Friday, December 21, 2012

We Need a Little Christmas

I've been trying to come up with an appropriate holiday post but the spirit keeps flitting away from me. All I know is, this song has been in my head these past two weeks, and I think, given the overall global circumstances, it is highly appropriate: 

Haul out the holly
Put up the tree before my spirit falls again
Fill up the stocking
I may be rushing things, but deck the halls again now

For we need a little Christmas
Right this very minute
Candles in the window
Carols at the spinet

Yes, we need a little Christmas
Right this very minute
It hasn't snowed a single flurry
But Santa, dear, we're in a hurry

So climb down the chimney
Turn on the brightest string of light I've ever seen
Slice up the fruitcake
It's time we hung some tinsel on that evergreen bough

For I've grown a little leaner
Grown a little colder
Grown a little sadder
Grown a little older

And I need a little angel
Sitting on my shoulder
Need a little CHristmas now

For we need a little music
Need a little laughter
Need a little singing
Ringing through the rafter

And we need a little snappy
"Happy ever after"
Need a little Christmas now.

Have a Happy Christmas
(or the holiday of your choice)
and a Great New Year

See you in 2013!

For those out there (both of you) who have never heard this song or are otherwise unfamiliar with the tune, I have included this video. I was hoping for a better, more festive and familiar one, but this is the only one I could find on YouTube that did not begin with a 30-second advertisement for an iPad or HSBC or was otherwise simply a jumble of nonsense some jackass uploaded, which sort of feeds into what I'm getting at:

Oh, and when I attached the video, I put the URL in the box and the search came up with the following:

What on earth Interactive Sex has to do with a Christmas song is beyond me, 
but again, it simply emphasizes what I'm feeling about the season.

Thursday, December 13, 2012

The Siege

Counting today—which is just now pink-tinged with dawn—I have been “retired” for a baker’s dozen of days. Of those days, nine have been actual working days and six would have been within my truncated work week. And I have been sitting in this flat for three of those days (plus a fourth one back in October) watching workmen complete a job that I was originally told would take one day.

The first visit occurred during one of my days off, when I was semi-skivving, before begin made redundant I decided to retire, but the subsequent visits—today’s included—are on days when normal people work. How do people with 40-hour a week jobs find the time to get things like this done?

This “window project” has been going on since June, and it was supposed to have been finished by the end of August, then September, then November, and now they are telling me it will be well into the new year before they finish. But that was what I expected at the onset, because workmen in Britain are just the same as workmen the world over: they show up, make a great deal of noise and commotion without actually getting a lot done, then disappear for days on end leaving us sitting in a construction site.

Typical work crew. Location: anywhere in the world.

And the insouciance of the workmen is breathtaking. I was told they would be here on a certain day, but they couldn’t make it that day (well, in any case, they didn’t show up) so they came a different day. Then they returned to do the finishing touches. This was scheduled for yesterday but at 1 o’clock they suddenly left, saying, “We’ll be back tomorrow; we can’t do any more until the plaster dries.”

Now, this caused no consternation because, quite frankly, I welcome the diversion, but it left me scratching my head wondering how we would have coped with these sorts of demands on our time if I was still holding down a full-time job.

And this is not simply about inconvenience; every time they visit I have to move everything away from all the windows—bed, sofa, curtains, tables, chairs, exercise bike, knitting projects, old pairs of glasses sitting on the window sill that haven’t been used since 2004—the lot. All of it has to go into the middle of the rooms, then, after the workmen leave and I hoover up the mess, it all has to go back where it was, only to be removed and stacked in the middle of the room the next day.

I must say, however, that with all this reaching and bending and lifting and dragging I’m getting a hell of a workout, and since I’m eating better and working out so much, I am actually losing weight. So now I wonder if it really isn’t the workmen’s fault for being so disorganized; perhaps my wife is behind it.

She’s probably calling the foreman right now from her office, telling him to make sure to arrange for another visit next week to touch up the paint or stress test the new window sills or something, anything to keep me from sitting on my duff all day and getting fatter and lazier than I already am.

I can’t blame her; my capacity for sloth is legendary. And I really don’t mind because, if this keeps up, I might look like this by the time our 11th wedding anniversary rolls around:

Now I ask you, what better gift could I give my wife?

Thursday, December 6, 2012

Holiday Hide and Seek

Ah, Christmas shopping! It used to be, in times long past, that I would put off shopping until the last minute, and then dash to the mall on the 24th to buy gifts for my brothers, sisters, friends and parents. I referred to this sort of excursion as “Panic Shopping” and held to the theory that a short deadline was essential for maintaining focus.

Granted, I usually ended up buying things like corkscrews, hand warmers and novelty coffee mugs, but the adrenalin rush was not to be missed.

