Wednesday, 10 October 2007

Bonkers on conkers

His face is flushed, sweaty. He heaves a massive plank into an enormous tree. Repeatedly. In the rain. The ground is littered with leaves, branches. He’s insistent, consistent, determined. “Have you lost your ball?” we ask young Jack whom we greet often on our daily walks. “No,” he shouts high-pitched and out of breath, “I’m knocking down conkers.”

What? Totally uninformed, we ignore his childish endeavor and trundle on.

One year later, in September, the crazed quest repeats itself. Grandmothers wielding sticks scale barbed wire fences while children collect in plastic bags. Young boys hang from trees, parents drive from village to village, all in pursuit of the same prized object. Bags of it.

A conker, we learn, is the fruit of the horse chestnut tree — a hard, shiny brown nut inside a prickly case. If left to ripen, the outer shell cracks and falls from the tree. But England waits not for nature to take its course. The game of conkers heralds the new school year, and collecting the crop occupies children and grown-ups alike. Finding a pristine tree is paramount. Trespassing is forgiven.

With many schools banning conkers for fear of unruly behavior, this quaint seasonal game may soon face extinction by sophisticated predators — Nintendo, PlayStation and Xbox. Still, for this year, let the games begin. To prepare, each nut is carefully drilled, a 10-inch cord strung through the hole and knotted at the base. Played in teams of two, the goal is to smash the opponent’s conker to smithereens and send it flying off its string. (All done in an orderly English fashion, of course.)

For the best chance of winning, a conker must be as hard as possible. Conkers dried a full year guarantee conquest against new nuts. However most collectors seek instant gratification, so various methods of hasty hardening are undertaken. Soak or boil them in vinegar, bake them briefly in the oven. If a microwave is used, watch them explode before your eyes. (Do not try this at home.) It should be noted that artificial hardening is considered cheating.

Over 6 years of observing search-and-collect missions, we had never seen a game. On Sunday October 7, to expand our horizons and broaden our English experience, we set off to the 2007 Conker Championships at the nearby Shildon Elm Road Workingmen’s Club. We arrived late, expected queues, but managed a spot in the car park. Inside we found hundreds of conkers strung ready for carnage. Colin, the coordinator, scurried about preparing to team opponents for battle. Children’s teams; men’s teams; women’s teams. The press was there — a reporter and a photographer. There were ribbons for first, second, third place; for biggest conker in the show, for most nuts cracked in the game. As for contestants, Kieren and his uncle Chris. That’s all.

The first recorded game of Conkers using horse chestnuts took place in 1848. Before then, snail shells or hazelnuts were used to play the game. World conker championships take place the second Sunday of October in Northamptonshire, England.

Monday, 10 September 2007

Inside the allotment fence: An outsider’s peek

For intro to the allotments, click here to see May 28 entry

Tommy “Tucker”* Ramshaw, Tudhoe Village Allotments

His mother died when he was 5. His father was the night soil man.** “We were poor,” he says, “We were so poor. You’ve no idea.” At 13, he got a job milking cows before dawn, before school. A year later he picked up night shift grooming horses and polishing harness of the horse-drawn hearse. Finally he ended up where most men in the Northeast did, the coal mines. He was 15. Today, at 83, Tommy Ramshaw has worked the fields and pastured horses more than a lifetime.

To get to Tommy’s place we enter the allotments by the gate near Harry’s chickens, pigeons and screaming geese. Harry assures me the geese are harmless. They raise their necks and shriek a terrible racket, chasing, waddling furiously, then suddenly abandon their target.

Beyond this excessive reception, the dirt path weaves along peaceful vegetable patches, chicken coops, and Tom Spence’s show-class flower garden. He’ll show his award-winning chrysanthemums tonight. “They must be perfectly round,” he says. The flawless have been wrapped in waxed bags, preserved pristine to vie for top prize.

