovely stroll and, with the sun shining and the surf pounding and the sheep staring, it’s not hard to imagine yourself transported in time to the castle’s heyday, making your crepuscular commute with the rest of the villagers to muck out the horse stalls, scrape the fish-guts off the scullery floor for the preparing of the communal fish stew, or to work in the English Heritage Gift Shop.

Dunstanburg castle, a bit of a “fixer-upper.”

As castles go, Dunstanburgh is a bit of a "fixer-upper." It also isn't very old; it was not begun until 1313 and, while impressive in its day, it was never very important. The reason for its construction was mainly to keep up with the Joneses (in this case, the Joneses being the King) and by the 1500's was already being described as a ruin. Frankly, there isn’t a lot to see, but it’s only £3.50 to get in (free for English Heritage or National Trust members), the grounds are expansive and the views are stunning. And there’s a gift shop.

Just beyond Dunstanburg Castle is Dunstanburg Golf Course, which the locals have kept in much better nick over the years. Apparently people in this area place more importance on hitting little balls with big sticks than on providing comfort and wealth for the local Earl. Or maybe they were just so chuffed at that the course was opened to the public after the king foreclosed on the castle that they adopted it as their own.

Protective as they are about it, they were not successful in keeping the Coastal Path out and a trek along The Path includes a walk through the course, minus balls, of course. Another intrusion they had to acquiesce to was the insertion of coastal defenses during WWII, though it must have grated on them to have to spoil their lovely golf course with Pill boxes just for the sake of national security.

Dunstanburgh golf couse, where the bunkers are real bunkers.

Craster itself is a picturesque, tiny and isolated village, accessed by a single, dead-end road, consisting of a small network of streets lined with tightly packed houses, a single pub, restaurant, castle and the looming presence of the sea. When you walk the dark and deserted streets in the evening, you can imagine this secluded and vulnerable community to be a place where pirates operate (as proved by my last post) and where whispers of unspeakable crimes are investigated by the sole, stalwart constable or an aged spinster cum amateur detective.

Craster, splendid isolation or a hot bed of foul play?

All in all a pleasant place and a great location for a quiet getaway; just be sure to lock your doors.

Sure sign of quality lodgings: wooden hanger without anti-theft devices.

Sunday, September 27, 2009

Here there be Pirates

This week we’re in Northumberland*, in a holiday cottage on the coast. Very scenic, very relaxing and very isolated. (* We’re not really in Northumberland. I had been planning to post in real-time from here, but after arriving, I discovered there is no mobile phone signal or Internet connection so these posts are going to have to go up after I return home.)

The drive up took about eight hours, but that, in itself, was part of the holiday. The scenery along the west coast is stunning and, being in no hurry, it was a relaxing day. We arrived in Alnwick (pronounced AN’ ick) about 2 PM and, being an hour early for check-in, decided to stop there for a nose around.

Our first realization that we were in The North came while doing a bit of shopping at the local Morrisons. One of the things I like about England is the laid back nature of life in general, but I’m from The South, where people are taciturn and enjoy getting their weekly shopping done in peace and unimpeded. Up here, however, the supermarket seems to be a grand place to catch up with your friends, hold lengthy, group conversations in the middle of the aisles, or just go for a languid and, oh so very slow, stroll around the produce section. We, being rude southerners, could barely contain our impatience and had to rudely say, “Excuse me,” several times so we could squeeze by to get at the fruit juice.

I was surprised to discover that at least some of the Alnwickians are pirates—or maybe they were just preparing for International Speak Like A Pirate Day—but later, on the telly, the news reports confirmed that pirates still operate in the waters off these coasts. Shiver me timbers!

Pirates! Avast me beauty; prepare to be boarded!

Alnwick town center.

Alnwick is a picturesque market town and the day we were there was uncharacteristically lovely. We found out later that it has been raining and grey for weeks and we happened to arrive on the first nice day in a long time. So far, so good.

We wandered around a while, scoped out the gardens and castle for possible, future activities and headed even further north to the tiny village of Craster and our holiday cottage.

Dunstanburgh Castle, as seen from our bedroom window.