These days, I take a more organized and proactive (some might call it anal) approach to holiday shopping. What I do is this: during the weeks running up to Christmas, if we happen to be in a store and my wife points at something and indicates she might like it, I make a firm mental note and quickly write it down before the leaking sieve I call a brain drops the thought into the great waste bin of my mind. This way, when I do have to begin shopping, I can just go into town, visit the location where the potential gift was, buy it and return home.

This is a foolproof method for eliminating the stress of holiday shopping, and it has worked every year. Except this one. This is due to a new policy the shops seem to be experimenting with called “Hide the Merchandise.”

It started with the jacket.

Last weekend, my wife and I happened across a display of jackets that appealed to me. The jackets were stylish and reasonably priced but, being a weekend, the store was crowded and the staff were busy serving people who looked more wealthy than us. So I proposed to return the next day when it would be quieter.

When I returned, however, the entire store had been rearranged and the jackets were nowhere to be seen. When I enquired, I was told that they had been on sale and the sale had ended.

“Okay,” I said, “so then where are the jackets?”

“Well, we pulled them; we don’t have them anymore.”

“Then can you give me the part number so I can order them on-line?”

“They won’t be on-line, either; once the sale is over, the merchandise is pulled from the stores, and the web.”

“You mean they are now absolutely unavailable anywhere for any price?”

“That’s right. Unless they go back on sale.”

“And when might that be?”

“Well, there’s no way to tell that, is there?”

The logic she seemed to find in this eluded me. I left the shop disappointed and baffled, and unaware that this was a sign of things to come.

Today, I began my Christmas shopping in earnest and, armed with my list, I headed into town. At the first shop, I maneuvered to the proper location, looked at display rack where the diamond tiaras (my wife reads this blog, so I can’t say what I was really after) always resided and found that the store been rearranged. There were no diamond tiaras anywhere; they seemed to have completely disappeared. So I went in search of the Jet Ski.

Nothing ostentatious; something understated and tasteful.

Now, I considered the Jet Ski a slam dunk; I didn’t even have to write down where to buy one as I could hardly avoid tripping over them when my wife and I wandered through the stores these past weeks. But today, not a Jet Ski to be had. Anywhere.

Really, how could you NOT want one of these?

And that Romantic Getaway to Lego Land I had seen advertised? Also gone and nowhere to be found. So I returned home, defeated and—uncharacteristically—empty handed.

Legoland, every woman's dream romantic destination.

So now I have less than 20 days to come up with alternative gifts, locate and acquire them and haul them back to the flat. But in a way, I’m looking forward to it. It will be a return to those bygone and carefree days when I embraced the holiday buzz instead of doing everything I can to contain and mitigate it. Nothing says “Merry Christmas” louder than the crushing stress of pending shopping that sits on your shoulders like an 800 pound gorilla. So maybe I should just go out at the last minute to elbow my way through the mall with other panicked shoppers, dodging between them to get at the last tea cozy or staple puller. What a great way to feel the true Christmas Spirit!

Yes, it’s time to embrace Christmas Fever and dive headlong into the swirling maelstrom of the holiday.

I just hope my wife likes the corkscrew.

Saturday, December 1, 2012

Day One

Today, as the cliché goes, is the first day of the rest of my life. I finished up my last day in the office yesterday, and as of this morning, I am a gentleman of leisure.

At this point I’m not really noticing anything different. I would have been off today, anyway. And on Tuesday—the actual first day that I don’t have to go into the office—it will probably just feel like a vacation.

And December itself was always going to be a relatively work-free month. My part-time schedule, coupled with judicious use of my remaining annual leave, meant I wasn’t going to be in the office for the final half of the month, anyway. (I feel strangely cheated by this; it’s hard to truly enjoy doing nothing unless you are, in some way, avoiding actual work.) The upshot is, my work week wouldn’t have settled back into a normal routine until after New Year’s Day, so I expect sometime in the middle of January, I’ll sit up, blink my eyes a few times and say out loud, “I really don’t have to go to work any more!”

Granted, this exalted status is sorta dependant on me making some money from my writing, and while that may seem like a tall order, I’m already pulling down a six-figure monthly income from my books, so I don’t think I have a lot to worry about. That is, unless you take into account that those six figures include the digits after the decimal point. And the decimal point itself. And the pound sign. (They are figures, after all.)

But we’ll leave that for another day; for now, I am simply amazed. I began work on 24 August 1973 at the Skyline Corporation just outside of Valatie, New York, making mobile homes, and ended up on 29 November 2012 at ROCC Computers LTD in West Sussex, UK, doing project management. And in between, I collected these:

That is every pay-check I have ever received in my entire working life.

Now, I do expect to add to this pile at some point in the future, and I hope to continue earning royalties, but for now, my actual career has come to an end and I’m looking forward to the next phase of my life: the one where I am either a productive and profitable writer, or a lay about in an ill-fitting track suit lounging around all day, drinking beer and watching daytime television.

I guess time will tell. (Now where did I put that old track suit?)

