Sunday, September 27, 2009

Here there be Pirates

This week we’re in Northumberland*, in a holiday cottage on the coast. Very scenic, very relaxing and very isolated. (* We’re not really in Northumberland. I had been planning to post in real-time from here, but after arriving, I discovered there is no mobile phone signal or Internet connection so these posts are going to have to go up after I return home.)

The drive up took about eight hours, but that, in itself, was part of the holiday. The scenery along the west coast is stunning and, being in no hurry, it was a relaxing day. We arrived in Alnwick (pronounced AN’ ick) about 2 PM and, being an hour early for check-in, decided to stop there for a nose around.

Our first realization that we were in The North came while doing a bit of shopping at the local Morrisons. One of the things I like about England is the laid back nature of life in general, but I’m from The South, where people are taciturn and enjoy getting their weekly shopping done in peace and unimpeded. Up here, however, the supermarket seems to be a grand place to catch up with your friends, hold lengthy, group conversations in the middle of the aisles, or just go for a languid and, oh so very slow, stroll around the produce section. We, being rude southerners, could barely contain our impatience and had to rudely say, “Excuse me,” several times so we could squeeze by to get at the fruit juice.

I was surprised to discover that at least some of the Alnwickians are pirates—or maybe they were just preparing for International Speak Like A Pirate Day—but later, on the telly, the news reports confirmed that pirates still operate in the waters off these coasts. Shiver me timbers!

Pirates! Avast me beauty; prepare to be boarded!

Alnwick town center.

Alnwick is a picturesque market town and the day we were there was uncharacteristically lovely. We found out later that it has been raining and grey for weeks and we happened to arrive on the first nice day in a long time. So far, so good.

We wandered around a while, scoped out the gardens and castle for possible, future activities and headed even further north to the tiny village of Craster and our holiday cottage.

Dunstanburgh Castle, as seen from our bedroom window.

Renting holiday cottages is one of the best things about living in Britain. For a surprisingly reasonable fee you can rent a self-catering cottage (in case that doesn’t translate into US English, “self-catering” means it has a full kitchen) in the most beautiful locations. (And if you can’t afford the reasonable fee, you can always go to the Holiday Park down the road, but you don’t get the fireplace, the Juliet balcony in the bedroom and herfing deck out back.)

View from the Herfing Deck.

This cottage is, without question, the most well-appointed we have ever stayed in. They have all been comfortable and filled with ample dishes, flatware and cooking implements, but they are usually mismatched, camping-quality items, which is what I would expect. This cottage, however, has full, quality sets of dishes, cooking paraphernalia and flatware. The kitchen also has a stone-tiled floor, a Belfast sink and a four-slice toaster, so I think we’ll be happy here for the next week.

Even though it had already been a full day, after settling in we took a stroll around the village to reconnoitre the local castle and enjoy the sea views. The area is lousy with castles; it seems every town has one. Some were built by William the Conqueror but this area needed a surplus to keep those pesky Scots in line and protect the locals from periodic Viking raids.

It’s dusk now, and I’m on the herfing deck with a cigar and a beverage watching the ocean. It’s remarkably soothing; I think I could sit here all week watching it roll back and forth in its hypnotic rhythm. I need to get one of these in my back garden; but only if I can find one without pirates.

Sunday, September 20, 2009

The Parley Partners

My wife and I travelled to a little town near Hampton Court recently to meet up with my Pond Parleys writing partner, Toni Hargis.

Toni and I have been in contact for ages—in Internet terms, that is; in reality, it’s been about two years—but we have never met. On her recent holiday to Britain, however, she told me she could meet us at a pub in Surrey not too far from where we live in Sussex. So, after printing out a Google map and a set of directions, we set off in the car confident in our ability to find this place.

What could possibly go wrong?

I am probably the only person in Britain who does not own a Sat-Nav, even though I am unquestionably the person who most needs one. After seven years, I have yet to drive anywhere without taking at least one wrong turn. And the most frustration thing is I can’t even blame it on British roads; I was like this in America, too.

I can’t tell you how many times I set off, looking for a house or a business in a land where people still stop what they are doing to watch passing cars, on a trip that involved maybe two or three turns at best, only to come face-to-face with a sign reading, “Welcome to Vermont.”

When you realize that the sorts of roads I travelled in the US are to British roads what simple addition is to analytic geometry, and that, when faced with an option, I will always take the wrong one (even if my wife is sitting next to me shouting, “Right! Turn RIGHT!” I will inevitably turn left) you will appreciate why I always add ample “getting lost” time to my journey schedule. The formula is two hours of “Lost Time” for each hour of travel, unless I’m going somewhere near London, then it’s three.