Renting holiday cottages is one of the best things about living in Britain. For a surprisingly reasonable fee you can rent a self-catering cottage (in case that doesn’t translate into US English, “self-catering” means it has a full kitchen) in the most beautiful locations. (And if you can’t afford the reasonable fee, you can always go to the Holiday Park down the road, but you don’t get the fireplace, the Juliet balcony in the bedroom and herfing deck out back.)

View from the Herfing Deck.

This cottage is, without question, the most well-appointed we have ever stayed in. They have all been comfortable and filled with ample dishes, flatware and cooking implements, but they are usually mismatched, camping-quality items, which is what I would expect. This cottage, however, has full, quality sets of dishes, cooking paraphernalia and flatware. The kitchen also has a stone-tiled floor, a Belfast sink and a four-slice toaster, so I think we’ll be happy here for the next week.

Even though it had already been a full day, after settling in we took a stroll around the village to reconnoitre the local castle and enjoy the sea views. The area is lousy with castles; it seems every town has one. Some were built by William the Conqueror but this area needed a surplus to keep those pesky Scots in line and protect the locals from periodic Viking raids.

It’s dusk now, and I’m on the herfing deck with a cigar and a beverage watching the ocean. It’s remarkably soothing; I think I could sit here all week watching it roll back and forth in its hypnotic rhythm. I need to get one of these in my back garden; but only if I can find one without pirates.

Sunday, September 20, 2009

The Parley Partners

My wife and I travelled to a little town near Hampton Court recently to meet up with my Pond Parleys writing partner, Toni Hargis.

Toni and I have been in contact for ages—in Internet terms, that is; in reality, it’s been about two years—but we have never met. On her recent holiday to Britain, however, she told me she could meet us at a pub in Surrey not too far from where we live in Sussex. So, after printing out a Google map and a set of directions, we set off in the car confident in our ability to find this place.

What could possibly go wrong?

I am probably the only person in Britain who does not own a Sat-Nav, even though I am unquestionably the person who most needs one. After seven years, I have yet to drive anywhere without taking at least one wrong turn. And the most frustration thing is I can’t even blame it on British roads; I was like this in America, too.

I can’t tell you how many times I set off, looking for a house or a business in a land where people still stop what they are doing to watch passing cars, on a trip that involved maybe two or three turns at best, only to come face-to-face with a sign reading, “Welcome to Vermont.”

When you realize that the sorts of roads I travelled in the US are to British roads what simple addition is to analytic geometry, and that, when faced with an option, I will always take the wrong one (even if my wife is sitting next to me shouting, “Right! Turn RIGHT!” I will inevitably turn left) you will appreciate why I always add ample “getting lost” time to my journey schedule. The formula is two hours of “Lost Time” for each hour of travel, unless I’m going somewhere near London, then it’s three.

US Roads

UK Roads

So we set off and within minutes were hopelessly lost. We then played the game where I drive around randomly while my wife attempts to pin-point us on the Google map or recognize some road name from the print-out of directions. Occasionally, she would see something familiar, we would get back on track, and then I would get lost again.

Soon after, I stopped at a petrol station and bought a Surrey Street Atlas, which at least gave us more favourable odds in the “driving around randomly” game. The strategy ultimately evolved into a manoeuvre sort of like sailing against the wind, where we would drive in a generally correct direction until we were very wide of the mark and then turn to the other direction, hoping to move marginally closer to our target.

Eventually we arrived, and right about on time (thanks to my formula).

Meeting someone you “know” through the web is always interesting. You wonder if they’re going to be a plonker, or if they are going to think you are a plonker but what generally happens is you greet each other like long-lost friends and then sit down and chat as if you’ve known each other for years.

And this was how our meeting went. There were no awkward moments trying to decide if we really were the people we had come there to meet (you know, that “blind date” sort of unease). Granted, I made it easy for her by wearing my “Postcards From the Pond” tee shirt, but even without that we would have recognized one another right off.

Mike Harling and Toni Hargis – Team Pond Parley; together for the first time.

We chatted for a couple of hours over a pint or two of shandy and then parted—Toni on to her European holiday, and my wife and I back to Sussex. Getting back home, I was assured, would be a doddle; all I had to do was follow the A3 into Guildford and then the A281 home. What could possibly go wrong?