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

Weighty Matters

If you live in the US and don’t get a Christmas card from me this year, it won’t be because I don’t cherish your friendship (even if it is merely a Facebook occasionally-click-on-your-Like-button type of friendship); it will be because the Royal Mail won’t sell me any postage. Allow me to explain:

I went to the post office yesterday. The reason I went to the post office yesterday and not Saturday is because the government shut down about 95% of the local post offices. Granted, they didn’t shut the one in our town center down, but they shut down every other branch in the county, so anyone who needs to mail anything has to travel to our post office on Saturday morning to do it. (Soon, we are going to have a single, national post office located in Leeds where everyone in Britain will have to go to get their mail. This is one of the main reasons Scotland wants independence; they don’t want to go to Leeds, they would rather go to Edinburgh. But I digress.)

Proposed sorting office in Leeds.

For the time being, however, we are blessed with a regional postal center here in Horsham and slackers like me with a part time (and soon to be no) job can avoid the hassle of getting up at 5 AM to join the queue in hopes of being served by noon, and simply go on a weekday when the crowds have thinned out somewhat.

And so, armed with the knowledge that I needed World-Wide postage stamps, I joined the queue and started making my calculations. This is something I do to pass the time: try to calculate which clerk is going to serve me, and adjust my expectations accordingly. There were four windows open: one was staffed by a blonde woman who I know to be competent, knowledgeable and courteous. Next to her was a matronly woman I had never been served by but who, nonetheless, radiated confidence and appeared efficient. I gave her a 7 out of 10 and put her down as my second choice. On the other side of the blonde was the Money Lady, who is supposed to wait on postal customers when no one is at her window exchanging Euros for Australian Outbacks (or whatever they call their money). She was free now, but was busy arranging bills into neat stacks.

At the far end was a young bloke whose dress and demeanor screamed, “Temporary Help;” I gave him a “1” and prayed for favorable odds.

"Don't make me think!"

The Temp was waiting on an elderly woman when I joined the queue. The blonde and the matron finished their transactions and called up two more people. The Money Lady started filing her nails.

The Temp was pointing at a document, explaining something to the elderly woman who was nodding her head and clearly not understanding a word he said. Two more customers went to the blonde and the matron. The Money Lady was reading War and Peace.

The Temp slid some documents to the woman, who smiled and began rooting through her cavernous handbag for her purse. Two more customers left the queue. The Money Lady was working on a cross-stitch of The Last Supper.

The woman found her purse and began counting out her money—slowly and deliberately—in pennies. Two more people left the queue. The Money Lady was updating her Facebook status.

Transaction complete, the woman was thanking (and thanking and thanking) the Temp. Two more people left the queue. The Money Lady was taking up oil painting.

The woman finally stepped away from the Temp’s window; it was my turn. The Money Lady was signing up for a correspondence course in home laser surgery. I had no choice; I went to the Temp.

“I need world-wide stamps,” I told him.

He stared at me. “What kind?”

“Um, the kind for sending letters. To the US.”

“It depends on the weight.”

Handy, if you know how much a gram weighs.

“They are for standard letters, a sheet of paper in an envelope, how much would that be?”

“Depends on the weight.”

“They all weight the same and they are all just average Christmas cards.”

“Depends on the weight.”

“But they aren’t anything special; they are the same as any other card you get, how much do they cost to mail?”

“Depends on the weight.”

“I’ve never had this much trouble buying stamps before,” I told him. “I just say it’s for a standard letter and they give me stamps.”

“I can sell you some stamps, but if they are the wrong kind, you won’t be able to use them.”

“Then what would be the right kind?”

“Depends on the weight.”

And so, I left, without my stamps. We now have a pile of Christmas cards that my wife has signed, addressed and assembled but we have no way of mailing them. I suppose I could take them all down to the Temp and make him weight each and every one individually, but I suspect he might enjoy that. The only thing I can do is wait for my next day off, go back to the post office, join the queue and hope I end up with the Blonde or the Matron. Or that the Money Lady has finished her correspondence course.

Monday, November 12, 2012

A Quintessentially British Experience

 Over the years I have had many British experiences—such as going to a Pantomime, being put on an NHS waiting list and watching Midsomer Murders—but none of these compares to the quintessential Britishness of being Made Redundant.

In America, I would have simply been “laid off” or, even worse, “downsized” whereas here I am redundant, which, if you take it literally, means “superfluous, unnecessary and outmoded.” Compared to that, I might prefer the old fashioned “fired,” but being declared superfluous in Britain is not an insult, it’s just—especially these days—an annoying fact of life, like the Council deciding to resurface the high street on the day of the village fete.

The biggest problem with being made redundant in Britain—at least where I live—is that there are no hot air vents to sleep on. Also, being a Welfare State, you have to get on a council waiting list for a spot under a bridge. Fortunately, like all good, corrupt governments, the right amount of money in the right hands got us on the short list for this baby:

 It’s in an ideal location—close to shops and right off a bus line—and it has bags of character. We’re sharing the left end with a family of four from Nigeria but there is still plenty of room for me to have a study, which we can use as a guest bedroom when we have company.

