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.

December 13, 2008

A bit parky out there

Filed under: A long way from home — Duchess @ 11:22 pm

It’s 20 degrees fahrenheit, which where I usually hang out is called minus 6 and some – as cold as it gets most winters. 

There’s snow swirling around but it’s hard to tell what’s being blown off the ground in the strong wind from what’s falling from the sky.

The dogs need walking.  I’m just going outside. I may be some time.

November 11, 2008

The 11th of the 11th

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

We will remember.

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

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

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

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

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

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

And no one forgets that we have soldiers fighting today,

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

November 4, 2008

Half past five

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

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

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

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

October 29, 2008

The shipping forecast

Filed under: A long way from home,BBC radio addiction,misc — Duchess @ 2:40 pm

I guess my last post doesn’t make a lot of sense if you have never heard the shipping forecast, that lovely litany that sends me to sleep and then wakes me up again long before I am ready. 

So here’s the latest.  These are the exact words read out on BBC radio at times when only insomniacs and the young have ears to hear:

And now the Shipping Forecast issued by the Met Office, on behalf of the Maritime and Coastguard Agency, at 1725 on Wednesday 29 October 2008.

There are warnings of gales in Plymouth Biscay Fitzroy Sole Lundy Fastnet Irish Sea Shannon Rockall and Malin.

The general synopsis at midday:
Low Malin 992 expected northwest france 987 by 1200 tomorrow. Low Forties 992 moving slowly east and losing its identity by same time. new high expected just west of Iceland 1031 by that time.

The area forecasts for the next 24 hours:

Viking North Utsire:
North or northeast 4 or 5 increasing 5 to 7, perhaps gale 8 later. moderate or rough. Wintry showers. Good.

South Utsire Forties:
Cyclonic 5 to 7 becoming north 4 or 5, occasionally 6 later. Rough or very rough becoming moderate or rough. Wintry showers. Good.

Cromarty Forth Tyne:
Variable 3 or 4 becoming north or northeast 5 or 6. Moderate or rough. showers. Good.

Dogger Fisher German Bight:
Southwest veering north, becoming cyclonic for a time in Fisher, 5 or 6, occasionally 7 at first. Rough or very rough becoming moderate or rough. Showers. Good.

Southwest 3 or 4 backing northeast 5 or 6. Moderate occasionally rough. Showers. Good.

Thames Dover Wight:
Variable 3 becoming south 4 or 5, backing northeast 5 to 7 later. slight or moderate, occasionally rough later in Wight. Showers. mainly good.

South or southwest, becoming cyclonic then northeast, 4 or 5 increasing 5 to 7, perhaps gale 8 later. Slight or moderate increasing rough. Rain. Moderate or good.

Plymouth Biscay:
South or southwest, becoming cyclonic then northeast, 5 to 7, occasionally gale 8, decreasing 4 for a time. Moderate increasing rough or very rough. Rain then showers. Moderate or good.

Fitzroy Sole:
Northwest veering north 6 to gale 8, perhaps severe gale 9 later. rough or very rough, occasionally high later. Rain or squally showers. moderate or good, occasionally poor at first.

Lundy Fastnet Irish Sea:
Cyclonic 6 to gale 8, perhaps severe gale 9 later in Fastnet. Slight to rough, occasionally very rough in Fastnet. Rain then showers. moderate or good, occasionally poor at first.

Shannon Rockall:
Northwest veering north or northeast 6 to gale 8, occasionally severe gale 9 at first, decreasing 5 at times later. Very rough or high, decreasing rough at times later. Squally showers. Good.

Malin Hebrides:
Cyclonic 5 to 7, occasionally gale 8 in Malin at first, becoming north or northeast 5 or 6 later. Rough to high decreasing moderate or rough later. Rain then showers. Moderate or good, occasionally poor at first in Malin.

Bailey Fair Isle Faeroes Southeast Iceland:
North or northeast 5 or 6, occasionally 7 later. Rough occasionally very rough at first. Squally showers. Good.

There is nothing, it’s true, about rising or falling more slowly (think barometers), but I promise there often is.

But honestly, if you were snuggled under several quilts wouldn’t you love to hear the words “Bailey Fair Isle Faeroes Southeast Iceland: North or northeast 5 or 6, occasionally 7 later. Rough occasionally very rough at first. Squally showers. Good.”

Good? Bloody brilliant. Zzzzzzz.