Within minutes, we were hopeless lost.

Friday, September 11, 2009

State of the Nation

When did we lose our sense of humor? First the Candy Man*, then Rocky the Rooster and now a group of doctors and nurses have their heads on the block. Their crime: boredom, poor judgement and Facebook. (Yes, a recipe for disaster if ever there was one, but in this case it’s not as bad as it could be.)

Here’s the setup: a group of seven doctors and nurses working the night shift decided to take part in a Facebook contest wherein you are to submit photos of yourselves lying face down in unusual places. So in the lull between stitching up knife wounds and digging plague pits for Swine Flu victims, they sneaked into a quiet corner and took some photos of each other lying on “unusual” things, like a gurney. (Really, someone lying on a gurney in a hospital? You could die laughing.)

Then they posted them on Facebook. Someone saw them. That someone turned them in. Now they’ve been suspended pending an investigation and may all be fired.

Okay, so they broke the rules. Now, I doubt there is a specific rule that says, “you shall not take photos of yourselves lying face down on gurneys for the purpose of posting to social networks,” but I’m sure there is something in the Employee Handbook that covers this sort of thing. Even so, would they be fired if someone caught them lying face down on a gurney. Of course not. Would they be fired if someone snapped a photo of them while they were lying face down on a gurney? I doubt it. So the reason everyone’s knickers are in a twist must be due to the photos appearing on Facebook.

Again, fair enough; it’s unprofessional and an embarrassment to the hospital that they hired people with such limited social skills. So haul them into HR, browbeat them for a bit, hand them an Official Warning and send them back to work. Then have a quiet laugh about it after you show them out the door.

That’s what normal people might do, but in this enlightened age it’s all, “patient’s lives at risk,” and “”Heath and Safety violations,” and “cost the tax payer thousands, no millions, no BILLIONS in lost wages and security and public trust and they are probably terrorists!” (Okay, I made that last bit up.)

It was a prank; get over yourselves.

Why, oh why do we have to blow everything up to such gargantuan proportions; don’t we have enough real dangers to tackle? When did we become such curmudgeons? When did we turn into our parents?

You may think it odd that I care so much, but I’m a humorist, and I see my livelihood slipping away before it even becomes very lively. What’s more worrying is, the way things are going, it may not do me any good to simply stop making jokes when I notice fewer and fewer people laughing and more and more people calling the police. I’ve got a book out, remember, I’m on record as being funny; they may institute some sort of retroactive humor law and I’ll find myself being swept up in a “Comedy Cull” for an off-color reference I made about Margaret Thatcher and a Doberman ten years ago.

So lighten up. Free the Facebook Seven, get a dictionary and look up the difference between “Prank” and “Malicious Intent.”

The mirth of future generations hangs in the balance.

* The victory of the Candy Box over The Council may be short-lived. I just found out they are now planning to outlaw ALL A-Boards, meaning that no shop—including the Candy Box—will be allowed to put up signs advertising headlines. It’s a draconian measure to get at one guy, but humor must be stamped out at all costs, and if innocent civilians become collateral damage, well, that’s a small price to pay.


Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Adding to my Fifteen Minutes

I've graduated from the BBC Five Live night shift to a day spot on BBC Oxford. Fewer listeners, but at least they were awake.

You only have a week to listen to my five-minutes of fame:

Click to listen and move the time line to 32:

Sunday, August 23, 2009

And The Hits Just Keep on Coming

Yup, my crap landlord is at it again:

FROM: Grainger Residential Management

Dear Mr. Michael. Harling,

Please contact our office to discuss your outstanding administration fee. We cannot accept your signed Tenancy Agreement without the fee so if we do not hear from you in the next two days we will start proceedings to gain possession.

Hannah Devine
For and on behalf of
Grainger Residential Management Ltd.
St. John's House
Barrington Road
Altrincham WA14TJ
0161 929 3160

FROM: Michael Harling

Dear Ms Devine,

It was lovely speaking to you on the phone this morning. I trust our conversation will result in my not returning from work on Monday evening to find my door bolted and padlocked. A check for £90.00 is enclosed.

