November 6, 2012

Captain’s Diary, 6 November 2012: Election night

Filed under: A long way from home,Canal,misc — Duchess @ 9:35 pm

It turned frosty last week, just after I got back from my autumn cruises, and just before the country turned back the clocks, that sad Saturday in late October when British Summer Time gives way to Greenwich Mean, and we know winter is really baring down upon us.

This morning was the coldest so far, with a thick frost outside and ice in all the puddles. I huddled under my two duvets until the sun pouring in the back porthole that I always keep uncovered shamed me into finally getting out of bed.

From the back of Pangolin, where my bed is, I can’t tell whether the fire is still lit — all I know is it’s cold. I try to keep the stove going all night, but it is a delicate balance — burning it low enough so it consumes the fewest nuggets of coal, but not so low that it goes out altogether. The plan is, if I keep the ash pan almost full and the air vents barely open, a fire that seems all but dead at dawn will be summoned back to life the moment it’s needed, though I mustn’t push my luck and lay abed too long.

Last night (hurrah!) I husbanded the fire as I ought, and this morning the routine of brisk riddling, pulling out the ash pan and laying it to cool on the hearth, leaving open the bottom door of the stove to give the fire air was all it needed. By the time the kettle was boiled for tea, the coals were glowing bright red.

On the towpath the local excitement — and sadness — is the cutting of the willow trees on the other side of the canal. The sound of chainsaws let me know they were at it again this morning.

I’d chatted with the woodcutters when they first arrived last week. We’ve got to keep the waterways clear, they said, and I reluctantly agreed they did. On my recent cruise I lost my expensive, tall chimney (foolishly left lying on its side on the roof — you can’t cruise under the low bridges with anything but a stub of a chimney, and tall ones have to be taken down, but I should have put mine safely away). A batch of wayward willow branches stretching low across the canal swept it into the water. A pretty pelargonium went overboard with the chimney.

I chatted to our woodcutters again a few days into their pruning fest. They were eyeing the only willow that seemed to me a problem, one that nearly overhangs a neighbouring boat, and they asked if I knew when that boat owner might be back. They wanted to move the boat, in case the tree fell the wrong way.

That boat’s abandoned, I said. The mooring fees and license are paid, but no one comes. The woodcutters and I agreed, looking it over, it must have been a lovely and well-loved boat. On the roof is a row of wooden planters and ceramic pots, now growing only weeds, and a bag of compost, its plastic faded and degrading, still waiting for new season bulbs. The neatly coiled ropes on front and rear decks are covered in algae and green slime. Black mold makes peering into the windows almost unrevealing, but I can see enough to see that the insides were once carefully fitted out for comfortable cruising.

I’d heard from Dusty, the fuel boater who knows everything, why no one ever came to such a fine boat. It belonged to an elderly couple, and the husband died — I think Dusty said he died suddenly, on a cruise on the Thames, only a few miles from here, but I admit I may have embroidered those details, because someone else told me it was cancer, and slow and expected. Anyway, British Waterways sorted the widow out a mooring, here on the edge of Oxford, such moorings being usually rare, and rarely expensive. This seems to me a typically human face of British Waterways, though it is fashionable to grumble about them.

However it happened, once the husband died, his wife never came back, and their boat, moored next to mine, has been empty, and slowly turning from blue to green, since I moved here.

When I’d told the woodcutters this story, and we’d muttered about how sad it was, and I’d said that no one would ever notice if they moved the boat to cut the tree, and gave them permission to move my boat as well, I went out. I mentioned I might go over the canal when they were done and scrounge some wood, if that was okay. We talked a bit about which sorts of wood burned best and longest, and they loyally championed willow.

I came home to find outside my boat a neatly stacked pile of willow logs, trimmed to just the right size for a boat’s fire, left for me by the woodcutters.

Still, I am sorry for the chopping. It is much more extensive than I had imagined. The tree where kingfishers darted amongst the branches is gone, and the views along the canal are much changed. I know the willows will come back; I hope the kingfishers will.

Speaking of Dusty, he’s due. I’m on his border, one of the last customers he visits before he moors up for the night on the outskirts of Oxford, or one of the first he calls on on his way into town — I never know which it is going to be.

Dusty’s first call is early, and since I haven’t seen him tonight I expect to feel his boat banging up beside mine, and hearing him ring his bell, well before 8 tomorrow morning. He’ll fill my tank with diesel, toss half a dozen bags of coal onto my roof, and leave a bottle of propame gas on the bank, taking away the empty I’ve left for him.

For me, it won’t be the best morning to wake early, as I expect I’ll be cuddled up to the radio all night, like the mid twentieth century wayward child I am, once again listening out for the returns in Ohio, Florida, New Hampshire, Nevada, Virginia and the rest.

Four years ago I sat up all night with my two younger, almost grown, children at their father’s house in Oxford and drove home alone at six in the morning listening to the words of a victory speech that filled me with extraordinary hope and joy.

This year, a more sensible woman would just go quietly to bed. Whatever, first I’ll drag another 25kg bag of coal from the roof, fill the coal scuttle, stoke the fire, riddle the grail and twiddle the knobs; that way, there probably won’t be a disaster in the morning — at least not with the fire.

May 3, 2011

Warning: contains scenes of nudity

Filed under: A long way from home,BBC radio addiction,family,misc — Duchess @ 9:08 pm

I have been away — that is, I have been away from England, from my boaty home, and from my own four foot wide, lumpy, boaty bed.

