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.

April 20, 2010

Ferrets are the new Chihuahuas

Filed under: Back story,misc,This is not a mommy blog,Village life — Duchess @ 11:47 am

I heard on the news the other day that ferrets are the latest chic pets in the UK, for some reason favoured by flight attendants (who have a lot of time on their hands just now).

Trend setter that I am, I had pet ferrets more than a dozen years ago.

My children began agitating for a ferret or two after they saw pictures in an educational book helpfully provided by their American grandmother.  The begging campaign went on for months.

In a moment of insanity, I called the local wildlife park and negotiated two young males.  The gamekeeper enthusiastically agreed that ferrets were just what my family needed.

We named our new pets Bangers and Mash, one streaked steel gray and the other a pale ermine. The gamekeeper advised handling both as much as possible in order to tame them.  As I stroked and cuddled Mash, he nestled into my shoulder, turned his head and sank his teeth into my neck.  Every time anyone held him he bit suddenly and he bit hard.

I found Mash a new home fast (as did his next family), but, as far as I was concerned, Bangers settled in much better.  The kitchen became his domain, and he had free rein whenever the doors were shut. 

Bangers spent his evenings like any model pet, curled up on my lap, letting himself be stroked.  He similarly favoured my younger son. 

No one else was safe.  Bangers terrorised the two sheep dogs, and the cats hissed and bolted whenever they met him. 

The kitchen became a no-go area unless I went in first and captured him.  Otherwise there was usually blood: Bangers was no amateur ferret.  

Bangers doesn’t like strangers, I would explain apologetically to friends, relatives and visitors, scooping him up in my arms.  He’ll be all right when you get to know him. 

My husband absolutely declined to get to know him, and the children began to suspect that there was a good reason most people just had dogs or cats.

Meanwhile, taking advantage of any windows or doors left carelessly open, Bangers became a regular escapee, though he always came home.  He knew when he was on to a good thing: squeaky toys, raw hamburger for tea, and an evening in a comfortable lap.

One day, during my mother’s annual visit from the US, she and I went out, leaving my stepfather alone in the house.

In the middle of the afternoon the shopkeeper’s husband banged on the window.  Hugh opened it, just a crack.

Your ferret is in my wife’s shop! the man shouted.  You had better come and get him!

It isn’t my ferret, returned Hugh, a lawyer by trade.

A lengthy negotiation ensued.  It was finally agreed that, without prejudice, Hugh would open the kitchen window, and the shopkeeper’s husband could, if he so chose, and entirely at his own risk, pass the animal through that opening.  Once the animal was inside, Hugh would close the window.

The next day the ferret’s visit to the shop was the talk of the village.

I thought he would go up Mrs P’s trousers! said the Principal Soprano in the church choir.

Yes, replied the Shopkeeper, adding darkly, And we all know Mrs P doesn’t wear knickers.

After that, and what with the children complaining they couldn’t get breakfast because Bangers would attack them, I bought a rabbit hutch and moved our pet outdoors.

For a while that seemed a good solution, but rabbit hutches are designed for much stupider animals, and Bangers soon worked out how to open the cage’s sliding door. 

He often escaped, but as he was always back, happily curled up in his bed by tea time, I convinced myself that this arrangement was working.  Bangers obviously liked his home, or he wouldn’t return, and no harm seemed to come of his outings.  In the evenings, I still brought him in the house to sleep on my lap.

This was the uneasy status quo for another few months.  My neighbours reported sightings of Bangers all around the village (they hadn’t forgotten poor knickerless Mrs P’s happy escape), but by the time they phoned, Bangers was invariably back home, and peacefully asleep. 

It couldn’t have been my ferret, I would say.  I’ve just checked, and my ferret is locked in the rabbit hutch.  Maybe you saw a weasel.

One early summer day the old lady two doors down knocked on my door in obvious distress.  Your… creature! she gasped, Is…in…my…house!  A bloody handkerchief was wrapped around her hand.

She breathlessly explained that she had fought to rescue her ducks from his jaws, and after biting her he had run from the garden through her open door and up her staircase. 

I knew Bangers too well to think he would still be there, but to reassure her I wandered through every room of her house calling him and squeaking his favourite toy.   Bangers come! I shouted. Bangers come!  (Squeak, squeak.) 

Meanwhile my elderly neighbour had phoned the vet.  He arrived while I was still reassuring her that my ferret could not possibly be in her house. 