US Roads

UK Roads

So we set off and within minutes were hopelessly lost. We then played the game where I drive around randomly while my wife attempts to pin-point us on the Google map or recognize some road name from the print-out of directions. Occasionally, she would see something familiar, we would get back on track, and then I would get lost again.

Soon after, I stopped at a petrol station and bought a Surrey Street Atlas, which at least gave us more favourable odds in the “driving around randomly” game. The strategy ultimately evolved into a manoeuvre sort of like sailing against the wind, where we would drive in a generally correct direction until we were very wide of the mark and then turn to the other direction, hoping to move marginally closer to our target.

Eventually we arrived, and right about on time (thanks to my formula).

Meeting someone you “know” through the web is always interesting. You wonder if they’re going to be a plonker, or if they are going to think you are a plonker but what generally happens is you greet each other like long-lost friends and then sit down and chat as if you’ve known each other for years.

And this was how our meeting went. There were no awkward moments trying to decide if we really were the people we had come there to meet (you know, that “blind date” sort of unease). Granted, I made it easy for her by wearing my “Postcards From the Pond” tee shirt, but even without that we would have recognized one another right off.

Mike Harling and Toni Hargis – Team Pond Parley; together for the first time.

We chatted for a couple of hours over a pint or two of shandy and then parted—Toni on to her European holiday, and my wife and I back to Sussex. Getting back home, I was assured, would be a doddle; all I had to do was follow the A3 into Guildford and then the A281 home. What could possibly go wrong?

Within minutes, we were hopeless lost.

Friday, September 11, 2009

State of the Nation

When did we lose our sense of humor? First the Candy Man*, then Rocky the Rooster and now a group of doctors and nurses have their heads on the block. Their crime: boredom, poor judgement and Facebook. (Yes, a recipe for disaster if ever there was one, but in this case it’s not as bad as it could be.)

Here’s the setup: a group of seven doctors and nurses working the night shift decided to take part in a Facebook contest wherein you are to submit photos of yourselves lying face down in unusual places. So in the lull between stitching up knife wounds and digging plague pits for Swine Flu victims, they sneaked into a quiet corner and took some photos of each other lying on “unusual” things, like a gurney. (Really, someone lying on a gurney in a hospital? You could die laughing.)

Then they posted them on Facebook. Someone saw them. That someone turned them in. Now they’ve been suspended pending an investigation and may all be fired.

Okay, so they broke the rules. Now, I doubt there is a specific rule that says, “you shall not take photos of yourselves lying face down on gurneys for the purpose of posting to social networks,” but I’m sure there is something in the Employee Handbook that covers this sort of thing. Even so, would they be fired if someone caught them lying face down on a gurney. Of course not. Would they be fired if someone snapped a photo of them while they were lying face down on a gurney? I doubt it. So the reason everyone’s knickers are in a twist must be due to the photos appearing on Facebook.

Again, fair enough; it’s unprofessional and an embarrassment to the hospital that they hired people with such limited social skills. So haul them into HR, browbeat them for a bit, hand them an Official Warning and send them back to work. Then have a quiet laugh about it after you show them out the door.

That’s what normal people might do, but in this enlightened age it’s all, “patient’s lives at risk,” and “”Heath and Safety violations,” and “cost the tax payer thousands, no millions, no BILLIONS in lost wages and security and public trust and they are probably terrorists!” (Okay, I made that last bit up.)

It was a prank; get over yourselves.

Why, oh why do we have to blow everything up to such gargantuan proportions; don’t we have enough real dangers to tackle? When did we become such curmudgeons? When did we turn into our parents?

You may think it odd that I care so much, but I’m a humorist, and I see my livelihood slipping away before it even becomes very lively. What’s more worrying is, the way things are going, it may not do me any good to simply stop making jokes when I notice fewer and fewer people laughing and more and more people calling the police. I’ve got a book out, remember, I’m on record as being funny; they may institute some sort of retroactive humor law and I’ll find myself being swept up in a “Comedy Cull” for an off-color reference I made about Margaret Thatcher and a Doberman ten years ago.

So lighten up. Free the Facebook Seven, get a dictionary and look up the difference between “Prank” and “Malicious Intent.”

The mirth of future generations hangs in the balance.

* The victory of the Candy Box over The Council may be short-lived. I just found out they are now planning to outlaw ALL A-Boards, meaning that no shop—including the Candy Box—will be allowed to put up signs advertising headlines. It’s a draconian measure to get at one guy, but humor must be stamped out at all costs, and if innocent civilians become collateral damage, well, that’s a small price to pay.