November 26, 2008

AWOL Duchess

Filed under: misc — Duchess @ 8:17 pm

A week ago I got on a bus to another bus to an airplane to a car and scrambled exhausted many hours later up a set of steps in the Bronx. 

I did plan to write about my visit: the academic ladies only soiree in the upper west side, the poetry reading in the lower east, shopping for Thanksgiving at Fairway, riding the no. 1 train, and most of all about what unbelievably clean shoes Americans — at least NYC Americans — wear.

But so many things about my visit went wrong — so badly wrong that I am wondering if a 25 year friendship can survive — that I was too dispirited to write.

Yesterday I took train, subway and car south to the Virginia suburbs of Washington DC where I am visiting my father and my stepmother (who is, by the way, not old enough to be my biological mother). 

My father recites poetry all day and tells war stories in the evening.  He only declares he would like to blow something up, or shoot someone, or put them in jail about half a dozen times a day. My stepmother peacefully ignores him and methodically, and with less fuss than anyone I know, gradually assembles the side dishes for the feast.  Tomorrow my brother, sister in law, and half sister and her boyfriend will join us, and I will have only my second Thanksgiving in the US in 30 years.

November 16, 2008

Happy birthday, your highness

Filed under: misc — Duchess @ 2:02 pm

Friday was Prince Charles’s birthday.  He was 60.  That shook me up a bit, because he was a young, eligible bachelor of 30 when I first came to England.  He reminds me (if I needed reminding) that I am getting old.  

Nevertheless, I quite like Prince Charles, mainly because he is the most famous guy in history who responded to his mid life crisis by ditching the young and beautiful trophy wife and finally marrying instead a menopausal old bat with a thickening waist, tinted hair and sensible shoes.

It positively makes my heart sing.

And since my heart was already in the mood, I had no trouble belting out the words to the national anthem (Americans will know the tune as My Country ‘Tis of Thee) just before 8 am, chiming in with the radio.  We get a chorus of the anthem on the radio at just that time on each of Her Majesty’s two birthdays (hey, when you are queen you can have two too), once a year for Charles, and, when it happens to fall on a slow news day, now and again even for the Duke of Edinburgh.

It may be a wee bit hard on the aging Prince to mark his birthday with all that God Save the Queen stuff. He has waited most of a lifetime to fulfill his destiny and may wait awhile yet, since his family is a long lived lot, but I don’t suppose even in yearning finally to be king he would wish his mother gone.

Meanwhile Charles is, by all accounts, happier than he has ever been with his second wife.

Middle aged love.  Frumpy and sweet.  A prince should set an example to his people, and I think Charles has done his princely job.

November 11, 2008

The 11th of the 11th

poppy appealAs in America, Britains have been remembering those who served in the conflicts of the 20th and 21st century. Here the focus is very much on “The Fallen”, “The Glorious Dead”, and the main ceremonies are broadly religious, performed on the Sunday closest to the 11th, Remembrance Sunday.

In the fortnight or so before Remembrance Sunday, at nearly every work place, in every pub and many restaurants, in almost every public place there are paper poppies for sale.  In villages like mine someone goes around door to door.  The Royal British Legion sells the poppies and all money goes to look after disabled and elderly servicemen (veterans).  

There is almost none of the kind of political awkwardness that I have sensed from reading about Veterans’ Day in the US. There is no left or right on this issue. The young (until recently mainly men) went to war when their government asked them to. Those who died left families. Those who survived wounded have needs. Those who have lived into old age command respect.

If you want people to think you are a decent member of society in the week before the 11th you had better be wearing your poppy to show you have made a contribution.  If a politician were to appear on the news without one, there would be uproar. Every television presenter and newsreader sports one. The exhortation is to “wear your poppy with pride” and that is how I wore mine.

Although the form of Remembrance is broadly Christian, because we don’t have separation of church and state here, I don’t sense any religious division either. The poppy is a symbol of death and rebirth, not of Christianity.  In the devastated fields of Europe, poisoned by gunpowder and gas, only poppies were robust enough to grow in the spring of 1918.

