Stopping for a rest and refreshment in a small village churchyard, my gaze fell on a nearby headstone. Edna Jones, born 10 years before the start of WW1, had died at the ripe old age of 102…….a good innings and a high score, if you forgive the abuse of cricketing terminology. She had outlived her husband by 20 years who, himself, had enjoyed a much better than average innings. As I chewed on an energy bar to replace lost carbs, I began to ‘chew over’ a few thoughts on this lady’s life. If she had been born 4 years earlier and had still lived to be 102, her life would have spanned 3 centuries. By no means a unique accomplishment, because it does happen the world over, especially in countries like Japan……but it is still very rare.
Back at home, I wanted to check out a few facts to put this achievement into context. When Edna was born, at the beginning of the 20th century, life expectancy in the UK was only 50 (worldwide only 30), so Edna had more than doubled the average longevity. The birth of the NHS in 1948 did much to improve health and hygiene, but by that time, Edna was already 44 years old, roughly the equivalent of entering into old age, so she had survived a lot of the terminal possibilities before the advent of free health care.
It is astonishing how rapidly the average age of longevity has risen in the 20th century. In 100 years in the UK, it has risen from 50 to just under 80, the equivalent of an extra 12 months of life every three years (put simply, every three days an extra day). Quite astonishing really.
Back in the early 1980s, as I was invigilating a long tedious A level examination, I remember reading a question on the General Studies paper related to longevity and the payment of pensions to senior citizens. Apparently, the actuarial tables used to determine payments (35 years ago) were based on the average person working to the age of 65, and dying within the next 18 months. Today, conversely, one of our greatest concerns as a society is the imbalance the number of senior citizens is causing the country’s economy, and the added pressure placed on social and healthcare services. On the one hand, medical science continues to stride forward in its endeavour to extend the average life span, but the net result is the huge increase in the need to support the diminishing quality of life amongst people who have far outlived their biblical ‘three score and ten’ years.
So, where do we strike the balance…….?
I love to tell people that I have a younger brother who lives on a houseboat near the centre of London, and then wait for their reaction. For many, houseboat-living is essentially connected with the beautiful tranquil countryside, rivers and canals, wayside pubs and flowery meadows, canal locks and pretty marinas……. The reality of urban houseboat-living, however, is a little different. It is an ‘alternative lifestyle’ in one respect, but for some it is the only alternative.
Notwithstanding, perhaps the most famous London houseboat dweller in recent years was Richard Branson who, through the upwardly mobile years of his business development, lived with his family on a narrow boat. But for many, living on a river or canal may be their only choice, for a variety of reasons…..but chiefly economic. So, when GB won the bid for the 2012 Olympics, and the East End of London became the favoured site, not everyone was ecstatic with the prospects.
Nearly 200 houseboats are moored either within the Olympic park or just outside. Loosely applied legislation about residency has allowed these dwellers to have permanent, or semi-permanent, moorings along the River Lea, but with the approach of the Olympics, British Waterways are now doing their utmost to drive them out. Reasons for this: unsightliness of houseboats, security, temporary lettings for boats during the Olympics at inflated prices…..etc. The permanent dwellers, of course, see this as discrimination and something akin to social cleansing.
Of course, I agree with the houseboaters. Who wouldn’t want to support a sibling to hang on to his home? Click here for a Guardian news report. What are your thoughts?
Having read Chris Cleave’s second novel (On the other hand) I was intrigued to read his first. Incendiary is a novel-length letter from a working class wife and mother to Osama Bin Laden, following the death of her husband and son in a suicide bombing of Arsenal football stadium, which ultimately claimed the lives of over 1000 people. As I worked my way through the story, the striking similarities with the dreadful bombings in London, now known as 7/7 (July 7th 2005), convinced me this was a fictional parallel story feeding on that event, which had claimed the lives of 52 people and injured 700. I had this confirmed (or so I thought) by the publication date on the front credits page, which was 2005, and I assumed this had been quickly written in the months following.
So it came as a big surprise to find out later that the publication date had, in fact, been July 7th 2005, the very day of the London bombings. My first reaction was that it had been an amazing stroke of coincidence, almost prophetic. In any other circumstances, this coincidence could have meant the meteoric launch of a new writing career, but for Chris Cleave and his publisher, it meant just the opposite. The trauma and carnage that stopped the country (and many parts of the world) in its tracks simply consumed all the available column inches in all the media, and a work of fiction from an unknown author was never going to poke its nose through the dense smoke screen.
However, undeterred, Cleave went on to write a second novel, and on the success of that his first novel eventually became a bestseller. Worth reading. I would recommend it highly.
Should you ever venture to one of the country’s mega-exhibition centres, you need to be prepared ………… The newly extended ExCel Exhibition Centre (in the docklands of London) is over 100,000 sq metres in size. If you can’t begin to imagine the enormity of that, try to picture 14 football pitches all located under one roof………..absolutely massive!! You will need comfortable footwear or even a pair of skates to get around, and expect to cover several miles in the process.
