Tuesday, December 31, 2013

That Blitz Spirit

It is little remembered these days, but Britain was bombed during the First World War. The cunning Hun used zeppelins, and some extraordinary aircraft that pushed the envelope of aviation to its limit, to deliver bombs to East Anglia and, eventually, London.

The British did not take it well.

It’s hard to blame them. Wars were always fought far away, in someone else’s back yard, and—insofar as was possible in the chaos of war—hostilities were limited to active combatants. Floating bombs over the Channel to drop them on civilians, well, that just wasn’t cricket. It was also jolly well upsetting, and the people, as they are wont to do when upset, called upon Parliament to do something, anything—including ceasing hostilities with Germany—to end the rain of death.

This, of course, was what the Germans were hoping for; and they nearly succeeded. Throughout the war, the Huns maintained a giddy advantage: the rudimentary anti-aircraft batteries and comparatively-primitive aircraft of the British were completely useless against the German Zeppelins and only a little less useless against their more advanced airplanes.

(Quick aside: Britain’s scramble to catch up in this critical arms race was given a huge boost when they managed to shoot down one of the German planes. The German crew managed to land the crippled plane and the British captured it before they could destroy it. The importance of this event cannot be overstated: here was a pristine sample of their enemy’s technology that they could reverse engineered and use to their great advantage. Experts were immediately dispatched and soldiers were sent to guard the site. Unfortunately, during the night, the soldiers began rummaging through the plane for souvenirs. One of them grabbed a flare gun and promptly (by accident, one must suppose) shot a flare into the aircraft’s fuel tank. All that was left for the experts to study, when they arrived the next morning, was a charred hole in the ground.

Shocked into disbelief after reading that passage, I laid the book down and looked at my wife, who was reading her own book. “How on earth did you people win the war,” I asked her with true amazement. Without looking up from her reading she said, “God was on our side.”)

But, despite this and other misadventures, the British prevailed. The victory was not, however, assisted by cool heads and bravely in the face of adversity on the home front.

WWII, we are told, was different. This was when the Brits pulled together and displayed the grit and can-do spirit that shone like a beacon throughout their finest hour. Some would dispute this, but then there are always people who, after the fact, enjoy raining on everyone’s parade. I, personally, can’t vouch for the fortitude of that era as I was not there, but the few people I have talked to who were all seem to remember it as a jolly good time.

Hard times 1942.
But, fiction or not, that spirit is clearly in the past, for we are currently suffering through a crisis that makes the Blitz look like a fireworks party (the power has gone out) and the population appears stretched to the limit.

Perhaps you have been too busy playing with your new xbox 360 or streaming dodgy movies over the iPad mini but Britain is in the midst of a climatic crisis. Wind and rain, followed by wind and rain, followed by more wind and rain have resulted in widespread flooding and great swaths of the country plunged into blackouts. Add to this the fact of Christmas and you’ll understand why this is a problem so monumental that we need to get Parliament involved.

Or not.

Granted, not being able to cook your turkey on Christmas day, or having your vacation plans interrupted, or having to play solitaire/patience with a real deck of cards because the laptop is out of juice and you can’t recharge it is not a lot of fun, but from the way some people are complaining you’d think the EU just outlawed sausage rolls and forced UK brewers to triple the price of a pint.

I won’t go into specifics—just turn on any chat show if you want to hear details—but, after listening to Radio 4 while having a pint in the pub just now (yeah, those are the kind of pubs I go to) I am left wondering when WiFi became an essential commodity; it didn’t even exist a few years ago but apparently now it’s a God-given right that people will perish without.

Hard times 2013, but here's someone making the best of it.
C’mon folks, buck up! Take out those scented candles you have stashed in the back of your wardrobe, fire up the barbecue and, while the turkey is grilling out on the pavement/sidewalk, hunt up half a dozen mis-matched dice and play a game of Yatzee. And talk to each other! Remember when you used to do that all those years ago? You might find that you like it. And—worst case scenario—if you find out you would really rather not talk to each other, then you’ll appreciate your ipad that much more when the WiFi finally comes back on line.

And, above all, have a happy and safe New Year’s Eve.

Happy 2014
PS: To be serious for a moment, the recent weather has sucked hugely for a lot of people. If you are someone who was flooded out or had a tree fall on your home, I feel for you, and hope you get the help you need in a timely and efficient manner. But if you are one of the Radio 4 call-ins complaining about the wifi being down, get some perspective, really.

Saturday, December 21, 2013

Next Up, Spring!

I like this time of year; winter as a whole (never high on my list of All Time Favorite Seasons) is not so nice, but the days surrounding the hibernal solstice and—not co-incidentally—Christmas always give me a nice, warm boost. I like it because I like twilight, that peaceful, reflective hour, as the world pauses, waiting for nightfall; and at this time of year, it is twilight all the time. Either that, or it’s dark.

When night squeezes the day into a brief period of grey light and long shadows, it feels as if you are always on the cusp of evening. Daytime never really gets the chance to take hold; darkness is always just out of sight, waiting to engulf you. But there is comfort in the dark, and the more bitter, the better.

In fact, the seam separating the year from “coming off of summer” to “heading toward summer” should be as bleak and dreary and cold and snowy as possible. What better way to ensconce oneself in the seasonal siege against the darkness? Nothing is more jolly than gathering with friends around the fire (or, in a pinch, just yourself with a re-run of A Christmas Carol* on the telly) wrapped in a comfy jumper with a steaming mug of mulled cider in your hand (and if it’s the American non-alcoholic variety of cider, make sure you pour a healthy dollop of rum into it) while apocalyptic weather rattles the window panes.