September 14, 2008

Update on dry dock

Filed under: A long way from home,family,misc — Duchess @ 9:42 pm

The ferry’s been out of service for just over a week.  People who live here (like my mother and her partner) are settling into the routine of staying mainly on island, walking or biking everywhere, chatting to their neighbours.  These three weeks of purdah, when the island is cut off from all vehicle access, is the annual divide that separates the busy, touristy summer from the long, rainy winter.  The sun is still shining, but we know its days are numbered.  The nights are drawing in.

I’ll have returned to England before the car ferry’s back in service, but meanwhile, like a good islander, I’m enjoying the forced privation that keeps me mostly off the mainland.  I’ve baked bread (twice) and (twice) walked – that’s hiked to Yanks, who take these things seriously and have poles to prove it – up the island’s mountain, all of 1000 feet high.

Today, the second time on the mountainside, I met a girl I went to school with 35 years ago and 3000 miles away.  There were 85 kids in my high school class; the population of this island is about 900.  Both of us come from east coast families, and when we were in class together neither of us had ever been west. 

It’s a little weird that we should both turn up here, but not quite as weird as a discovery my mother made when she was first living on the island and introduced to another recent arrival.  As they talked it gradually emerged that they have the same great grandparents, making them second cousins.  Neither my mother nor her long lost cousin have any roots in this part of the world – I think the shared great grandparents were from New York – yet both my mother and her cousin retired to the same tiny, relatively unknown, island in Puget Sound (population then about 800).

If there are any mathematicians out there I would be interested in what the odds against such coincidences might be.

September 11, 2008

Every year a hard anniversary

Filed under: A long way from home,misc — Duchess @ 12:15 am

Late in 2001 my school asked me to write an article for the alumni magazine as part of a collection of essays on the terrorist attacks in September that year.  They asked me because I live a long way away, and I guess they thought I might have a different perspective.  I understood that what happened that day would probably prove to be the most significant event of the early twenty first century, but, nevertheless, I wrote personally about how it felt to me.  I’m pasting it in here and hope my readers will forgive the every day tone.  In hindsight I don’t think I would write it very differently, except to say that it is pretty obvious now that our response was wrong (though I should make it clear that the country my daughter said we were about to bomb was Afganistan, not Iraq).

Reflections on 9/11: A view from afar

I watched the events of Sept. 11 from a distance of thousands of miles. I was working at home in my little English village and exchanging occasional e-mails with an American friend.

“Is your radio on?” he wrote. “Two planes have just flown into the World Trade Center.” I switched on BBC radio and listened for a few minutes.

“They are talking about the problems of nappies in landfill sites,” I wrote back. “The planes flew into the WTC?” I thought my friend must be having trouble with his prepositions.

His response made me turn on the tele. That medium, which seems to me less natural to the British character than radio, was showing live pictures, and I watched as the second tower collapsed.

The British know a lot about living with the random violence of terrorism, and, when I thought about it, the orderly airing of an environmental program in the midst of attacks—even while planes bound for unknown destinations were still being reported missing—was just as I would have expected. It is not so much that in Britain terrorism is a daily fear, but it is a part of daily life, and life carries on. I accidentally leave a bag in the library and I return only minutes later to find the bag sequestered and to receive a cold rebuke for raising unnecessary alarms; someone is careless with a suitcase at Heathrow Airport and we all file out into the car park. Luggage lockers are gone from train stations. Litter bins are scarce.

The precautions reflect real threats. Seventeen years ago we woke up to the news that the hotel in which the prime minister and all her government had gathered for a conference had been blown to pieces. Nearly all the ministers survived, but, with dust still rising from the ruins, the IRA issued a chilling statement: “You have to be lucky all the time; we only have to be lucky once.”

So it was now for America, and Britain wept for the loss of innocence as much as for the loss of life. There was not a hint of exultation—now you see what we have suffered—though there might have been; there is widespread belief here that Americans funded the terrorism of the IRA. There was, instead, simply a recognition of the sense of anger and outrage, a sharing of the grief.

The queen ordered that “The Star Spangled Banner” be played at the changing of the guard at Buckingham Palace, and at a special service at St. Paul’s in London she stood and joined in the singing of it herself. The media were amazed. Her Majesty, they said, had never before been seen to sing the national anthem of another country.

In my little village I walked my dogs, and neighbors approached me as they would someone bereaved. A newcomer down the road who had for months merely glowered at me (not a dog lover, I guess) stopped his car and got out. “You are an American, right?” he asked. I said I was. “I just want to say how sorry I am.”

The following day my next door neighbor of nearly two decades also wanted to make a formal declaration.

“I would just like to say to you, as an American, and to the American people, on behalf of, well, on behalf of myself, how sorry I am.”

I accepted his and others’ sympathy gratefully. I have never felt less foreign than I did that week, nor more longed to be home.