All right, now before you start feeling too sorry for me (but after you have felt sorry enough to buy multiple copies of all my books) let me explain how this all went down:

What happened was, I was offered VR, which is also uniquely British and which stands for “Voluntary Redundancy.” How this works is, your manager walks you to the edge of a cliff and, as you stare over the precipice at the craggy rocks below, says, “You can jump, or you can stand here until I decide to push you off; your choice. However, if you choose to jump, I’ll give you a couple of mattresses to soften your landing.”

I didn’t exactly get a golden handshake (it was more like a brass one), but it was better than a sharp stick in the eye. More to the point—and here’s the bit that will help you stop feeling sorry for me (you did buy my books, though, didn’t you?)—it was also what I wanted.
After getting the offer, I went home to discuss it with my wife and was pleasantly surprised to find that, even after ten years, she remains so blinded by love that I can still talk her into making some truly dubious decisions. I am, therefore, not going to seek another job but instead will look upon this as a promotion to full-time writer. Even in my office I am telling people I opted for early retirement instead of saying that I took VR, and right now (I still have three more weeks to go) I am the happiest person in the company.

It had always been my intention to retire early and devote myself fully to my writing; this is a great opportunity—perhaps my only one—and I intend to make the most of it. Lee Child made it work, so there’s no reason I can’t.

Just in case, though, if you happen to know of any hot air vents that are free, keep me in mind.

About the Book:

I want to thank all of you who bought Finding Rachel Davenport. That was really nice of you; thanks ever so much. Now I have another favor to ask: could you put a review on Amazon?

Reviews, I am told, boost a book’s visibility and, thereby, increase its sales potential. Having just lost my job (violins, please) I don’t have enough money to buy any decent reviews, and I lack the guile and organizational skills necessary to create “sock puppet” reviews, so I am falling back on the last resort—actual, real reviews from actual, real readers telling what they actually, really think about the book. And, yes, that means if you didn’t like it, say so; the only bad review is one that isn't posted.

No Sock Puppets!

 So if you could do me that favor, I would really, really appreciate it.

Thanks again.

Tuesday, November 6, 2012

David Sedaris is Stalking Me

For those of you who don’t know, David Sedaris is a very funny man whose work I have long admired. I have known for some time that he is, like me, an expat, but that was hardly notable; there are a lot of expats around these days.

What I did not know was that Mr. Sedaris had a series of shows on BBC Radio 4, where he would read selected essays to a live audience. I accidentally bumped into these broadcasts during an ironing marathon one Sunday afternoon back in May and have been a keen listener every since.

David Sedaris, comedian, writer, stalker

During this weekend’s episode, however, Mr. Sedaris tipped his hand: becoming a fan and finding his show were not merely pleasant accidents, he has been stalking me.

Mr. Sedaris (or, should I call him “Dave,” as we seem to be intimately connected) was born just about two years after me, in Binghamton, New York, so his stalking started early, with him literally following me into the world. And now, some (pick a number—a large one) years later, after the two of us move to the other side of the world, it turns out we’re neighbors. In his essay “Rubbish” Dave tells how he and his partner came to live in a little Sussex village just down the road from me. Coincidence? I think not.

Okay, maybe is just a fluke, but at least this gives me another opportunity to talk about the shameful state of Britain’s roads, and the endemic insouciance the British have concerning litter. I’ve banged on about this before, but Dave does a truly marvelous and hysterical job of shining a light on this nefarious activity. So go have a listen; you’ll be glad you did.

And stop throwing your crap all over this beautiful country; you should be ashamed of yourselves!

Britain the beautiful

Monday, October 29, 2012

About the Book

It was in the summer of 2007 that Rachel Davenport (the real one) handed me her business card and I got the idea for the novel. A mere 5 years later, a book is born (and Rachel is still at the travel agency, though she has received a promotion in the interim).

This post will be short and to the point: the book is good; buy it!

Opis, an imprint of Prospera Publishing, opted for the manuscript and turned it into an eBook. They helped me tremendously with editing and made the final product one I am very pleased with (um, the typos that slipped through, they were my fault). And they made a smashing cover, too.

You can buy the eBook from or or—if you don’t own a Kindle or hate feeding the corporate juggernaut—at Smashwords.

There is a paperback edition available, but this had to be independently produced, which explains the minimalist cover:

You can buy the paperback at or

Here’s the official blurb.

Rachel Davenport—former child prodigy, world-class gymnast and Miss Teen England—has retired from public life and lives anonymously in a small town, working as a clerk for a travel agency.  By night, however, Rachel is a self-styled crime-fighter, seeking to right the wrongs inflicted on people who cannot help themselves.  But when her first mission goes horribly awry she finds herself pursued, not merely by the media, but by the police and an assortment of criminals who want her silenced.  To preserve her anonymity, as well as her life, Rachel must prove to the police that she is one of the good guys and keep one step ahead of the bad guys, all while avoiding nosey neighbours, holding onto her job and juggling two would-be suitors.