I left in late March, when the crocuses had already almost gone by, the daffodils were in glorious bloom, and even the odd tulip had risked opening to the young sun. I flew across the Atlantic and a few months backwards into a late winter that still lingered when it was almost May and time to think about heading home again.

In five weeks I slept in seven beds.

In Washington DC I was promoted to the guest bedroom.  My father, 86 and frail, insisted on carrying my suitcase up the stairs to a part of his home I suspect he rarely visits. The room was full of ailing houseplants and a large sealed box labelled “Open Immediately”, an unfulfilled spring bulb best intention of my stepmother (too young to be my biological mother) who breezed in after work a couple of hours later. The next morning when I awoke and scanned myopically the back garden, I thought, I must ask Cynthia about that lovely white ground cover that has bloomed overnight.

A few days later I moved on to New York where I slept in a newly designated guest suite, the former teenage occupant, now college graduate, having been finally, firmly ousted, but not soon enough that his mattress could be left on the street with the rest of his garbage. His mother apologised as we squeezed past the old mattress propped up against the wall outside his room: the city’s bed bug epidemic means that getting rid of any old bedding, however innocent it might be, is almost impossible.

But I wasn’t there to discuss infestations. My friend was celebrating the launch of her third book of poetry, The Kangaroo Girl

After the book party, where I air-kissed a slew of people I had barely seen in thirty years, and then a glorious afternoon at MOMA, I flew out of New York in a snow storm that made me miss my connecting flight to Seattle.  Eating shrimp in an airport bar in Philadelphia, I watched a chilly opening game of the baseball season, and couldn’t help noting, on all my accompanying electronics, the lovely UK weather.

When I finally got to Seattle I crashed on a blow up bed in my grandbaby’s room (my timing was bad and the baby had gone to Las Vegas). Every 20 minutes or so, there was a loud electronic beep. I prowled around all night long, disconnecting every possible device, but the beep was relentless. When I asked my son in the morning he said he thought it had something to do with their former cable TV and internet providers, but since they were former, they had no interest in fixing it. He shrugged as he added that it didn’t seem to bother the baby.

It’s my opinion that they have doomed my grandson to a lifetime of unemployment, since he has been conditioned to sleep through electronic alarms. I, on the other hand, woke every time the wretched thing went off.

The next times I slept in Seattle I had the sofa in the living room I shared with their dog. His noises weren’t electronic, but nonetheless effective. Apparently a West Highland Terrier can murder sleep as effectively as any of his countrymen.

Otherwise, to see my grandson, I travelled back and forth by car and ferry from Whidbey Island, where I slept in the barely converted garage of the Lawyer Sis. I like the soft bed and the cold room. I like the door opening on to spongy grass and brambles, the brackish lake, the beach houses and the Sound beyond.  The night I arrived the septic tank backed up and, since all flushes were in vain, just after dawn I squatted naked by the door and hoped I was startling only the local rabbits.

Almost a hundred miles, and another ferry, north is the island house my mother shares with her husband Jerry. There I can choose between a bed in a sleeping loft or a bed in the rental apartment. I usually choose the rental, though the walls are thin and my bed is painfully close to the shower in the main house and I wake every morning to ardent squeegeeing.

My seventh bed was unexpected.  Mother and Jerry bought a condo on the mainland, and the Lawyer Sis and I drove from Whidbey to celebrate the closing. After dinner, the Oldies went home to the island, and the Lawyer Sis and I stayed over at the condo. The packaging of the brand new queen size memory foam mattress, purchased earlier that evening, promised the “ultimate sleep experience”.  As ever I was grateful for the subtlety of English grammar, and hoped that it would not be quite the same as experiencing the ultimate sleep.

Whatever (as the children and the optimists say), the Lawyer Sis, seven years my junior, risked the mattress.  She’s got a chronic bad back and needed the foam.  I occupied the less comfortable, but potentially safer, single bed in the condo’s guestroom and office.   We both survived the night.

A couple of days later I was on a plane again, and my eighth bed was an economy seat home. 

Other than being away for the whole of the warmest UK April on record, and present for the coldest Seattle one, I think I timed my trip rather well.  I got a cheap ticket because I flew back in the middle of a Bank Holiday weekend, and missed the Royal Wedding (though British Airways at Seatac flew, as it were, the patriotic flag).  

The Duke and Duchess of Cambridge

In Seattle they have the new nude-y scanners (the ones where the security guy gets to see under your clothes).  Just to make it extra fun (and presumably so your breasts look extra pert) you have to put your elbows in the air and your thumbs on top of your head.

I mentioned that I recently had had a flare up of a shoulder problem, and would they mind diagnosing it while they were checking me out for weapons of mass destruction, because an MRI is jolly hard to get on the National Health Service?  But they only looked puzzled and said I could have a PAT DOWN if I preferred.

I was tucked up safely, my first night back in my boaty bed when, jetlagged and sleepless, in the early hours I turned on the BBC World Service to hear that the USA’s most wanted man had been “killed and captured” (though I was awake enough to wonder if there was any irony in the BBC’s inversion of the more conventional phrase “captured and killed”).

Then, though it was not my first thought, sometime as the day dawned, I admit I was glad that I had flown in hours earlier.  You think a middle-aged lady might find it inconvenient to pose for a naked scan with her thumbs on her head?

I’m betting you ain’t seen nothing yet.

January 20, 2011

The return of the non native

Filed under: A long way from home,Back story,misc,Village life — Duchess @ 12:57 pm

Last week I spent the evening at a dinner party in the village where I used to live. When I first saw it almost 28 years ago one Saturday afternoon in early April, I thought it must be the prettiest village in England. My husband and I, with toddler and infant in tow, were house hunting.