The Outdoors Show on January 12-15th was really made up of four different shows, which sounds like a bargain for one entry ticket. But really a false bargain……….you cannot physically do all four shows in one day (nor, I imagine, would you want to). It would be like trying to visit four large museums in a day………. (you know the feeling).
My primary interest, of course, was cycling, and it was good to discover a number of innovations and new products that will ‘tweak’ the interest of any serious cyclist. The big challenge is to allow your interest to be tweaked but to keep a tight grip on the credit card. You go to these events as a willing, pliable customer, and the exhibitors know it, and do everything to persuade you to part with your hard-earned pennies. However, there are many cost-free goodies for the punter too. The samples and freebies spill out of nearly every stall: pens, water bottles, puncture repair kits, T-shirts, competitions to win expensive bikes……… I made several rounds of the sports nutrition stalls sampling all of their wares (energy bars, energy gells, drinks…) and ended up so hyped that I had to jump on a turbo-trainer to burn off the excess carbs!
I remain convinced, however, that these expensive (and chemically enhanced) high energy sports products are really no substitute for nature’s wholesome alternatives: bananas, dried fruit ‘n nuts, fruit juices….etc. It’s in such areas as these that you encounter the ‘clash’ of two cultures in cycling: the mentality of the long-distance cyclist versus the short distance, adrenaline-rush mentality of the competitive cyclist. We may all look the same as we carve our way along country lanes in pelotons, but our individual goals can be very different.
I was born into a family of few sporting traditions. Apart from an uncle (who died in WW2) who had been a notable amateur footballer and an uncle in Ireland who had played hurling for Tipperary in the all-Ireland final in 1937, I had few role-models to follow. But my youth was dominated by sport, especially in my teens: football, cricket, tennis, ice-skating and cycling. In my 20s, these gave way to more racquet sports, principally squash and badminton until, one day, tired of pulling muscles, wrenching my back and twisting ligaments, I sought professional advice about which sports were the most injury-free. The two options I was given were: swimming and cycling. It was at that point, in my late 20s, that I took up cycling as a serious sport and (as the saying goes) have never looked back since.
But what I never considered at the time was the longevity of any particular sport in a person’s life. I know we can all pick out someone who might still be playing football, tennis or badminton in their 70s or 80s. Some may even continue aggressive contact sports like rugby into their later years, but the numbers are very low. If you look, however, at the growing number of people who continue enjoying (or even take up) non-contact sports in their later years, you will find that sports like running, swimming and cycling are going through a boom period. If you were to draw a graph of these athletes’ lives, when are they likely to peak at their sport and to what age could they reasonably expect to continue?
I see people in the world of competitive cycling breaking all kinds of records at ages when they really should be wearing slippers and smoking pipes. I cycle in the same club as the legendary 87 year old Bill Duffin who, in 2011, broke the national 10 mile time trial for his age group. He completed the distance in 28m 23secs, at an average speed of 21.15 mph……very good by anyone’s standards. Another octogenarian and cycling companion, Peter Etheridge, has broken 13 bones in his body in separate cycling incidents and is still able to put in very respectable mileages at a good brisk pace. Then I received this cutting from one of my brothers, telling me that Arthur Gilbert is still competing in triathlons at the age of 90. Is there no limit? Apparently not!
At a recent gathering at Little Gidding, we celebrated the memory of Nicholas Ferrar the man who, along with several members of his own family, established a Christian community at this remote spot in west Cambridgeshire. Amongst the many reflections and readings, I offered a highly speculative view of a possible chance encounter in the early 17th century. The story goes as follows:
During Tudor times, my home village of Kimbolton was dominated by the Wingfields, a family who had found favour with Henry VIII and were granted the estates of Kimbolton Castle and its surrounds. One of the Wingfield descendants, Edward María Wingfield, inherited the dissolved properties and estate of Stonely Priory nearby, and went on to distinguish himself by being elected as the first President of the Council of Jamestown, the first successful British colonial settlement in the US. Not only that, but he was also the only shareholder (and principal financial backer) of the newly founded London Virginia Company to accompany
the colonists on their venture. The said company suffered major reversals in its short history, and many who had invested heavily in its fortunes paid a heavy price for their speculation. One such family was the Ferrar family. It is well documented that Nicholas Ferrar, politician and businessman, was so affected by the declining fortune of his family, that he gave up his life in London and retreated to the relative calm of the Cambridgeshire countryside, where he established a quietly retiring Christian community far removed from the hustle and bustle of the capital.
My speculation was this: had Nicholas Ferrar and Edward María Wingfield ever met each other? Were they even known to each other? If not, were they to have met, I wonder what they might have said to each other?
I reckon there is a ‘talking heads’ dialogue somewhere in this.
