Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Dances With Chickens

Sorry for the delay, but my wife and I were on holiday and ended up in yet another location that curtailed my Internet access.  For those of you unfamiliar with our “in country” holiday routine, our time away doesn’t resemble a vacation as you might know it, it’s more like living somewhere else for a week.  We rent a cottage, stop on the way there to do some grocery shopping, then settle in, arrange the place how we want it and establish a routine—all before dinner time of the first day.
The routine includes visiting nearby landmarks and beauty spots that the locals always mean to get around to visiting but never find the time, and in the evenings we carrying on much the same as we would at home, but in a different place.  This time, that place was a farm.
It was a little farm—what they call a small holding here—populated by a variety of rescued animals cared for by the energetic and affable landlady.  There were dogs, cats, sheep, guinea fowl, geese, three of the largest goats I have ever seen (when I first saw them, I thought they were horses) and chickens.  We had never stayed in a place quite like this before, and I was pleasantly surprised at how relaxing it was to sit on the porch and watch the livestock wander about.  And most surprising of all was how captivating the chickens were.

One of the girls
I’ve been inside chicken coups; they are noisy, malodorous and frightening places, and I never thought of a chicken as something I enjoyed the company of unless it was deep fried and on my plate.  So having these inquisitive fowls strutting and clucking around me was a strangely pleasant experience.  This turned out to be a good thing, because, writing wise, the week was a frustrating period of enforced slackerliness.  And it wasn’t my fault: I had great plans for the week, which involved getting up at dawn (when the rooster crowed) and writing a few thousand words on the new book before the day began, but the WiFi didn’t work.
The last time we were out in that area, I was disconnected for a week, so this time we booked a cottage with WiFi, but that turned out to be worse.  I was able to get on-line, the connection was fast, I could visit any web site (within reason—my wife was with me) and even stream videos.  All I could not do was access my e-mail.  There was no reason for this; everything else worked fine, it was just my e-mail that refused to work.  So every time I logged on, I checked to see if it was working yet, and then I tried cajoling it, reloading it, sneaking up on it until I made myself so frustrated I couldn’t write.  So after a few days I just shut the damn thing off and left it.
Now, another person (i.e. not me) might have resigned himself to not getting his e-mail and gotten on with the writing but, as we have already established, I am not that guy.  I mean, you can’t take someone’s e-mail away and not expect them to freak out, can you.

One of the many twee houses we saw in Herefordshire
All I can say is, thank God for the chickens.  Watching them strutting around, pecking and clucking, as the evening drew in, was unexpectedly soothing, like a dose of rural valium.  They each had their own personality and were each, in their own way, uniquely endearing.  They were curious about us, interested in what we were doing and often seemed to be trying to communicate with their coos and clucks and meaningful looks, especially the little red one, who took a fancy to us and followed us around, even into the cottage and the car, if we weren’t careful.
This was an epiphany for me, discovering that, although I have no great regard for chickens en mass, individually I find them engaging and really quite nice.  It’s sort of the way I feel about the French, though I can’t imagine they are anywhere near as tasty when introduced to the Colonel’s secret coating and dropped in hot oil.

Friday, September 16, 2011

The Coming of Autumn

The sky is that special shade of blue, the trees are starting to turn and the morning air is crisp and redolent with the scent of fallen leaves; autumn must be approaching.  This is the time of year I always associate with cider (real, cloudy, non-alcoholic apple cider) and apple-cinnamon donuts; even now—after ten years in Britain where I remain bereft of these familiar comforts—I still feel an ache of emptiness at their absence.

Autumn in the Carfax
In Britain, autumn has its own traditions: the reappearance of youngsters wearing school uniforms, the sudden overcrowding of the 7AM bus with sleepy teenagers on their way to one of the institutions of higher education in the Brighton area and the unwelcome availability of Christmas cards in every store from ASDA to Dixons.  The most enduring, however, is Conkers.
Conkers is a game children play in school involving horse chestnuts on a string and the subsequent banging of them together.  It is, I suppose, something you have to grow up with to understand.  My wife tells me that, in her day, this game was accompanied by hopscotch, jump rope and marbles as children returned to school and assembled in the play grounds.  In my day, we had jump rope and hopscotch, too, but I think all of those games, on both sides of the Atlantic, have fallen by the wayside, replaced by Xboxes, DS3s and iPods.  Only Conkers, it seems, remain, and I have to wonder why that is.  Is it because of it being so deeply ingrained in the British way of life?  Or is it because Health and Safety keeps trying to ban it, and the surest way to get kids to do anything is to tell them they can’t.