To keep cauliflower immaculate, Tom hides each in its own leaves tied with string. Soon he’ll harvest and enter them into contests with the leeks. “How big are the leeks where you come from?” he asks. Though I appreciate a milky-white cauliflower, I’ve never given the leek critical analysis. He exposes a leek the size of a barracuda the likes of which has never seen a supermarket shelf.

Progressing on, a peculiar theme emerges — the old-fashioned bathtub. Modern showers have expelled it from small locked room to wide open air. Here it finds new purpose — a cradle for growing herbs, a giant bucket for tools, the preferred vessel for watering horses.

Each fenced patch contains curious clutter. A reflection of the owner’s personality coexists with the produce of the season. From run-down broken sheds to perfectly-tended greenhouses. These are the props of the allotments. Plants live and die here. There are no secrets.

I stay on the wandering path all the way to the back. Tommy’s place is three minutes from our house. It’s taken longer to get there. I’m an outsider here, it is not my land. But the spell captivates, transforms. Like a snake, charmed, drawn from an ordinary basket case, one with nature.

Of the 40 allotment plots, Tommy tends four, where he plants vegetables and raises an undisclosed number of chickens. “Can’t tell you how many,” he says. “Sometimes, before the Chinese come to take the old hens, I may have more [than the allotted number].” He sells the elderly to the Oriental restaurant in town.

In the adjoining fields he breeds and pastures horses and a goat named Nancy. Harry is a darling horse. Due to illness he is temporarily quarantined in a stable. Laminitis can be fatal but he’s pulling through. Good for Harry. Good boy.


Quickstep is a Dales Mountain and Moorland stallion. He’s stuck in the stall next to Harry. You don’t have to have disease to be locked up. Stallions bear the same fate on Tommy’s farm. They are isolated until a suitable mare becomes available. (Some humans may benefit from this providence.) Quickstep’s nostrils luge out of the small opening. I’m sure I’ve seen fire. At least smoke. Tommy can ask up to £300 ($600) for Quickstep’s stud fee. He charges £80.

Tommy’s collection of brown chickens and the lovely black-and-white Light Sussex are territorial. Except for the one brown hen hatched with the black-and-whites, they are segregated by color. The brown ones lay brown eggs and the white ones, white. Phil’s blue Araucana chickens a few plots down lay blue eggs. Black hens, to my surprise, lay white eggs. Tommy counts 270 eggs a week. He sells some and shares the rest with the widows in the village. They get a dozen eggs every fortnight and Tommy receives cakes and pies in return. A mutually-favorable arrangement. He has diabetes but hasn’t turned down a cake, yet.

“You need a good freeze before you pull the turnips,” he says as I stand in a corner of turned earth where he’s planting brussel sprouts, “that’ll make ’em sweet and juicy. The beets aren’t any good now, they’re coming up cracked. Too much rain. Everything drowned this year.”

“Here.” Rising from the earth, he hands me 6 eggs. “I found them in the cabbages. Those bloody hens.” He digs up three red potatoes. The balance of power shifts in my hands. He points to a healthy batch of giant green squash in a rusty wheelbarrow. “Do you use these?” he asks. My eyes sparkle at the fresh, organic produce. “I found them growing on a pile of manure.”

. . .

*Tommy’s nickname “Tucker” comes from the 1829 nursery rhyme, Little Tommy Tucker, which became a colloquial term to describe orphans.

**A night soil man’s duty was to collect the contents of chamber pots and earth closets (outhouses) in a horse-drawn midden cart. When the cart was full, the load was taken to an abandoned coal mine and dumped. There were four full-time night soil men in town and Tommy’s father was one of them. Jack Ramshaw’s midden cart can be seen at the Beamish Museum, County Durham.

Thursday, 23 August 2007

The French Connection

Merci, Google! C’est génial! Vous méritez ma gratitude la plus profonde.

What are the chances of finding a long-lost relative in Paris after my father journeyed there, followed a number of leads, and returned home disappointed?

For as long as I can remember, Father spoke fondly of his first cousin, Madeleine. He had met her only once, in Paris, 1962. She was a teenager then. Her parents later reported she had a career in the movie business. Father longed to see her again, but on every Paris visit, Madeleine was unavailable.