Finding Rachel Davenport is a fun read, with a quirky plot and an explosive ending.

That’s it; you know what to do.

Thursday, October 25, 2012

Herfing in the Rain

I had occasion, recently, to revisit a valuable life-lesson, but in order to enlighten you about that, I first need to tell you about our windows, my post-prandial cigar ritual and camping with my boys. Bear with me.

The windows in our flat are “single glazed.” I’m not sure of the American translation of this because I haven’t seen a single-glazed window in the US since I was 16, but single-glazed means a window with a single sheet of glass in it. If you were lucky enough to have this type of window, you got to see beautiful frost patterns—on the inside of the glass—on many a winter morning. In the warmer months they simply steamed up and were, therefore, facilitators of mildew. They were the basic window; the kind everyone had since windows had been invented.

Then some clever clogs discovered that, if you put two sheets of glass together, with a small gap between them, the resulting window would be much more energy efficient. It also never got the pretty swirls of frost like the old windows did, but somehow this disadvantage didn’t stop them from making single-pane windows obsolete. We called them “double-pane” windows when they first appeared; shortly after that, we started calling them “windows.”

In Britain, double-paned, or doubled-glazed windows are the norm, as well, but if you live in a block of flats that was built during the Kennedy administration (or the Macmillan Prime Ministership, or whatever the Brits call it) and you have a landlord who is too cheap to upgrade, then you have single-glazed windows. Given that it doesn’t get cold enough over here to form frost patterns on the windows, there is no advantage in having them and we have been looking forward to getting double-glazed windows since we moved in. And now we are.

Maurice Harold Macmillan, 1st Earl of Stockton, OM, PC, FRS
Prime Minister of the United Kingdom 1957 - 1963

Step one of this process was to clad our buildings in scaffolding.

Although there is a sign hanging on the scaffold discouraging children from playing on it, I reasoned that I am not a child, nor did I wish to play on it; I simply intended to enjoy a beverage, my cigar and an enhanced view. So I did.

Shhh! Don't tell anyone; I'm not sure I'm supposed to be up there.

And life went on pretty much as it had before except with less parking and a lot more noise. Then one day, it rained. Very hard.

The umbrella rattled like a snare drum while beneath it, in my circular sanctuary, I remained snug and dry as summer sand, and this brought to mind memories of pleasant days spent camping with my sons. We would make camp, then stretch our tarpaulins tight over the site, carefully angling them so any rain would run to the edges and not collect in the center. And then we would dig trenches to divert the water away from the camp. (I wasn’t a Boy Scout for nothing, you know.) On many trips, the tarps served merely as sun shades, but other times it would rain, and then—because of our preparations—we could sit at the picnic table, enjoy a cup of coffee (or a can of Coke for the boys) and watch the deluge, comfortable and confident and, more to the point, dry.

I embraced this memory, and luxuriated in my little oasis of calm, my microcosm of campsites past. It was a moment of unexpected serenity and surprising contentment. Then my neighbor opened a window to say something to me.

Now, under the umbrella, it sounded like I was sitting inside a waterfall. It told him I couldn’t hear him, so he shouted louder, and still all I could hear was the roar of the water. Eventually, so as not to appear bad-mannered as well as insane, I unfurled the umbrella and sat in the rain in order to hear what he had to say, which was that he could not believe I was sitting out there in the rain, something I sort of already knew.

Satisfied, he withdrew and I put the umbrella back over me, but I was no longer serene, or dry. I persevered, but The Moment was gone.

We could, from this incident, learn that it is sometimes best to ignore people, but that would be rude, so I instead drew the lesson that cherished moments are ephemeral and unpredictable and it is, therefore, important to embrace them whenever we are able, for we know not when, or if, they will come again.

Herfin' in the Rain

And once they’re gone you’ll find that you’re just sitting in the rain smoking a damp cigar.

(NOTE: for more on Herfing and Herf-Lore, I refer you to my book, Postcards From Ireland,there's a chapter in there about it.)

Friday, October 19, 2012

Back to Normal

My wife is returning this evening after being away for several days. I know I have been joking about running with scissors while she was gone (I didn’t) and willfully leaving interior doors open when I left the flat, despite the danger of the television exploding or the wardrobe spontaneously combusting and the resulting fire running rampant through our block of flats because I didn’t secure the doors; I did do this—after all, what do I care if the place burns to the ground 3 seconds sooner because I didn’t close the doors; I won’t be there—I did not, however, do it often, which reminds me of why I like having a wife around: when left on my own, I tend to vegetate.