The radio schedule for one of the four BBC national stations changes on the Sunday morning so that the Act of Remembrance at the Cenotaph in London can be broadcast. Military bands play a traditional set of songs finishing with Nimrod from Elgar’s Enigma Variations. The Last Post is sounded by a team of buglers. The Queen lays a wreath of poppies, followed by senior royals, then the Prime Minister, then the Leader of Her Majesty’s Loyal Opposition lay their wreaths in turn.

At the going down of the sun, and in the morning, we will remember.

We will remember.

There is no left or right.  The only time I can think of when this was even remotely an issue was when Michael Foot, the most left wing leader of the Labour Party since the second World War, laid his wreath dressed in what has since been always referred to as a Donkey Jacket, a sartorial category previously unfamiliar to me, though I admit he looked a bit scruffy. The outrage was something dreadful, and it was mentioned for the next ten years or so.  Every Labour politician since has worn a dress coat.

The national ritual of remembrance is repeated all over the country. It is impossible to go to any long established school without hearing read the list of names of the dead from the First World War, or seeing them inscribed on a wall. An astonishing number of villages, like the one I live in, have a memorial at their centre. Not the smallest hamlet was spared the carnage of that war.

My second son was born on the 11th of November, and, as it happens, plays the trumpet.  That put him in great demand right around his birthday, as soon as he mastered the difficult bugle that is the Last Post.  For years I stood proudly with him outside in bitter November weather, watching him nervously warm his trumpet with his breath, waiting for the church clock to chime 11 when his notes would signal the beginning of the two minutes’ silence, while we remembered.

Sometimes he was called on to play again later in the day when his school gathered for Evensong.  Though I had children at that school for 17 years I never failed to be moved each time I heard the names of the dead read out as they did (and do) every Remembrance Sunday.  Such a small school in the first quarter of the century, so many dead, so sad to hear a surname repeated and know a family had lost two sons.

These solemn events take place, as I have said, on the nearest Sunday, but when the 11th falls on another day of the week, as it did this year (the 90th anniversary of the Armistice) the date is also marked, though less formally.  Today, just before 11, half a dozen or so of us gathered in an office I share and like many others all around the country we kept the silence together for two minutes.

The focus of the 11th of November is the First World War as long as there are still those who fought in the trenches and remember the 11th hour of the 11th day when guns fell silent. Three veterans, the youngest of whom is 108 years old, dined at Downing Street today. But we also remember, of course, the great sacrifice of the Second World War and other conflicts of the 20th century.  

And no one forgets that we have soldiers fighting today,

I’ve never asked my son whether he minded being born (at 11:21 am) on the 11th of the 11th. He was a gentle child and has grown to be a gentle man.  Like all American men his age he is registered for the draft. Like any mother I hope his country will not call on him. 

I know there are times when we must fight.  And part of celebrating Remembrance Sunday, or Armistice Day, or Veterans’ Day is celebrating those who were brave enough to fight so we might live as we do.  No properly indoctrinated American (as I was) can forget Patrick Henry’s ringing words

Is life so dear or peace so sweet as to be purchased with the price of chains and slavery?  Forbid it Almighty God!  I know not what course others may take, but give me liberty, or give me death!

Nevertheless, my sweet son, born in the hour of the anniversary of peace, yearly sounding his trumpet for the Glorious Dead reminds me (as if I needed it) that we need to be sure when we send our sons, and now daughters, to fight.  History has judged the First World War harshly: our soldiers were “lions led by donkeys”.  

When the slaughter had barely begun (1914) AE Housman wrote:

Here dead lie we because we did not choose 
To live and shame the land from which we sprung. 

Life to be sure, is nothing much to loose; 
But young men think it is, and we were young. 

That great imperial pugilist poet Rudyard Kipling bitterly regretted his part in securing an officer’s commission for his severely nearsighted only son, thrusting him to the front, where he lost his life within days of arriving in the trenches.

