Monday, September 27, 2010

Disconnected - Part II

Driving in Britain is always a crap shoot.

This is a country, after all, where one well-timed accident can make three quarters of the population late for dinner, and where a stiff breeze brings transportation to a standstill.  Consequently, Britons possess a skewed idea of how long it should take to get somewhere.  “Three Days” covers most trips within a hundred mile radius, while anything longer requires you to begin sometime last week.

Add to this their astounding reservoir of detail, and their willingness to share it, and you will understand why I never ask for directions.

If you do innocently let it slip that you are planning a trip to Ticklebottom, your companions are sure to give you detailed directions urging you to take the Bilgewater Bypass to East Periwinkle and turn left at the Slaughtered Duck toward Bobbin Upendown and other mysterious instructions that you will promptly forget.

Your best refuge, in these instances, is to nod knowingly as if you are thoroughly familiar with these locations because if you let on you’ve never heard of the Swingsan Roundabout, your guide will begin naming equally unfamiliar landmarks until you admit your ignorance or your ears start to bleed.  The safer alternative, therefore, is to feign understanding and hope there won’t be a quiz at the end.

They also possess an unnatural ability to recall where traffic tie-ups are likely to be, and offer various ways around them.  If you tell them you are leaving on Wednesday, for example, they will tell you about the big Wednesday Afternoon Car Boot Sale off the Chuckablock Turnpike that causes an eight mile tail-back from Tuesday evening until Thursday afternoon.

So I never tell anyone where I am going or give the faintest hint that I don’t already know how to get there, which, in this case, was a shame because they could have told me about the traffic jam at Stonehenge.

Now, I’ve driven past Stonehenge a number of times, so I should have remembered, but traffic jams, to me, are like birth pains: I hate them while I am stuck in the middle of them, but as soon as I am on my way again, the relief of revving up to 60 MPH makes the misery melt away as quickly as the memory of labor dissipates when the mother is presented with her new baby.

My decision to plot a route past Stonehenge was due to two factors: 1) we couldn’t check into the cottage until 3 o’clock, and 2) I am in the middle Sarum, Edward Rutherford’s fine book about the Salisbury Plains.  This was a great opportunity, I reasoned, to see the area I was reading about, and for a while it was.  The green and undulating landscape rolled by easily until I crested a rise some eight miles from Stonehenge, saw the solid line of brake lights and, like the forgetful mother, recalled the impending unpleasantness only when it was far too late to do anything about it.

The traffic jam outside of Stonehenge is nearly as old and immovable as Stonehenge itself but, ironically, has little to do with Stonehenge.  The causes are more due to A) Devon and Cornwall, B) people’s desire to be there, C) the A303 being a major artery to facilitate that migration and, D) the insanity of squeezing this surfeit of traffic from a four-lane divided highway into a two-lane road.

With all the opportunities the British have to practice merging, you’d think they would be better at it, but they continually manage to make a hash of it, causing traffic to back up for mile after mile because they can’t figure out how to smoothly converge from two lanes into one.  And so we sat, rolling forward inch by painful inch, watching as vehicles ahead of us arbitrarily switched from one lane to the other, driven by the desperate but misguided certainty that traffic was moving faster in whichever nearly stationary lane they were not in.

We put the time to good use.  We read War and Peace, did a 10,000 piece jigsaw puzzle and then watched Rocky movies until the battery on my laptop ran out.  Eventually, we caught sight of the vortex that spawned the jam.  It was a quarter mile—or about half an hour—in front of us, and not far beyond sat Stonehenge, looking like a scattering of small rocks nestled in the triangle formed by the A303 and the A360 bypass.  We admired it for, oh, about two minutes, then started reading Moby dick.

If I failed to be amazed by Stonehenge on my previous visits, I am doubly un-dumbfounded since reading Mr. Rutherford’s account (a guess, admittedly, but a scholarly guess) of how it was built.  Surely it was a massive undertaking, but the technology was not a mystery and the whole project could have been completed in ten years.  In my view, the most amazing thing about Stonehenge is that it is still there.  It was an ancient and useless ruin by the time the Romans landed and managed to survive only because people who found it in their way over the ensuing centuries couldn’t be arsed to do a thorough job of erasing it from the landscape.  Even as late as the 1940’s the British military was lobbying to have it removed because it was impeding their exercises.