I have been on my own for five days, and have left the flat only three times—once to go to the pub, once to buy pizza and just now, because I realized I have not been outside for two days and I was beginning to mould.

Add to this the fact that, since I took my wife to the train station at 9 o’clock on Monday morning, I have not turned on a radio or the telly and have been sitting in complete silence, reading or writing, for the past 102 hours, and you will understand that I am beginning to go just a little bit stir crazy and will be happy to welcome her home, even if the first thing she does is turn on Strictly Come Dancing.

This is how other people probably see me when I am in "writing mode."

I’m not really this antisocial, or boring – not always, anyway – but I took the opportunity to be boring and antisocial this week so I could tie up all the loose ends on my current book and give the next novel a good kick start. And the best way to force myself to do that is to give myself enough time to finish all the obsessive-compulsive tasks I can think up to avoid writing (such as sorting out my sock drawer, making sure all the books in the bookcases are lined up by author and that each book in each author group is in the correct chronological sequence, or counting the number of note pads I have and, just to be sure, counting them again); then, and only then, will I finally sit myself down and—having exhausted all other possibilities—begin to write.

This is how I see myself when I am in "writing Mode."

It seems to have worked: over the past few days I have finished the paperback edition of Finding Rachel Davenport and am now just waiting for the official release date of the eVersion so I can make them both available at the same time. (That would be 30 October for those of you who are interested.) And the plot for my next novel, instead of being just the germ of an idea, is now a huge tangled mass of recalcitrant plot points and loose ends, which should be as easy to sort out as encouraging a basket full of ferrets* to line up in an orderly fashion.

And, as a bonus, the bookcases are now as neat and tidy as my sock drawer.

* The proper term for a collection of ferrets is a “business” of ferrets, a term which—if I saw it in someone else’s blog post—would lead me to assume they had made it up on the spot because they didn’t have the imagination to use “a basket full of ferrets.”

Saturday, October 13, 2012

When the Wooden Planks Rabbit and Pork

It has recently come to my attention that the Americans are imitating British speech. If you happen to be one of them, I have this to say to you:

Stop it. Stop it right now. You sound like a twit. I’ve been living in Britain for 10 years and even I don’t say “Cheers,” and do you know why? Because I sound like a twit when I do. When a Brit says “Cheers,” it sounds natural; when an Americans says it, they say it as if they imagine themselves wearing a tweed outfit and a flat cap. Like it or not, British speech just does not sound right being said by Americans.

How this usurping of the British language began is not important (although I blame Downton Abbey, The X-Factor UK and residual fallout from the Harry Potter franchise) it is only important that you stop. I can only hope this is a verbal fad—like “groovy” (I cannot believe I used to say that with no sense of irony) or “Awesome” or saying “NOT!” after a patently absurd statement—and as such will fade away as did your penchant for counting carbs and your unfortunate flirtation with disco dancing.

Please understand I am only trying to help. I’m sure, despite your sincere desire to sound like David Beckham or Pipa Middleton, you really don’t understand how to use the words Twitten, Boot, Loo, Invigilate, Jolly and Queue properly in a sentence. When you try, you might think you sound sophisticated, but if there are any real Brits in the vicinity, they will secretly be thinking that you’re making a tit out of yourself.

As proof, have a look at the title: do you know what that means? No? Britspeak FAIL! Start speaking American, okay? American speech is brash and brassy and colourful enough that you don’t need to steal someone else’s words. “Going to the Loo?” How pedestrian! I can’t think of anything more depressing than hanging out in an American pub—I mean, bar—and hearing blokes—I mean, guys—saying they are” going to the loo.” What happened to your imagination? “Going to mark my territory,” “going to drain the snake,” “I’m going to the shitter, my back teeth are floating,” – now that’s more like it; crass, bold and in your face; that’s the American way. (Just don’t, in that situation, say, “I’m takin’ the piss” because that is so very wrong on many levels and you just end up looking like an arse.)

And if you don’t care about yourselves, then spare a moment to consider how I feel about it (because, as if you need to be reminded, it is all about me). I turned my life upside down, I found myself in a strange land among strange people with a strange language, and I spent a long time learning its meanings and nuances. It was an accomplishment, something I was proud of, something that marked me out both here and when I returned to the States for a visit. But now, if the rest of you are speaking the same way I am, well, what fun is that. For me, I mean.

If you want the right to use British words then you should do what I did: sell everything you own, move to Britain, marry a British person (you won’t have any problem finding a Brit to marry; they just swoon over an American accent. NOT!) and live here among the British. After a while, you can start using their vocabulary (but not their accent, please dear god, not the accent) and correctly adopt words like Loo, Twitten, Twee, Boot, Trainers and the like.

Only then will you understand how wrong it is for Americans to adopt British speech, and you will join with me in begging them to stop.

But if you remain intent on adopting British ways, you can start by writing your dates correctly, that’s just driving me crazy.