We knocked on a door with a For Sale sign outside.

A middle aged woman answered and hesitated a moment when we asked to look around. Hearing the television in the background, we offered to come back another time. Worse than arriving with no appointment, we had forgotten it was Grand National Saturday.

Never mind! My father always said it was a cruel race, the woman declared, opening the door wide enough for us to come in. Turn off the tele! she shouted. The noise stopped suddenly, young people scattered, and we were led into the house.

My main impression of Hedges was of a home full of laundry. Our guide heaved baskets from every surface as we were led from room to room. She apologised as she went.

I’ve got seven children, she announced, tossing away another basket of clothes so that we could inspect the cooker. Never mind! Sorry!

Bill wanted a son, she explained. She shifted another load of laundry. Sorry! But we kept having daughters, one after another. Five girls. Never mind! Then, when Daniel came, we thought we’d have one more try, to see if Daniel could have a brother.

And as she moved one last basket, she introduced us to her youngest daughter. Sorry!

I suspect I bought Hedges mainly because of the laundry and the seven children. It did not seem possible that their house could be insufficient for my needs.

My dinner companions last week were some of my first friends in the village. We reminisced a bit, traded stories about the disgraced headmaster of the village school, the disgraced landlord of the village pub, the disgraced vicar of the parish church – amongst us we could vouch for the downfall of almost every British institution.

And then, though three quarters of my audience long knew the story, for the benefit of the relative newcomers I was urged to tell again about how the village shop and post office was stormed by armed robbers, such a thing never having been heard of before or since.

It happened only a fortnight after I moved into Hedges, and the very next morning I was described in the Oxford Times as a “sharp-eyed Buckland villager”. I thought it sounded a lot like being called an Alert Peasant.

The headline was, Have-a-Go Hero Foils Armed Robbers. The sharp-eyed villager was, of course, a mere bit player; the hero who had a go was my neighbour, the shopkeeper.

My story was this:

Earlier in the century Hedges had been a draper’s shop; behind it was the bake house, next door on one side was the brewery and on the other side Summerside Stores, which sold general provisions, fresh bread and local milk, but got most of its revenue – and held most of its ready cash – from serving as the village post office. Like Hedges, the other shops were now private homes, and by the time I arrived, Summerside Stores was all that was left of the commercial centre.

My kitchen window looked straight at the shop door. I watched as a car pulled up in front and several young men got out. I idly noticed that they didn’t really look like village people (from my 14 days’ experience) and when they emerged in more than an ordinary hurry, jumped into their car, and drove away, I memorised their number plate.

A moment later my neighbour, the shopkeeper, appeared at his door with blood dripping from his forehead. Instead of handing over the cash, he fought the robbers for their gun (only an air gun – this is a Cotswold village, not NYC) and because it was frankly more useful as a blunt instrument, they hit him over the head with it and ran away.

My neighbour followed them to the door, turned the key in the lock, and had the presence of mind to switch the Open sign to Closed.

I ran out of my house and pounded on the shop window. From inside he indicated with urgent gestures that he was busy, they were closed, and I should go away. In return I shouted and gestured that I had the baddies’ number plate. Eventually, still dripping blood, he opened the door and let me in.

My dinner party host interrupted to remind me that his wife had arrived only a few minutes later.

Please might I have a pint of milk? She asked formally. Brits are always formal in the face of obvious mayhem.

No! We’re shut! snarled the bloody shopkeeper.

Now, Peter, his wife demurred, We can’t stay shut forever, can we?

The dinner party host roared with laughter. He didn’t want me to forget his favourite part of the story. She sold the pint! She sold the pint! He laughed again and then looked to me to continue.

The next day, I said, the police came and took my evidence. They were obviously sceptical of both my methods and motives, and repeatedly questioned me, asking very carefully, Did you write down the number? Evidence not on paper, it seemed, was barely evidence at all; nevertheless, the car, abandoned in the next village, was confirmed to be the one used in the raid.

What puzzled the police almost as much as my extraordinary ability to recall 3 letters and 4 digits was why I had memorised them at all. I admitted that I hadn’t seen anything except three men going into the shop and then going out again, quickly.

Finally I said, I’m an American. I am a very irritable and suspicious person. I memorize number plates all the time. The police wrote that down solemnly, showed me their notes, and asked me to sign them.

Their inquiries ground on. I don’t think anyone was ever arrested or charged. The car turned out to be stolen.

Some months later, my neighbours attended the annual ceremony in London for Postmasters and Mistresses who had been robbed during the year. They proudly showed off their medals and certificates of commendation.

As for me, I settled into village life and was never again called on to exercise my sharp villager eyes

The following year a man knocked at my door, showed me an ID, and intimated that he understood that I had done the Royal Mail a service some time ago and therefore the Royal Mail would like to show its appreciation. He apologised that it had taken so long, but as he thought I could appreciate, the Royal Mail were quite busy delivering post. Would it be convenient if he returned the following Wednesday afternoon?

At the appointed hour a large Rover car arrived to pick me up. There was a sheet of blue paper towel in the wheel well on the passenger’s side – the sort of thing you find on doctors’ examination tables – so that my shoes never had to touch any bit of floor that other shoes had touched.

The man drove me in silence to Swindon, where I received a private tour of the local sorting office, and then was offered tea, two bourbon cream biscuits, and a cheque for £30.

