Thursday, April 29, 2010

Come On, You Know You Want It

So, who do you think wants it more?

What, no Labour? And where is the BNP?

This is my first general election, and I'm pleased to be voting in such an exciting election. It's every bit as historic as America's last election (who'd have thought that the US would ever be liberal enough to elect a man who admitted getting high in college to the presidency?) and I'm proud to be part of it. Even though my vote won't make a blind bit of difference.

You see, I don't get to vote for the who I want to run the country. I only get to vote for my local MP. Then, whichever party gets the most MPs gets to have their head MP as Prime Minister. And they elect that guy (or woman), and I have no say in the matter.

So with Horsham a solidly conservative seat, voting for anyone is an exercise in futility. Unless, of course, you are voting Tory.

But it's still good to get out and vote.

The exciting bit is watching a party who everyone had written off as irrelevant a few months ago come into the fore. The Lib Dems are, by some accounts, ahead of the Labour party. And, if they succeed in hanging Parliament (oh, if only; maybe we could make it happen if we all brought enough rope) they will be in a position to effectively select the next leader, which makes this an interesting race indeed.

The best thing about British elections is that the campaign period only lasts about a month. This keeps most of us from getting so very, very sick of political broadcasts, but still allows the candidates to do stupid things that make the electorate shake their head in collective wonder and switch parties. (Can you say, "Bigoted woman!")

Anyway, I'll be watching with interest, and going to the polls a week from tonight to throw away my vote. I hope you all do the same.

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Horsham’s Hidden Talent

As the husband of a social worker, I sometimes find myself in strange situations, such as Row J of the Capitol Theatre in Horsham, sitting between two middle-aged couples; a single man, on his own, out to enjoy a bit of amateur musical theatre. I was just glad I wasn’t wearing my corduroy sport coat; that would have pushed me passed the edge of plausible deniability.

I was there as part of an outing for one of the centres my wife manages, and to handle important tasks such as holding doors, minding handbags while people went to the loo and making awkward conversation with people who are meeting me, once again, for the first time. But as a bonus, I got to see the Horsham Amateur Operatic and Dramatic Society’s presentation of Oklahoma! (The exclamation point is in the title, I’m not that excited.)

The play was surprisingly spectacular, taking into account, of course, that it was a local production. I mean, West End it wasn’t, but the company did manage the nearly impossible challenge of staging a believable version of a Broadway extravaganza while simultaneously retaining those special qualities only an amateur production can offer: wobbling scenery, props descending from above onto the head of an extra, a “Dirty Dancing” lift that nearly ended in disaster. So, yeah, it was a great performance.

When I booked the ticket last week, I asked the woman behind the counter if it was the sing-along version. She smiled politely at my joke and assured me it wasn’t, to which I replied, “It will be when I’m there.” I needn’t have bothered, the audience—most of whom looked as if they had attended the premiere of Oklahoma! and may have needed to hire a babysitter in order to get out for the evening—unabashedly sang along, even though the cast needed no help in that arena. Too bad no one in the audience could dance.

When you’re putting on shows in the West End, you get to pick from the most talented performers in the world. When you put on a show in Horsham, however, you’re fishing in a much smaller pool, so I expect the casting sessions went somewhat like this: “You have the physical qualities we’re looking for in our leading lady. Can you sing? Good, good! Can you dance? Um, okay, …can you fake it?”

The group, after all, is the Horsham Amateur Operatic and Dramatic—not Dance—Society, so I’m willing to cut them some slack. And the singing was suburb; bold, confident, occasionally complex; it resonated through the auditorium. On the other hand, the dance routines, to be kind, lacked finesse. It looked as if some of the cast had taken a few years of ballet when they were younger and had spent half an hour or so teaching the others what little they still remembered. In addition to the near-catastrophic lift, there was an ill-advised “spin and carry” sort of move that looked like a form of torture. I also noticed a few “rabbit in the high-beams” type of looks I recalled from my own dancing days, as players struggled to remember where in the routine they were. And I swear I could see a few of them counting out the beats, one of my favourite tricks.

But confident or not, they performed with enthusiasm, and made up for it in the singing. The final number, the aptly named “Oklahoma!” sung by the ironically-named “Curly” and supported by the entire ensemble, was rousing, energetic and well-polished.

And they stayed true to the original production, even when it did them no favors. In the scene where the townsfolk rouse Curly and Laurey from their marriage bed (no spoiler alerts here; I assume you all know the story), Curly comes out of the house wearing only his trousers, which allowed us all to see the rest of the gear involved in those cunning little stage microphones you see taped to people’s faces. If they had updated it at bit, say had Laurey come out dressed as a Police Constable and Curly in a set of Winnie-the-Pooh jammies (“Have you been in Kanga’s honey-pot, Pooh? You’re such a naughty bear!”) it would have avoided the awkwardness of revealing the tape and wire strung around his torso.

What impressed me most, however, was something I didn’t even realize until my wife mentioned it on the way home: they all spoke in American accents. The fact I didn’t notice shows how good they were. A bad accent or, worse, a local accent (“I say Jud, old bean, you’re not sweet on this Laurey girl, are you? If so, you’re in for a thrashing.”) would have been immediately noticeable.

I have a great respect for Brits who can do an American accent. I’ve been here eight years and the best I can do is mimic the Cockney accent perpetrated by Dick Van Dyke in Mary Poppins, but that doesn’t really count.