*Title translation: When the Americans Talk

Wednesday, October 3, 2012

Cover Story

Finally making some progress. Well, not in the “finding time to update the blog” arena, obviously. I had great plans, really I did. While I was on my America Tour I and America Tour II, a whole raft of blog ideas came to me. I even wrote them down. When I got home, of course, I couldn’t read my notes.

Buck heads, buck shot and baseball -- now that's a bar
One of the many untold stories from my first US trip

A book store without a huge display of 50 Shades of Grey
One of the many untold stories from my second US trip

Being away for a fortnight, and then away for another fortnight is grand (if you get the chance to do it, grab it with both hands). The problem is, there is that much more work waiting for you when you return, so the inevitable "back home again" let down isn’t followed by a mere seven day pile of overdue issues, but a 28-day teetering mountain of neglect demanding immediate action followed, a few days later, by a somewhat smaller mountain consisting of all the stuff that piled up while you were dealing with the stuff you didn’t deal with during the 28 days you were busy enjoying yourself.

Accordingly, I need another holiday, and fortunately, I’m going to get one. My wife is going to Bath on a girls night out extended over 5 days (just some sight-seeing and medium to industrial-grade shopping with her mates, at least that’s what she told me; I’m keeping bail money handy, just in case) so I thought I’d take the week off myself in order to spend some quality time with my novel (at least that’s what I told my wife, I’m sure there will be some running with scissors, staying up past my bedtime and sitting too close to the telly involved; she’s keeping bail money handy, just in case).

The big news is, the cover for Finding Rachel Davenport (that’s what we’re calling it, in case I forgot to mention that earlier) has arrived:

Cool, eh?

I like it. It’s not too girlie and chick-lit looking, like the first attempts, or evocative of a Peter James or Jo Nesbo thriller, like the second attempts; this one hit the Goldilocks Spot—it’s just right. I see my publisher has also convinced someone to read it so they could put a nice blurb on the cover and attribute it to a real person. Nice touch.

So now everyone is waiting for me. I have the corrected manuscript and am supposed to be working diligently on it instead of wasting my time earning a living. Good thing I have that vacation coming up; I’ll be able to put that time to good use, at least.

Now where did I put those scissors?

Friday, September 21, 2012

Meet Me at the Fair

County fairs: brash, gaudy, exciting and just a bit dangerous. Ours was held over Labor Day weekend, neatly capping off the summer season. Before the fair, hot, sultry summer reigned, filling our lazy days with the buzz of insects, hot dogs, swimming in the creek and visits to the local ice cream shops; after the fair, school resumed, the seasonal shops closed and the nights grew long and cool. For me, the fair was summer’s exclamation point.

Officially dubbed the Columbia County Fair it is commonly known as the Chatham Fair and universally referred to as “the fair” among us locals. It was the genesis of many a cherished childhood memory and one of the reasons I wanted to visit America when we did.

The ephemeral nature of the fair made it mystical. Throughout the year the fairgrounds remained barren, then the trucks would arrive and, in an explosion of chaotic fury, the fair would appear. It opened Thursday and ran until the end of the Monday holiday. The last revelers left at 11 PM and when dawn arrived, the fairgrounds would be empty again. It was magic.

It's an agricultural fair, what did you expect?

The fair shook the summer lethargy out you: the blaring music, the shriek of metal, the sticky, sweet scent of cotton candy and the pervading stench of diesel exhaust slapped you as you walked in. The air was hot, dry and dusty, the rides dizzying and at night, the lights blazed in unabashed, gaudy glory.

Along the perimeter were the gaming booths, with their impossible odds and lame prizes and barkers who cajoled, flattered and insulted until you skulked out of earshot or gave in and put your money down. On the far end were the side shows: the bearded lady, the snake man, the world’s most fearsome gorilla (it was a guy in a monkey suit; cost me $1.50 to find that out), the boy with no body (a kid standing in a pedestal with his head poking through the top; $1.50) and, of course, the huchie coochie shows (“She walks, she talks, she crawls on her belly like a reptile!”).

Modern Barkers, not doing much of anything.

The rides—cobbled hastily together by people who, in all probability, did not enjoy the benefits of higher education—reeked with their own special kind of danger, and the hairy, tattooed man (or is that a woman?) taking your ticket and eyeing your girlfriend up and down also exuded mild menace. And then you spun and whirled and plunged and soared and screamed your throat raw and it was the biggest rush of the summer and you left feeling elated and not the least bit nauseous, which only the young can do.

And so, I brought my wife to the fair, to show her an authentic piece of Americana and relive my childhood memories. You have, no doubt, already anticipated my disappointment.

The livestock and local 4-H exhibits—which is supposedly the primary purpose of the fair—were still there, and if they seemed a little smaller than I recall that is probably due to my being larger and the fact that my most recent trip to an agricultural exhibition was the South of England Show. The amusement park, however, was anything but the same. The gaming booths were there but the barkers weren’t. The people running the booths didn’t shout, instead they causally watched the passers-by and chatted amiably with their neighbors. The sideshows were gone, as were the really dangerous rides and my desire to ride them. And the few fair people I encountered were polite and relatively well-spoken.