British readers will easily imagine the elegant pretensions of a chauffeur driven Rover car in the early 80s, and they will smile ironically at its Swindon destination (because everyone always does smile in just that way when they think of Swindon). They will also, of course, be quite clear that bourbon cream biscuits contain neither bourbon nor cream.

I always meant to buy a letter opener with the money, but I haven’t yet got around to it.

June 4, 2009

Tonight was my first time

Filed under: A long way from home,misc,Politics and history,Village life — Duchess @ 3:48 pm

I have lived well over half my life in the UK, but I only became a citizen in 2005, weeks before the last general election and too late to register.  Tonight was my first opportunity to cast a vote as a UK national.

It isn’t a proper election, really.  For most of the country it is merely a European election, something even most Europeans, don’t care about — Slovenia turned out less than 17% last time around.  Only for a very few of us was it also time to elect our local representatives.

Even so, my village was buzzing.  It took me nearly an hour to walk the quarter mile from my house to the polling station because I kept running into people and everyone was in the mood to chat.  Each one of us clutched our polling card, sent by the Royal Mail, second class post, and headed in bold capitals: Representation of the People Act.

There are no hanging chads in England.  We are given a piece of paper and sent to a makeshift booth (not so much as a curtain) where there is a nice fat pencil.  We are enjoined to use that pencil to put an X next to one and only one candidate or party.  Then we fold our ballot and put it in a good old fashioned ballot box.  The local election results will be counted out tonight, paper by paper.  The European votes will be sealed until Sunday; by then 375 million people in 27 countries will have been offered a ballot.

I missed altogether the chance to vote for the Monster Raving Loony Party, a regular election contender in the first couple of decades I spent in the UK, but since the death in 1999 of their leader, Screaming Lord Sutch, apparently it’s no longer an option.  Tonight they weren’t on either of my ballot papers though the party is still publishing a manifesto.  (I like the idea of arming school nurses with dart guns to administer vaccinations during playtime – recess to Americans – more fun for the nurses and less stressful for the children.)

Nor have we heard much recently from the Natural Law Party, but long ago, before I had a vote, I paid taxes to fund their election broadcasts about Yogic Flying.  (I’m not complaining: they were very entertaining — I am only sorry I can’t share my memories of them, it seems they were too long before youtube. )

Tonight there were, nevertheless, plenty of other parties on the long ballot paper I picked up at the polling station:

British National Party – Protecting British Jobs.  These people exclude non whites from membership, advocate zero immigration and no imported goods (crumbs! what would we eat, wear, watch, drive?).  Their official policy is to pay all non whites to emigrate to other countries.

Christian Party – “Proclaiming Christ’s Lordship”.   I never heard of these folks, and don’t know anything about their policies but I am wondering why the quotes.  Is it a rumour? 

Conservative Party.  No tag line, but we know who they are.

English Democrats – Putting England first. 

Jury Team – Democracy, Accountability, Transparency.  Another one I have never heard of.   Jury Team? 

Liberal Democrats.  They wear socks with their sandals, drink warm beer and grow beards all round (ladies and gents).  On the plus side their economic guy knows how to waltz and has a son who is an opera star. 

No2EU – Yes to Democracy.  Foreigners might have noticed that we are just a wee bit ambivalent about Europe.

Pro Democracy: Libertas EU.  Like I said.

Socialist Labour Party.  Back on familiar territory.

The Green Party.  Sandals without the socks.

The Peace Party – Nonviolence, Justice, Environment.  I’m guessing Mom and apple pie too, but I never heard of this party either.

The Roman Party – Ave!  I am beginning to think I made a mistake not supporting them.  They sound like fun.

United Kingdom First

United Kingdom Independence Party – We know about these folk.  They have several MEPs (Member of European Parliament).  Some of them are in jail.

In the end I voted for the party of the guy who married a woman from Kenya and sired an opera star.  I can’t help it.  I’ve heard the kid sing La ci darem la mano.  By their fruits shall ye know them.

More on our elections soon… There’s nothing like British politics.

April 7, 2009

Along the tow path

Filed under: A long way from home,Canal,misc — Duchess @ 1:36 pm

When I am on the canal I usually sit in what’s traditionally called the saloon, almost at the front of the 62 foot long boat.  There are two chairs, and I occupy both, moving from one to the other depending on the fierceness of the fire and the strength of the cold outside.  From one chair my toes can reach the cast iron stove, where there’s a mark matching the melted tread of my slipper.

On Saturday evenings I burn candles, stew a chicken and watch a bit of tele.  When I was at school, impossible as it sounds now, the clever girls did Latin and the dim ones did physics.  The tele is dim and prefers volts and amps to ablatives and gerunds, but because I am clever I don’t know how to give it what it wants.  It splutters in and out of life. 

I watch a show in which people have brought ugly stuff from their attics to a place where antique experts will tell them what it is worth.  It’s the credit crunch and that’s the only kind of tele the BBC can afford.  At exactly the moment when the expert says, You will be surprised to learn that on the open market this item would fetch…  my tele demands more amps (or volts; I don’t know which because I am clever) and it turns off.

I’d had enough of this last Saturday so I grabbed my torch (that’s a flashlight to you North Americans) and trundled up the towpath to the pub.  I knew Stematos, the Greek landlord, and his apple-cheeked British wife would be glad of my custom.  That is, I knew Stematos would be glad.   Apple-cheeked is not at all clear that I am worth the bother. 

As I have written before, I have more than once fallen foul of the 3 o’clock Baguette Watershed, meaning no foreign muck after that hour, but she might just stretch to a slice of ham between two nicely buttered slabs of honest British bread, if I ask especially apologetically. 