Now, thankfully, the world has recognized that Stonehenge, by virtue of its age alone, is worth saving.  Unfortunately, while having been named a World Heritage Site might protect it from intentional destruction, it has not placed it in the most capable of hands.  Instead of treating it with the reverence it deserves, it is displayed like one of those 1950’s roadside attractions in America that promise the world’s largest ball of tinfoil or the Amazing Glowing Rock.  And like those attractions, every time you visit, the display seems just a little more tatty.  So if you do visit, expect to be underwhelmed.  And if you visit in ten years time, don’t be surprised to find it under a tarpaulin.

At length, we eased into an orderly, single-file line and the speedometer climbed into double-digits.  On the next rise, just beyond Stonehenge and less than a mile away, we could see the tail end of yet another traffic jam on the A303, caused by an overabundance of holiday makers and the junction with the A36 at Deptford, over thirteen miles away.

Happily, that had nothing to do with us.  We veered off onto the A360, sped past Stonehenge, the parking lot filled with tour buses, the lines of cars parked along the roadside where people had stopped to see Stonehenge without having to pay, and out into the Salisbury Plain.

And promptly became lost.

Sunday, September 19, 2010


On Saturday, 11 Sept 2010, my wife and I went on holiday to a cozy cottage on the cusp of the Forest of Dean.  My plan had been to post updates from there and, armed with a WiFi enabled laptop, my brand new Crackberry™ gizmo and a BT Broadband dongle for backup, we set out.

Things did not go to plan.

This is the story of that holiday, and my seven days of being

Sat. 11 Sept

This holiday came none too soon.  Our last week away had been to Iceland in the middle of January, an intentionally ironic holiday designed to plunge us into enough cold, snow and ice to make our return to Sussex seem like spring.  What we failed to take into account, however, was that Reykjavik enjoys a climate much like our own, and they were having a better winter than we were.  So that disappointment—compounded by the fact that the one time the Northern Lights appeared during our stay was while we were sitting in our room watching utterly forgettable television—was followed by many long weeks and months of uninterrupted work.

Multiple yearly holidays may be a new concept to me—I managed the first forty-six years of my life on about three vacations, after all—but I have since come to appreciate the benefits of one week out of every ten to enjoy as I see fit.

Our autumn holiday, therefore, was not intentionally ironic; we were to spend the week snug in a little guest cottage between the Severn and the Royal Forest of Dean, taking in the wonders of yet another part of this pretty little island.  It would also, I hoped, provide an opportunity for me to pay some much-needed attention to my blogs and backlog of e-mails.  This resolution had less to do with the impending week of free time and more to do with my recent re-conversion to technology.

I have, for some time, been disillusioned with advances in computers and related gadgetry.  Our relationship, which began in the barnstorming days of personal computing, when everything was filled with passion and possibility, began to sour about five years ago.  We had fallen into a passionless routine, and all the attempts to win me back just seemed like showing off to me.  A phone that takes pictures?  I never wanted my camera to make phone calls, so what’s the point?  And then there was the bi-yearly ritual of making me rearrange all of my files and folders and turning my familiar applications into indecipherable puzzles.  And wireless computing?  It all seemed just too Harry Potter and Hocus Pocus to me.  I had grown used to the idea of allowing the cyber world into my home via a computer cable, as long as it remained safely contained behind a sheath of insulation.  But to have it roaming willy-nilly all over the place at will, well that was just unseemly.

In the end, we decided to stay together for the sake of the children, but a frosty silence always descended when we were in the same room together.

But then I got BT Broadband, and a wireless laptop.  Windows 7 followed and, after a brief climb up the learning curve, I fell in love with it.  The latest acquisition was my Crackberry™ and it immediately became essential.  I could take notes with it, check and answer my e-mails, post to Facebook, record voice notes and access Twitter.  Eventually, after a few fumbling attempts to rekindle the passion, Technology and I warmed to each other, I re-resolved to become a Twit (That is what they call Twitter users, right?  Or is that just me?), and became excited by the prospect of twitting, posting and updating while on vacation.

So I practiced a bit, and waited for the holiday; I didn’t have to wait long.

Our Going-On-Holiday routine has been well-established over the years and begins about a month prior to the event with an informal countdown and my wife becoming increasingly anxious about the fact that the suitcases are still in the loft.  Then, a week before we leave, she begins to pack.

I admire this trait.  She gets the full benefit of the holiday, basically stretching it out for an extra week, and it goes something like this: on the Saturday before we leave, the “packing table” appears in the living room.  Over the next few days, piles of panties, socks, toiletries, slacks, blouses, brochures and provisions gather and grow.  And there they remain, until the rising frequency of reminders prompts me to fetch the cases from the loft, allowing her to merrily transfer everything from the table into the suitcase.