What could be more comforting than a friendly pub with a roaring fire?
This, of course, is the impetus behind the old Pagan winter festivals, and why Christmas was moved here (get over it) and why enough other major religions have festivals at this time of year to make us self-flagellate for inadvertently wishing someone a “Merry Christmas.” It’s simple human nature to want to gather together, light a fire for celebration and warmth, get good and drunk, eat ourselves sick and basically hold up two fingers (or, for you folks in the US, just the middle one will do) to the darkness.

I did a Google search for "warm jumper/sweater" and got this; the jumper
looks warm enough, but I think she's missing the point.

That's more like it!
So “Merry Christmas” everyone—or, if you don’t subscribe to the religious or capitalist motivations behind that particular holiday, Happy Solstice—may your mead cups overflow, your Yule logs burn brightly and your cakes, meats and treats leave you feeling as stuffed as a Burns Night haggis.

As for myself, it is currently just after noon as I write this, but it is murky and drizzly outside with a wind brisk enough to make up for the fact that we don’t have any actual snow or ice to complain about. It’s perfect weather for a trek to the pub, where the fire will be blazing and the festive lights twinkling.

And, if I’m particularly fortunate, they might have mulled cider on offer.

* The real one, with Alastair Sim as Scrooge, and make sure it’s in glorious Black and White, not that colorized bastardization. 
Bah! Humbug!

Thursday, December 19, 2013

The Business of Writing

I have just passed a significant milestone: at the very tail end of my 11th year of “taking my writing seriously” I have finally turned a profit.

This does not mean I have earned more than I spent in 2013 (although I did) but, even more significantly, it means I have earned, over the past 11 years, more money writing than I have spent on writing during that same period.

It was not an easy hill to climb. Although I always say that taking up the hobby of writing is a sweet deal because it is dead easy (all you have to do is write) and dirt cheap (a notebook from Poundland and you can always steal a pen from the bank), in actual practice it can be much different. If you are serious about writing, you’ll need a computer, and an Internet connection. Also, a website (ISPs aren’t free) is a good idea, as well as a printer, lots of paper and enough ink to print out your novel. Over and over again. Although these days you won’t have to splash out quite as much on postage (and return postage) you wouldn’t believe how long this antiquated means of transporting manuscripts held on.

So my early years were mostly about spending money while I earned zero income, which put me solidly in the hole—to the tune of nearly a thousand quid. Still, £250 or so a year on a hobby is not a lot; take up art if you don’t believe me.

In the final days of my fourth year I did some soul searching and was beginning to think I should give it up as a bad habit. I had read somewhere that if you are writing consistently and submitting on a routine basis and haven’t make any money after four years, you should admit you made a mistake and take up gardening. I was wondering if I should take this advice to heart when—in one of those real-life co-incidences that are so fortuitous that they would never stand up in fiction—I received, on New Year’s Eve of year number four, a check for $5.00 for an article I wrote for an on-line magazine.

Money was finally coming in; I was on my way.

Every year thereafter saw me earning something. Not as much as I spent, but at least now I had figures in the black column. The only year I earned more than I spent was year eight when, in a moment of weakness, I prostituted my website with an ad for an insurance company, but I felt so cheap and used that I took it down after two months. Still, that income made up for my losses that year, though my overall deficit remained well above my earnings.

Then I sold a book, or, more exactly, I placed a book with a publisher. There was no advance, and—after much editing and rewriting and reviewing—I found I was my own best customer. Outside of myself, sales were, to be kind, slim, and the cost of the books was exacerbated by the fact that I gave them away, and paid postage for the privilege.

I self-published two books after that and, thanks to the dearth of sales, went further into the red. But last year I managed to place a novel with another publisher and, because I didn’t have to pay for anything Kindle-related, I immediately began turning a profit; a small one, to be sure, but, ever so slowly, the numbers began creeping up.

Then, this past summer, something very odd happened: my books began to sell. Not a lot, but in numbers I was not ashamed to admit to in public. And, as I entered the last of 2013’s earning into my ledger just now, I see that my total earnings have finally topped—by a few pounds—the amount of money I have spent on this business of writing since I proposed to stop treating it like a hobby and more as a profession.

I’m not going to quit the day-job just yet (or, if I had a day-job, I wouldn’t quit it) but I can now wrap up this year satisfied that my writing “business” is now solvent.

Hopefully, 2014 will be just as kind, or kinder, to me.

And to all of you.

Thursday, December 12, 2013

My Next Book

When you’re a writer—especially one who has been (sort of) promoted to the position of full-time author—people tend to ask when your next book is coming out. It’s a fair question, and if you asked it of, say, Peter James [name-drop alert]—who lives just down the road in Henfield and who I have seen and chatted with on several occasions—[end name-drop alert] the answer is relatively straightforward, and you both know you are referring to his wildly popular Roy Grace books.

In my case, the answer is not so simple.

When someone says to me—in person or via e-mail or through my wife—“I really liked your book; when are you publishing your next one,” there is a high likelihood that they will come away disappointed because, whichever of my books they enjoyed, the next one is going to be nothing like it.

My first two books were collections of humorous essays, a sub-category traditionally regarded as “not commercially viable” but which is appreciated by people who like a book they can dip in and out of and re-read favorite bits from. But, alas, those are very likely to be the only such books I ever produce.

I followed that up with a humorous travelogue cum love story about how I met my wife. Had I been a well-known sports figure or reality TV star or even someone who had gained dubious fame for climbing up a water tower with a deer rifle (“He was a quiet guy, kept to himself, you never would have guessed…”) then I might have had publishers lining up around the block but, being an unknown and not having access to a deer rifle, I didn’t even attempt to find a publisher for that book; I simply published it myself. It was a personal project, just something I wanted to do and I never expected to sell many. That book, however, has become far and away my best seller. To my utter shock and surprise, complete strangers are reading my tale of ineptitude and budding romance and leaving embarrassingly glowing review about it and, occasionally, asking when I am going to write another.