High winds, fallen trees, traffic disruption and closed roads, sounds familiar? Police arrive, tree surgeons follow closely behind to remove the offending trees in order to allow normal life to continue (ie. the morning rush to work). What had all this to do with the medieval laws that permit gleaning?
Now you may think (as I did) that gleaning was all about the poor in history having a right to clear up the chaff after the
crops had been harvested……the bits of the harvest that reapers were happy to overlook because it was too much work for the meagre returns. Well I met a gentleman recently, in my village, who helped me to revise my thinking. With his chainsaw, he was in the process of cutting up a huge tree that had fallen across the main road, and the expression on my face seemed to elicit (unprovoked, I might say) a long and interesting explanation of what he was doing. Well, I could see what he was doing…..but he really wanted to explain why he was doing it.
The tree had been on the edge of a private garden, but had fallen across the public highway. Now had the tree fallen across the garden, it would have been a different story. But the highway, in medieval terms, was the ‘King’s Land’ (meaning, I suppose, that it had some kind of common ownership), and that anything that should fall onto this land could be claimed by members of the public.
So I told him about my habitual fruit foraging and apple-scrumping in the autumn, and asked him if I would be protected by this 1000 year old law. “Of course”, he said, “you have a perfect right to any fruit that hangs over or falls onto public land. Better still, though, why don’t you go throwing apple and pear cores along the verges and in 6-7 years time you can harvest fruits wherever you want!” Now there’s a thought………..
One of those fondly-remembered books of my early years of reading, I found a return to it in later life especially rewarding. Even now I still struggle to correlate the maturity and expressiveness of Anne Frank’s writing with the reality of her tender age. Her two years of incarceration in a ‘Secret Annexe’ in German-occupied Holland happened during her formative early teenage years, when most youngsters have their minds on things other than serious reading and writing. But her declared intention of becoming a journalist and writer in later life provides the background to the deep urge she has to express her life in words and, in the process, to keep depression and despair at bay during the difficult years of isolation.
Her deep desire to be much more than ‘just a housewife’, to become a famous writer and live on in the minds of people long after her death, made the following words her epitaph:
‘I want to be useful or bring enjoyment to all people, even those I’ve never met. I want to go on living even after my death! And that’s why I’m so grateful to God for having given me this gift, which I can use to develop myself and express all that’s inside me!’
If you haven’t re-visited this book for many years, or even read it at all, I would recommend it highly.
We Brits famously use language for a variety of reasons other than to mean what the words actually say. Take, for instance, the notoriously increasing use of reverse psychology in teenage language over recent years. Years ago, when something was exceedingly good, it was either ‘fab‘ or ‘ace‘, or some other monosyllabic grunt that obviously meant ‘very good’. But as we entered the nineties and noughties, these expressions morphed into ‘cool‘, ‘wicked‘, ‘sick‘, ‘insane‘ and ‘dark‘, and a plethora of other words too rude to mention here.
This habit of understatement (even reversing the meaning) really hit home a few years ago when, near Alicante in Spain, I entered our hotel restaurant one morning for breakfast and asked the waiter how he was (¿Qué tal estamos, hombre?) and he answered in a most uncharacteristic way for a Spaniard (No muy mal). I had never heard anyone ever use that expression before. So I asked him what he meant by it. And he replied “Well it’s what you British people are always saying: not too bad“. Now this got me thinking. What do we Brits actually mean when we say “not too bad“?
Are we simply undecided about our current condition and this is a convenient way of sitting on the fence? Are we afraid of really declaring our cards by saying we feel great or awful (as the case may be)? Or is it simply unBritish to be upbeat about our own physical and mental condition? What would a psycholinguist say?
Linguistic subterfuge in our use of language was further confirmed when a friend passed on an Anglo-EU Translation Guide. At the moment of writing, our Prime Minister, David Cameron, is confronting some of our EU partners with some very tricky questions and possible changes to the constitution of the European Union. I am absolutely certain that language will be very carefully selected to both declare our intentions publicly and to hide some of our real goals and objectives, with the hope that much will be lost in translation anyway. But back to the Translation Guide. It would seem that the reverse psychology of teenage language is also shared by adults at all levels. When someone says “I hear what you say“, does that mean they are really listening? No not at all. It really means “I fundamentally disagree with you”. But a non-British person may not appreciate the subtlety. So too for the following: “With the greatest respect” (I think you are an idiot), “That is a very brave answer” (I think you are insane), “Very interesting” (That is clearly nonsense), “You must come to dinner” (I’m really just being polite) “I only have a few minor comments” (I think you should completely re-write this) and my favourite “I’m sure this is my fault entirely” (It’s actually your fault entirely).
