Wednesday, June 28, 2017

Lowering the Flag

The flag has come down.

No, it’s nothing political—not me getting steamed up over Brexit, Chairman May or the village idiot in the White House—and I’m still as patriotic as ever. The reason is, we’re moving.

It seems strange to be moving again so soon. We haven’t been in our new flat long enough to stop calling it “our new flat,” and now we’re going to an even newer flat. There are various reasons for this move—cost, noise, 68 steps up to the door, rubbish managing agent—but overall, I think the main reason I decided to move was to make my wife stop looking at listings for flats.

Since we moved in here, she has been scrolling through listings for flats with all the enthusiasm and glee of a 13-year-old boy perusing porn. Now this wouldn’t be an issue (hey, I’ve been there) except, unlike that 13-year-old, her obsession demands an audience.

“Look at this one,” she says, setting her laptop down on the balcony table, “it’s really nice. And this one is expensive, but look how awful it is. We couldn’t live there.”

I nod and relight my pipe.

“And, oh, I found a good one in Southwater. Look at that! It has communal gardens, and it’s on a bus line…”

The good thing was, when we finally decided the reasons for staying did not outweigh the reasons for leaving, my wife had the lowdown on every available flat within a 10-mile radius.

And so, with our criteria firmly in mind—quiet neighborhood, ample parking, big enough for our stuff, close to town, in our price range, and on the ground floor—and a perky lettings agent leading the way, we set out to view flats.

It didn’t go as easy as in the past. The first four we looked at were all either too far away and/or too expensive and/or lacking in any parking (it still amazes me how, in Britain, there are properties with absolutely no place to put a car). But then we came to a ground-floor flat that was located in a quiet cul-de-sac with on-street parking (but there were lots of empty spaces) that was within our price range and just a short walk away from town. It even had a balcony. (Yes, a ground-floor flat with a balcony. Go figure.)
Our new flat is just off of the graphic. Not too far from the town centre.
It ticked every box, and so we took it. Then we realized we hadn’t actually checked that it was big enough for our stuff, but we figured it had to be about the same size as where we are living now so we didn’t worry about it. Until I went back with a tape measure.

Our future flat, it transpires, is way smaller than our current flat.

To get some perspective on how my life is shrinking: the one-bedroom flat I lived in before moving to Britain had 800 square feet of living space. Both two-bedroom flats we have lived in here have been around 720 square feet. Our future flat has only 600 square feet—an area an American wouldn’t raise veal in.
US 1 Bedroom, UK 2 Bedroom, our future flat
Consequently, we are now on a mission to jettison as much stuff as we possibly can. We downsized when we moved into this flat, but now we have to downsize in spades.

Will we manage to fit all our stuff in? Can we dispose of enough of our lives to allow us to live in such a small space and still have room to practice Limbo Dancing (if we ever want to take it up, I mean.)?

All that remains to be seen. In the meantime, I have forbidden my wife from looking at any more flats, lest she suddenly find “the perfect property” and leave us forever regretting this rash decision. (I’m pretty sure she still scrolls through the listings when I’m not looking, though.)

Oh, and the flag. Well, there’s really nothing to stop me from putting it up—no regulation that I know of—but a flag flying from a ground floor balcony will simply make me a target. And you just know some little oik will steal it.

Friday, June 16, 2017


We go to America once a year, which adds up to a lot of trips. For the most part—despite the occasional hiccup—we have been lucky.

We have been lucky with the flights. But this time, both going and returning, our flights were missed, cancelled, delayed and just not very comfortable (in a first-world complaint sort of way).

Long story short: Missed connection in Newark, next flight cancelled, next flight delayed, and delayed, and delayed.

This would not have been so bad if we had not been in Newark’s United terminal, which handles short flights and therefore has all the amenities, comfort and grandeur of a bus station.

We finally took off at 11:30 PM after 12 hours in the airport.

(We did, however, take off in a thunderstorm, which made for a lively flight.)

Overall, we were lucky. Others didn’t even make it out that day. And I just saw on FaceBonk that my niece has been in Newark since Tuesday trying to get to Italy.

What the departures board looked like while we were waiting

(First World Problem: On the return trip, the in-flight entertainment was on a loop. There were a number of channels you could select, each one showing a movie. The movies all started, apparently, when the plane did, so when I went to look for some diversion, all the movies were already on. There was no indication of what the movies were or how long they had been playing. When the movies ended, they repeated, but since all the movies were not the same length, you could only watch one, partial, movie, then switch to another, partial, movie. I know this is a really small thing, but c’mon, that’s 1970s technology.)

My final three words on this: “United,” “Never” and “Again.”

Moving on.

We have been lucky with the hire car. Never a scratch. This year: three.

We have been lucky with timing. This year, my son, his wife and the G-kids moved house while we were there. (They were supposed to have moved last month but, you know, closings.)

We have been lucky with the weather. This year, it rained every day, except the last day, which was, oddly enough, the 14th day.