In Cyprus, my parents named their third child after Madeleine. And twenty years later in France, cousin Madeleine passed away under mysterious circumstances. She was 39. By the time we learned this, Madeleine’s parents had also died. All hope of reconnection was now lost.

Guillot, at 22
1943 - 1982

In 1997, my father journeyed to Paris on a fact-finding mission. He wanted to know what happened to Madeleine. His first stop was the Armenian Church headquarters where he located the official record of Madeleine’s death. And there he discovered for the first time, that Madeleine had a daughter. No further details.

So Father sought other Elmadjians (our shared surname) in Paris. Someone should know the family... Every phone call yielded the same reply. Unknown. He returned to Cyprus profoundly disappointed.

Time passed. Life happened. In Cyprus. In England. In France, we knew there lived a young girl without her mother.

Enter the worldwide web, the fountain of fact and fiction. Knowing my father had given up hope of ever finding Madeleine’s child, I determined to test the source of all things known. I Googled “Elmadjian” and found links to a Stéphane Elmadjian, a film producer.

It was unlikely that Stéphane was related, as Madeleine had only one child, a girl. Plus, the surname of any child would not bear the mother’s maiden name, but the father’s.

After hours of chasing after French links, Google produced an email. I wrote. He replied. And over the past week, the mysteries unfold...

Stéphane Elmadjian is Madeleine’s only son, not daughter!
At 41, he is an award-winning film producer and editor. He uses his mother’s surname for all his work artistique, in honor of her memory. The lost has been Googled. And found. For real.

Tuesday, 7 August 2007

These are a few of my favorite things

I was 9 when The Sound of Music was released worldwide. On our small island of Cyprus, in my Armenian Elementary microcosm, it became the talk of the playground. Every spare moment was filled with its tunes.

“The first three notes just happen to be...”

Though I’d learned dó-ré-mí on the piano, my understanding of the English language was rudimentary. I didn’t know a female deer was called a doe. The fact that there are no deer in Cyprus furthered my befuddlement. The only deer I knew existed in the first line of a letter: Dear so-and-so. So, I concluded, this was “a female dear,” or, a “girlfriend.” Ré was pronounced ré, not ray, everyone knew that. “Mí, a name I call myself,” my friends said was an abbreviation for María. To our young literalist minds, the associations in the song made little sense, so we reinterpreted their mysteries and explained them to each other.

The forbidden theatre

My friends saw the movie over and over. And every recess, munching bologna sandwiches on sesame buns (cheoregs), they acted out the parts and sang in broken English. Several of the songs also held high positions at the top of the charts on radio. I, too, fell in love with the music and longed to see the film. Yet, in this pre-video, limited-TV era, I had never been to a movie theatre. And though my parents were reasonable people, it was unlikely we would go. We didn’t do movies. It was wrong to enter a theatre.*

One day, to our surprise, teacher announced the school had organized a field trip to a matinee of The Sound of Music. A roar of excitement surged through the class.

At home I asked my parents, expecting a "No" the answer. Father explained, “As you know, we don’t go to the movies. But we have heard it is a good film. Since it is school-sponsored... We’ll leave the decision up to you, and we won’t be angry if you choose to go.”

This was unexpected. The unprecedented freedom to exercise freewill weighed heavily on my 9-year-old shoulders. To go or not to go resulted in incredible anguish.

I went. And as soon as I took a seat, my upbringing began to haunt me. I broke into sweat. Maybe I shouldn’t have come; maybe this was wrong...

The lights dimmed. The movie rolled. In agony, I plunged into a self-imposed “battle between good and evil” that had been spoken of often in church. So I watched the entire film with squinted eyes. In my juvenile mind, this was a form of non-committal... I wasn’t fully there if I watched dimly through quivering eyelids.