One of the plainest speakers in recent times has been the King of Spain, Don Juan Carlos. A few years ago at the
Ibero-American summit, when Hugo Chávez was at his most rumbustious, Juan Carlos lost a little of his customary self-control. Chávez said some very negative things about Spain and Spanish politicians, and the King lost his rag just inches away from a live microphone, saying “Why don’t you just shut up!!” (¿Porqué no te callas?). A most unkingly thing to say at any time. The nett effect was that this linguistic sound-bite circulated the globe virally in a matter of seconds, it was picked up by a ring-tone company, and by the end of the
day they had sold over half a million ring-tones of the King shouting to Chávez “Why don’t you just shut up!!” For a brief moment, the King had done wonders for a small sector of the Spanish economy. And this led to many other spin-offs: mugs, scarves, T-shirts, framed wall-mounts, bracelets and a host of other things, all proudly displaying the defiance of their King in front of the iron man of Latin America. In fact my own study is now draped with a large scarf which shouts at anybody who comes in with the intention of disturbing me: “¿Porqué no te callas?“
There is an unwritten code amongst roadies that you should always stop when you see another cyclist in distress. The distress could be mechanical or personal, but your offer of assistance could be the only hand-up that comes their way. It happened to me over two years ago when I came off my bike on black ice and broke my femur. A passing cyclist (who happened to be driving to a meet-up point with a fellow cyclist) stopped, called an ambulance and stayed with me till the paramedics arrived. I was eternally grateful to him and to a local resident who stayed with me until I was whisked off to hospital.
But we have to bear in mind the reciprocal nature of giving and receiving. Just the other day, I passed a young cyclist walking by the roadside, pushing his bike up a hill. I stopped and asked if everything was OK. There was a long pause while he stopped, unplugged his iPod earphones, and eventually said: “Wha’s tha’ yuh said?“. I repeated my concern and asked if I could help him. “Ah, naw mate….. it’s just this bugger of a hill….I’m completely f…..ed!”. So with a clear conscience, I climbed back on my bike and enjoyed my descent down that very same hill.
The very next day, 20 miles into my journey to meet up with some cycling friends, I punctured. It was a complete blow-out. I was riding on the rims before I could stop the bike. So I inserted the new spare tube I was carrying. The tyre proved impossible to get back on without a tyre lever, but I knew using a tyre lever ran the risk of pinching the tube…….which, of course, I duly did. So my only spare tube was also punctured. Then, by chance, a passing motorist stopped and offered assistance, declaring he was a cyclist himself, and would I care to drop by his house in the next village where he could give me access to his workshop. Ten minutes later, he was offering me a brand new tube and a track pump to inflate the tyre. He would accept no payment for the tube, but simply asked me to say “Hi” to some of his friends he used to ride with in his racing days.
Jamie Carpenter is a Home Improvements Craftsman by trade. If I were to contract someone to work on my house, he would be the kind of guy I would trust. If you live near him and need such services, look him up. He lives in Cranford, Northants Tel:01536 330617 Mob:07870 442018 Email: email@example.com
When a book pierces the outer membrane of one’s consciousness, like a computer the brain rattles through a multitude of reasons why one should, or should not, open the cover, glance at the title page, read the opening lines and……………… read or not to read it? I generally find a friend’s recommendation a powerful reason for embracing a book, and when it comes from the author himself, one who once sat in your classroom many years ago pretending to be absorbed in the learning of Spanish irregular verbs, your inducement becomes conclusive.
But much more than a favour to a former student, I found myself re-reading this volume of locally-inspired short stories simply because I wanted to re-visit some of the locations I know so well as a local resident and inveterate cyclist. But if I could ride a bike as eloquently as Damian writes, in his evocation of the local countryside and its people, there would be a certain poetic charm about turning the cranks. A short story writer faces a number of literary challenges: to engage you from the very first line of each narrative, to ensure you have connected with the main character(s) before you turn the first page, to harness your attention over the short-term, and enthuse you sufficiently to keep you turning the pages onto succeeding narratives that require a repetition of all the above.
Ploughing Songs is a book of short stories whose roots lie deep in the soil of Cambridgshire and, as you read them, like the coming of Spring, they burst into flower adding remarkable hues and tones to the sometimes undistinguished prairie landscapes of this part of rural England. And the engagement of the reader is achieved not only through intriguing tales that appear to come from the author’s local experiences, but also through his bewitching use of descriptive language. In Slip Jig I loved the description of Jessica: “her hair was growing wild and great long strands of a clematis-like mane flowed round her punky pre-Raphaelite face”. And in Ploughing Song, the solitary character of Stokes is beautifully encapsulated with: “Stokes barricaded loneliness, quietude, emotion from his soul by way of a singular, life-consuming hobby. I doubt it was a solution he’d meditated on, just one he’d arrived at with the slow, inevitable passing of years. As if it were a smouldering vocation that welled inside him like an unquelled violence”.
Ploughing Songs is a most eloquent memorial to the author’s deceased friend, Stephen Morley, thatcher.
To purchase a copy, click here.