It’s her talisman, her Zen method of easing into holiday mode, while I tend to wake up on the morning we are leaving and think, “Oh, we’re going on holiday today,” toss an armload of random garments into the mix and have a quick look at a map of Britain to plot a route.

This time, the route consisted of “head west until you hit Wales, then turn right.”  In a country as small and water-bound as Britain, you can only go so wrong.  If you unwittingly miss your target, the ocean will keep you from going too far astray and will encourage you to turn around and try again, hopefully paying a little more attention this time.  In the States I had to rely on different clues, such as signs saying “Welcome to Vermont.”  I find this a perfectly valid method of getting places by car, since years of experience have taught me that, even if I do plan a detailed route, I’ll end up lost anyway.

And so, locked and loaded, we set out through the drizzle.  Our target was a mere two-and-a-half hours away so we allotted ourselves five hours because this is Britain and I had a plan.

Travel Plans

This is a portion of a much, much longer narrative.
I will be posting episodes in blog-sized chunks in the coming days.
I cannot tell you how long that is likely to be.

Thursday, September 2, 2010

Easy Living

The British kids are going back to school today, and if it seems as if they have just begun their summer school holidays, that is because they have.

Compared to their colonial cousins, British school kids get a paltry amount of time off for the summer. Granted, they make up for it during the rest of the year—the British school year seems to consist of a few weeks of classes, a few weeks off, a few weeks of classes, etc. I’m sure there must be some advantage to this system—such as not allowing time for all of the knowledge the teachers struggled so hard to cram into their pupils’ heads to leak out of their ears—but I still prefer what I grew up with, even at the risk of returning to school more ignorant than when I left.

In the States, when school is on, it’s ON. They call it the school year because that’s what you do during it—School. In September and October you’re settling into your new life; you used to be a 5th Grader, now you’re a 6th Grader, and at the top of the Elementary School food chain. You make do with Columbus Day and Halloween for diversion, and in November you look forward to Election Day and the mini-break (not to mention the turkey) at Thanksgiving.

December brings the Christmas/New Year ensemble, with its full week off and the opportunity to ride your new bike when it’s minus 17 degrees Fahrenheit outside. Then, I must admit, winter and school just drag on. And on. And on. And there is nothing for it but to hunker down, get to work and look forward to better days. It’s good training for adult life.

Even so, spring does arrive eventually, with muddy fields, blooming lilacs, cautious warmth and the Memorial Day weekend. Summer cannot be far away.

When I was a child, summer arrived in three phases, and the first was Memorial Day. It might be May, it might still be cold and dreary, but the Memorial Day weekend was the official starter’s pistol for summer. That was when the seasonal businesses reopened and people with swimming pools cleaned them out and got them ready for the coming season and people, like us, without swimming pools made the inaugural trek to the local swimming hole to test the waters. They were always freezing, but we didn’t care.

The second, and most important, was the middle of June when, after sitting in sweltering classrooms taking end-of-school tests for five days, you at last heard the clang of the final school bell. There is nothing to compare to the feeling of stepping out of school and seeing the whole of the sweet, sunny, sultry summer unfolding in front of you.

And finally, with the official summer solstice unnoticed and in the past and a few weeks of leisure under your belt, the Fourth of July would arrive. This was not a harbinger of summer so much as a confirmation that summer was here and in full swing. Picnics and fireworks—what better way to affirm your freedom?

During the summer, my friends and I would swim at the creek, ride our bikes, camp out in the woods or just enjoy lazing around in the hot, humid afternoons. The days stretched on forever, the world was benign and welcoming, and the possibilities for adventure were endless. We had no Internet, X-Box or iPods, but we were never bored.

I consider myself especially fortunate, as this long and languid period, for me, was punctuated by the Chatham Fair—the annual agricultural event held over the Labor Day weekend. We would go to the fair, look at the animals and exhibits, eat fried dough, cotton candy, candied apples, and then head for the main event—the rides. The Tilt-A-Whirl, the Ferris Wheel, the Scrambler, the Octopus—we would ride them all, repeatedly. Mostly without throwing up.

There would be car rallies, horse races and some has-been celebrity would put on a show in the grand stand and we would notice, as dusk settled around us, an autumnal chill in the air, signalling the end of this marvellous and magical season. Then the fair would pack up and leave town. We would have the next day—the first Tuesday in September—to find what clothes still fit us, get new hand-me-downs and steel ourselves for the coming year, where we would be back—on the bottom of the food chain—in Junior High School, to repeat the familiar cycle.

Now I just get a day off at the end of August; it’s not quite the same.