British school boys playing Conkers
Whatever the reason, Conkers, for the time being, at least, continues to remain an integral part of a British childhood.  This pleases me because, in my mind, Conkers has been woven into the fabric of the yearly cycled, and it serves as a signal, telling me when to start longing for cider, cinnamon-apple donuts, and The Tatter Digger.
As autumn traditions go, you will have to look hard to come up with one more esoteric than Tatter Digger Fights, but these were an important—and much looked forward to—part of my childhood.  Every autumn, the potato fields around our house were harvested by a gigantic, screeching, squealing and fearsome looking contraption called a Tatter Digger, and when it was left resting in the fields over night, it became our playground.  What we did was divide into two teams, with one holding the Tatter Digger like a fort, and the other dispersed into the dark field to plan and plot and launch attacks.
We used potatoes for weapons, as they are not as hard as rocks but still let you know when you’ve been hit.  Also, there were a lot of them lying about; the belts and conveyers and bins of the Tatter Digger were filled with them, and the field team had no problem gathering up an arsenal, even in the dark.  What The Tatter Digger Fight amounted to was a huge game of King of the Hill fought with potatoes and the prize being possession of the awesome machine.  Because of its seasonal nature, we played every night we could and stayed out until our moms called us in for bath time.

A Tatter Digger. And, you, those guys is farmers.
So I suppose, if it is my childhood I hear calling to me over the long years, perhaps I can recapture its essence by finding a potato field and sitting in the middle of it some evening.  Silly, yes; but I’ll have a better chance of achieving that than of getting a cup of real cider and a cinnamon-apple donut.

Friday, September 9, 2011

Joining the Conspiracy

For the past ten years I have been believing a lie, but thanks to a program I watched last night, suddenly it all became clear: the 9/11 Catastrophe was conceived, orchestrated and carried out by government agencies, and a grand conspiracy has been keeping this truth from the public ever since.
Really, there is no other logical explanation for it, and after seeing the show last night I can’t believe I was so blind to the truth for all these years.
This is what really happened:
(Phone rings.)
“Hello, Government Agency?  This is the Arms Industry.  Business has been a bit slow; do you think you could create a catastrophe that will lead the US into a long and costly war?”
“Say, that’s a great idea.  We’ll get the President on board and call you back.”
“Hello, Arms Industry?  The President thought it was a great idea.  Here’s what we can offer: we’ll blow up the World Trade Center towers.”
“How are you going to do that?”
“We’ll just send our agents in, disguised as workmen, to drill holes, plant high explosives, cover the girders with flammable paint and run miles of wires to set it all off in a coordinated fashion.”
“Won’t someone notice?”
“No.  Guys dressed in boiler suits are invisible; the security guards and other employees will just think they are checking the meter.”
“That sounds reasonable.  How are you going to set it off?”

What? Conspiracy to blow up the World Trade Center? Count me in!
“This is the great part: we need something spectacular, and we have to blame it on someone else, so we picked the Arabs and decided to have ‘hijacked’ jet airliners crash into the buildings.  Once the buildings are on fire, we can have the ground crews set off the explosives and bring the buildings down.”
“Who is going to fly the planes?”
“We’ll have some of our agent’s at the controls.”
“Wow, dedicated staff.”
“We only hire the best.”
“So, what else?”
“Um, well, that’s it.”
“Oh, come on.  You’ll need to do better than that.  No one is going to want to go to war over something that trivial.  Why don’t you blow up the Pentagon, too?”
“That’s a possibility.  We’ll give them a call and get back to you.”
(Pentagon phone rings.)
“Hello, general?  This is the Government Agency.  Say, you wouldn’t mind shooting a cruise missile at the Pentagon, would you?  It’s for a good cause.”
“Sure thing!  We have lots of cruise missiles lying around, and we won’t mind sending a submarine with thousands of service men on board out into the Atlantic to fire a missile at the US—no one will think that strange.  And we certainly don’t mind shooting it at ourselves; we’ll just make sure that section of the building is filled with people we don’t like.”
“Oh, and another thing, do you think you can ground all military aircraft on, say, September 11?  It would really be a big help.”
“Consider it done.”