On a recent return visit to my ‘Alma Mater’ (Ushaw College, Durham) where I spent my formative teenage years living a quasi-monastic existence, I found myself plunged linguistically into the faintly forgotten past of a truly classical education. If I were to preface this by saying that four of my the eight O Level subjects (GCSEs) at Ushaw were classical, namely Latin, Ancient Greek, Roman History and Greek History, you would not be surprised to discover that the language of everyday College-life was riddled with, and indeed coloured by, classical vocabulary.
Furthermore, the dreaded annual ‘Reading-up’ ceremony was a clear demonstration of the importance of the Classics. The ceremony might be kindly described as the public acknowledgement of academic success, but the reality was somewhat different for the majority of students. Academic success was defined solely by your ‘success in Latin’, which for some was an annual ceremony of humiliation, because “many were called, but few were chosen”! Reading-up was an idiosyncratic ceremony (introduced with the words ‘Quod
felix faustumque sit‘ meaning ‘May it bring happiness and luck’!) where each year-group lined up in front of the whole College, and the results of the end-of-year examination in Latin were read out (in Latin, of course!). As your name was read out, you climbed back up to your seat in the Theatre. If you were in the top band, you hastened back to your seat soonest, holding your head up high. If you were an ‘also-ran’, you suffered the utter humiliation of waiting for the previous 49 names to be called out, to be left there standing alone, before you could crawl back whimpering to your seat, which was inevitably at the top of the Theatre, making your retreat into oblivion long and painful. So unjust was this evaluation of academic worth that students who were brilliant mathematicians and scientists were left stigmatised by their lack of success in Latin.
But how did all this emphasis on the classics (especially Latin) impact on our everyday language? Well, ground-floor rooms were linked by an ambulacrum (corridor), homework was written up in a manuscript (exercise book), a period of evening silence was a magnum silentium, an oral examination was known as a viva voce, and anyone who left the College before completing his studies, was referred to as Abiit re infecta (‘he left without the matter being completed’). Year groups were given singular names like Underlow (year 7), Low Figures (year 8), High Figures (year 9), Grammar (year 10), Syntax (year 11), Poetry (year 12) and Rhetoric (year 13). A permitted lie-in in the morning was called Aristote, the peculiar hat worn by clergy was known as a biretta, and a day free from classes was christened a Greek Playday!
At a much more prosaic (anglo-saxon) level, the terms we used to name some of the indescribable dishes served in the refectory were even more memorable. Pod (steamed pudding whose weight bore no relationship to its size!), Dead baby pudding (a forbidding swiss roll filled with red jam), Fly pie (pudding made of pastry and raisins), Squirt (jam spread on pastry, served with custard), Slops (any dessert like rice pudding, semolina, tapioca, sago etc…), and our bowels were kept in constant motion with regular servings of prunes and figs!
But frequently it’s the comic pidgin Latin that sticks in your memory: “Caesar ad sum iam forte, Pompey ad erat, Caesar sic in omnibus, Pompey init sat”!
Vento semper ut tuum in dorso. (May the wind be ever at your back!)
(Acknowledgement: grateful thanks to Pat Hurley who compiled a short dictionary of Ushaw vocabulary)
If serendipity were a science, it would become subject to analysis and provide evidence for the forecasting of future happy events. However, the concept of ‘serendipity’ is so difficult to define that it was voted as one of the ten most awkward English words to translate into other languages. At its simplest level, it refers to a ‘happy accident’ or ‘pleasant surprise’. Here is an example of something that happened to me recently. I copy the email that I sent to two unconnected friends who live 4000 miles apart:
Hi Libby and Peter!
you two don’t know each other. In fact, you live about 4000 miles apart (Libby lives in Michigan, USA and Peter in Northampton, UK). But something remarkable has recently linked you both. Let me explain………….
After a delightful weekend with Libby and Ed in Michigan, we were given a book entitled Little Bee, to be read and passed on to someone else (in the excellent World Book Night tradition). However, a week before Jenny and I had set off on our tour across the American continent, Peter had sent us a book entitled The other hand, and I told Peter I would keep it for when we returned to the UK.
On the long journey back from the US, I read most of Libby’s book, and found it deeply moving and very disturbing. When we got back home, I sat down in my study only to be confronted by Peter’s book awaiting my return. I noticed that the author of both was Chris Cleave, but was puzzled that he had written both books in the same year, one published by an American, and the other by a British publisher. Very strange. And neither edition made any reference to the prior publication of the other (most books give a list of previously published works by the same author).
Then I read the opening lines of both books and discovered they were one and the same book, but with different titles!
I love reading books recommended by friends, but to be given two identical books (albeit with different titles) by two unconnected friends so many miles apart, within the space of three weeks………………………………… a mere coincidence? I’ll let you decide.
And this is a book I can heartily recommend to anyone. It deals with the tricky problems experienced by an asylum seeker in the UK, and the ending is a little unexpected. I say no more.