The pub is about a quarter of a mile along the towpath and over the bridge, but I didn’t make it that far. As I reached the bridge I saw that a group of boaters had gathered around a bonfire.  I took a spare seat and someone passed me a glass of wine.  Faintly acrid smoke, smelling of burning creosote, drifted past me and across the canal.  At my back I could feel the night, cold and clear, but the bright heat of the flames drew us all in, and we were warm and merry.

I had seen in the new year around a bonfire with much the same crowd: people whose last names I don’t know, who are called after their boats or creatures of the canal.  The bonfire shone on shaved-headed Ratty, my first friend along the towpath; purple-haired, Emma, my near neighbour; Pat the engineer; Mar who put an axe through his foot last week chopping wood and Scotty who has to go to parenting classes on Tuesdays or else he won’t be allowed to visit his wee babby. 

Because I used to walk a toy poople along the towpath, I have also had occasion to mention the scary dogs some of my neighbours keep.  My poodle has emigrated, and the uneasy peace along the tow path, and in the pub, is breached a little less often.  We are all still variously lame, divorced, pierced, tattooed, out to lunch or gone fishiing, TV license fee evaders every one.  I am fast catching up with the others, a connoisseur of scrounged bonfires: I favour picnic tables.

Nevertheless, it still feels a little odd to find my fifty-five year old self alone in this company on a March evening in England getting drunk under Bridge 216a and warming my toes on burning fence posts.  When I was a kid there was a joke (I think it was from Maine) and the punch line was always, You can’t get there from here. 

Turns out you can.

March 30, 2009

“And to my dear grandson, I leave the Village of Buckland”

Filed under: A long way from home,misc,Village life — Duchess @ 3:45 pm

For twenty five years I have lived in a rural English village about twelve miles southwest of the Oxford city limits, and on the edge of the Cotswolds.  Almost all the houses are built of the characteristic yellow stone from nearby rolling hills.  Some are finished with thatch, and most of the rest, like mine, have fine, old slate roofs.

Until recently virtually every cottage in the village was owned, as they had been since medieval times, by the lord of the manor.  (These days not a lord, and indeed not even a knight of the realm – but the Squire none the less.)

Falling on hard(ish) times, in 1968 the Squire began to sell off some of the cottages, and for the first time people other than those serving either his estate or the local community moved in. 

My house, Hedges, was once part of the commercial centre of the village.  Hedges was a draper’s shop (run by Mr and Mrs Hedges – hence the name – don’t go looking for tall bushes if you come to visit).  Next door on one side, now given over mainly to cats, was the brewery.  On the other side were the general stores; behind, the bakery, and across the road, the malt house and (somewhat incongruously) a Baptist Chapel, a temporary early 20th century enthusiasm.

The last time I asked there were about 500 adults on the Parish Rolls, and I don’t suppose the number has changed much.  In the quarter of a century I have lived here a lovely old mulberry tree, the malt house, and a bizarrely out of place petrol station have all been knocked down to make way for modest development.  The estate’s stables were converted to courtyard dwellings, and I suppose a dozen or so more new houses have been erected.

The shop and post office, once my next door neighbours, have shut.  The Baptist Chapel is long gone, and a couple of years ago the Catholic Church closed down too, its site deconsecrated, but, in the property collapse, still empty. The 13th century Church of England remains, and the pub struggles on; Australian waiters serve yuppie food to visitors while the locals bugger off to the Trout, an old pub down the hill by the Thames, on the river’s last few navigable miles before it peters out at Lechlade.

Buckland still has a village school; 35 children were enrolled when Silverbridge walked the 50 yards or so from our front door to its, but I think there are more than double that number now.  Almost all come from outside the village and create mini traffic jams outside my house twice daily.

Not long after I moved to the village, the Squire, the one who had inherited the village from his grandmother, and who had seen the first sales of village houses, died.  His elder son, a man about my age, succeeded.  The estate still owned a great deal of property in the village, and all the surrounding land. 

The new Squire, a late 20th century gentleman farmer, shouldered the responsibility manfully, honed his enterprise, reluctantly sacked his father’s servants, went partly organic (grumbling publicly about what that had cost him), planted hedgerows, shot pheasant in season, spoke with finely clipped vowels, and knelt and prayed in church with his wife and two little girls exactly as often as it was seemly so to do.  

Last week he loaded his retrievers into his Land Rover, drove to the now mature woods his father planted for grouse cover half a century ago, and shot himself.  Used to gunshot, the dogs waited patiently for their master’s return until the gamekeeper found them, and the dead Squire, some hours later.

This Saturday morning I heard the sound of sirens, and seeing smoke billowing above the houses across the street, I followed the trail around the corner to what was once my babysitter’s home, now a weekend cottage for Londoners.  An early sixteenth century pair of tied houses for labourers and their families, it was one of the oldest surviving dwellings (originally two cottages) in the village. 

This is what I saw:

Through the afternoon most of the village came out to see the slow, smokey and undramatic conflagration.  At one point there were 15 fire vehicles lining the road, the firefighters moving with unhurried determination. They emptied the two swimming pools in the village and reduced our mains water supply to a trickle. 

Four hours later the frame that had lasted almost 500 years still stood, shrouded in smoke;

This morning, almost 48 hours after the fire broke out, two engines were still in the village, but by tonight they were finally gone, and I took this sad picture:

At the height of the blaze I ran into the woman who sold me Hedges twenty five years ago.  We chatted a bit, she wondering that I couldn’t sell that lovely house.  Her theory was (because it couldn’t possibly be the lovely house) that too many people were now parking on the village streets.  It wasn’t like that in her day. 