Well, unless I can convince my wife to let me loose in Ireland for a couple of weeks to see if I can find another woman crazy enough to marry me (and then convince them both to become Mormons) I doubt there will be another book quite like it in the foreseeable future.

Then came my novel; the culmination of my life-long dream to become a published author, the start of my fiction career, the book a gratifying number of people have read and enjoyed and, yes, asked about a sequel.

I have mentioned before how the plot for that book was sparked by a business card, but I have no idea how it grew into a tale about a child prodigy turned world-class gymnast turned Miss Teen England turned Travel Agent slash vigilante superhero. When I glance through that book these days, it seems as if it belongs to someone else. I have no idea how I wrote it, I am not certain if I could do it again but I do know I don’t want to try.

Another writer might have welcomed this genre confusion as a liberating experience, but I am not that writer. I agonized over whether I should be writing humor or straight-up crime thrillers or even slink back to essays. The resulting angst culminated in a muddled outline for a second-rate crime novel that I didn’t have the heart to inflict upon the reading public.

So I wrote a children’s story.

This isn’t as out-of-the-blue as it sounds; the idea of writing a story for my grandchildren had been growing along with my first grandson from about the second trimester. Being stuck in plotting purgatory, I turned away from crime and wrote an adventure starring my two grandsons that featured a time-shifting cloak, medieval England, a dark forest and a dragon. It was good fun and I enjoyed the process immensely. Then I turned back to the recalcitrant novel.

But a funny thing kept happening. Even while trying to sew up the plot holes in my crime thriller, I kept thinking about the boys’ story and how they could have further adventures and how they might be linked together and before long I had outlined a seven-book series involving Arthurian legend, Queen Victoria’s daughter, Will-i-am Shakespeare, Druids, a small farm just outside of Horsham and the Battle of Britain.

I expect this will keep me busy for some time.

So, if you are waiting for my next book, I am afraid you are in for a disappointment, unless you like children’s literature.

Yeah, this is what the G-boys are getting from us for Christmas this year;
I can just hear it now, "But Granddad, we wanted an Xbox!"

Thursday, December 5, 2013

My Year of Living Languorously

One year ago this week, I became a man of leisure; since then, it has been an interesting ride.

As predicted, the idea that I was jobless didn’t sink in for a long time. I had already arranged to take two weeks off in December and, after the flurry of the holidays, we visited Bath, so it was February before my new life settled into anything resembling a routine.

Now this may have been a nice way to ease into retirement, but it also got me used to the notion of not doing much of anything and helped me to discover within myself a heretofore untapped talent for frittering away vast amounts of time. Rather than being “productive”—that vague yet respectable state I had always imagined myself in after my retirement—I rode my bike, took long walks, developed an interest in real ale, dabbled in watercolor and learned the joys of afternoon naps. It was wonderful.

But by summer’s end, I noticed something disturbing: I missed having a job.

I realize we all hate to work. Even if you don't love your job there is still nothing better than getting together with your work mates to have a beer-fueled moan about the morons in charge and how you could do it so much better. (Or, if you happen to be one of the morons in charge, getting together with your fellow morons-in-charge and having a moan about the incompetent people who work for you and how much easier your life would be if you didn’t have to put up with employees.)

In my case, I went from travelling to London, or spending the work-week in Devon, or trekking up to Nottingham to realizing—on Wednesday morning—that I had not left the flat since Monday afternoon when I had popped across the street to the Co-Op to get milk. My job had not been one of those high-powered positions with a sexy-sounding title like Senior Implementation Manager, Regional Quality Analyst or National Tactics Consultant (get your own sexy job title here), but my duties saw me—perhaps accidentally—accrue a residue amount of responsibility. One day, all was normal, with people contacting me for advice, assistance, assurance or to tear me a new asshole because I’d let something slip. Again. But then, the next day, no one wanted to know me. Whatever I did, whatever I knew, whatever skills I had acquired were all—like me—redundant.

It really is a strange sensation to get up in the morning knowing that you don’t have to do anything, not even take a shower and get dressed if you don’t want to, and to know that your days of being a slave to the alarm clock because you need to catch the school bus or get to your job on time—a condition that has been part of your daily routine since the age of five—is now over and not likely to return.

Liberating? Yes. Giddily intoxicating? Absolutely. Kinda sad? Yeah, that, too.

Trust me when I say I did NOT let this get me down, nor did I ever forget the unbelievably fortunate situation I found myself in. Still, when my old office contacted me and asked if I would like to work part time for them again, I signed the contract as quickly as I had signed my redundancy papers a year ago.

So, one year after “retiring,” I am back in gainful employment, in probably the best type of job I could think of: I get to work from home, set my own hours and, occasionally, travel to the office for meetings. All the old skills and knowledge are coming back, along with all the old problems (and just as the nightmares had begun to taper off), and it is unexpectedly pleasing to see all my former ex-colleagues again (the ones who were not made redundant after I left, that is).

The other good thing about this job is, it’s temporary. So just about the time I get to thinking how inconvenient it is to have someone owning a piece of my time, it will be over.

And maybe, when I retire next time, I will be able to discover that elusive state of productivity.

Obligatory Working-From-Home photo.
(Credit: nicked it off the web)

Sunday, November 24, 2013

Modern Man

I swore I would never do it and, frankly, it was not something I worried about giving into temptation over. Like answering unsolicited e-mails promising to make various parts of my body larger, longer or more attractive to the opposite sex, or having Britannia tattooed across my chest, it was safely ensconced inside the “Don’t Go There!” zone and I never gave a thought to it sneaking out unawares. But then, quite suddenly, I did it: I bought a man bag.

Don’t judge me; it was my son’s fault.