If any question why we died
Tell them, because our fathers lied.

Let us have no such thing to tell to our sons and daughters a generation hence.

November 10, 2008

Fear and loathing at the Rock of Gibraltar

Filed under: Canal,misc — Duchess @ 5:50 pm

When I was on my boat last week I found that Jamie was tied up on my mooring pin.  That meant his boat was so close to mine it actually overlapped and it didn’t do a lot for the view out my window either.

Jamie is not my favourite local boater, mainly because we compete for the best squatting site, which used to be right behind Purple Haired Emma.  (Purple Haired Emma could be called any number of other things, because she’s got a purple boat and multiple body piercings, including one through the lip, and she has a really tiny cat who goes in and out of a flap on her boat, and a dog-for-the-disabled puppy she’s breaking in before his formal training starts, but the purple hair is her most striking feature.  It’s heavy and straight and falls to her hips. Besides, the rule on this blog is one epithet per person, and Purple Haired is hers.)

While I was in the US I lent the boat to One R Piere and he drove it about as requested (because I’m not a squatter as long as my boat keeps moving) and when One R Piere brought it back, Jamie was in my usual illegal space. So Pangolin (that’s my 62 feet long, 6.5 feet wide midlife crisis) had to moor further back, closer to the lock, and where the bank is crumbling. I was thinking, as soon as Jamie moves, and he’s bound to sometime, because we all need water, I’ll slip into my old spot and hunker down for the winter.

Because of the arcane rules of British Waterways, and because I pay £700, I am not a squatter in the winter months, though the fee gives me nothing more than a higher claim to the best squatting spot. Jamie is a squatter year round (except since he doesn’t even license his boat it officially doesn’t exist, so technically it takes up no space at all).  

Last week Jamie had moved, giving me my chance, but now he was moored up on my pin which I would need to pull up if I slipped back in behind Purple Haired.  I couldn’t move my boat without setting his adrift.  I couldn’t leave his boat secure without leaving my pin behind, and without a spare pin, I couldn’t secure mine.  I was stuck.

At the Rock of Gibraltar pub, a quarter mile muddy tramp up the tow path and over the bridge, I was trying to find out why this had happened.  I said, There’s a guy — Jamie — moored up on my pin and I can’t move.  

A stranger at the bar, drinking two pints of beer at the same time (which you have to admit is impressive) objected to my grumbling, said no one would moor on anyone else’s pin unless he were in trouble and he — the stranger — wasn’t staying to listen to my slagging off a boater in trouble. Then he grabbed both pints and the fag he’d just rolled (it’s all roll your own in the boaty world) and stormed off.  I think he probably just wanted a smoke anyway — since July 07 it has been illegal in the UK to smoke in a public place — but it was rather a dramatic exit.

Pat, who’s an engineer I’ve hired a couple of times to do work on my boat (and who always wants to be paid in cigarettes and bourbon) took great exception to the way the stranger spoke to me and was all in favour of getting Tad the Warden to move him on, except Pat said he knew Tad wouldn’t move him on because Tad never moved anyone on.  I pointed out that as I was a squatter myself more than half the year it was in my interest that Tad never moved anyone on.  Pat was having nothing of it.  He said the stranger was out of order and for all he knew Jamie was probably trying to steal my mooring pin.

During the week I had a text message from Purple Haired to say that she had heard I had complained about Jamie’s boat being on my pin.  My heart sank.  I had made a mistake by grumbling in the pub.  Everyone knew.  Purple Haired wanted to say she had tied Jamie’s boat to my pin because Jamie had gone off to run a pub on the Thames and was living in the pub with all his Jack Russels and his boat had come adrift.  

This Saturday the plot thickened while I stewed a half shoulder of lamb on the fire and baked little potatoes wrapped in foil. 

There was a rap on the window and I invited Ratty in. He said people were talking about me in the pub and he came by to see what was what. 