I hadn’t seen her in a while, though she is sometimes in the village because she still has family here.  I remembered, right after I asked her what brought her back this time, that her mother had been nanny to the young Squire.

I came for Charlie’s funeral, she said.

The funeral is tomorrow.  It has not been a good week in this every day story of country folk.

February 18, 2009

The gasman cometh

Filed under: A long way from home,misc,Village life — Duchess @ 3:56 pm

I mentioned earlier that on Christmas Day the cooker broke down.  It wasn’t unusable, but it was definitely inconvenient and probably unsafe.  I finally got tired of alternating between living dangerously — and using the wretched thing while it continuously sparked and one of the ovens turned on and off at unpredictable intervals — or living slovenly and grazing on cold food by the open refigerator door.  I bought a new cooker.

After awhile the day came round for it to be installed, and I promised friends and family elaborate gourmet meals. When the Piper’s Son visited a few days later I had to explain that there had been a little hitch in the arrangements.

Oh no, said he, it isn’t one of your gasmen stories is it?  At Christmas dinner, while I lamented soggy Yorkshire pudding, I told my children how, as a young bride, I ordered a gas cooker.

In those days the state was the supplier of cookers and you had to go to the Gas Board, rather than a shop, to buy one.  They had sample cookers on display and you chose one, and then a nice lady sat you down and filled in many, many forms and then told you how long the waiting list was for your particular cooker.

My waiting list was only two weeks and when I got to the top of the list I was given a delivery date for another couple of weeks later.  On the appointed day I waited in the house all morning and all afternoon, but no cooker came.  The next morning I telephoned to say that I had been expecting a delivery but nothing had arrived. 

The person on the end of the phone explained patiently that unfortunately the cooker had been out of stock, so of course there was no possibility of delivering; surely I could see that. She was, however, happy to report that it was now back in stock.

I said, in that case, I would like to have it delivered as soon as possible.

Unfortunately, she replied, there’s a two week waiting list for that cooker.

I said I knew that, and I had already waited on the waiting list, so please could I have my cooker?

Ah, said she, but when you waited on the waiting list, the cooker was out of stock!

So I duly served my in stock waiting time and the cooker was eventually delivered.  When, a few years later, I was moving house, I required the services of the Gas Board again. In those days in England you didn’t leave appliances behind when you moved. 

The Outdoor Gasman was booked to disconnect the gas, the Indoor Gasman to disconnect the cooker, and the moving men to take it away.

The Outdoor man duly arrived, turned off the gas, and went away.  The moving men came and removed everything from the house — except the cooker — while we waited for the Indoor Gasman.  Eventually the moving men had enough.  They said they were going home — or they could disconnect the cooker themselves. 

After the moving men had driven away with all my worldly goods, including cooker, illegally disconnected, and I was doing final rounds, the Indoor Gasman at last arrived.

I panicked.  Thinking that the important thing was to reassure him that everything had been done by a competent person, I said, Oh, don’t worry, the Outdoor Gasman thought he might just as well disconnect the cooker too, while he was here, so he did it.

There was a stunned silence.  It was clear he would have preferred me to say that anyone, including my toddler, had done it instead.  First he just shook his head in disbelief and then he began to say, over and over, He should not have done that!  That was an Indoor Gasman job!  He should not have done that!  I’m going to have to report this to head office!

And then he went angrily away.

I experienced the Indoor / Outdoor rule again a few years later when my elderly neighbour had a gas leak and alternating teams visted her all night long, the Indoor men came to investigate, turn off her gas, and confirm it was not their problem.  After a while the Outdoor men came and fixed it and went away.  In the early hours the Indoor men returned to turn the gas back on inside.  Nothing could make either team touch a valve on the wrong side of a wall. 

Anyone who didn’t live here in the 70s and early 80s might be imagining that the Monty Python new gas cooker sketch is surrealism.  I know better.

Well, anyway, these days you go to a store to buy your cooker and they’ll connect it too, for a fee.  The Gas Board no longer exists and there aren’t any more waiting lists, though out of stock is, of course, still a hazard.

Less than a week after I had ordered it, a couple of pleasant men arrived with my cooker.  They pulled the old one out and examined my electrics.  (Even gas cookers need electricity, to run the clock and the ignition switch, but as I am trying to sell up I thought I would buy a more popular dual fuel version, with gas hob and electric oven.)

The men shook their heads in unison.  You see this here?  they asked, pointing at the wire that fed the electric outlet.  This is 4 mm core wire.  Regs say you got to have 6 mm core wire.  You need an electrician to sort this out.  We’re not allowed to touch it.

I questioned them further and finally understood.  It wasn’t that all the wiring was wrong.  It was just that the the switch had to be wired to the plug using fatter wire.  The distant between the two was about two feet.

I said, That’s it?  Hell, I can do that wiring myself.

They put their hands over their ears and shouted La la la la la.  I can’t hear you!

That’s because it is illegal for me to wire that myself.

It’s up to you, they said, but we can’t touch it.  Then they put the cooker back on the lorry.  We have to take this back to the depot they said.  By the way, have you got any 6 mm core wire?

I said I did not.  We carry it on the van, they explained, but we’re not allowed to use it for wiring purposes.

Then they and my cooker drove away, leaving me holding the two feet of 6 mm core wire they had obligingly cut for me.