I was at the school in the dark, angry days of the Vietnam War, when I would have as soon burned the flag as flown it, and even now I wear my patriotism uneasily. I do not know if what we are doing is right, and I suspect that only the outcome will make it clearer. But what happened on Sept.11 was the talk of playgrounds as well as of cabinet offices, and that is as true here as in the United States.

One morning in mid-September when I coaxed my 9-year-old awake, and she resisted as usual, I spoke, unthinkingly, with mock sternness.

“Catherine,” I said, “little girls have to go to school!”

“Not everywhere, Mummy,” she answered. “In that country America’s going to bomb they’re not even allowed to go.” And she snuggled back under the covers, confident in a point well scored.

So I focus on that and hope for an outcome where all little girls must trundle off to school, where bombs do not lurk in suitcases, nor under bus seats, nor in litter bins, and neither do they fall from the sky.

September 8, 2008

Hunkering down for Dry Dock

Filed under: A long way from home,misc — Duchess @ 9:57 pm

On Saturday at midnight the car ferry made its last journey from the island and headed off for its annual refit.  For the next three weeks there is a walk on, passenger ferry only. 

The Island has one general store, a restaurant and a diner. The mainland is a seven minute ferry ride away; from the mainland there’s a twenty minute drive through the reservation and into town.  All through last week the queues getting off the island were three times usual.  The summer people were packing up and getting out just in time and the year rounders were heading to town to stock up.

The Survivalists came home from Alaska and like everyone else began to shop. Because I have taken on local habits there was already a mountain of food and drink here.  Now, every time I open the refrigerator something falls out.  In three weeks I suppose it will be very bare – rather alarming to think what we will consume.

On the last Friday and Saturday most of the Islanders drove a car onto the ferry, parked it on the other side and took the return journey in the passenger cabin where they rediscovered their neighbours.

Now there is little traffic on the roads – there’s no petrol on the Island so drivers must eek out the supplies for any cars still here.  Suddenly everyone is walking and bicycling.  It feels a little like living in a major infrastructure failure, only everyone knew it was going to happen and everyone knows how long it will last (give or take a few days, depending on ferry repairs). 

Since I got here everyone has spoken of this time to come.  In a way, the whole summer has been leading to this point, the climax that only real islanders get to share: Dry Dock.  Not a single person complains about the inconvenience. 

I’ve got plenty of red wine and I am good at hunkering, so I’m not complaining either. 

Alas, two days before Dry Dock ends I’ll be hauling my suitcase onto the passenger ferry and heading back to England.  Oxford is going to feel like real culture shock.

September 3, 2008

Summer’s not over til the fair is packed away

Filed under: A long way from home,misc — Duchess @ 10:52 pm

Oxford gets an extra week of summer this year.

Brits start shaking their heads and saying sadly, “The nights are drawing in,” as soon as it’s August, and to most people the Bank Holiday on the last Monday in the month brings the summer to an end.  (The holiday isn’t “for” anything, as I explain to Yanks who seemed a bit puzzled by the concept of a Bank Holiday, except to get a day off work – there isn’t another holiday until Christmas.)

But in Oxford summer isn’t really over until the St Giles Fair has been and gone.  It isn’t clear when fair people, travelling the surrounding counties through the season, first began to come together in Oxford for an end of summer celebration but there are references to the Fair, which celebrates St Giles Day, as early as the 17th century.  Year after year the fair people return, with each ride or stall occupying the same spot it has for decades or more.  The carousel of horses, built in 1895, is always the first ride.

St Giles is a wide section of street in central Oxford, lined with plane trees, with the Martyrs’ Memorial at one end and St Giles Church at the other.  On the two days of the Fair traffic is diverted from all approaching streets and the area is taken over by dodgems, waltzers, ghost trains, flying elephants, galloping horses, swing boats, fun houses, baby roundabouts and a tall wooden helter skelter.  There are rows of trailers selling hotdogs, chips, toffee apples and candy floss (cotton candy).  The sound of the parents shouting to children over the noise of kerosene engines is almost deafening and the air is choked with the engines’ smoke.  Metallic balloons bob above the heads of teenagers carrying giant stuffed animals.  By 9 pm it is almost impossible to move except with the flow of the crowd.

The Oxford historian Jan Morris described it thus in 1965 and it is not very different today:

The annual junket called St Giles’ Fair… is an inexorable sort of festivity — in September 1914 they tried to cancel it, but the Home Secretary himself admitted that he was powerless to do so. The whole wide street of St Giles is closed for it. For these two days of the year the University Parks and Christ Church meadows, the two main open spaces of the city, are closed to the public. Traffic is diverted, business is disrupted, the night is gaudy with neon, and all among the plane trees there proliferate the side shows, caravans and pulsing generators of the showmen.