Good shot!
(Back to the Arms Industry.)
“Hey, Government Agency, great job getting the military on board; but do you think this will be enough?  Shouldn’t we have a fallback?  How about if we crash a plane into the White House?”
“No, that would be taking things a bit too far.”
“Then how about we set off an explosion in a field in Pennsylvania, scatter some debris around and tell people it was a plane headed for the White House?”
“I don’t know, do you think they’ll buy it?”
“We could fabricate some phone calls from people on the plane, saying ‘good-bye’ to their ‘loved ones.’  That should do the trick.”
“So the airplane, and all the people on it won’t actually exist, and the ‘loved ones’ will all be in on the conspiracy!  That’s brilliant!”

Conspirator's Reunion.
And so they pulled it off, and the world watched in horror as thousands of people died, the Trade Center towers came down, the Pentagon exploded and a simulated airliner crash appeared in a field in Pennsylvania, all so they could give a boost to the arms industry and become entangled in a Middle Eastern war.  And the tens of thousands of people who were in on the conspiracy have all been sworn to secrecy, so they aren’t talking.
Now, doesn’t that make so much more sense than the idea that a handful of dedicated fanatics took advantage of a trusting nation to slip aboard a few airplanes, forcibly take control of them and use them to cause as much havoc as they could?
Really, some people need to get a life.

Monday, September 5, 2011

Chalk One Up

This past Saturday was one of those perfect, late summer days—sunny, mild and full of promise—and it so happened that we had plans to meet up with some friends at the Chalky Pits Museum.
The Amberley Chalky Pits Museum is one of those things that the British do so well.  It was an active chalk and lime quarry for about 150 years, then an abandoned pit in the ground for another 50 or so, but now it is a working museum, and a great, educational day out.  And this weekend it just happened to be hosting a cider and ale festival.
ASIDE: When I say “Cider,” I am referring to British cider, the inexpensive and highly alcoholic drink popular with impecunious college students and out-of-work alcoholics.  It has no similarity at all to the cider I grew up with and don’t get me started by trying to insist it is the same as the cloudy apple juice you can buy in some shops here; I know cider, it is not the same, end of story.

Yesteryear, but with Health and Safety
Now, the museum is a wonderful place, and you should bring your children there immediately so they can appreciate just how hideous, strenuous and dangerous life was before the 24-hour coddling of H&BS (Health and Bloody Safety).  And the atmosphere—especially when they are having a special festival, as they were that day—is something out of Midsomer, but without the paedophile parson and the spinster librarian with the drinking problem, dark past and a half dozen bodies mouldering in her basement.

Like Midsomer, but without the bodies
But that’s not what I want to talk about; I want to talk about the restaurant.
One would think, with the price of admission and the well-run exhibits, that having the food concession there would be something of an honor, something to excel at.  I could (and if fact I have) assemble a better meal at a petrol station forecourt.  To rival the food and the ambiance you would have to return to your school cafeteria, and even then it would be a toss-up.
Where they have really swung for the bottom and hit dead on, however, is with their coffee.
My wife and I arrived early and we felt like sitting with a cup of coffee while waiting for our friends.  I ordered two cups, was charged £3.80 by the young lady at the till and directed to a machine.  At the machine, I got two Styrofoam cups, put them under a nozzle and pressed a button.  Sludge—no, honest to Christ, it was sludge—came out, then a bit of hot water and prefabricated milk mixed with it, leaving a half cup of, well, what do you think it is:

And it tastes just as good as it looks!
The only reason it looks as good as it does in the photo is that I confiscated some real milk earmarked for the tea drinkers and filled the rest of the cup up with it.  The result still tasted just about as good as it looks.  And we paid nearly £2.00 a cup for that.  Usually we have to go to London to get ripped of that badly.
But the day has a happy ending.  After a diverting afternoon of wandering about the exhibits, talking with the craftspeople and sampling the cider (I said it wasn’t like American cider, I didn’t say it wasn’t tasty) we decided to call it a day.  The prospect of capping it off with another coffee at the official restaurant was just not something we could fathom, so we left the compound and went to the tea shop across the road.
Here, on the banks of the River Arun, in the late afternoon sun and with the loveliest view of Sussex spread out before us, we dined on fresh scones with jam and drank pots of tea out of (matching) china cups.
It was oh, so civilized in a way that only tea and scones in England can be, and it almost made up for the awfulness of the coffee.

A lovely Sussex afternoon on the River Arun