Have you ever wondered how New York came to be called the Big Apple? There used to be a theory (now discredited) that it derived from a prominent brothel in New York whose madam was called Eve! The truth, however, is a little more prosaic. It seems to derive from the prizes that were awarded at horse-races, which were known as ‘apples’, and John Fitzgerald, a prominent journalist of the 1920s, adopted the name for the city in his articles. An old saying in show business went as follows: “There are many apples on the tree, but only one Big Apple“, contrary to what Tim Rice proclaimed in his song ‘Eva, beware of the city’ with reference, of course, to Buenos Aires.
The smooth, swift Amtrack service whisked us up the coast from Washington in less than three hours. As we pondered over underground maps on a hastily-caught subway train, we suddenly found four of our fellow passengers giving us interesting, but often conflicting, advice as to which stops and changes to make. We warmed immediately to their friendliness, but we were left puzzled about directions! When we eventually arrived at our lodgings in Harlem, whatever little worries we had about their location, they disappeared in a trice. Despite any notoriety the district carried, we found it pleasant and welcoming, and appreciated why this part of New York had once been popular with the
gentry in the late 19th century.
Arriving in a big, brash city like NY can be a little unnerving, especially if the biggest tower block in your own community at home is no more than a three storey town-house! But to meet up with a former student and his partner, who had only recently moved to NY, made the first few hours of our visit very special. Richard and Rachel treated us to brunch(that peculiarly American phenomenon of breakfast and lunch
together) in one of the nicest restaurants in town, and then we made our way up to The Top of the Rock, on the 70th floor of the Rockerfeller Centre, to enjoy the panoramas of the city. Why not the Empire State Building, you might say? Well, it’s not as busy, the views are equally excellent, and you actually get to see the Empire State as part of the deal! But watch out for the high speed elevator. At 1500 feet per minute (15 mph straight up) it’s quite a shock to the eardrums!
When you are in the Big Apple, you simply have to visit all the iconic venues:
Grand Central Station, Times Square, 5th Avenue, Statue of Liberty from the Staten Island ferry, South Street Seaport, the United Nations building and the New York Public Library. But sometimes it is the little known places, that don’t feature in the guides, that really catch your attention. The High Line, for instance, is an elevated walkway that runs down the east side of Manhattan, which has been developed from the old rail tracks that used to connect warehouses with port-side. You can saunter along, enjoy the views, stop for a coffee, and feel free of the hassle of the city.
And what should the gastronome look out for? Being Halloween season, I had to try a pumpkin latte; brunch just had to include fruit pancakes with maple syrup; and go to any food court for lunch and you will be dazzled with the international variety on offer. But try to buy a bottle of wine in a grocery store and all you will find is a light, fizzy, alcohol-reduced look-alike. To find the real stuff, you need to hunt for a liquor store (not always easy to find), and if the storekeeper likes the look of you, you may be allowed inside the fenced-off area where you will find a small selection of very average wines. The laws governing the sale of alcohol across the US are unbelievably varied, many states and counties preserving a total ban on its sale, despite the 21st Amendment of 1933 which repealed the federal laws of prohibition. In New York, only wines and spirits are sold in carefully controlled liquor stores. If you want beer, you go to the convenience store. To
prevent the development of chain stores, each liquor store must have a single owner who lives within the vicinity of the store. All this is a far cry from the light, airy, inviting environment of a Waitrose or Tescos where you can browse a truly international offering of beverages, and where the labels beckon you….. come on, pick me, pick me!
I enjoyed a long conversation with the landlord of our B&B and, amongst other things, I asked him about American humour
and jokes. He said “there are an awful lot of American jokes. One just entered the White House!”. Then I was ‘entertained’ to a long diatribe about the failings of the Obama administration. I once got chatting to an elderly (white caucasian) male in a museum, and he asked me directly what I thought of Obama. Well, not having any political axe to grind, I said I liked the man: he speaks
well, he’s not short on dynamism, and he seems determined to get his policies through. “Yeh?”, he told me “d’you know what I think?” (whatever I said, he was going to tell me anyway!) “he’s the worst accident ever to happen to America! What d’you think of that?”. If I had been prepared with the facts, I might have regaled him with ‘Well, Obama did win over 52% of the popular vote. Didn’t look like an accident to me”, but he had disappeared amongst the exhibits. There went another lost opportunity!
“If you are carrying any food or drink, throw them in the trash can over there”. Such was the welcome to the United States Capitol, the ultimate place to visit when in Washington DC. So we emptied our bags begrudgingly, but the guided tour (which was free of charge!) around the old Senate Chamber, Hall of Columns and the National Statuary Hall made it a small price to pay. The new Visitors’ Centre has opened up the Capitol to the general public as never before. And as we made our way through the Capitol chambers, I caught sight of a small plaque on the floor that revealed the spot where John Quincy Adams (6th President of the US) had had his desk when
he was a Representative in Congress. Why should this little plaque have tweaked my interest? Well, his ancestors hailed from the tiny hamlet of Achurch, of some 20 houses, just a few miles from where I live in the UK (click here), a historical fact that gives this diminutive community disproportionate importance in world history. But fascinating nevertheless.