While we were visiting America a few weeks back, my son came home from a shopping excursion carrying a man-bag (he called it a satchel) so I did the only reasonable thing I could think of: I made fun of him. He didn’t respond with “Well who the f*&k asked you? You don’t run my life! I hate you!” because he’s 32 now and gave up shouting at me some years ago. However, he also did not—as I would have fully expected him to—hang his head in embarrassment and quietly put his pocketbook aside.

Instead, he effused about the advantages of carrying a handbag—um, I mean satchel—as opposed to a backpack. It was less bulky, made you less likely to knock a display case over when you turned around in a crowded china shop and, if you needed to get something out of it, you didn’t have to remove it from you back, put it on the ground and tug at various zippers to find what you wanted.

I was impressed; my son had become a thoroughly modern man, something I would have wagered heavily against when he was 16. I was not, however, ready to go out and buy a purse.

But over the next few days I got to thinking: it was sort of a pain to carry my backpack around all the time. It was in the way and I had to continually take it off to put stuff in it or pull stuff out of it. I could, of course, hang it from one shoulder but then I had to hold on to it and that sort of defeated the purpose. A handbag—um, I mean a satchel—would solve much of that.

I also thought about when I was in school: back then, we carried our books—tons of them—by hand. The girls carried them cradled against their chest, the boys under one arm at their side; this was how it was done because this was how it had always been done and no one thought—or dared—to step outside of the established conventions. Only one or two real odd-balls put their books in backpacks and they were unmercifully made fun of. But by the time my boys went to school, everyone was carrying their books in backpacks, because it made sense.

Additionally, in days gone by (I’m talking many, many days here, not 1987), men used to carry purses (and they even called them purses) because it made sense. That has fallen out of fashion, but it doesn’t mean it no longer makes sense, which got me thinking that perhaps it was time to allow men to carry purses—um, I mean satchels—again. So, unable to embarrass my son during our first encounter, I did the one thing guaranteed to embarrass any child of any age: I went out and bought the same thing he had.

It's a SATCHEL, dammit!

The only unfortunate thing about this is that my newly acquired man-bag (it’s a satchel, dammit!) bears an uncomfortable resemblance to my wife’s handbag.

One's a Handbag, one's a Man Bag (it's a Satchel, dammit!)

I have to admit, it took me some time to work up the nerve to use it. It felt odd and embarrassing when I tried it on in the privacy of my office (that would be the spare bedroom for those of you thinking we live in a huge house instead of a small flat). My wife told me to just go out and wear it like I meant it; if I felt comfortable with it on, no one would notice. And then I thought of the brave (or misguided) odd-balls from high school who, heedless of convention and the backlash they suffered for breaking it, continued to do what made sense. So I went outside wearing a purse (it’s a satchel, dammit!).

And do you know what? It was not only more convenient and comfortable, but—when I looked around—I saw a fair number of other men, both young and old, carrying satchels, as well. It just makes sense.

Perhaps the era of the modern man has truly arrived.

I am, however, keeping “man-bras” securely within the “I will never” camp; wearing one of those can have unexpected consequences.

This is wrong, so very, very wrong.

Monday, November 18, 2013


The great thing about being retired (i.e. can’t be arsed to look for a job) is that every day is your own. You open your eyes to greet the morning thinking, “What adventures can I undertake on this day, what pleasures can I squeeze from these malleable hours, what joys can I uncover?”

It is, indeed, wonderful. Except for Monday; that’s laundry day.

Yes, today is earmarked for sorting, decoding tags, deciphering washing machine settings and wrangling wet laundry onto the drying racks. There has to be a simpler way.

Actually, there is: when I was single, I used to pop my weekly laundry—as a single load—in my American-sized washer. Forty minutes later I would toss it all into my American-sized dryer. Job done. Here, I suppose, it could be that simple; the altered variable in the formula is not the fact that I switched countries but that I got married.

Washing women’s clothing is difficult and time consuming (well, it you want to do it right, which I have recently proposed to do). I used to separate clothes into two piles – Kinda Light and Kinda Dark – and wash them on the same setting I use to wash my jeans. The results were not always satisfactory—especially for sheer stockings and woollen dresses—so, having conquered the basics, I decided I should try to up my game.

The first issue I encountered was one of laundry distribution: whereas a man (we’re talking generalities here, not about us specifically, but, well, you know I had to get my data from somewhere; just sayin’) might have half a dozen items of clothing in a typical overflowing laundry hamper, a woman will have approximately 87. And each one of them will have a tag with teeny, tiny writing on it that provides instruction for the care, feeding and cleaning of that item. And no two tags will contain the same instructions.

So this is how I spend the bulk of my Monday mornings, staring through a magnifying glass at indecipherable symbols on little tags. One appears to be a curling stone rolling over marbles and another apparently represents a target with an X through it, meaning, I assume, that you should not shoot the garment or lay it on ice if there is a curling game going on.

Seriously, I need to consult a decoder sheet in order to sort the laundry these days.
“Wash inside out at 40C only,” “Wash upside down at 30C only,” “Wash from front to back on months with an “R” in them and left to right if you have German heritage,” and my favorite, which I am not making up, “Wash Separately.” Do you know how many of the 87 garments demand to be washed in a private cycle? And this wouldn’t be quite so bad if British washing machine cycles took as long as US washing machine cycles. In the US, could just about watch an episode of The Wonder Years before the spin sequence ended, but here you can set the machine for a Synthetics wash, take a short vacation and arrive back just about the time the buzzer goes off. So, in short, I ignore “Wash Separately;” I can’t be bothered with these prima donna demands, so I just blindfold them and tell them they are alone.