I fed him lamb, although he had already eaten.  The fact is,  I only bought that lamb hoping to lure someone in.  I miss cooking for people.  Ratty couldn’t resist because it smelled so good.  He’d had to wait three hours for a sandwich in the pub.  They close the kitchen at 3 and he got there a few minutes past.  I’ve been on the wrong side of kitchen closing too.

Ratty told me a couple of guys in the pub were saying they thought they had offended me.  I knew who one of them was (Kev) but didn’t have a clue who Brian was.

After we had eaten the lamb and polished off a bottle of wine Ratty and I thought we’d head to the pub, but it turned out Stematos, the landlord, had shut up about 9 pm, in a fit of pique, on a Saturday night.  We don’t know why he shut the pub. Pat and Ratty say, It is because he is a foreigner, no offence meant. 

I say, No offence taken. I am a Brit.  

Instead of going to the pub, Ratty and I crashed Pat’s boat and drank Jack Daniels where it emerged that Brian was the guy who got a bit abusive to me over Jamie being on my pin.  It turns out Brian is a mate of Kev who is illegally subletting Pete’s mooring. 

Kev met Tad the warden this summer on the Thames where Kev was a lock keeper. According to Kev, Tad said, Come up and we’ll see you right.

According to Pat that illegal mooring, somewhat less illegal than mine should have been offered to me.

Besides, Pat told Ratty that he doesn’t care what.  You don’t f and blind in front of a woman.

The next day I charged my batteries (no metaphor implied) and cooked risotto on the wood stove with leftover lamb.  I gave it to my son when I took him for a driving lesson.  He told me, again, to go to the doctor, because I’ve had a really bad cold and a horrible hacking cough and I know I sound terrible.  My son said he was a great believer in letting the body heal on its own.  He reminded me of when he had a chest infection when he was 18 years old and playing Lear.  He needed antibiotics then. Sometimes the body needs help, he said.

Then he parked his little red VW and prompted me to lock my door, and I said good bye and, as usual, loved him beyond anything in the world.

In case you have never been inside a British narrowboat, here’s mine, looking very cosy.  More pics to follow.

November 5, 2008

Bob the Builder (not to be confused with Joe the Plumber)

Filed under: misc,Politics and history — Duchess @ 2:20 pm

When I went to work today (late!) it was obvious that the Europeans thought last night’s result in America was good for the world.

Obama came as something of a surprise over here as well as over there. The Labour Government courted Hillary, and, hell, under her Presidency the Special Relationship, which defines US/UK diplomacy was all in the bag, since Bill was a known commodity, and she was sure to be his gal.

Meanwhile the Conservatives cautiously, and I suspect somewhat reluctantly, plumped for McCain, though they were probably secretly hoping for Hillary too. In British eyes McCain has always seemed a wee bit unbalanced, though undoubtedly brave. Palin, I am afraid, looked simply like the Europeans worst nightmare of the American Dream: Anybody (anybody, italics meant to cite the Saturday Night Live sketch) could grow up to be President. Palin only reinforced what has been Republican, courtesy of Bush 2, laughing stock. I’m sorry to be so blunt, but I assure you this was not the way out media. This was day to day BBC.

But as of last night both Labour and Conservative are loving Obama. That is, the Prime Minister is barely capable of looking you in the eye, and there are rumours that he is in Asperger’s Syndrome Ecstasy over all those lovely numbers in the Credit Crunch. So his loving Obama is kind of a relative term. Meanwhile the Tories (= Conservatives) have dropped McCain like a stone. What? Did we like him? Just now the Tory leader, who is just the teensiest bit inexperienced because Labour has been in power a long time, is shouting about Obama’s victory as proof positive that the Brits need a new guy too, never mind the PM saying this is no time for learning on the job.

Nevertheless, for every one of us, right or left, there was one bit of last night’s speech that really was a problem. That was the part where everyone chanted “Yes we can!”  The new President even finished with the slogan.   

Never mind that in Europe we are especially nervous, for good reason, about a quarter of a million — or more — people repeating a chant, right on cue, because once upon a time Fascism had a real hold here and we are sensitive to anything that sounds like that.