Washington is a monumental city. There is a plethora of memorials, state buildings, museums and beautiful open spaces to discover, but in this city of national government, there are always threats to national security, real or unreal. In the few days we were there, an internet messaging board put out that the Capitol was occupied by terrorists, and hostages had been taken, and all this was supported by video-clips and photos. It was quickly revealed that it was a hoax, but it had been expertly staged. But not so the threat by a Boston man who had designed a remote-controlled model plane to deliver high explosives to the Capitol, to give a well-deserved ‘jolt’ to the enemies of Allah (click here). This was not a hoax, but had fortunately been nipped in the bud at a very early stage.
A fascinating piece of entertainment throughout our four days in Washington were the ‘abseilers’ on the Washington Monument. The east
coast of the US had suffered an earthquake, and worrying cracks had appeared in the monument, resulting in its closure till safety-checks had been carried out. So enthralling was the drama that TV crews were on permanent stand-by to film the proceedings.
The Capital Bikeshare scheme was just too tempting to ignore. “One day membership only $5” is what I read, but the small print (which I ignored completely) said something quite different! You
can tell what an urban bikeshare virgin I was! When I checked the credit card statement a few days later, I’d been charged a whopping $35 for my 5 hours of fun. But, without question, it was a lot of fun, and worth it. I would recommend it to anyone, but remember swap your bike every 30 minutes to avoid the charges!
Even better was the tandem ride along Pennsylvania Ave, with Jenny ‘wowing’ with delight on the back. Unbelievably, the cycle lanes run up the middle of the Pennsylvania Avenue, and as we proceeded from the White House towards Capitol Hill, we were not only privileged with the perfect view of the Capitol ahead of us, but we could wave ‘presidentially’ at the excited crowds lining both sides of the street as we progressed statesman-like on our ‘limousine-bike’. Can you imagine it?………;0)
We learned so much more about life in the capital (and in the US in general) from a former student of ours who is currently pursuing an accelerated Masters at Georgetown University. Quite a change from a small village environment in the UK!
We mused about visiting some dear friends in Michigan, and calculated the distance from Banff. Little more than an inch on the atlas (I surmised), but Googlemaps shattered our illusions with a more accurate calculation of over 2000 miles, and would require 35 hours of driving (which for us would translate into 4 days, at least). So much for atlases! So the idea of a rental car was quickly ditched, and the services of Delta (aka Air France) were called in. But before I go any further, I have an issue regarding merged companies. Let me share it with you.
When you rely on yourself to do all the research and bookings,
you have to watch out for companies not masquerading as themselves. Take this as an example: I booked our outward flight to Vancouver with Air Transat, at the airport Canadian Affair handled our check-in, and
we found ourselves flying with Thomson Airways! Given that the deal was struck through Lastminute, I have no idea who I was actually doing business with. For our flight to Detroit, I booked with Delta and Air France made the deduction from our credit card account. So, if you are ever puzzled by a possible fraudulent transaction on your credit card, it may simply be a merged company that hasn’t declared all its credentials.
But our ‘diversion’ to Michigan was a priority for us. Reconnecting with friends from the days when I did a Fulbright teaching exchange back in 2005 was going to be a highlight of the trip. (See Letters from America here). With a very warm welcome from my former hosts, Ed and Libby, we were guaranteed a weekend of many delights and surprises: from the history of Motown music to the buzzing energy of a Motown revue as
we dinner-cruised along the Detroit River (check out the Prolifics here); from a journey through American history at the Henry Ford Museum to an all-embracing tour of the beautiful laid-back liberal city of Ann Arbour (with our dear friend Olivia, who bravely exchanged jobs with me back in 2005); from a brisk 40 mile cycle ride with Vince (a former semi-professional roadie) along the beautiful Hines Drive to a relaxing dinner with old friends from Stevenson High School. Four days were far too short a time to be with such good people, but they had their work schedules, and we, on the other hand, well………………what can I say? Retirement is, indeed, a privileged status.
Next stop Washington……………but how to get there? Believing we are never too old for such things, we took the
plunge and booked overnight tickets on the Greyhound Bus, despite the looks of astonishment and words of caution coming from various quarters. That’s the “peoples’ transport” we were told, and a New Zealand couple gave us the worrying details of an experience they had had a few years back. The outcome was, to our relief, far better than our expectations. In fact, one of the coaches was evidently new, air-conditioned, with wifi and leather reclining seats. What more could you expect for $49? And it meant that we entered Washington DC as the dawn was breaking…………
The Everyman’s route into the Canadian Rockies has to be with Via Rail, Canada’s transcontinental rail service which takes four days to reach Toronto from Vancouver. And for our 20 hour journey, we certainly travelled “Everyman-style”, with recliners for sleeping and a $10 pack of blanket, eye-shades and earplugs to ease our way through the night. But the dawn brought stunning views of our traverse into the mountains, and breakfast in the dining car could have been scripted in by Agatha Christie herself! Beyond the magnificent scenery, the easy encounter with fellow passengers was particularly memorable: cattle farmers from Edmonton, Brazilians from Sao Paulo, New Zealanders from Wellington, Vietnamese, and a couple from Vancouver Island whose 41 year old son is the oldest surviving cystic fibrosis sufferer in Canada.