Reality, what a gyp.

In short, there was no sense of danger, no menace or excitement, and it was nowhere near as tawdry as I remember. It seemed, to my utter dismay, nice.

So file this under “You can’t go home,” or “They’re ruining this country,” or “These kids today don’t know they’re born” and go visit the cow barn; that hasn’t changed.

Wednesday, September 12, 2012

Finding America

I’m back from the States again, and with—I hope—a few good stories to post. But before we get into that, I thought I’d share my impression of America:

Being an expat can be a lonely business, especially if you have no close family to tie you to your home counties. I have family, but until recently I had no compelling reason to see them more often than once every other year, and even then it was always in conjunction with a larger vacation. My wife and I might spend a week in Halifax (lovely place, by the way) and then swoop into the Albany, New York area for a few days of “Hi how are you good seeing you great to be here good-bye now” before breezing off to another location.

After a few years of that, a strange thing began to happen: I lost track of America.

For the better part of a decade, news from home came primarily from media reports, Twitter tweets and Facebook postings that, over time, went from puzzling to startling to alarming. The media I could rationalize: they weren’t reporting dreadful news about America because America is dreadful, they were reporting dreadful news about America because reporting dreadful news is what the media does. “Local Scout Troop Fundraises to Save Home for Orphaned Kittens” always takes a back seat to “Religious Nut-Jobs Massacre 50 at Gay Wedding Reception Before Setting Themselves Alight.”

In a country the size of America (or even Andorra – look it up) there is always something bad to report if you look hard enough, but that doesn’t mean only bad things happen there. Still, month after month after month it sort of wears on you, and you begin to wonder. And then you look at Facebook.

The reason for being there: Mitchell Paul (top) and Charles Michael (bottom)

An agenda-driven media is one thing, but seeing opinions posted for the world to see by real people, some of whom I have been at least peripherally acquainted with, posting declarations that, in the best of light, push the boundaries of “Lunatic Fringe” can be quit disconcerting. (No, I’m not talking about you, of course: JFK’s assassination was definitely a mafia hit that was covered up by the CIA.) Dire predictions concerning the imminent collapse of democracy, the rise of a fascist totalitarian state and myriad methods of a coming apocalypse made me pause, and wonder: “Has everyone gone batshit over there?”

Well, I was pleased to find out they have not.

Provided with the opportunity to live for a full month (albeit interspersed with a few weeks in the UK) back in my hometown, not as a tourist but as a normal person doing normal type things and interacting with other, normal people while I did so, I found America to be pretty much how I left it.

America is still filled with friendly, mostly happy, contented people who bitch about paying too many taxes, think the liberals (or the conservatives) have it wrong and worry about rising prices and what future they are preparing for their children, but who—when pressed even a little bit—admit that, yeah, they have a pretty good life. It was pleasant beyond words to reacquaint myself with home, to live among people with whom I share a common background and to sit, luxuriating in the summer sun, listening to the land that, as my friend noted, is in my DNA.

Lyon's Lake, a place of many fond memories

I felt, not home, but at home, comfortable among the people and familiar places, and I left refreshed in many way. Sussex is now my home but America will always be my base, where I am from, what defines me.

So thank you, fellow Americans, for not being as batshit as you seem from a distance. And I promise to not pay too much attention to the media or to the nutburgers who espouse views that are probably as radical to you as they are to me.

And I really, really need to stay away from Facebook.

Tuesday, August 28, 2012

In With the New

 I can’t leave a “well done on the Olympics” post up with the Paralympics starting, so I thought I’d post some pictures of our spiffy new railway station, because I know you want to see it.

This is the new entrance. They have been working on this for a long time and but I knew they were getting close to finishing because, after they laid the nice, new entrance patio, they ripped it up to lay underground cables and pipe. This is standard procedure in British construction.

The interior of the station is cavernous compared to the old one, and really looks spiffy.

Also, we still have our Solo Café, one of the few independent railroad cafés in existence. They were going to give them the heave-ho in favor of a chain café, but popular opinion won out and Solo remained.

These are the new gates. They put in a reduced, but still respectable, number of them. When they revamped the station in Newport—a large city with a heavy commuter flow—they reduced the bank of gates to two, one for entering and one for exiting. Madness; and I wonder how that works out during rush hour. I was glad to see some degree of sense prevailed in our case.

The shiny, new stairway going up into the old bit.

Here’s where the old bit starts.

And this is the old bit. Nothing wrong with it; it looks comforting and familiar.

This was where we had to get tickets and access the station for I don’t know how many months. I’m going to miss it; it was fun climbing up the scaffolding to the train platforms.

Sorry about the lag in real posts but, hey, life happens.