So my hat is off the HAODS for their talent, tenacity and theatrical flair. But the dancing, really, a bit more energy next time, okay?

Friday, April 16, 2010


Finally, a new post. But first, some public service announcements:

Is Melissa (Smitten by Britain) among the missing?

She recently switched her blog from Blogger to Wordpress (Don't get me started.) Anyway, in the process, she lots, oh, lots of followers; let's say about a quarter million. If you want to get her back, or want to start following her (which I highly recommend) here's what to do:

To make sure you are seeing her latest updates, re-follow her by adding this URL:

If using Blogger:

If using Google Reader:

In other news:

Someone else bought my book (thanks, Erren), and here's what she had to say:

I just bought the book 'Postcards from across the Pond' by Michael Harling. It arrived today. I stole a couple of minutes to flip through it and laughed out loud twice. I can't say enough how validated I feel by this book. How wonderful to see someone else put down on paper some of the same struggles I've experienced being an American living in the UK. I can't wait to get the time to read it properly!

Thank you Michael!

So there you have it. If you still haven't bought your copy, you are obviously down a few laughs, so to keep up, you really, really need to buy one (or several) right now.

Now on to the post:

It has just occurred to me that I am, at this time, virtually stranded on this island. It’s not so bad, really; currently I’m holed up in a sixteenth century pub sipping a pint of ale and sitting on a deacon’s bench with a nice warming fire nearby. It’s the sort of pub with beams in the ceiling sagging so low even I have to duck.

But I doubt the thousands of stranded passenger—both those trying to get out and those trying to get in— aren't feeling so complacent. As for me, I’m just glad we visited Iceland when we did; it might have been a nice place, but I doubt I would have welcomed being stranded there for a fortnight.

Now I know that, technically, I could take a train or ferry to get out of Blighty but, having just seen the news, I wouldn't want to try. The ferries are packed to bursting, and I don’t fancy swimming the last fifteen miles to France. And the last I heard of the Eurostar, it wasn't running because it was too cold. Granted, it has warmed up over the months since I heard that, but no one has contacted me to tell me the trains were running again. And even if they are, I doubt I could get a ticket.

No, a plane is the only viable option. Except none of them are flying. The TV news showed footage of the runways at Gatwick and Heathrow; never before have the runways been so continually empty. I hope they are at least taking advantage of the down-time by sweeping the tarmac.

I don’t doubt that the airlines are being over-cautious, but who can blame them. Sure, the planes might not crash, but who wants to be responsible for making the decision that results in a jumbo jet with three hundred and thirty people on if falling out of the sky? And while the stranded passengers might wish they wouldn’t err so heavily on the side of caution, would you want to be among the passengers of the first flight testing the theory that the air was clear enough to take off?

Actually, I think they are being overly optimistic about starting flights as soon as tomorrow. The last time this volcano starting misbehaving, it spewed volcanic grit into the air for eighteen months. I just hope it stops in time for us to go visit my grandchild before s/he graduates from college. (Did you know I’m soon to be a grandpa? Well, I am, and you heard it here first.)

Otherwise, life is good. The grim job reaper hasn't visited, my writing is going well and spring appears to be, albeit grudgingly, showing her pretty face.

On the other hand, it now occurs to me that I am stranded in this booth. My pint is empty, but if I go to the bar to get a refill, my kit may not be here when I return. And if I pack everything up and take it all with me on the twenty foot trek to the bar, I might not have this booth when I return. (These olde worlde pubs are very popular, even among the locals.)

So here I sit, stranded on a deacons bench, with an empty pint glass in front of me. But I suppose, in the grand scheme of things, that’s not so bad.

Sunday, April 4, 2010

Writing in a Different Language

Nothing drives home the fact of how much you don't know about your host culture than writing a book set there featuring characters who grew up there.

My current project takes place in England and is populated with native Brits. For the most part, people are people, and I've been here long enough to know how they talk and how they go about their daily business, so I shouldn't fall into obvious traps, like having a character talk about when she was in "high school" or making reference to a "senior prom." There are, however, numerous opportunities for gaffs.

After finishing the first draft, I reread it and took pages of notes highlighting details I needed to research. Such as: you can't go visit someone in the hospital (actually, the person would be "in hospital") here and expect the receptionist to give you a room number. Patients are on wards, there are nurses, but no candy stripers and some nurses, depending upon their duties, are called "Sister" or "Matron."

Registering a car, getting insurance, all different from my American experiences. They don't have appointment books, they have "Diaries" and they don't write things like, "Nathan said 'Hi' to me outside of math class today and I have a great big pimple in the middle of my forehead! I wanted to die!" in them.

What gets me is not the amount of research I have to do to make my prose not sound like it was written by an American (for one thing, in the above dialogue, I'd have to change Math to Maths and Pimple to Spot); I'm more concerned about the things I can't know:

What is it like to go through the British school system? What TV shows would they have watched, what pastimes would they have enjoyed, how would they and their friends have behaved?

But, to quote Donald Rumsfeld, those are things I know I don't know, and I expect a combination of creative prose and research will get me over those hurdles; it's the things I don't know I don't know that are more likely to trip me up. (By the by, that famously amusing "Things we know" quote makes perfect sense if you read it carefully.)

My biggest fear is that I will spend a lot of time on this manuscript only to send it off laced with unintentional hilarity like having a Memorial Day celebration and totally ignoring Whitsun, or having a character asking for a "round trip" ticket.

At least I know enough to not have a cop pull a gun.