I am compelled to say, however, your assertion that you "cannot" accept my Tenancy Agreement is, to put it in the best possible light, a lie. You've done so for the past seven years. What you mean to say is, "we will not process your Tenancy Agreement, and will toss you out on the street unless you pay us ninety quid." I don't know what you people call that, but to me it sounds like extortion.

If I went up to someone and told him I was going to throw him out of his house unless he paid me £90, I would go to jail. And rightly so. But as a business, you're not bound by the constraints of fairness, decency or, apparently, law. The only binding contract I have signed with you is the one where I agree to pay you X amount of money per month in exchange for you maintaining the building and its grounds and allowing us live here. For the past seven years the rent has been paid on time and in full. We have been very conscientious about that; you, on the other hand, seem to regard the contract in a more casual manner, but that's a different issue.

The ninety quid is more than just an arbitrary bill sent out by a company looking for free money; it's a slap in the face, an insult and a worry for the future.

In the seven years we have been here, we have endeavoured to be good tenants:
    - My wife (and a few other concerned tenants) spends her own time and money to tend the flowerbeds in front of your flats; the flowerbeds not adopted by tenants are fetchingly overgrown with bindweed and thistles. (ref: Different Issue)
    - We had to pay to carpet your flat because you refused to, even though the existing carpets were very old when we moved in and had become dangerously frayed and rucked up. You eventually did agree to pay a portion of the bill. (ref: Different Issue)
    - We had to pay to paint your flat because you refused to. You did agree to pay us for materials if we sent in the receipts; we sent in the receipts, but you never paid us. (Ref: Different Issue)
    - This weekend, we are going to paint the bathroom—we're not even going to attempt to get you to do it or pay for it.

And now you decide we need to give you an extra £90 for basically no reason, aside from your promised to not allow us to continue to live here unless we do.

So we've paid it, but I fear our capitulation will only serve to encourage you. Will the "fee" be £180 next year, or £250? Will we be required to chip in for petrol and supply tea and scones if we call out a workman?

In the future, when you decide to make up capricious fees, please disguise them as rent increases; that way I will feel as if I have simply been ripped off instead of robbed outright.


Michael Harling

Sunday, August 2, 2009

Remembering Denny

To commemorate the passing of Harry Patch, the last fighting Tommy, I am posting another chapter form my as-yet-unpublished memoir, Memorial Day, the only about my mother's father, Denny. He has little in common with Mr. Patch with the exception that they both fought in The Great War, were wounded and returned to their civilian lives to get on with it as best they could.

Memorial Day 1967

Shortly after my parents moved into the house on Rabbit Lane, my father decided a hedge was in order. After carefully surveying his property, he planted a row of lilacs a full thirty feet inside of our western boundary. Not content with that (or, perhaps, in possession of an abundance of lilac bushes), he planted yet another row which cut our still-ample back yard in half, then finished off the masterpiece by lining the southern boundary with a mixture of lilacs and pine trees.

This arrangement led to our referring to the property in terms such as "the back yard,"the back back yard," and "the back back back yard," the latter being an area which, until reclaimed in my later teenage years, remained a mysterious, unexplored and impenetrable wilderness.

I often wondered if my father's erratic boundaries were the result of an honest mistake or a ploy to keep him from having to mow so much yard. None of us minded. It did, after all, also keep us from having to mow so much yard and, as everything west of our bucolic boundary remained fair game for Ray Meyers and his tractors, we were able to glean that portion of the potato/corn field which was planted on our land without injury to conscience.

What my father had counted on was for these trees and bushes to grow into a full, leafy hedge. What he had not counted on was for them to continue growing once they had reached optimum size. By the time I reached my teens, these tiny lilac bushes had climbed twenty feet or more into the sky before sagging under their own weight and spawning rapidly growing shoots which encroached further and further onto our property until the back yard (and the back back yard) began to look like a low-budget remake of The Day of the Triffids.

During my childhood, these large (but not yet enormous) bushes were a constant and integral part of our lives. They provided ample shade during the hot summers, and served as an excellent hiding place during games of tag, hide-and-seek. In the fall they became a barrier against the poisonous clouds, which Ray Meyers sprayed over his potato fields to kill the vines and ready the roots for harvest. in the winter they helped break the wind which blew across the barren fields, and in the spring, they bloomed.