Then, of course, there is “Hand Wash.” This has been rendered a little easier by the “Hand Wash” cycle on the washing machine—but isn’t that a contradiction in terms? At any rate, I Hand Wash most of the Hand Wash items in the Hand Wash automatic washing machine cycle, except for the ones that really look like they need hand washing. Personally, I think they give out “Hand Wash” tags a little too freely at the clothing factory. I wouldn’t be surprised to find a pair of denim jeans labeled “Hand Wash,” or, for that matter, a swimsuit marked, “Dry Clean Only.”

I'm pretty sure this is the only instruction label clothes
had on them when I was younger.
I did consider trying to save time by using a permanent, dayglow marker to print—in easily understandable language—the unique combination of washing instructions on each garment, but since my other idea of marking the sheets and blankets to assist in bed-making didn’t go over so well, this idea never made it out of the "just thinking about it" phase.

(NOTE: I actually did use a permanent black marker to delineate the halfway points of the sheets and blankets. The idea was, by matching up the marks with the halfway marker I carved into the bed frame with kitchen knife (don’t tell my wife) I could speed up the process of symmetrically arranging the bedding. Don’t try it; it didn’t work.)

Now, I’m not complaining because all this label reading/garment washing takes up the majority of my day (really, what else am I going to do with my time?) but I think you ladies should be a bit concerned about this, especially those of you without a layabout husband willing to do your laundry one garment at a time. I fear the garment manufacturing industry (or at least the division that hands out the laundry tags) is in a conspiracy to keep women so busy doing laundry that they won’t have time to take over the world. You should rise up and demand laundry-equality so you can do your laundry like men do.

Don’t worry, it doesn’t take long to get used to the grey hue all your whites take on.

Sunday, November 3, 2013

Anxious About Anxiety

I read something in the local paper yesterday that made me quite anxious. Apparently, the people who live in Horsham District—of which I am one—have been revealed as the most anxious people in the UK. And this makes me anxious.

Notice that Horsham is not the most anxious place in the south east of England, or in England itself, but the whole of the UK (there is a difference ). That’s a lot of responsibility to put on our shoulders. And this makes me anxious.

As a result of these startling finding, The Council is going to investigate why the anxiety level is so high. And this makes me anxious.

The reason this makes me particularly anxious is this: like everyone, I have my daily, run-of-the-mill anxieties, such as my eyebrows, whether we have enough pancake syrup in the fridge (apparently I am not anxious enough about this because, when I made pancakes this morning, I found we were out of syrup and had to scurry off to the Co-Op to get some, which really screwed up my Sunday morning routine) and how big the spiders lurking under my bed are (they are there, I just know it). These, however, are common to the entire population (aren’t they?) and merely put us on an even keel with the rest of the UK. But I, as an interloper, have a lot more to be anxious about than the average citizen.

Like corduroy, for example:

In the US, I knew wearing corduroy before Labor Day was a fashion faux pas, but as we have no Labor Day here (not even a Labour Day) there is no apparel-related starting point to let me know when it is culturally appropriate to take my corduroy shirt out of its seasonal retirement. My wife tells me to just wear it whenever I feel like it, but she is sort of laissez-faire when it comes to attire. And this makes me anxious.

Additionally, like everyone, I have my favorite pen (don’t you?) and mine happens to be the BIC round-stic fine point (black). The problem is, they are made only in the USA and were hard enough to get when I used to live there. Over here, they are impossible to get and I only have half a dozen left in my stash and this is making me anxious, especially considering that I was just over there and forgot to bring any home with me.

Likewise, my stock of note pads—what I refer to as my Perfect Paper Pocket Pads—is running low, and you have no idea how anxious this makes me (though, by now, I think you might be starting to catch on).

Really, what would I do without these; the very thought makes me anxious.
Another huge source of angst is the sudden disappearance of organic ginger cordial. Granted, other people are anxious about this as well but, as this is my drink of choice and is, therefore, used daily, I think I have more to be anxious about vis-à-vis organic ginger cordial than the average person. You see, after years of being my main supplier, Waitrose suddenly stopped carrying Belvoir Ginger Cordial, forcing me to go with the less-desirable Bottlegreen variety. But, because other people have also been cut short by the Belvoir brand disappearance, the Bottlegreen supply has been exhausted for the past two weeks, forcing me to resort to a Lime and Coconut cordial instead, which, predictably enough, installs that song in my head every time I take a sip of it, causing me no end of anxiety.

(I bet you thought life in a mid-sized market town was idyllic, didn’t you?)

And this is why I am anxious about The Council investigating the cause of our communal anxiety: I fear my personal anxieties are pushing us over the top.

What if The Council discovers I am the source of a large portion of the collective anxiety level and, without me, they would just have a middling level of angst, like Bognor? They might take advantage of this knowledge and move me to their neighbor and rival, Crawley, to make them the top worriers of the UK, and this makes me very anxious indeed. I don’t want to live in Crawely; I’d look silly in a hoodie and a Burberry cap.

Now I’m really anxious, and the only thing for it is to grab a cigar and a refreshing beverage and retire to the balcony. Although, the only beverage available is that lime and coconut cordial…

Thursday, October 31, 2013

America the Beautiful

I come from New England; that’s my story and I’m sticking to it. Granted, New York is actually one of the Mid-Atlantic States but, as I lived very close to the boarder of Massachusetts, the land, the people, the traditions and the seasons in the area where I grew up were influenced more by New England than the industrial megalopolis stretching between New York City and Washington, DC.

What? Not New England enough for you?
And New England, for three or four weeks of the year, is arguably the prettiest place on Earth. We managed to be there for two of them; it was wonderful.

The weather for the second week was stunning; classic October weather with blue skies and golden trees glowing in the sunshine. There is no other sight on earth quite as charming.