February 12, 2009

Birth days

Filed under: A long way from home,Back story,misc,This is not a mommy blog — Duchess @ 4:46 pm

It was my birthday this week and, as usual, I claimed the day as my own and demanded that everyone pay attention to me and be nice to me and give me presents and cards — which mostly they did.  Everyone who knows me knows I take birthdays, especially mine, very seriously. 

Nevertheless, when I became a mother I began to think perhaps the wrong person was getting all the birthday attention: exactly who did all the work and had all the bother?  So tell me again who deserves the presents and congratulations?

On my birthday I really ought to have telephoned my mother to apologise.  But, according to convention, instead she is meant to send me birthday greetings.  Her email said,  “The sun was shining the day you were born.  I remember it streaming in the window of the delivery room.  Your hair was red.”

i’ve heard the sun in the delivery room story before.  I know my mother tells it when she especially wants me to know that I am loved, because that is the moment she first feels me conjured into being, when all the waiting and the pain focussed, like the sun’s rays, on that wet, red haired, shining creature.  That’s me, to my mother, even fifty five years on.

I am not so kind (or brief) in the stories I tell my own children.  For example, I usually spare my eldest child, the son who made me a mother, the little details, like the midwife’s firm, raiser poised threat, “Now we are just going to give you a little shave down there.” (Though luckily he emerged so fast after that she didn’t have a chance.)  Or the nurse’s next morning careful explanation of neonatal jaundice, “You may have noticed your baby is a little yellow…”

But  I do like to tell the story of how hard I had to sue to get out of hospital, and what happened while I was otherwise occupied with learning to be a new mother.  In those days in England a “full stay” on the maternity ward was 10 days, a “short stay” was 7, and “early discharge” for a first baby was a mere 5.  I had to fight to be out in 4. 

While my new baby and I were in hospital my husband helpfully registered our son’s birth,  and when we both arrived home he presented me with the certificate.  Under mother’s name it had my first name and my husband’s last name.  I was furious.

You know I never intended to change my name! I shouted.  THAT IS NOT MY NAME!

My husband said calmly that he assumed I meant I wouldn’t change my name in the every day world.  Of course I could hang on to my name if if it was important to me.  Only he never thought I meant I wouldn’t change it when it came to things that mattered like our son’s birth certificate.  How would the boy know his parents were married?

(Reader this was the very beginning of the 80s.  The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there — especially in England.)

The next morning I bundled up my barely born son and marched smartly into the Registry of Births, Deaths and Marriages office in Oxford.  I presented the perfect child and faulty birth certificate and demanded immediate redress.

The grey haired man at the counter was kindness itself.  He understood my unhappiness, but he shook his head sadly.  What I asked was in no way possible.  The details of the child’s birth had been recorded in the Registers and he was powerless to change them. 

At home I telephoned the number that I had eventually wrung out of the grey haired man and I explained my story.

I’m sorry, said the voice at the other end, but no alterations are possible once a child’s birth has been officially recorded.

I asked her if just anyone could record these details.  Was she aware that paternity was merely a matter of opinion (these were the days before DNA testing was even thought of), but I could prove that I was the mother of the child?  How dare they take a mere putative father’s word?  Did they have my autorisation for him to register the birth?  They did not!

Her patient explanation made it clear that official policy was that any man generously willing to put his name on a child’s birth certificate was assumed to have the authority and competence to provide all details. 

I said, Do you mean to tell me that if my husband had said my name was Humpty Dumpty that is what my son’s birth certificate would say?

There was a very long pause.  And then she answered, Well, yes, I guess it would.

Several supervisors later I finally received a concession: if I would swear an oath that the name recorded as mother’s name on my son’s birth certificate was not my name, had never been my name, and never would be my name, they would make the correction.  I thought the future covenant was was a little extreme, but at least we would have an accurate record of my son’s parents.

This being Oxford it was all done in a gentlemanly way.  One guest night at College, when the women wore long gowns and the men black tie, my husband and I withdrew to the Senior Common Room, along with the College Solicitor, between the main course and the passing of port, claret and sauterne, where I swore the necessary oath, which the solicitor duly notarised.

I posted the notarised oath to Somerset House (which, with good reason, features in British murder mysteries) and in due course I received notice that the error in my son’s official birth certificate had been recognized and that an amended certificate, under these extraordinary circumstances, would be issued.

I returned triumphant to the registry office with my authorisation for correction.  In those days birth certificates were written out in long hand with a fountain pen and I watched, astonished, as the grey haired clerk wrote everything as before, including mother’s name with my husband’s surname and not my own. 

When he had filled in every box, exactly as before, he returned to the mother’s name box and added an asterix.  In the bottom margin he wrote, next to an inky asterix, the words, This is an error.

Then he handed me the amended certificate.

I’ve had more decisive victories.

February 6, 2009

Cannabis delivered with the milk

Filed under: A long way from home,BBC radio addiction,misc,Village life — Duchess @ 1:00 pm

An elderly British milkman who responded to notes like “5 pints semi skimmed and a half an ounce this week, please” has been given a suspended sentence.

The prosecutor told the court that “word had got out that he could supply cannabis to those of a certain age with aches and pains”. His oldest client was 92.

In choosing not to bestow a custodial sentence the judge decided that the grandfather of 28 had mitigating circumstances, because his wife has Alzheimers Disease and has recently moved to a care home. The 72 year old milkman, married for 53 years, was tearful at the thought of not being able to visit his wife if he were in prison.

In today’s sentencing the Judge recognised that the milkman “misguidedly believed that he was providing a public service”.

