Wednesday, March 27, 2013

Under the Watchful Eye

I’m having some unexpected difficulties plotting my current novel due to a peculiarly British phenomenon: the obsession with putting CCTV cameras on, well, everything. Now, other countries have CCTV, but none deploy them with the alacrity of the British.

“Big Brother is Watching You.” ― George Orwell, 1984
To be brief, the villain in my story needs to push a hapless victim onto the railroad tracks, and it needs to look like an accident, but with an estimated camera-to-civilian ratio of 1 to 32, it is patently impossible to pick your nose, scratch your arse or, more to the point, throw someone under a train, without it being captured on the current equivalent of video. Even the most remote, rural railway station I could find was bristling with CCTV cameras. It is truly disheartening.

"Every move you make, every step you take,
I'll be watching you," ― Sting

And the thing is, this only causes problems for people like me. If I go ahead and write that scene, people will read it and toss the book aside, thinking, “What rubbish! If anyone tried to do something like that they would be spotted on CCTV!” And because the public has this perception, my job is harder (are you feeling sorry for me yet?), but the sad truth is, my villain most likely could get away with it because, despite the proliferation of cameras, they never seem to capture any criminals.

We spend billions of pounds in this country monitoring every corner of every city, village and hamlet but all I have ever seen on the local news are grainy shots of grey blobs with hoods stretched over their heads walking away from whatever mayhem they have caused while the voice over pleads to the entire nation, “If you recognize these people, call 999-1984.”

C'mon, cut a guy a break!
Surely those billions of pounds could be better spent putting a few more bobbies on the beat to catch these miscreants red-handed. Though I fear that would do little good, either.

I can’t tell you how many times I have shouted at the telly (someone has to do it) while watching one of those “Cops With Cameras Instead of Guns” shows, where drunken reprobates careen in a stolen car through narrow village streets ejecting beer bottles and bags of dope while crashing into property, other vehicles and cops cars until, after crashing into the wall of a 14th century church and destroying the chapel, they jump out of the car the lead the police (and the helicopter) on a merry chase before finally being brought to heel by the K-9 Squad in someone’s back garden. All I can think is how much this all cost in terms of man-hours, equipment, damage, etc., but at the end of the segment, the announcer joyfully relates how the passenger in the vehicle was later released without charge and the driver was taken to the local police station where he was given a very stern warning.

That's when my wife usually changes the channel.

The fact is, all this CCTV data is good for is to provide footage for the above-mentioned shows.

And, of course, to keep my villain from throwing someone under a train.

Tuesday, March 19, 2013

Bonus Day

Today—like every other day for the past fortnight—was supposed to be a wash out, but who am to argue with sunshine. That’s right, after a dodgy start, the temps climbed above freezing and the sun actually peeked from between the clouds. So, not one to let an opportunity slip by, I grabbed my bike and hit the road.

My destination was a recommended pub called The Dragon in the little village of Colgate about five miles east of Horsham. That’s as the crow flies; the trip was actually about 14 miles total, and I know this because I bought an odometer (wouldn’t I just). But it was a pleasant ride over some serene bike paths, though I could have done without the bits on the road. The people here drive like maniacs.

But, inspired by other bikers I have seen on the roads, I took to the busy streets and soon found myself on the bucolic country lanes outside of town—lanes I had to share with large trucks and rich people in big SUVs who drive like they are qualifying for the Indie 500 and who do NOT appreciate the likes of me slowing them down.

(TRUE STORY: Some years ago, a rich kid in a fast car ramming around the back roads near Shipley, hit a 60 year-old-man who was riding his bike. The kid dragged the man and the bike under his car for a few hundred yards before finally stopping. The man, as you might expect, was seriously injured. When they took the kid to court, his defence was—and this is a direct quote—“I didn’t mean to hit him, I just wanted to clip him.” Apparently, the biker had the temerity to be in front of him, making him go slower than he wanted to before he could find a place to pass so, in order to teach him a lesson, he purposely cut the guy off. But he didn’t see anything wrong with that. His arrogance was breath taking. So, the guy lived, the kid went to jail but I still have to share the road with others like him. I look over my shoulder a lot.)

Anyway, with hope in my heart and a wary eye out for spoiled rich kids in fast cars, I headed for St. Leonard’s Forest. In truth, this was my second foray into this unknown. Some days ago during a brief not-great-weather-but-at-least-not-actively-raining spell, I mapped out a route and set out for the forest. We have lived next to St. Leonard’s Forest for 11 years now and I have always wanted to see it, but somehow just never got around to it, so I was pretty excited by the prospect. Unfortunately, on my first trip, I managed to miss the forest. Somehow, I took a wrong turn, ended up on a mucky, quagmire of a trail and then found myself back in Horsham. Knowing when I’m beaten, I just called it a day, but this time, I managed to keep on track and found the wide, dry and very pleasant trail the runs directly through the forest. It was grand.

Is it any wonder I get lost here so often; do you see a road sign anywhere?

Riding in the country is strange; you can traverse a mucky trail like this...

...then turn a corner and see this. I just bet a spoiled
rich kid with a fast car lives there.