I don’t charge for treating ducks, the vet said, glaring at me. 

Sometime that evening, as usual, Bangers came home.  Since he hadn’t managed to dine on duck he happily accepted his usual minced beef.

In the morning the District Nurse was on my doorstep.  My neighbour had a severe attack of angina in the night (brought on by worrying about her ducks, said the nurse).  An ambulance was called, and she had spent the night in hospital.  If I didn’t find another home for my ferret, the District Nurse would inform the Environmental Health Officer that I was harbouring a Dangerous Animal.

A friend of a friend knew a ferret fancier in the nearby village of Ducklington.  He had already taken in the incorrigible Mash, and Bangers joined his former litter mate that afternoon. 

For several years afterwards, on the way home from swimming lessons we used to pass the roundabout leading to Ducklington.  Sometimes I would remind the kids as we drove by that Bangers and Mash were there.

My children always declared themselves glad that Bangers and Mash were having a jolly Ducklington life, but my littlest one invariably shook her head solemnly and spoke for the others:

Ferrets do not make good pets.

March 22, 2010

Friends don’t let friends buy boats

Filed under: Back story,misc — Duchess @ 2:27 pm

My friend the Electrical Engineer from MIT dropped in recently, in between meetings in London and Paris, and as usual I put him to work.  His big job for the visit was installing my new batteries.  I felt just a little bit bad about making him do this – he’s in his mid sixties and had to lie on his side in the engine room to disconnect the old batteries before lifting them almost over his head and out of the boat.  Then he had to do that all over again to get the new ones in.  There are five batteries running the lights, fridge and sockets, and each one weighs more than 60 lbs. 

But I didn’t feel all that bad, because, frankly, I hold him partly responsible for the whole kit and kaboodle.   When you have a crazy idea most people just tell you you’re daft.  David says, Let me think about that…

I’ve known David since I was 15 and he was 25, a young MIT post doc.  The improbable beginning to this almost life-long friendship was that his wife was my high school Latin teacher.

Later, when I was in college a few subway stops away from MIT, we met for lunch occasionally.  In my senior year I fretted about producing my thesis.  I always composed at the typewriter, and then edited by hand.  I mentioned my obsessive need to retype a whole page whenever I wanted to change a single word.  Then, as soon as I saw the next clean version, another word would demand to be changed and I would have to type the page all over again.

Why hadn’t someone invented a machine that would retype the page for me so I could always edit from a perfectly clean copy?

It was 1978 and we were in a coffee shop in Harvard Square.  David said, Let me think about that…

What I needed, he explained, was access to a computer. 

On a computer you could write something, and then, if you knew the commands, you could change a single word and it would save that change and it would retype your page.   It was called a “text editor” (word processing was an idea yet to come).  The text editor interpreted your instructions line by line, and each time you pressed the carriage return (enter) your page would be retyped.

In the 70s computers took up whole rooms, and most people never got near one.  At MIT, students, faculty and staff logged into the computer using terminals. Recently, David said, people were beginning to scorn ordinary, paper loaded, computer terminals.  Instead everyone wanted the latest thing, called a VDU (visual display unit).  It looked just like a television and everything you wrote was on the screen instead of on paper.

David said he could sneak out a terminal for me if I were willing to have the old-fashioned paper version. 

I said I was very fond of paper and didn’t know anything about computers.

David was sure I would work it out.  It was quite a cool idea.

Of course, my terminal needed a way to communicate with the MIT mainframe, so David also smuggled out a modem, a device with two rubber rings, designed for the receiver of an ordinary telephone, one rubber ring for the earpiece and one for the mouthpiece.   There’s a picture on a Columbia University website, improbably dedicated to the history of acoustic couplers, that looks at little like what David delivered to my Cambridge appartment.

With the circular dial on the phone, first I telephoned MIT, and then I dialled David’s password (which was, of course, very wrong of both of us).  When the computer began to emit a series of whines, squeaks and whistles, I shoved the receiver into the rubber holes on the modem, and then I was connected to an MIT mainframe, one of the most powerful computers in the world.

I dialled and shoved and typed furiously all evening, every evening for months.  My flatmate was very understanding.  She was (is) a poet and part of the house agreement was that if either of us were writing the phone was off the hook anyway.

I was startled every time I hit the return button and the terminal typed out revised lines of text, and I slept uneasily as long as the thing was in my bedroom. 