FF >>> 40 years (or so) later

Parents Moses and Alice with sister Sylvia in London

Last week, Sylvia and I treated our parents to the London stage production of The Sound of Music. “We’ve planned a surprise for you,” I announced, hoping to provoke moderate levels of cheerful anticipation. Mum immediately declared she would not cooperate, remembering a surprise-gone-wrong birthday party where she appeared in house clothes and endured inconceivable embarrassment. Thus she pronounced, “Don’t surprise me, I don’t like it.” Bub (Father), ever-anxious to extract a clue, imagined a tangible gift. “What color iz-eeet?”

Mum interrupted Father's 20 questions in an uncharacteristically dismal tone. Head bowed, eyes focused on frenzied knitting of yellow baby cardigan, she uttered monotonously, “I don’t like green, brown or tan.”

The duelling banter continued, half-excited, half-unsettled. I went to the toilet where great ideas are born and returned with a plan — let’s develop the clue without giving it away.

“It is exactly those colors,” I exclaimed reentering the conversation, “It’s green brown and tan!” Mum’s anxiety escalated. My toilet-bourne brainstorm was thrown out the window. We abandoned the surprise element and presented Plan B: our prepared duet. “The--- hills are alive, with the sound of muuusic (a-a-a-ah)...”

No tickets available

Securing last-minute tickets to a sold-out show was no small feat. Our only chance was the possible release of a few seats ON the day from those slated for the Producer. Miraculously, on the morning of the show, we had 8th-row center tickets. People sitting near us had bought theirs in January.

The London Palladium

Within walking distance of Oxford Circus underground, the London Palladium is an exquisite venue. In the 1800s the site was a bazaar, then became a circus, and later an ice skating rink. At the turn of the century it was redesigned by the renowned Theatre architect Frank Matcham and opened in 1910 with the then massive capacity of 3,435. By the mid-1900s the Palladium was presenting high-priced big-name acts such as Judy Garland, Bing Crosby, Sammy Davis, Jr, Johnnie Ray, Frank Sinatra and the Beatles. After extensive remodeling, the Palladium now seats 2,300, maintaining a surprisingly intimate ambience. The Sound of Music opened here in November 2006.

We were apprehensive about a stage interpretation of an award-winning movie, but within moments it was clear the production would not disappoint. The set was fantastic and the choreography, acting and singing brilliant. A curious detail we had never seen before were individual, tiny, nearly-invisible mics taped to the actors’ foreheads. The only letdown, we all agreed, was Baron von Trapp (Georg, pronounced “Géyor”); in short, he was no Christopher Plummer. Still, the hills were alive, literally. The show opened with a “real” suspended hill, and ended with enormous Nazi flags that parachuted from the ceiling and turned our entire theatre into the audience for the von Trapp Family Singers.

To put behind us Mum’s unforgettable birthday catastrophe schemed by well-intentioned friends, and, for all our remaining life disasters sure to bulldoze any time and without warning: “I simply remember my favorite things, and then I don’t feeel soo baaad.”

(Pathetic ending, I know. Couldn’t resist.)

Interesting trivia from
During the Cold War, in the event of a nuclear strike on the United Kingdom, the BBC planned to broadcast The Sound of Music on radio as part of an emergency timetable of programmes designed to “reassure” the public in the aftermath of the attack. A television broadcast would not be possible as televisions would be rendered inoperable by the electromagnetic pulse effect.

*I grew up in a conservative Christian home where movie theatres were considered “worldly” and inappropriate. When “The Greatest Story Every Told” came to Cyprus in 1966, we managed to convince my ultra-conservative grandmother to take us to a matinee showing. She was extremely nervous about entering the theatre but left there speechless.

Saturday, 21 July 2007

The people next-door

Our neighbors of four years moved out last week. “How very DARE you!”* We feel left-behind. Not because Florent and Michael progressed to a brand-new 3-story house facing the woods, but because they don’t live next-door anymore. We miss the clacking sounds from their posh kitchen, the coffee grinder late Sunday mornings, regular karaoke nights which crescendoed into the wee hours of the morning — a comical lullaby one wall away from the old show tunes. “New York! New Yo-o-o-o-ork!” Exuberance was the key. As the evening progressed, intoxicated notes and increased decibels rarely matched the actual melody. No worries.