In this case, fortunately, it only makes us giggle. And that was even before Joe the Plumber came on the scene.  

When Barack has his reelection campaign I hope he will assign his sweet daughters to check out European children’s television and vet his slogans better.  (All through the campaign I kept expecting the slogan to be quietly dropped — and apologies if this is old news. I didn’t post on it before because I thought it must be.)

Okay, in case you have missed it and haven’t a clue what I am talking about, I give you Bob the Builder. Keep listening til the singing starts. And if you keep it going after that for more than about thirty seconds, you will know why “Yes we can!” makes us want to scream.

November 4, 2008

Half past five

Filed under: A long way from home,misc,Politics and history — Duchess @ 9:47 pm

(in the morning) and I haven’t been to bed yet.

I wanted to stay up and watch until it was all over, even after the outcome was clear.  

I’m so glad I stayed up.  I’ll try to remember how glad I am in a couple of hours.

November 3, 2008

Nero fiddled while Rome burned

Filed under: misc,Politics and history,This is not a mommy blog — Duchess @ 3:38 pm

I know there is an historic election going on.  And I have voted, that is I have authorised my mother to forge my signature on a postal vote.  And I do care who wins.  But I also believe that the US will survive either way, because we have a constitution that has sustained probably the most liberal (in the old fashioned sense of the word) society in the history of the world, and I think it will keep on doing its job.

Only right now instead of feeling historic I am feeling anxious about my daughter, who is working for the VSO (the British equivalent of the American Peace Corps) in Southwestern Uganda, right on the border of the DRC and Rwanda.  She keeps telling me she is okay, and I know there is no fighting where she is, but there are constant reports in the middle of the night on the World Service about conflicts and mass movements in that area.  

In her world it probably means nothing more than a refugee camp opening up.  But if it opens up I am afraid she will go in to assess the children there, and then I am afraid she will catch something.

This kind of fear for your children has nothing to do with right or wrong or what you have raised them to do.  My daughter has been in Uganda for more than a year because there are people there who need her help.  I am proud of her for that, but I am also counting the weeks (not so many now) until she is home again.  And hoping this new conflict doesn’t mean she puts herself at risk before she comes safely back to me.

I’ve been pretty lucky with my children (touch wood, because I am also superstitious), but this kind of anxiety inevitably reminds me of old anxieties.  You never stop worrying about your kids.  When the Uganda daughter was about 3, and was meant to be taking a nap, instead she got into the flouride tablets that I (wrongly) was giving her to compensate for what wasn’t being added to our water.

I found her with the pills everywhere around her, a few smeared on her mouth.  I had no idea how toxic an overdose might be.  I took her to the emergency room and not long afterwards her father arrived to join me.

The medics all seemed, as I suspected, completely casual about the potential flouride overdose, but a doctor came in and examined her and lingered in a way that surprised me.

When she left I said to my husband, do you think that doctor seemed unusually interested in listening to her heart?

He assured me I was imagining things and we waited.  Nurses brought ipecac and the poor child vomited what turned out to be 3 flouride tablets.  Still we weren’t discharged.

After a while the doctor came back and looked very sober and said,  “Has anyone mentioned that your daughter has a heart murmur?”

I noted, without any satisfaction, that my mother’s instinct wasn’t wrong. The doctor said they weren’t worried at all about the flouride, but they needed to x ray my daughter’s heart. Suddenly we were there for an entirely different reason.  

We waited another hour or two and then the x rays were available.  My husband, who had quit smoking, took it up again in the mean time.  

Finally the doctor said the x rays showed her heart was not enlarged.  That meant there was no immediate danger.  She would be put on a waiting list to see a heart specialist.

We waited three months.  Further tests revealed that the heart murmur was “harmless” and that was the end of that drama.

I’m waiting again now.

Meanwhile the rest of you guys are probably thinking about trivial stuff like who might be the next President of the United States.

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