Oh Beautiful for Spacious Skies...
The first week was grey and murky, but that only added to the allure, lending a brooding atmosphere to the countryside. With the woodlands shrouded in mist, you could imagine yourself back in colonial times, and might expect to see the Headless Horseman ride out of the gloom, holding a glowing pumpkin aloft.

(I am about to go off on what could be the longest parenthetical aside in history, but seeing as how it is Halloween, it isn’t totally off-topic, so bear with me.

The Headless Horseman and Ichabod Crane and all that are from a story titled, “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” that takes place in Sleepy Hollow, New York, a small village just outside of Tarry Town. However, the actual events that led to Washington Irving writing that story took place not a mile and a half from where I grew up. According to a notation by Irving himself, the character of Ichabod Crane was based on a schoolteacher named Jesse Merwin, whom Irving befriended in Kinderhook, New York, in 1809.

For the sake of the youngsters among you, allow me to point out that Ichabod Crane was not:

  •           A detective from New York City
  •           A time-travelling uber-spy for George Washington
  •           Jeff Goldblum in a tricorn hat
Will the real Ichabod Crane, please sit down!.
Ichabod Crane, in the original story, is a school teacher and he is not the hero of the tale. Ichabod is conceited, conniving, self-serving, gluttonous, and not especially kind to children.

Additionally, the Headless Horseman was not one of the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, nor was he an actual apparition. It was, instead, Brom Bones attempting to scare Ichabod—quite successfully, as it turned out—into giving up his quest for the lovely, and wealthy, Katrina Van Tassel’s hand, leaving Brom free to marry her, which he does.

According to local legend, the event that sparked the story was a practical joke played on Mr. Merwin as he made his way home from the Van Allen house to his home on Merwin Lake Road one evening.

Just sayin'

The fact that the story itself was set further down the Hudson Valley gives Sleepy Hollow and Tarry Town the right to claim the story as their own—as well as to benefit from the tourist dollars this generates—but it does not detract from the fact that the genesis of the tale took place within two miles of my boyhood home.

After all, I went to Ichabod Crane Central School, we have the Ichabod Crane Motel on Route 9H, the Ichabod Crane School House historic site and we used to have Sleepy Hollow Carpets just outside of Kinderhook but then they turned it into an Elk’s Lodge.

And if that doesn’t convince you that the Legend of Sleepy Hollow actually started within walking distance of my home, have a look at my brother’s back.

He won't mind; this is his Facebook Profile photo
Would anyone do this to themselves if the story behind it weren’t true?)

But back to beautiful New York.

On our first morning there, we went to see the Blessing of the Hounds in Old Chatham, which was just down the road from where we were staying. It was a good reintroduction to local life and allowed me to steep myself in the culture I had left behind.

Yeah, we do fox hunting in America. What of it?
And then we took in the countryside. At that time of year, you can literally go anywhere, look from the top of any hill and be amazed at what you see. Gosh, the trees! I'd about forgotten what a proper autumn looked like; it can truly take your breath away.

A random hill outside of Ryder's Mills

A popular overlook near Old Chatham.

A random shot out of my car window while driving outside of Nassau.

The Thatcher Park Overlook.

A random lane outside of Schodack.
The main purpose of the trip, however was to play with the grandboys, and we managed to do quite a bit of this.

It is strange, seeing oneself as a father, and a grandfather, but there was my boy—my youngest—with a wife and a mortgage and two tow-headed toddlers running around the yard, jumping in piles of leaves and asking to be pushed on the swings. But I look at all of this as an outsider and if it wasn't for the fact that my sons and grandsons bear a striking resemblance to me when I was their age, I might assume I had nothing at all to do with them.

Allie and my wife with the G-boys in a corn maze.

Obligatory jumping-in-a-pile-of-leaves shot

Obligatory jumping-in-a-pile-of-leaves shot

The G-boys: Charlie and Mitch

My boy, Mitch, with his boys, Charlie (on lap) and Mitch
So, while we had a lovely time, it was also strange, and it left me feeling introspective. Autumn, for me, was always a time of reflection and mild melancholy. There is beauty, but also an underlying sadness, in watching the leaves burst into color and then fall to the ground; the year is ending, the cycle is closing and the long winter will soon cover the land, holding it in frozen limbo, waiting for the next cycle.

And this year, in addition to this autumnal melancholy, I felt the weight of nostalgia and the looming presence of what was no longer there. The familiar rituals of going to my dad's house, or visiting my cousin, or stopping in to see old friends are all out of reach now. We went on several long and rambling rides over country roads through stunning scenery but at each bend, it seemed, I was met by a memory of what once was, and it saddened me to realize I could no longer truly feel at home in my home.

I love it there; it is so pretty, so welcoming, so warming, but I don’t think I could ever go back, not to live. There are too many ghosts.

I wish I could credit this photo, but I forgot where I nicked it from.

Friday, October 25, 2013

Feeling Foreign in America

I love America; land of my birth, cradle of my childhood, my protector and provider for many comfortable and profitable years. Visits to the Motherland always filled me with a sense of belonging and the assurance that it was, and would always remain, my true home. This year, however, America seemed just a tad alien. More than on any other visit I found myself pausing to ponder over simple tasks or social customs. Where once I felt completely in step, I now found myself wrong-footed and occasionally lost. America, it seems, has moved on without me.

Television, for instance: while I have always found it more dire and insipid than British TV, this year it was nearly incomprehensible. The shows, the news, the commercials (many, many, many commercials) were filled with apparently popular celebrities—both local and national—who were complete strangers to me. And the screen flickered with pop-ups and scrolling messages while parts of it remained obscured by semi-transparent corporate logos. It was like trying to watch the telly on Facebook and, like Facebook, it left me baffled and slightly nauseated.

Okay, it's not quite as bad as this, but it's close.
And the grocery stores, always too large, were now intimidating massive and caused more than a few culture clashes. While the shelves still held many of my old favorites, there were just as many products that were unknown to me. Then, at the check-out, we encountered The Packer.