Neighborliness comes with special requirements. Sounds and sights in every bedraggled state are expected and, one hopes, tolerated. This, perhaps, is what Flor and Michael had enough of. Too much bed-head on our back patio plucking dead pansies out of blooming pots. Not a welcome view from their back-yard botanical arboretum.

The end of the Flor-and-Michael era planted a new marker on the memorial path of neighbors past.

Neighbor training

My first neighbors were my sisters. We lived not next-door to each other, but next to each other. Madeleine and Sylvia shared a huge platform bed, while I, the eldest, was entitled to a single trundle in the same bedroom. Not an optimal arrangement and perhaps why we all have great respect now for our own personal space.

Newbold College, Berkshire, England. On the second floor of the Victorian manor house Moor Close, six females shared the largest, draftiest room in the women’s dorm. Huge bay windows faced the quaint and beautiful Sylvia’s Garden, while inside two Iraqis, an American, a Finn, a Dane and myself — an Armenian Cypriot — shivered in rudimentary accommodation. With limited wardrobe space, we tucked suitcases under our beds to store the few clothes we owned, in my case insufficient winter apparel. Recently dislocated from my sunny island, completely disoriented, I catapulted into real cold; this was the year of numb feet. Mette, my next-bed neighbor, was a Dane with a 10-word English vocabulary. She worked the 4 a.m. shift on the Newbold farm (language skills not required), and set an alarm sure to wake up the cows and stand them in line before Mette arrived to milk. Those crazy Danes with loud, terrorist, blaring-old alarm clocks...

Columbia Union College, Maryland, USA.
Here I progressed to the one-roommate room, an improvement over every year since childhood. I shared a bunk bed with Southern gals, Sharon first, and the next year, Jeanette.

Graduation. Marriage. Suddenly my space issues were modified to include someone not only in the same room but the same bed. Fortunately I could ease into this while Ben worked night-shift for some months, offering me the luxury of one BIG bed, all mine. (No doubt this contributed to my need to capture all available bed space even to this day.)

My calculations show that I’ve endured privacy deficiency since my sister was born just before my fourth birthday.

Next-door neighbors

East Spruce Street, Winter Park, Florida, USA

In the duplex adjoining our first married residence lived a gruff old lady with an elderly bulldog. The dog howled all day while she engaged in long conversations with it, culminating into heated arguments while her pet moaned undogly sounds in contorted, wrinkled misery. In contrast, the house to our left contained the quiet Herman and Mary, New York snowbirds** who bore concentration camp numbers tattooed in Nazi Germany. Herman made delicious (if we used our imagination) chocolate chip cookies infused with Mary’s cigarette smoke.

Summertree Court, Longwood, Florida, USA

First house we owned, and, for various reasons, not one we wish to remember fondly. Greeks on our right, lesbians on our left — our neighbors were fine and had nothing to do with our distaste for this address.

Willow Springs Court, Apopka, Florida, USA

As houses go, our favorite residence of all time. Retired snowbirds** Carl and Betty on our right. Covert cryptic photographer on our left. Behavior noted over 4-year period: drives into garage and shuts automatic door from inside vehicle to avoid all contact with neighborhood. Years later we learned the police arrived by night and took him away. No one’s seen him since.

Thackery Court, Plant City, Florida, USA
Italian New Yorkers Mike and Kathy, and their beloved yellow lab, Rambler. Deliverers of exquisite pastries driven from their New York Italian bakery all the way to Florida. Years later, during a visit to Rome, we searched for the same with great anticipation. We discovered that the New York Italian recipes were a masterful improvement on the Old Country’s. (I also expected exceptional pizza and pasta in Italy, both of which were consistently disappointing.)

