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.

Saturday, July 4, 2009

Disappearing Britain

I returned from a two-week holiday in the US just three hours ago to find that, in my absence, Britain has outlawed humor.

As you enter my town from the direction of the train station (which you might do if you just returned from holiday and are too cheap to pay for a cab) you will find The Candy Box, an independent newsagent founded in 1923. The new owner, John O'Sullivan, has started putting a fake news board up outside his shop with humorous headlines on it, such as "Swan Sculpture in Suicide Drama," or "Local Youth Kidnapped by Aliens." I really enjoyed those headlines, and used to look forward to seeing them on our evening walks.

During our absence, however, The Town Council told the owner he will be arrested if he does not stop. Apparently, four people complained. Never mind that many more have voiced approval, or that someone making a complaint about you doesn't necessarily mean you are committing a crime, a policewoman visited John last week and told him he would be arrested if he continued. Rumour is they are making use of an obscure law instituted by Cromwell and his puritan buddies that makes any sort of fun punishable by drawing and quartering (I jest, of course, they are more likely going to use a real law, such as assault or public lewdness, and stretch its meaning to cover making jokes).

This is embarrassing: I just spent two weeks telling my American friends how the Brits are so much more laid back, tolerant and disinclined to litigation than people in the US. What happened? Did Al-Qaeda put something in your tea while I was away?

Actually, I would love to believe that this was due to an outside influence, but I fear the reason is closer to home:

-- begin paranoid conspiracy theory rant --

At the other end of town stand the Shelly Fountain. I have already written about that and its current state of disrepair. It seems The Council has floated the idea of tearing it out while I was away (this, presumably, when they were not busy persecuting candy merchants).

The Shelly Fountain is one of the few things that make Horsham Horsham. Without it, there is nothing to distinguish it from any other British town. The only other advantage Horsham enjoys is a variety of locally owned shops that keep the high street unique… Oh, I forgot, The Council raised the rents so high all the independent stores have closed and have been replaced by chain clothing stores, hair salons and bookmakers. One of the very small number left is The Candy Box.

Coincidence? I think not.

Mr. O'Sullivan, apparently, is ready to stick to his guns (or sign board, at any rate) and will therefore be carted away to the nick soon, his store probably impounded and turned into a Starbucks that sells clothes and allows you to make bets in the back room where they style hair. They will then take out the fountain and build a kiosk selling watchstraps, batteries and post cards of what the town used to look like in its place.

And why would The Council want to do this? Who can say: despite overwhelming public opinion, they want to turn our historic town hall into yet another restaurant, so there's no way to discern their motives. Maybe Al-Qaeda put something in their tea.

-- end paranoid conspiracy theory rant --

All I know is, next time I go off on holiday, I'm going to have someone keep an eye on the town for me so I don't come back to find it turned into an anonymous, bland, lifeless duplicate of Anytown, UK.

And if this site suddenly disappears, you'll know they really did outlaw humor.

Today's joke headline
Tomorrow's real headline?

Wednesday, July 1, 2009

When Worlds Collide – The Last Tripod Page

This post represents something new, not just for my website, but in the annals of the Internet and, perhaps, of recorded history itself:

A post for a virtual blog-world tour is simultaneously a post for a real-life tour. Additionally, a post on my Postcards website about my life in England, is also a post about my book, and therefore intersects my “Life of Writing” blog, as well. And you few, you lucky few, are here to witness it.

The downside is, three distinct virtual and real-time events all taking place simultaneously may create a rift in the space-time continuum and generate a spectral loop, causing us all to relive this day over and over again, like Bill Murray in “Groundhogs Day” or the crew of the Enterprise (TNG) when they had to live a terminal event over and over again until they managed to save the series from premature cancellation.

So do something fun and interesting today; you don’t want to chance re-living your tax audit or a trip to the proctologist over and over until the end of time. Don’t say I didn’t warn you.

Where I am in the virtual world is on my friend Glenn’s Tripod website. I hope you visit; he must be the last person in the world (real or otherwise) with a page on Tripod. I gave mine up during the Nixon administration. In the real world, I’m in Glenn’s back yard, sitting at the picnic table with a glass of whiskey, a cigar and an internet connection. Where I am on the New York Times Bestseller List is anybody’s guess.

The life of an author isn’t all glitz and glamour, you know; I’m rarely chased by paparazzi and I have yet to be besieged by groupies flinging their knickers at me while I’m giving a talk about “How to be a Popular Writer” at NYU. (I’ll be speaking to my agent about this, believe you me, as soon as I get an agent.) Mostly authors spend a lot of time doing what I’m doing: travelling from town to town trying to meet as many people as possible and win them over so they will go out and buy the book.

Don’t get me wrong; I love the travel, but it does get tiring. And I love meeting new people. So much so that all I want to do is talk with them and hear about their lives and get to know the area they live in. And then I move on to the next stop and realize I never mentioned my book. Not that it matters; I wrote “Postcards From Across the Pond” because I was having so much fun with my own life that I wanted to share it with others, and I see this tour as a way of allowing others to share bits of their lives with me without having to go through all the bother of writing and publishing a book. So forgive me if I forget to include the Hard Sell in my posts.

Aside from the struggle to escape obscurity, I’m having a blast. The blog-world tour has bounced me back and forth across the pond and taken me to Spain and Tenerife as well. And soon, I’ll be heading to other surprising destinations.

In the real world, my wife and I have travelled to Montreal, breezed through Albany, stayed in Syracuse, popped down to Cazenovia for my son’s wedding, and then settled in Brainard to try to fit in a few relaxing days before heading to Rouses Point and making the crossing back into Canada for the flight home. It’s been a tiring trip, but it’s our own fault: we took The Boy and his girlfriend to Paris when they visited us and the romance of the city overcame him and her proposed to her. After they became engaged, you just knew something like this was bound to happen.

It’s all been lovely but half the time I don’t know where I am or what day it is, and it has been a challenge keeping The Tour going while on the road.

But mostly it has been great getting re-acquainted with America—the real America. We got to meet my new daughter-in-law’s family and after an hour with them it was as if we had known them all our lives. They were, without exception, gracious and accommodating. Likewise other distant relatives I had not seen in years made us feel very welcomed and we were able to spend a wonderful, relaxing afternoon with my aunt, her children and their respective partners chatting around their backyard picnic table over pizza and Pespsi.

Living in the UK for so long, I only get to see America as the rest of the world sees it, and it’s easy to forget that they are some of the friendliest, charitable and welcoming people on the planet. This trip has reaffirmed my conviction that America is a great nation, and what makes it great are the people who live here.

I’m looking forward to spending a few more days among them, and today’s schedule involves meeting up with my cousin and maybe taking a trip down the Hudson Valley to visit the Vanderbilt mansion and, of course, spending time in the back yard with some beverages and fine cigars.

I want it to be a perfect day; I’m not taking any chances.

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