Jasper and Banff are both towns that had their origins as fur-trading posts, but with the advent of the railway they gradually became hot spots for tourists, both winter and summer. They are a convenient gateway into the awe-inspiring National Parks that festoon this part of Canada. When it was time to transfer from Jasper to Banff, we took a tourist coach along the Icefields Parkway, which runs by the Athabasca Falls and Glacier. What had been a heavy rain shower in Jasper the previous
evening (Sept 19th) turned out to be 4 inches of snow on the Parkway. And we were the first to make our footprints on the virgin snow! How cool is that?
Having experienced the Continental Divide in Costa Rica many years ago, I was looking forward to crossing it again, but this time several degrees of latitude further north. What I didn’t appreciate was the confluence of two Divides, that sends the mountain waters in any of four different directions. Here the Great Divide converges with the Laurentian Divide, and is the only known place on earth where two oceanic divides coincide, and where the waters from a single point area feed into three different oceans.
Scientists call this the “hydrological apex of North America”. Simply fascinating.
Some people you encounter will be remembered for years to come. Like the couple we met on the coach who were from New Jersey. We shared a lot of conversation over a wide variety of topics, but as we said goodbye at the end of the tour, he said to us: “Thank you for being teachers of our children. You never know when their lights are going to be switched on”. That comment left me pondering a number of things. Did he, for instance, have the vision of teachers all over the world having an impact on global education, including his own children? Or was he just being kindly appreciative?
A young couple from France certainly left an impact on us, as we
meandered along a riverside walk outside of Banff. Regine and Greg were riding a semi-recumbent tandem (she on the front recumbent, and he on the back as the steersman) fully laden with camping equipment. When I caught the words “Around the world” on the back, I shouted “Are you?” and the unsurprising answer was “Yes”! They stopped and we chatted about their 3 year trip around the world that will take them down the length of the Americas to Chile, then over to Australasia and finally through Asia on their way back home. And we met them in a wood, on a dirt track, as they were looking for a place to picnic………… And, by the way, their little mascot beaver on the front is called Hugo. You can follow their blog by clicking here. But be prepared to practise your French!
The 12 hour flight to Vancouver, through 8 time zones, is like having an injection of lethargy that guarantees your body clock will be out of sync for a few days. By late afternoon your brain is telling you it’s the middle of the night, so you begin to nod off on the bus or skytrain as you head back to the hotel, wondering why your body refuses to respond to your commands.
Vancouver is a city of glass-plated skyscrapers, each reflecting the other as the sun moves round the sky. People abseil from the tops of 60 storey buildings, they have park sculptures that appear to be engaged in raucous joke-telling, and the locals have been criticised for wearing too much casual yoga gear (what is the world coming to?). The wonderfully named sports retailer Lululemon seems to be Vancouver’s biggest purveyor of such garments.
It’s here in the west of Canada, whose europeanization only really began during the murderous years of the gold rush, that they call their indigenous people (with 16,000 years of residency in the area) the First Nations. At least by their name they are given some recognition of priority.
It is in Vancouver that they call a tandem a ‘double bike‘ and they think nordic walking poles are walking sticks used by the elderly! When Jenny climbed on a bus with her poles, the driver was heard to shout the whole length of the vehicle “The lady with the pink backpack needs a seat!”. Jenny could either protest or accept the seat. What’s the point of protesting……?
You can get yourself a $7 travel ticket and enjoy spending the day riding the skytrain, the buses and the waterbus over to North Vancouver. Or you can walk along Coal Harbour admiring the view of Canada Place (which looks like a sailing ship) or the distant mountains, or even the comings and goings of the ubiquitous float-planes that share the same busy stretch of water as huge tankers and passenger ferries. Or be a bit more energetic and rent yourselves a ‘double-bike’ and take a spin around Stanley Park, and discover something of the history of totems (a kind of ‘coat of arms’ of the indigenous Indians), or the statue of the remarkable Harry Winston Jerome, who set a new world record in
1966 for the 100 yards (yes, do you remember those old imperial measurements………they are still alive and well on the American continent!). Or take a stroll around Gastown (the historic centre of Vancouver) and chance upon a clock that actually runs on steam (believe me)!
And before you leave the city you may discover (as we did) that Vancouver was the birthplace of Green Peace in 1971, and we caught them as they were celebrating their 40th birthday. Which left me wondering what special ingredients in this city of reflections triggered such an internationally important protest movement.