It is the most boisterous of Oxford traditions, the profits of which go partly to the city and partly to the college of St John’s, the local landowner; and it brings together in an atmosphere of unnatural intensity every type and kind of Oxford citizen. The academics go with their burbling children, eating iced lollipops and arguing the toss with indulgent showmen in piping cultured accents. The factory families go, trailing balloons and sweet papers, and hugging flowery vases they have won at shooting galleries. The farmers go, stumping stoically through the hubbub with kind wives in blue hats…The parish clergy go, from a sense of boyish duty, and the weedy louts go, to stand around in bow-legged moronic cliques, licking candy floss, and the shop-girls go, to let their skirts fly on the Big Dipper. Every degree is represented there, from the exquisite patrician to the grubbiest slut in carpet slippers: and flushed from their normal habitats like this, thrown together between the Bingo stalls and the Man-Eating Rat, they always seem to me larger, finer or more awful than life… St Giles’s Fair is like a city with its masks torn off, seen with a flushed clarity, and it makes you wonder how such contrasts can ever be reconciled. It is sure to end, you feel, like all the worst dreams, in a scream, a cold sweat or a blackout.

Oxford, however, is old, and experienced at the game. By Wednesday morning all those stalls and roundabouts have miraculously disappeared, and the scholars, the charge-hands, the oafs and the parsons are restored to their blurred and unalarming selves.

It is certainly true that I always meet someone I know at the Fair.

The St Giles Fair is held the first Monday and Tuesday after the first Sunday in September, so it’s late this year, and summer gets to linger a little longer in Oxford.

Edited to add:  I attempted to simplify the rules for when the St Giles Fair is held and a reader has reminded me that in Oxford nothing is simple.  So I should state that my rule doesn’t quite work.  By statute the Fair cannot be held on the following Monday and Tuesday if St Giles Day (the 1st of September) is on a Sunday.  In that case it is held the second Monday and Tuesday.

Got that?

August 24, 2008

Ping pong’s coming home

Filed under: A long way from home,misc — Duchess @ 2:40 pm

Most Brits have probably already seen this by now, but Americans may enjoy hearing the Mayor of London look forward to 2012 while incidentally revealing the origins of ping pong and other Olympic trivia.  Keep watching past the introductory niceties.

My Ex, who sent me the link, said I was going to have to explain Boris Johnson to the Yanks, so I’ll try.

As you can tell by his accent, Boris is a toff, with aristocratic forbears on both sides of the family.  Educated at Eton and Oxford, he is a journalist and Tory politician and recently resigned his seat in Parliament to run for London’s Mayor, beating the Labour incumbent in May of this year.  He’s also something of a television celebrity after guest appearances on popular comedy shows.

He’s probably the only politician in Britain who is usually referred to solely by his first name (during the Mayoral election the Labour Party was said to have issued fines for any party member referring to him that way, because it might make him seem too popular). 

He has made something of a career of issuing apologies, to people as far away as Papua New Guinea. Here was his insult to them:

For 10 years we in the Tory Party have become used to Papua New Guinea-style orgies of cannibalism and chief-killing, and so it is with a happy amazement that we watch as the madness engulfs the Labour Party.

And this was his apology, following a formal complaint to the Foreign and Commonwealth Office:

I meant no insult to the people of Papua New Guinea who I’m sure lead lives of blameless bourgeois domesticity in common with the rest of us.

Though I would maintain that class war still wages in Britain today, I wasn’t surprised that Boris squeaked through in May’s election, despite the capital’s Labour voting tradition. In the UK, though we don’t on the whole care for toffs, we like our politicians clever, which he undoubtedly is, and we especially like them if they are funny as well.

Finally, Yanks probably won’t know that Boris’s statement “Ping pong’s coming home” is a reference to the official anthem for the 1996 European Championships, held that year in England, whose chorus is “Football’s coming home”. We take our football (the soccer variety) pretty seriously, even though we lose, but it is also characteristic that the words to the anthem were written by comedians.  We know how to laugh at ourselves while we lose gloriously (it’s the irony gene).  Every Brit, even ersatz ones like me, can sing along with this song. If you are a real glutton for British punishment, the link is below. 

Meanwhile, I’m looking forward to more Boris on the subject of how you reconcile playing Wiff Waff with passing the Port to the left.  It seems to me that if we introduce this extra element to the competition, we might have a real chance at a medal.

Phew. That was a lot of explaning.  How did I do?

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