Crossways, St. Marks Road, Berkshire, UK
An old Victorian house segmented into five tiny flats, Crossways was “exclusively” reserved for married couples attending Newbold College (where Ben completed his MA in Biblical Studies, New Testament). While we lived there, the building housed Swiss, Croatians, Jamaicans, Ukranians, and us — American-Armenian-Cypriots. We found the following reality shocking in 2001 A.D: One of the five flats contained no toilet. Anne Laure, and later Ivo and Angelica, had to exit their front door, climb up the “common” stairs, and use the loo and shower in the landing. Don’t ask. Suffice it to say that we were offered, but kindly declined the opportunity to live there.

Which brings us full circle to County Durham, UK

Photo taken late April when the (gorgeous but evil) rape fields were in full bloom dispensing pollen like there’s no tomorrow. We live in the brick homes beyond the allotments.

...Neighborless and alone. Well, that’s not quite accurate. Directly behind us is an amusement park situation entirely unamusing to us: the loud family. Two children under 6 are encouraged to scream while playing on their swing set, by example of boisterous, high-pitched grandparents. Very unEnglish. On our left lives a constable (policewoman) and across the street a female police commander. Three houses down there’s a teenage autistic boy who jumps on his trampoline for hours, letting out a deep unrestrained bellow with every bounce. A few houses away, a yelping dog is home alone crying for someone, anyone. Finally, across the way and to the right is Wayne with the loud car. He’s moved in with his girlfriend. The girlfriend, 16, lives with her mum and stepfather. Wayne, 22, says his parents don’t want him. He has no job, he drinks and has a mean temper.

Space available for next neighbors. (No howling pets, noisy cars or screaming kids. Please.)

* Derrick on the Catherine Tate Show
**Snowbirds: Retirees who spend summers in their home States (usually Northern), and migrate to winter in Florida.

Friday, 6 July 2007

The bonnie lass, Benny, and a birthday wish

Her name was Catherine. Her mother died when she was a baby. She had a brother, a father, but neither were eager to mind an infant. So newlyweds Benny and Annie Brown, the baby’s aunt and uncle, started a family, unplanned. “She was a bonnie lass,” says Benny, “She lived with us, and spent weekends with her father.”
. . .
Catherine loved to dance. After months of saving and a trip to Durham Market, Benny surprised his fair-haired angel with a pair of red leather dancing shoes. “She was over the moon,” says Benny, remembering his budding ballerina. “She skipped and twirled every chance she could.”

It was 1952; Catherine was 8. Her brother got off the bus first, and Catherine followed, golden curls dancing in the sun. She stepped off gently, hands cupped, sheltering a ladybird* to show her aunt Nann (Annie). It crawled from one hand to the other and up her arm...

Carefully guarding her precious cargo, Catherine skipped in front of the bus and into the street. The car in the next lane didn't have time to stop.

“Everybody said she was too bonnie to live,” says Benny.

Catherine died when Benny was 30. Last Friday Benny turned 85. His beloved Catherine would have been 63.

He still can’t bear to say her name. He refers to her as “the bairn.”

The birthday, the x-ray, and the hearing aid

The week of Benny’s birthday, his hearing aid broke. And Ben (the younger) needed his head examined (are we surprised?) — an x-ray to investigate a sinus infection that hasn’t cleared for two years. So on the morning of Benny’s birthday, with Ben’s x-ray order in hand, we piled Benny, his hearing aid, and his wheelchair into the car and drove to the hospital (still with me?) where we’d accomplish all of the above. Our reward was waiting in Barney (Barnard Castle): Lunch at Maggie’s Plaice, Benny’s favorite fish & chip shop about 20 miles South.

Benny waited his turn in Audiology while Ben went to x-ray. In less than 10 minutes, Ben returned. He’d been dismissed with no diagnostic imaging. “We no longer x-ray sinuses; your doctor should have known that.” The x-ray order was confiscated to reprimand his physician.

Benny was called into the audiologist who mended his hearing aid, fitted it to his ear and said, “How’s that?” “You can stop shouting now,” Benny said looking up from his wheelchair with a sly grin.