Being conscientious shoppers, we arrived at the check-out with our own bags and proceeded to pack our purchases ourselves. This really seemed to put a knot in The Packer’s knickers, and she remained determined to do the job even though we clearly didn’t want her to. She even tried to grab items out of my hand as I picked them up so she could deposit them in the bag she was holding ready.

“We have our own bags,” I kept telling her.

“It’s New York State Law!” she would reply, as we wrestled for the next item.

It was all very unsettling.

All we wanted was a pint of milk and a box of chocolate chip cookies.
Then I tried pumping gas.

The mechanism was familiar enough but I stood waiting for the pump to turn on for some time before realizing I needed to go in and pay first. The next time, I used my credit card at the pump, but I found I needed to key in my zip code in order for it to work. And, of course, it wasn’t about to accept my post code. The next time, I used my American credit card and had the requisite zip code at the ready. But that pump didn’t ask for my zip code and instead told me to “Press to Start Pumping.” I think this incident says less about culture differences and hints more at the idea that US gas pumps operate in random and esoteric manners because, as I fruitlessly poked at various locations on the pump face, my American friend got out of the car to help and then both of us poked fruitlessly at the pump face until he saw a sign—written in huge, red letters—reading “Press to Start Pumping.”

Things went a little more smoothly after that.

While driving, I had to puzzle over new road arrangements and also encountered a number of rotaries or traffic circles, which are the US equivalent of round-abouts, only used by people who have no idea how to drive on a round-about. And the Americans, bless them, have a knack for taking something that is relatively straight-forward and enhancing it into something dangerously confusing. Add to this my ingrained habit of looking right and turning left into the round-about and you will understand why we approached every traffic circle with a sense of dread.

Just a random photo to remind you that America was closed when we got there.
We thought they might suggest we go to Canada instead, but they let us in. Eventually.
But the main thing that made me despair of ever understanding America again was the phone. During my last visit, I bought a disposable phone and put a hundred minutes on it. It was a god-send, so I took it back to Britain with me and brought it along on this trip.

I knew that, unlike my British disposable phone where the minutes remain valid indefinitely, the leftover minutes on my US phone would dissipate after 90 days, so when I turned the phone on I was not surprised when it didn’t work.

I was, however, surprised that the new bundle of minutes I bought wouldn’t load onto the phone, so I called their customer service and they informed me that, when the time limit on the minutes is up, the phone becomes useless; the only thing you can do with it is throw it away and buy a new one or request a new SIM card (if you happen to have a US address, which I do not). I realize these are disposable phones but surely that is taking it to its illogical conclusion.

Tracfone: a useless piece of plastic.
And so, on my first day back in America, I threw a perfectly good phone I had been hanging onto for the past year into the garbage and bought a new one that I will, likely, have to throw away next year, and I wondered just what sort of country I had landed in.

America, we need to talk; we seem to be drifting apart.

Friday, October 18, 2013


Home, Garrison Keillor reminds us, is the place that, when you go there, they have to take you in. If this is true, then America is no longer my home.

But I’m getting ahead of myself.

I love being in America (where else on this planet can you get aerosol cheese and a chocolate pizza?) but travelling to America leaves something to be desired. Forget for the minute that I am never at ease rocketing through the stratosphere in an oversized cigar tube with wings and concentrate, instead, on the indignity of being treated like a criminal every time you attempt to enter your own home. We live in perilous times, however, so absurdly intrusive security seems a small price to pay in exchange for our safety (though I have to admit, making people sign a waiver that essentially reads, “Say, you’re not planning on overthrowing the US government while you’re here, are you?” will foil the plans of no one save for the most unbelievably naïve anarchists).

With this thought in mind, and my yearly promise to myself to take it all in good stride, we left for America.

At Heathrow, we were pleasantly surprised. The guards were affable, non-threatening and even joked with us as they patted us down. They effectively conveyed the notion that we were all in it together, that they knew it was absurd but, hey, this is their job. I did not allow this unexpected pleasantry to raise my expectations of their America counterparts but I must report that, when we landed at Newark, none of the guards there made me feel the least bit threatened, either.

On the other hand, the American guards were a po-faced lot, processing the incoming with humorless efficiency. This general improvement was likely due to the many signs posted throughout the entrance hall reminding them they “are the face of America” and to be “courteous, cordial and helpful” and to remember that not ALL of the people coming into the US are criminals and terrorists and to at least occasionally assume that they aren’t. Though I might have made that last bit up.

I was, however, heartened by their attempt at a new attitude and walked with confidence to the immigration guard and proudly displayed my US passport.

“Where is you landing card?” he asked.

“My wife has it,” I told him, “She’s in the other line.”

“You can’t get in without a landing card.”

For the uninitiated, a landing card is a piece of bureaucratic fluff wherein you have to declare the value of anything you are bringing into the country so they can tax you on it. The US is the only country that forces its own citizens to fill one out and they supply a single one per family group, so you have to aggregate the value of your goodies. It’s a way of getting added revenue from really stupid people and this form is handled by the customs guards after you retrieve your bags. It has nothing to do with immigration and I have never been asked for it before.

“I have a card,” I reminded him, “but my wife has it. She had to go through the non-citizen’s line.”

“You can’t get in without a landing card,” he said.

Now, not only did he fail to explain how—if my wife and I were forced to go through two separate lines and had only one landing card between us—we were both supposed to get into the country, he also did NOT say, “You can’t get in without a landing card; here’s a blank one, fill it out now and I’ll let you go through,” or “You can’t get in without a landing card; go see the guard over there and he’ll help you out.” He simply said, “You can’t get in without a landing card,” and then turned away to attend to another person, leaving me standing there, holding my US passport, tantalizingly close to US territory but, apparently, unable to step into it.