Ah, the forest primeval, as God intended it to be.

Yeah, that's a golf course.

My destination.

My reward.
And when I got to the other side, there was The Dragon, just where it was supposed to be and just as convivial as the reviews claimed it was. It was an olde worlde type of pub, with a fire in the hearth, a friendly bar wench and, most importantly, a place I could sit outside to smoke a cigar and enjoy a pint in the very rare sunshine.

It was a great inaugural trip (the other one didn’t count) and I managed to get back to Horsham without getting lost (well, not too much, anyway).

So that’s one pub down, and thanks to a “cycling to the pubs” guide I found on the internet, I have many more such trips to look forward to. Once the weather cheers up.

Sunday, March 17, 2013

Happy St. Nuggets Day

You might think I would be keen to talk about St. Patrick’s Day, seeing as how—as I write this—it is St. Patrick’s Day, and in my prime, I used to sing “diddley-dee” songs in some of our many local, Irish-Themed pubs, and was a one-time medal-winning Irish step dancer. I could discuss the differences in celebrations I knew in New York compared to those I see here* but, instead, I want to talk about Chicken McNuggets.

Today, you see, marks the 50th anniversary of the invention of the Chicken Nugget. They were not, as many suspect, developed in the R&D labs of McDonald, Inc. (the place that gave us—or tired to—the McDLT, the McLobster, the McGratin Croquette, the Hula Burger and McPizza) but were instead prototyped by a professor at Cornell University named Robert C. Baker. His notion was as heroic as it was altruistic: to take all the wasted bits of the chicken and make something useful out of them. His conception was an economical and nutritious sort of chicken-stick (similar to the fish-stick) but, as we all know, history (and McD’s) hijacked the idea and came up with a Frankenfood concoction containing—among other goodies—sodium phosphates, mono- and di-glycerides, pyrophosphate, monocalcium phosphate, dimethylpolysiloxane (added as an antifoaming agent) and some chicken.

But boy, weren’t they tasty!

Robert C. Baker
Pioneer who paved the way for the Chicken McNugget.
Thanks, Bob!
Of all the things McDonald’s has created, McNuggets—in my book—come in a solid second after the Egg McMuffin. They are bad for you in a dozen ways but, really, unless your diet consists solely of these breaded, fried, chicken-flavored dog biscuits, they aren’t going to do you much harm, and there is little better in this world than a bit-sized serving of fat, grease and unnaturally enhanced spices dipped into a goo of unnaturally colored BBQ sauce.

Stacey Irvine
McNugget Devotee
If you are going on a road trip, they are a necessity: the natural complement to Dunkin Munchkins. I have completed several long-distance drives eating nothing but Munchkins for breakfast and McNuggets for lunch and dinner; they are America’s On-The-Go foods.

I have to admit that, these days, I do not frequent McDonald’s (or any other restaurant where the food is served from behind a counter by teenagers wearing hairnets and name tags) and, in fact, have not eaten a McNugget in over a decade. Life has moved on for me, but they had their day and were—for a time—an integral part of my life. So perhaps, on this doubly special day, I should go downtown and seek out the glow of the Golden Arches. I’m likely too late to order an Egg McMuffin, but I can at least get a Big Mac, super-sized fries and a half-dozen McNuggets with Hot Honey Mustard sauce.

And, seeing as how it is St. Patrick’s Day, maybe they’ll color them green.

* Actually, I can discuss that quite succinctly: in NY we celebrated St. Patrick’s Day; here we do not.

Monday, March 11, 2013

Back on Two Wheels

So, yeah, I got a bike.

This is how it happened:

Since my unexpected retirement some months back, I have been happily holed up in my flat, occasionally stepping onto the balcony to feel the bitter wind on my face and watch the blowing snow swirl around the courtyard before ducking back inside, thankful that I no longer have to be anywhere that requires me to go outside. But then something strange occurred: the wind stopped, the sun appeared, the flowers bloomed and the outside world became suddenly agreeable.

Sussex, in agreeable weather.
For the record, this happened on Monday and Tuesday of this past week. By Wednesday, the sun was already making a tactical retreat, but I still had a spring in my step, so I took advantage of the mild weather (as well as the fact that, not having rained for three days, the ground was actually showing is some places) and walked—with the aid of my wellies—to a nearby village for a pint. This was so agreeable that, on the return journey, I began thinking of other pubs I might visit. Alas, most of them were too distant to attempt by foot, but if I had a bicycle…

So, yeah, I got a bike.

This wasn’t as straightforward as it could have been. While I did own a bike when I lived in the States—and was a semi-enthusiastic rider—it has been close to two decades since I have purchased one, and two-wheel technology has marched on since then, dragging the price along with it. Consequently, the man at the bike shop showed me a beguilingly sleek machine boasting disc brakes, hydraulic suspension and 27 gears along with a price that made me think he had mistaken my intention and was attempting to sell me a car.