You can read the BBC report here.  Newcomers to this site might like to consider other doorstep deliveries.

January 26, 2009

Burns Night

Filed under: A long way from home,misc,Oxford — Duchess @ 3:50 pm

Yesterday was officially Burns Night, but as Sunday is an awkward evening for overindulgence, we marked the 250th anniversary of Robbie Burns’s birth with a supper on Friday instead.

I have never quite understood why the Oxford college where I work is such an ardent supporter of the night dedicated to the great Scottish Poet, but it is, and every year we celebrate it faithfully by dressing up in black tie and eating and drinking a great deal too much. 

Friday, after we had drunk a bit in the Senior Common Room, beginning as we meant to go on, we were summoned to the Hall where the students were already seated and waiting.  A gavel was banged and everyone stood for the grace.  This (as I have mentioned before) is usually two Latin words uttered by the Principal or, in her absence, the Senior Fellow, but on Burns Night we have instead the Selkirk Grace, recited in a gentle Scottish accent by one of the world’s leading experts in wildlife conservation.  His day job involves saving the British water vole and other endangered species, but on Burns Night, dressed in his kilt, he is the poet’s voice:

Some hae meat and canna eat,
   And some wad eat that want it;
But we hae meat, and we can eat, 
  And sae the Lord be thankit

Moments later we were served with cock-a-leekie soup and a wee dram of 15 year old single malt whiskey. 

When that was cleared away the undergraduates began to shuffle and there were sounds of chairs scraping the floor as they turned to greet the piper, preceding the haggis.  My office overlooks the College gardens and I had been listening to the drone of distant bagpipes all week — the playing fields on the edge of the River Cherwell were considered the only suitable place for tonight’s musician to practice such cacaphony.

The piper led the haggis in a triumphant circuit of the dining room until the platter was finally placed before our wildlife guy, who each year supplies himself with a dagger, dramatically pulled from his kilt.  The BBC website instructions on how to host a Burns Supper are very particular on the protocol at this point:

Warning: it is wise to have a small cut made in the haggis skin before it is piped in. Instances are recorded of top table guests being scalded by flying pieces of haggis when enthusiastic reciters omitted this precaution! Alternatively, the distribution of bits of haggis about the assembled company is regarded in some quarters as a part of the fun…

The recital ends with the reader raising the haggis in triumph during the final line Gie her a haggis!, which the guests greet with rapturous applause.

When our haggis was delivered to the table the chefs and piper stood by as our Fellow spoke:

Fair fa’ your honest, sonsie face,
Great chieftain o’ the pudding-race!
Aboon them a’ ye tak your place,
Painch , tripe, or thairm :
Weel are ye wordy o’a grace
As lang’s my arm.

The groaning trencher there ye fill,
Your hurdies like a distant hill,
Your pin wad help to mend a mill
In time o’need,
While thro’ your pores the dews distil
Like amber bead.

His knife see rustic Labour dight ,
An’ cut you up wi’ ready sleight,
Trenching your gushing entrails bright,
Like ony ditch;
And then, O what a glorious sight,
Warm-reekin’ , rich!

Then, horn for horn , they stretch an’ strive:
Deil tak the hindmost! on they drive,
Till a’ their weel-swall’d kytes belyve
Are bent like drums;
Then auld Guidman, maist like to rive ,
Bethankit ! hums.

Is there that owre his French ragout
Or olio that wad staw a sow,
Or fricassee wad make her spew
Wi’ perfect sconner ,
Looks down wi’ sneering, scornfu’ view
On sic a dinner?

Poor devil! see him owre his trash,
As feckless as wither’d rash ,
His spindle shank , a guid whip-lash;
His nieve a nit ;
Thro’ bloody flood or field to dash,
O how unfit!

But mark the Rustic, haggis-fed ,
The trembling earth resounds his tread.
Clap in his walie nieve a blade,
He’ll mak it whissle ;
An’ legs an’ arms, an’ heads will sned ,
Like taps o’ thrissle .

Ye Pow’rs, wha mak mankind your care,
And dish them out their bill o’ fare,
Auld Scotland wants nae skinking ware
That jaups in luggies ;
But , if ye wish her gratefu’ prayer
Gie her a haggis!

If you would like to hear the poem out loud, here it is.) 

Our amateur Fellow really does it with great enthusiasm, especially the warm — reekin, rich! And the haggis was duly piereced.

I’m a bit of a fan of haggis, though I admit it sounds quite disgusting.  I tried it tentatively, a newspaper wrapped lump of gristle, grease and offal served up in a chippy in Oban more than thirty years ago when I first visited Scotland on holiday with my mother. She and I are both adventurous eaters so we bravely ordered that traditional feast on a night when it was optional (it is required on 25 January). 

I’m not sure my mother has tried again, but I can assure you that the version we get in College really is warm — reekin, rich!  And I was hungry enough to echo what I take to be, more or less, the translation of that last line of Burns’s address to the night’s pudding: Give us here our haggis!

There were, of course, neeps (=turnips) and tatties (=potatoes), and more drams of whiskey, and lots of gravy, which the Scots at table objected to — traditionally no gravy with haggis, apparently (but I, for one, like my offal well drown-ed).

Later, with another bang of the gavel we adjourned for coffee and yet more whiskey and poetry.  And everyone talked about just how long it had been since you didn’t need Latin to get a medical degree at Oxford, and the very best way to study physics, the Prisoners’ Dilemma, moral hazard, Tuscan holidays, World War I, quilting, flute playing, and whether Obama was really President when he signed those first executive orders.

It’s a life.

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