And so I said, “Bloody hell!” and walked into the entrance hall where, in the no-man’s-land between the “stand behind this line until called” line and the guard booths, I faced the crowd of suppliants, held my passport up for them to see and said, “They won’t let me in!” Then I wandered away.

I had no real plan—my mind was too boggled for thought—so I simply wandered, cutting through lines, ducking under barriers to walk through restricted areas and passing by uniformed guards wearing grim expressions and side-arms, but no one shot me, no one even said, “Just what the fuck do you think you’re doing?” They just let me wander.

Eventually, I ran into my wife who was, by lucky coincidence, standing in the slowest line in the Non-Citizen side of the hall. If she had been in a faster line, she—and our landing card—would have already been on the other side, and I would have been doomed to roam the airport, like Tom Hanks but without Catherine Zeta-Jones, until my return flight.

As it was, I was able to get into America, the country of my birth, where I am a passport-carrying, bona fide citizen, only because my not-a-US-citizen wife vouched for me.

I have no words.

Hours later, safely ensconced in the abode of a good friend and surrounded by the dazzling display of New England in October, I listened to the sounds of the approaching autumn evening and knew—despite what my landing-card-obsessed immigration guard might think—I was home.

Sunday, September 29, 2013

The Eye(brow)s Have It

Something strange has been happening for the past year or so: when I get my hair cut, as the process draws to a close, the barber—male or female—will lean close and whisper, “Would you like me to trim your eyebrows?”

Now, I have been having my hair cut—on two continents—for a number of years, and never before have I been asked that question, except during these past few months. I can assure you that my eyebrows have not become suddenly shaggier (okay, they are a little unkempt at times, but it’s nothing a stiff brush and a garden rake can’t handle) I have to conclude that, at their annual conference last year, the Grand Barber must have given a rousing speech on the new and exciting styling possibilities waiting to be exploited within their customer’s eyebrows.

My eyebrows do NOT look like this!
Since we have already established that it is not my eyebrows, then it has to be that, or some obscure ordinance demanding that barbers offer retired people the option of having their eyebrows mowed along with their haircuts, as a sort of OAP perk. It could be this, as the question began to be posed to me after I admitted that I had recently retired. I told them that because, when I started showing up on weekdays instead of weekends to have my hair shortened and they asked if I had the day off, “retired” sounded better than confessing I had been made redundant and couldn’t be arsed to look for a new job.

Naturally, I have never considered saying, “Yes” to this question, for a number of reasons.

First, there is the manner in which they ask it, the way they lean in and furtively enquire, as if the state of my eyebrows and the possible shearing of them should be kept secret; something intimate to be shared between a barber and his patient that the rest of the shop does not need to be privy to. This is how I would imagine they might ask the more traditional “Something for the weekend, sir?” question, which they never have. Not to me, anyway. (For my American friends, “Something for the weekend, sir” is supposedly what barbers would ask gentlemen who were having their hair cut as a way of offering them condoms. Apparently, this custom died out about the time Boots began setting condoms out on the display racks so they stopped asking it long before I reached these shores. Or perhaps they just assumed I was the sort of guy who simply wouldn’t benefit from condoms. Just as well; if they had asked, I probably would have said, “A couple of tickets to Lego Land would be nice!”)

This is what they are planning on doing, I just know it!
Secondly, there is the matter of a friend of mine who once treated herself to a luxury make-over, part of which included waxing and tweaking her eyebrows. Long story short, an over-enthusiastic exfoliator-in-training removed half of her left eyebrow, leaving her with a permanently quizzical look. She tried to paint it in with eyebrow pencil and we all told her you could hardly notice it, but of course we were lying.

After deflecting one of the more approachable female barber’s offer of weed-whacking my eyebrows, I related that story to her. Surprisingly, she took umbrage at it, apparently believing I was suggesting—had I allowed her near the ridge of my brow with a set of lively clippers—that the results might be similar, which, of course, was exactly what I was implying. But now that I have so alerted her, I am certainly not going to let her touch my eyebrows for fear that she will (“Oops, I am soooo sorry. Not.”) shave them off in a fit of pique.

The real reason I will not allow my eyebrows to be fiddled with, however, is due to my secret shame, something I will not even confess in the sanctity of my barber/patient relationship: most of my eyebrows are not there.

No, it’s true: from the middle of my eyebrows outward, I am practically bald, and I use the vigorous growth of the other half as a sort of eyebrow comb-over. If I let my barber shorten my external eye-hairs, I am going to look as quizzical as my aforementioned friend, but on both sides.

God in heaven! These are eyebrow shapers...for MEN!

Just why my eyebrows have disappeared is a mystery. I did ask Dr. Google about it and—as you might expect—discovered a number of possible reasons encompassing an alarming range of outcomes, including death. (Seriously, I don’t know why everyone in the world isn’t a hypochondriac by now; the internet makes it so easy to inflate an infected hangnail into a symptom of bubonic plague or Ebola poisoning.)

I am choosing to believe my pattern eyebrow-baldness is at the lower, non-lethal, end of the hair-loss spectrum, which is merely “a natural condition of aging” because Hypothyroidism—which Doc Google puts forward as the most likely candidate—has a host of nasty side effects and complications (including premature failure of the ovaries) but which, happily, has a array of symptoms I have yet to experience, such as memory loss, fluid retention and irregular menstrual cycles.

Therefore, I think it is safe to assume that my eyebrow thinning is non-lethal, but I plan to hang on to as much of my comb-over as I can, so I steadfastly refuse the kind offers of my barbers to hack a path through my eyebrows with a machete and continue with my own brow-hair maintenance regime, as long as I can remember where I put the wire brush and the garden rake.