Nevertheless, I tweaked my paragraphs word by word, and my masterpiece was stored on the remote computer, which eventually produced a series of little holes in a long string of tickertape.  The night before my thesis was due David and I fed the tickertape into a printer.  The thesis was about 100 pages long and it took almost all night to print it out.

I am pretty sure I was the first undergraduate at Harvard to submit a thesis entirely produced by computer.   The authorities were completely confused when I explained that I couldn’t submit an original and three copies, because my “original” was just a bunch of holes.

A quarter of a century later I picked David up at Heathrow.  He’d moved on from stealing terminals for undergraduates to being part of the team that invented the internet, and later, when everyone wanted to join in, helping to design international protocols for the guts that run it, like IP addresses.  He travels all over the world being important, but when he is in the UK I always have some homely project for him.  Electrical engineers make useful friends. 

As I pulled out of the car park and headed for the motorway back to my little Oxfordshire village I told David that the plan for the weekend was to go look at boats for sale.

Three months earlier I had put my home of 25 years on the market.

I have decided, I declared, that the only possible consolation would be to buy a narrowboat and live on it.

I admitted that I knew nothing about boats.

Let me think about that… said David.   And then, after awhile, he added that he was sure I would work it out. In fact, it was quite a cool idea.

March 3, 2010

Of no fixed address

Filed under: Back story,BBC radio addiction,Canal,misc — Duchess @ 4:11 pm

My electrics have, to use slang my New Zealand grandmother favoured, been giving me gyp lately.  I replaced an alternator, disconnected the adverc, and ripped out the split diode thingy (and I barely know what any of this stuff is).  Nevertheless the batteries complain.  They reward my careful evening attention with nothing more grateful than red warning lights each morning.

The Grumpy Mechanic has had it up to here with my batteries.  He says his back has never been the same since he hauled mine out to test them last year and he isn’t doing it again.  I’m not complaining, he says, though he is.  Replace the lot, Girl, is his advice.

Since I usually do what I am told, I have.  That is, I ordered new ones, to be delivered to the pub today, because that’s our boaty poste restante.   Just after eleven o’clock opening time I trundled up the towpath with my computer and my dongle, ordered a latte, and set up camp.

On Twitter I read that Michael Foot, Labour Party leader 1980 – 1983 died this morning, aged 96.  I tweeted that I bet every obituary mentioned his donkey jacket and the longest suicide note in history.

In January 1979 I had just won a scholarship to Oxford, starting the following fall.  The US news was full of the Iranian revolution and what British journalists (an educated lot, on the whole) had dubbed their Winter of Discontent.  The UK Labour government was at war with the unions who had been their backers.  Despite beer and sandwiches at Downing Street, everything was going badly wrong.  

My friends said, You know that country you are going to?  It’s falling apart.

It sure looked like it from the television news.  Rubbish collectors, gravediggers, ambulance drivers and other public sector workers all were out on strike.  I watched films of mounds of garbage on the streets and heard dark reports of dead bodies piled up in morgues.   Inflation was only just down from a peak of 26.9%.

For the first time I took an interest in a UK election, called that spring.  Margaret Thatcher, Conservative, was elected, the first and only woman Prime Minister. 

The following year, 1980, the Labour Party lurched to the left and Michael Foot, a kindly maverick (really a maverick – he lost the party whip for two years because he was an inveterate peacenik) was their candidate for Prime Minister.  I am reluctant to say he was already elderly when he became party leader at 67, but it certainly seemed so to my much younger self.  An intellectual and wholly unworldly Socialist, he reminded me of my grandfather.  Of course, he was also wholly unfit to lead a political party.

He was ridiculed for his scruffy clothes, and particularly for the coat he wore on Remembrance Sunday (Veterans’ Day).  The press called it a “donkey jacket” and were outraged by what they claimed was disrespect to our Glorious Dead.  It was quite in vain that Foot repeatedly pleaded that the Queen Mother herself had admired his jacket as they both waited to lay their wreaths at the Cenotaph.

1983 was my first general election in the UK and I was a little puzzled at first to find that here politicians published election “manifestos”.  My high school history lessons had led me to believe that manifestos were strictly for commies.  I bought the full versions for all three main parties and read them closely.

Michael Foot’s party manifesto went into extraordinary detail.  I laughed out loud when I came to the bit that said “The Labour Party supports the wishes of women in childbirth.”  I was then expecting my second baby.  I adore my children once they exit the birth canal, but my wishes in childbirth generally involved mass murder.