For the entire month of May the air in and around our house was thick with the scent of lilac. The bushes practically exploded with blossoms. We brought them to school, decorated our home with them and on Memorial Day, just before they began to fade, my mother would cut a huge bouquet to bring to the graveyard.

I would bend the taller boughs to within her reach and she would snip the flower-laden branches with her green-handled garden shears. When she had gathered a fair amount, she would wrap the cut ends in sodden paper towels, mold aluminum foil around the base and stick the entire, unwieldy creation into an empty mayonnaise jar.

The actual cemetery visits remained a relatively small segment of a day filled with parades, cookouts and the ritual first swim of the summer season, but they were pervaded with a sense of solemnity, a feeling that this act was one of the few things my mother did that she cared deeply about.

I know my father drove us there and that my brothers and sisters would have had to have come with us, but I only remember my mother and myself walking across the expansive graveyard, lilacs in hand, toward the far corner where her father lay under an unassuming headstone--a flat marker which noted his rank and participation in The Great War. I welcomed the walks, for during them she would talk of her father, his origins and adventures and where his wanderings had taken him and his family. No single trip stands out in my mind--for the only variations from one year to the next were my age, the details of the narrative. I am left, therefore, with a collage of stories, molded haphazardly together into an incomplete whole, as if looking into my mother's past through a shattered window.

My grandfather, she told me, was born in northern Vermont on November 11, 1895, and christened Benjamin Franklin Denison, the namesake--so the legend goes--of his great-great-uncle, Benjamin Franklin. Nobody ever called him Benjamin; to his family he was Frank, while all his friends called him 'Denny.'

Denny was an affable, intelligent character with many diverse abilities but a short attention span. He never held on to one job for very long and appeared to make a career out of drifting. He was fond of drink, and of his uncertain origins: "I'm Scotch-Irish, French-Canadian, Dutch and English," he would say whenever asked about his ancestry.

It is rumored that, prior to 1916, he was in the Canadian Army and that he had also spent some time with General "Black Jack" Pershing chasing Poncho Villa around Mexico. At the age of 22 he married 17-year-old Ava Stafford and went off with a machine-gun battalion to fight in World War I.

I know very little about Denny's adventures on the battlefields of France, but I assume they were as morbid and mundane as anyone else's. I do know that he was overcome by mustard gas and had to be returned to the sates for a time to recover. He was given a purple heart and sent back to the front where, on his 23rd birthday (November 11, 1918) word spread through the trenches that the armistice had been signed. A friend of Denny's, upon hearing the news, leaped up for joy, and was shot dead by a German sniper who was not as well-informed on current events.

Denny went back to Vermont, fathered a son and managed to stay married until 1928, when John Stafford--Blacksmith for the village of Lyndonville, Vermont, and father of Denny's bride, Ava--decided that his little girl had had enough of her hard-drinking, ne'er-do-well husband. What he did for a living during those years in unclear and ultimately unimportant for, whatever he was doing, he supplemented his income through moonlighting (literally) as a rum-runner--a quaint, prohibition-era custom in which one would drive a specially designed car across the Canadian boarder, fill its secret tanks with whiskey and then drive it back. The trick was not getting caught, an ability which Denny seemed to have mastered.

After his divorce, he wound up in New York City where, on September 7, 1931, he married my grandmother, Jeannette Wacker.

My mother was born in Lincoln Hospital in the Bronx but, soon after that, her family moved to Jamaica in Queens. They were still in New York City when the world went to war a second time. My mother had a vivid memory of being in a theater on December 7, 1941, with her sister when the lights went up and the theater manager announced the news of the bombing of Pearl Harbor.

"He told us that all service men were to report to their bases immediately," my mother, who would have been eight at the time, recollected, "and about two thirds of the theater stood up and left."

Men were scarce during the war, which made jobs easy to come by. This was the only period of relative prosperity my mother could recall. By 1944, Denny had gotten a job at the Brooklyn Navy Yard and was earning good money. Then suddenly, and unaccountably, they left.