This, you see, was our 13th trip. I didn’t know it at the time, I just went along in a fog thinking, “Why is everything going wrong?” I’m not triskaidekaphobic or anything, but when I got home and realized what number this trip was, it all made sense.

We’re back now, and I’ll write up our adventures soon. Until then, watch out for that pesky number…you know the one.

We went to visit our favorite cafe, but it was closed. So we went to a different one.
Pretentious, confusing and expensive, and this was our order number.
I'm not superstitious or anything, I'm just sayin'

Monday, June 12, 2017

Bloody Hell

We just returned from two weeks in the States, but that will have to wait because I now find myself, for the fourth time in less than a year, having to roll out this caveat:

This is not a political blog, but today I am going to talk about politics.


The reason (this time): I have just landed in a country without a government.

For the second time in less than a year, the British political system is in melt-down because they called an election they did not need to call and got a result they could not imagine happening.

Bloody hell!

For my American friends, this is the long and the short of it.

After Brexit, Ms May, our new Prime Minister, set herself up as a “Strong and Stable” leader who would spearhead the charge into Brexit, confident of the WILL OF THE PEOPLE and secure the HARD BREXIT she knew we all wanted.

She said from the get-go that she was not going to hold an election. She had a majority, she knew the people were behind her. It was time to get on with the job.

But then, while walking in the bucolic Welsh countryside, it came to her that she needed to reinforce her position as leader. She owed her people a chance to tell her just how much they were behind her and, therefore, she needed to hold an election.

That’s her take. I’m pretty sure what really happened was her political advisers (who are now scouring the Want Ads) showed her some charts and graphs illuminating her popularity and, more importantly, the unpopularity of her opponents. If she held an election, they told her, she could not help but gain enough seats in Parliament to make her a virtual dictator. And that she could not resist.

I hasten to add, this was not a bad call. She was, at the time, very popular, while the Labour party, led by Jeremy Corbyn, was in disarray. Additionally, UKIP had made itself redundant, the Liberal Democrats had made themselves irrelevant and the Green Party, bless them, still held only one seat. So it looked like clear sailing toward a Parliament with a huge Conservative majority.

And her strategy was sound: all she had to do was nothing. If she did nothing, she eliminated the risk of committing a gaffe in front of her electorate; she left that to her opponents.

Unfortunately, she did nothing poorly.

The first nothing she did poorly was not reach out to the 48% of the voting public who didn’t want Brexit. In all her “Strong and Stable,” “Will of the People” leadership speeches, she totally ignored half of the population. This made her look less like a leader and more like the head of a cult.

She then refused to take part in any debates. This made her look less like a leader and more like someone afraid to, well, take part in debates.

During her few appearances on talk shows, she pointedly avoided answering questions, and not in the skillful way most politicians handle prevarications, but in a ham-fisted, awkward manner. This made her look less like a leader and more like someone with something to hide.

She tried to make up for this by going out and meeting “the people,” but it soon came to light that the people she was meeting were hand-picked supporters, herded together to make them look like a huge crowd when, in fact, there were only about thirty of them. This made her look less like a leader and more like a charlatan.

Ms May Rally -- the tight shot.

Ms May Rally -- the wide shot
These meetings were held in secrete locations and carefully orchestrated, and if a real reporter turned up, she would simply leave. This made her look less like a leader and more like a coward.

But even with all this against her, she remained confident that, when the people went to the polls, they wouldn’t have much of a choice, but then something as miraculous as it was unanticipated happened: Jeremy Corbyn started acting like a leader.

The often confused-looking, bearded man in the dowdy jumper started holding rallies, and speaking his mind, and people flocked to him—lots of people, not just a handful squeezed together to imitate a crowd. And as his popularity grew, hers shrank.

The old Jeremy Corbyn

The New Jeremy Corbyn

Jeremy Corbyn Rally -- no trickery here.
This was happening when we left for the States, but the popularity gap was still so wide that we told our friends the best we could hope for was a slightly increased majority.

Then, as we rode home from the airport this morning—after 12 hours of radio silence—Tony, our loquacious driver, filled us in on the astonishing details:

The Conservatives lost 13 seats, the Labour gained 30.

The Conservatives are still the largest party, but with only 318 seats, they do not have enough to form a government.* It was, as someone pointed out, “A humiliating victory.”

And it gets better. I have just heard that, in order to retain her tenuous grasp on power, Ms May has been forced to cobble together a coalition government with the Democratic Unionist Party of Northern Ireland (DUP), a splinter party with roots in religious fundamentalism who espouse some rather unpopular views.

It looks like we’re in for an interesting ride, so hang on tight.


* For my American friends, a quick primer on UK elections. To put it into US terms, imagine you don’t actually vote for President. Instead, you vote for your state senators. When all the senators have been elected, they count them up, and the party with the most senators gets to have their Head Senator as President. The catch is, to effectively run a government, you would need to have 51 Senators of the same party holding the majority, otherwise, all your legislation would get voted down. That’s what happened in the UK just now. Ms May needed 326 seats but she only got 318.