That year the Labour Party suffered the worst general election defeat in 50 years, and the manifesto came to be known as “the longest suicide note in history.”

Meanwhile, back at the pub, I was the only customer, still nursing my latte two hours on.  Stematos, the Greek landlord, and I both had our laptops open on opposite sides of the bar.  I thought of telling Stematos that Michael Foot had died, but I wasn’t sure he would know who I was talking about.  Stematos was googling plant stands. 

There was no sign of the battery delivery, and after a while the punters began to arrive for lunch: the chatter was about pension fund bailouts, bowel cancer, birthdays, and how the Grumpy Mechanic might be getting on in his new flat.  No one mentioned Michael Foot.  I made Stematos happy by ordering feta cheese, olives, bread and a small glass of wine.  He thought I was going to sit there all day on the latte. 

Just as I was about to give up, five spanking new batteries were delivered to the pub porch.  I hauled them in two loads to the boat, a little less than half a mile from the pub, three batteries on the first journey (when I was fresh) and two on the next, when I was tired.  I needed to rest a lot on both trips.  Lifting them inside was pretty hard, and I was afraid I might drop one into the canal, since I was already exhausted from getting them there.

They cost £100 each, and I really did not want to lose any in the water.

3 batteries - the 1st load

Three batteries - the first load

When I got them onboard I put them on my scale, just out of curiosity.  Each battery weighed 62.8 pounds, meaning the load of two was almost exactly as heavy as I am (on a good day), and the load of three was a whole lot heavier.  I felt like one tough Duchess.

Batteries waiting to be installed.

All five batteries safely in the engine room, waiting to be installed.

By the time I had pushed the empty cart back up the tow path it was 5 pm and I thought I deserved a big glass of wine.

I turned on the radio.  It was all about Michael Foot.  I wasn’t wrong.  Every report mentioned the donkey jacket and the suicide note.  You can read the BBC obituary here.

I haven’t quite forgotten that once I get the new batteries installed, I’ll have five old ones to haul up the tow path, but sufficient unto the day is the trouble thereof. Or so I am told.

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.

January 13, 2009

History delivered with the milk

Filed under: Back story,misc,Politics and history — Duchess @ 3:59 pm

When I was a child we used to get our milk on the doorstep in fat half gallon bottles with cardboard tops.  In the winter the milk often froze before we got to it and the top was perched on a frozen white spume.

Some marketing guy at the dairy must have had the idea that the caps would be a wholesome version of cigarette cards from a generation before. For a while, I remember, the caps had general knowledge questions on one side and the answer on the other. 

Then one long winter, when my brother had a paper route and I got up early to help him out, we poured icy milk onto our oatmeal, and, putting off the tramp through the snow ahead, we laid out our Collect All 36 Presidents of the US milk bottle caps. 

I had an idea I would memorize them in order, but it was so frustrating: I had any number of Washingtons, a Jefferson or two, John Quincy Adams and then nothing until seven Warren G Hardings.  I suppose I was meant to find some other history obsessed child desperately short of Hardings and trade mine for a Martin Van Buren, Ulysses S Grant, James Tyler or any other of those half remembered old white guys in fancy dress.  Alas, I did not.

Nor did I ever quite memorize the list.  I’m good on the first 8 or so and then get very dodgy until we hit Buchanan and Lincoln.  Next there’s another gap.  I am fairly sound on the 20th century, though I can’t get them quite in the right order until the late 20s.  (Do not ask me to perform this exercise with British Prime Ministers.)

So I very much enjoyed the following, which I came across on the over 50s blog, Time Goes By.  The President list has got a little longer since the paper route days, but by then it was my life, not history, so not so easily forgotten.

Any Brit readers of certain age will forever associate the accompanying music, Ravel’s Bolero, with Torville and Dean, but I digress. 

What I really want to say is I’ll give you a dollar if you can remember from all those years of American history a single fact about James K Polk.  Honour system here.  No looking him up on Wikipedia.

While the Americans are looking sheepish, shrugging and asking James K Who?  I leave you Brits with our own Jayne and Christopher. 

January 8, 2009

What? More Crime and punishment?

Filed under: A long way from home,Back story,misc — Duchess @ 6:28 pm

There’s a little game going around where you get a theme for the week.  I’m not much of a team player, but I got interested in the varied responses to this week’s topc: guilt.

I’m not very keen on guilt either, but confession is quite another matter, and I am rather hoping that is what our ring master really meant.  Otherwise guilt is pretty boring, right?