After living the first eleven years of her life in the sprawling city of New York, my mother found herself in the wilds of Upstate New York. Denny, through the recommendation of some friends, had gotten a job in a textile mill in the village of Valatie. The job was short-lived, for he developed an allergic reaction to the dye used in the wool, and the family wound up living in a shack on a farm in Nassau where Denny had gotten a job as a handy-man.

The following year, Jeannette died at the age of 46. The family took her body back to New Jersey for burial, then returned to the farm in Nassau. Later, Denny moved them into a summer cottage on the eastern side of Kinderhook Lake where they lived for two years. My mother told stories of dire poverty, of no running water, of waking up in the winter time and having to break ice off the top of the pitcher to get water to wash with, of outhouses and hand-pumps, of never having money and always being cold, and of Denny, who through it all, retained his eccentric ways and somehow won the adoration of my mother while she condemned everything he did.

But none of those stories ever came out in the graveyard; they were reserved for those times when, lost in reverie, she caught herself comparing the conditions she was living in to those awful years she had thought were behind her. Only then did she hint at the bitterness she felt for the life her father had provided. In the graveyard, however, he was a hero, and a poet, and an artist, and a loving parent--the only one she had ever really known.

And so, each year on Memorial Day, she brought to this man who had raised her in poverty and bequeathed her to poverty, the only things she had in abundance--a bunch of handpicked lilacs and her silent devotion.

Sunday, July 19, 2009


Montreal is not as compact and quaint as Halifax, but it is more diverse and vibrant, full of shopping centers, restaurants, historic sites and other diversions. The old center is picturesque and, though not as closely resembling a European capital as Quebec, it is nonetheless filled with old and interesting buildings, quirky boutiques and cobbled streets.

Montreal at night

We took a walk from our hotel to the center and around the piers and—in that relatively small area in a short amount of time—saw the preparations for the Jazz Festival, a raucous street party featuring a mini Mini rally and some loud music, two wedding parties, some lovely old buildings and one stunning church. If we had more time (we're leaving tomorrow morning) we could visit Mount Royal, the World's Fair locations and go on a river cruise. It is definitely a city that merits a second look.

Montreal--the old

And it is, by golly, a clean city. The Canadians are a tidy lot and very proud of their country, and it shows in the way they don't use it as a communal litterbin, like they do in Britain.

It's also a very polite city. A brochures we read featured a humorous list of ways to blend in with the natives and one of them was, "Strike up conversations with complete strangers." And it is true; if we happen to remain in the shared proximity of a local for more than, oh, five seconds, they start talking to us. This makes queuing at shops, waiting at pedestrian crossings or making eye contact with the couple at the next table in the restaurant an illuminating experience.

Montreal--the new

The one unfriendly encounter we had was in a boutique in the historic district. We went in, as is our habit, with my wife leading the way and instructing me to feel this or that item and holding up different outfits for me to assess, when a short, perky lady appeared at our side.

"Let me tell you how this store is operated," she said, then launched into actual instructions regarding the browsing methodology they apparently employed in their particular boutique. It wasn't startlingly unique, and it made us wonder why we needed training. It also made us leave the store.

The bums—my litmus test of a city—are plentiful, but polite. Mostly they just stand unobtrusively next to the buildings holding out a hat or a cup. They rarely say anything, but there are more than there should be in a city so outwardly prosperous.

Attractive as the downtown area is, the ring around it is heavily populated by high-rise concrete structures—no doubt hastily constructed in preparation for the 1976 Olympics—that would look more at home in a former Soviet Republic. Our hotel is one such building but, thankfully, the communist-inspired architecture is only skin deep; the inside is elegant.

Our room is up on the twenty-first floor. It has a spacious bathroom, a kitchen, a dining area and a sunken living room complete with writing desk, coffee table, sofa and chairs. It also has a balcony, which has allowed me to engage in an activity I like to call "Extreme Herfing."

Both my wife and I are afraid of heights. She stepped out onto the balcony once and refuses to do it again, but I love a challenge, so over the course of our stay, I moved a comfy chair out there and managed to smoke a cigar while teetering on the edge of terror.