We eventually agreed on a model and a price but, as I am no longer the primary breadwinner in this relationship (despite my “best-seller” status – see What’s New), I needed to submit a purchase request to the chief financial officer. I had the advantage here because, in Britain, the default meaning of “bike” is motorcycle; a bike you pedal is called, oddly enough, a push bike. (I say "oddly" because, to my way of thinking, a bike you pedal should be called a pedal bike--a push bike would be a broken bicycle. In fact, I was so certain this should be the case that the first draft of this post had me referring to bicycles as "Pedal Bikes" instead of "Push Bikes" until a couple of sharp-eyes Brits put me right [see comments].) But whatever the case, when I revealed my intention of buying a "bike," my wife went a bit pale until I told her I meant a bicycle, and then she readily agreed (I suspect) out of sheer relief. The only stipulation was that I would not be allowed to wear Lycra.

No Lycra!
So, yeah, I got a bike.

But my intention is not to become a bike enthusiast; riding a bike, to me, is not a hobby, it is a means to an end, namely, the pub. Hence my lack of Lycra and inability to tell you anything about the bike I purchased other than it is grey and has lots of gears—many more than I need.

Also, it is sitting out in the garage, unused, where I suspect it will remain for some time. Sod’s Law, you see, kicked in the moment my decision was made. I went to get the bike in the pouring rain, rode it perhaps an eight of a mile (the bike shop is just around the corner) and put it in the garage, then went inside to dry off. The rain beat down all day and the flooding returned, followed by winter weather. As I write this, the snow is swirling around in gale-force winds and the temperature is rearranging the anatomy of various metallic primates. I have been checking weather forecasts all weekend, but even the extended forecast cannot predict the end of this current atmospheric balls-up, which leaves me—as I was last week at this time—peeking through the balcony door, grateful that I don’t actually have to be outside.

Sussex, now!
So, yeah, I got a bike.

Tuesday, March 5, 2013

A Taste of the Past

I had occasion, yesterday, to be out amongst the gainfully employed as they made their collective way to their individual places of employment. This came about because my wife is on a two-day training course in a distant city that makes it more convenient for her to travel by train instead of by car and, due to my uxorious nature, I drove her to the station.

Seeing people bustling about with a sense of purpose—while juggling cups of coffee, briefcases and smart phones—left me with an unexpected pang of nostalgia that lasted a full five minutes. That was when my wife texted to tell me the trains had been cancelled. Not “her” train, “the” trains. Monday morning, rush hour, no way to get anywhere, thank you British Rail. And then I remembered why I was so glad to accept redundancy.

Ah, the memories this brings back.
So I drove my wife to the aforementioned distant city, thereby becoming reacquainted with the frustrating ritual of driving through a maze of unfamiliar streets, in rush hour traffic, searching for a place I’ve never been to before. Fortunately, my wife had been there before, but only by train, and then by following pedestrian paths to the location. So we went to the station and followed the roads that sort of matched the direction she would have walked in if she had come by train, and eventually we found it.

(You’re wondering now why, if we got to the train station, I didn’t just let her out and tell her to walk the rest of the way; so am I.)

At any rate, after dropping my wife off and pointing the car confidently toward home, it occurred to me that it would be some time before I made it back home for a delayed breakfast, so I decided to relive yet another “Road Warrior” experience: eating at a Little Chef.

The UK's answer to Denny's
I have written about Little Chef before, but for the sake of new readers let me reiterate that Little Chef is a sort of UK Denny’s, but without the ambiance and fine cuisine.

I haven’t been in one for a while, but the only difference I found was that the staff—perhaps due to the current economic climate—was a touch less insouciant. I don’t want to imply that the staff might benefit from a customer service primer, but one time I entered a Little Chef at a motorway service stop only to be told by the waitress, who was lounging in a booth, that I would be better off eating at the Burger King across the hall.

Actually, a Burger King would be more inviting.
At Little Chef, I quickly learned to order griddled eggs (sunny side up) instead of scrambled because when I ordered scrambled the guy sent down by the Job Centre that morning couldn’t even be bothered to stir the powdered egg mixture and I ended up with something that looked like melted yellow Play Dough (but didn’t taste as good) with a side of yellow powder. With a fried egg, you can believe that, whatever it is, it has at least seen the back end of a chicken.

That said, their griddled eggs are suspiciously uniform in size, texture and color, leading me to speculate they are assembled outside of Bangladesh, where child laborers sew surplus egg yolks from the chiffon pie factory next door onto synthetic “whites” made from genetically modified petroleum by-products skimmed from the surface of the swamp behind a nearby oil refinery. These are then flash frozen and flown to a dispensing point just north of Manchester where they are distributed to individual Little Chef restaurants around the country for thawing and placing on customer’s plates next to other specious culinary items.

Seriously, don't they look just a little too perfect to be real?
At least, that’s what I remember them tasting like, and the pair I ate yesterday tasted about the same, only colder.

But my visit accomplished its purpose; I returned home with my nostalgia ache fully resolved, and replaced by mild indigestion.

I took my wife to the station again this morning. She just texted to say the trains are merely late today, but for the moment, at least, they appear to be running. Good thing; I don’t think I’m up for another visit to Little Chef just yet.