My confession of the week comes up just because it is newly 2009, a nice round anniversary of 30 years since my senior year in college (which came in just a little late, because I was on the Seven Year BA Plan) . It’s also coming up to thirty years since I left the US and moved to England.

By 1979 I had quit dropping out and had been on the straight and narrow for a while. I went back to school and made good grades. Early in the new year I got a call from my best friend (who might not be my best friend anymore, but I still hope she is).  I had applied for a major, all expenses paid, scholarship to attend graduate school in England.  I had to apply from my home region, which was California (though it wasn’t really my home; that’s another story) and that’s where my friend was calling me.

I had already won what I figured was second prize –a free round trip flight to San Francisco, where I would be interviewed at the British Embassy.

There weren’t cell phones in those days and my friend telephoned me at my boyfriend’s house in LA, where I had gone after the interview. I was especially glad for the free ticket because my mother was living in Germany and for the second year in a row, Christmas was a makeshift arrangement.   California seemed like a good plan, especially if someone else was paying.

When my best friend called me she put on a serious sort of voice.  She said the letter had come.  I answered, trying to be brave, I didn’t get it, right?  There was a long pause and then she screamed, Yes, yes you did!

It was a happy moment.  Next, there were things I feel bad about – like telling my boyfriend he couldn’t come with me – but that’s not what I want to confess.

I flew back to the other side of the country.  My best friend and I had a flat on Mass Ave in Cambridge above a shop that sold “Hot” Coffee.  We always thought the quotes made it sound like a rumour.  I went to classes and took exams and meanwhile began to pay attention to foreign affairs in a way I never had.  I was going abroad, a sophisticated word meaning most definitely not in Kansas anymore.

There was a revolution going on in Iran, and in England, charming literary folk that they are, they were having what is still known as the Winter of Discontent.  I watched the news and worried about who I might root for in a threatened election.  I was pretty sure the Conservatives couldn’t be right, but was puzzled between Labour and the Liberals. 

Of course my friends all knew I would soon be off to England, and a few took delight in bringing me fresh information.  You know that country you are going to?  It’s falling apart.

I watched the tele too.  Where I was going the garbage wasn’t being collected and the dead weren’t being buried.  Far as I could see the whole country was on strike.

One bitterly cold day I biked back to our flat, picked up the post, and trudged up the stairs.  It was so cold in the flat I turned on the gas oven.  Hovering over it I opened a letter addressed to me.  It said I would be pleased to know that I was being sent to study in Edinburgh.

I wasn’t at all pleased to know! I was cold and I wanted to go to Oxford.  Dead bodies on the street were bad enough, but Edinburgh was practically in the Artic Circle.

I consulted a friend who had held the same scholarship recently.  He said, Everyone wants to go to Oxford.  The scholarship committee try to spread people out.  You need to make a good academic case of why it is important to you to be at a particular university, and then they will listen.

I did mean to make a good academic case, I promise.  I was planning to study the 19th century English novel and I went to the library to find out who was on the faculty at Oxford working on that subject, so I could take out some books.

I scanned down the list and came upon the name Mr A O J Cockshut, which, I am sorry to say, made me giggle enough that I had to leave the library.

Finally we get to the confession:

I left the library, bicycled back to my cold flat, pulled out my typewriter and answered my letter.  I wrote that I was tremendously grateful for the opportunity to attend Edinburgh University, but, as it happened, I had set my heart on studying with Mr A O J Cockshut of Oxford University whose work and scholarship I especially admired. 

I later came to know A O J as Tony.  He focused on the ceiling as he spoke and kept, along with his wife, a painfully thin mistress who always followed him several paces behind.  After twenty years or so the mistress faded away, or died of an improbably broken heart, and the wife remained.  While he was a Fellow of the college Tony was famous for mainly admitting red headed girls to study English.  After one year I ditched him as supervisor for someone considerably more distinguished.  Tony retired years ago and kindly invited me to his party.  I went, but I could tell he wasn’t certain who I was.  He repeatedly asserted that women never turned down offers of marriage.  I thought it was a curiously emphatic, but not inconsistent, position to take on such an occasion.

These days I see him every couple of weeks taking a shuffling walk in the University Parks.  I know he doesn’t recognize me, but even so I have tried nodding.  I should know better.  He has never once met my – or anyone else’s – eye.

Maybe he feels guilty about something.


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