I don't know how many of you share this particular phobia with me but being separated from a 300-foot drop by nothing but a railing produces a feeling similar to a low-grade electric shock running continuously through your bowels. It was strangely enjoyable to engage in my traditionally relaxing ritual while, at the same time, having my nerves stretched tight as banjo strings.

Extreme Herfing

And for your information, if the railing had not been there, I would not have even opened the balcony doors.

Saturday, July 11, 2009

The Fountain and the Comedy Police

I apologize for not updating sooner, but I've been uncharacteristically tired since my return from the States. And between travel for work and sorting through all the receipts I collected on our two-week sojourn of the North American continent, it have barely had the time to keep up with what has been happening in town:

The Candy Man and the Crime of Comedy

I had a nice visit with John O'Sullivan, proprietor of The Candy Box, this morning on my way to the barber. Seems The Council isn't as keen on prosecuting him for putting funny signs up in front of his store as they were last weekend, especially now that the national, regional and local media have taken up his cause. (Not to mention my website, which I am certain must have turned the tide.)

Mr. O'Sullivan has been on national radio, a variety of television news programs and featured in several newspapers over this past week. The police, who apparently are much amused by the situation, are no longer warning him of dire consequences, and The Council seem to be rethinking their strategy of mollifying humorless twits who claim to take offence at fake headlines by promising to arrest the author of the offending words.

Frankly, if they went ahead and had him arrested now, Horsham would become the laughing stock of the country. So I guess he's off the hook. Until the next humorless twit complains.

As a side note, Mr. O'Sullivan has a fetching young assistant with beautiful red hair who is mad about America and wants to move there. I told her the only way that was likely to happen would be if she married a Yank. So if any of you young American men out there are in the market for a British bride, let me know and I'll forward your details on.

The Fate of the Fountain

I'm afraid it doesn't look good for the fountain.

In a full page of letters to the editor on what should be done with the fountain, only six (mine included) voiced the opinion that it should be refurbished and restored. The rest were a mixture of making it a static structure and turning its base into a giant flowerpot or removing it altogether.

After an in-depth survey on the mood of the town (i.e. a chat with my barber) I'm of the mind that they will probably turn it into a flowerpot.

The reasoning behind this isn't totally insane. Fixing it will be expensive, but taking it out will be even more expensive. Just leaving it sit and dumping some dirt in the bottom will be the cheapest option and, in this economic climate, that seems the most likely scenario. My point, however, is that we will not always be in this economic climate and what a shame it will be to return to prosperity only to find an oversized planter in the Bishopric where a truly worthwhile work of art used to be.

All this debate is probably moot. The Council surely made up their minds months ago about what they are going to do and are only opening the subject up for debate hoping public opinion will come down on their side (they still remember the lesson of The Swans, apparently). In the end, however, they'll just go ahead and do what they want anyway (they remember the lesson, the just didn't learn anything from it).

Another reason I'm in the minority is because, to me, the fountain has always been there, representing Horsham, so I'm quite sentimental about it. To much of the town, however, the fountain was inflicted upon them a mere ten years ago; they didn't want it then and they don't want it now. And this is their chance to get rid of it.

But that's a shame, because the fountain is so much more than a fountain, as evidenced by something my barber shared with me.

"You'll probably think I'm crazy," he said in a conspiratorial whisper, "but have you ever noticed that the fountain is a bit..."

"Pornographic," I finished for him. "Of course, that's the first thing I noticed about it. I just thought everyone knew that so I never mentioned it."

He assured me they did not. Everyone he shared his observation with thought him way off the mark, and probably a bit of a pervert. But it's patently obvious.

Look at this:

What is that besides a depiction of a vagina riding up and down on a penis, accompanied by all the appropriate squishing and squirting of liquids? It's a work of genius, titled Universe Rising, and is supposed to symbolize the cycle of life. And what better way to embody life than a glistening wet vagina gleefully, and in joyous abandon, humping a concrete and steel stiffy?

Seriously, what town wouldn't be proud to host such a sculpture, no matter the cost?


I'm going to miss that fountain.

On a Happier Note

A window decoration depicting a naked fairy (the mythical woodland creatures--this isn't Brighton) on a shop in New Street is causing traffic jams because everyone keeps stopping to gawk at it.

They should sell tickets. Or use it as a replacement for the fountain.