With our morning tasks finished in a flash, we got to Barney early. We ate in the car out of yellowed newsprint that wrapped our fish and chips with salt and vinegar. Benny and I think it tastes better from the paper; Ben prefers a square polystyrene** container and brings his own version of ketchup, the excellent English “HP Fruity Sauce.”

As I collected our leftovers to scatter for the birds, I saw some fish crumbs on Benny’s shirt. “You lost some fish, Benny,” I said. “That’s because I have a small mouth, you see,” he smirked. Benny was happy. We noticed he was able to swing his own legs in and out of the car, something he had been unable to do without assistance. He announced he had already received seven birthday cards. “I usually get ten,” he said, “but this year I won’t get one from Vera; so maybe nine.” Vera loved Maggie’s Plaice where we had a moment of silence in her memory (see May 7 entry for more about Benny and Vera).

(caption) Weirdo. No, the sheep hasn’t been to the groomer, nor does he think he’s a poodle... If they don’t get sheared by early summer, they rub their fur off on fences. This oddity had done just that with extra-good success. (Others looked too scary to show.)

We drove over the moors toward home, stopped to take pictures of sheep and rabbits on rolling hills of heather, in sunshine, clouds, and even a little sprinkle.

Back at Benny’s we read all his cards and brought out the birthday cake. Since 85 candles would have required more than one cake and resulted in a small but adequate fire, for our party of three we opted for a single cake and a single flame. “Remember to make a wish,” I instructed. We sang. He paused.

He blew out his candle. “Did you make a wish?” I asked.

“No,” he said. “I’m content. I’m content.”

Here’s to contentment.

*Ladybird = Ladybug
**Polystyrene = Styrofoam

Monday, 25 June 2007

Strawberries, ice cream and a fire

Fresh strawberries and ice cream. Heat on high. We happily ate our rare treat and remembered Florida, where we turned on the air conditioner to use the fireplace. Ridiculous, I know.

We still wonder why they build fireplaces in Florida. For years we mocked the whole idea. One day we decided to try it for a laugh, turned on the air, struck the match and lit the log. Gadoo, our elderly cat, sprawled inches from the flames, soaked up the heat and nearly singed her soft belly fur. We cuddled (farther back) in a comfy chair and fell asleep to Carlos Nakai playing Native American flute.

Surprisingly we don’t have a fireplace in cold, Northern UK. It’s June, and we still wear coats and gloves to go out. As I type, the wind is howling a chilly rain across our windows and the heat is on.

Once again we choose to deceive ourselves. Reminiscent of those glorious nights in front of our Florida fireplace, today we indulge—strawberries and ice cream with the heat on high.

I shan’t discuss what our punnet, in season, cost, which yielded a serving each, compared to an entire flat of strawberries bought fresh from the pickers by the roadside in Plant City, Florida. It is not a fair comparison. I won't go there.
(As Lauren on Catherine Tate famously says, “I’m above it. I’m not bovvered.”)

For those keenly interested in British strawberries, these came from Newby Farm in the Yorkshire Dales.

Tuesday, 19 June 2007

As in the days of Noah

After a very dry Spring, the past ten days of Summer have seen nonstop rain. During that thirsty season, just before the rains came down and the floods came up, we bought a bird bath to entice more fowl into the back yard where both our office windows face. But none seem interested in a clean bath when muddy puddles abound.

A week goes by. Not a single bird. Finally, an English sparrow shows up, stands on the edge and stares, like, “What are you people thinking? I could have told you no one would come.”

But today, with only a drizzle in the air, a giant pigeon lands and nearly topples the structure over (we were expecting smaller birds, finches and such). Like the sparrow, the pigeon sits for a span, stares into the house, and says, “This is a nice perch, and after I get through you’ll have to rinse it all out for the others.”

The fake bird on the edge is apparently intended to provide the power of suggestion to the feathered community that this bath is theirs, that this yard is indeed a bird sanctuary. So far, no good. And today we noticed it’s beginning to rust. I wonder if Noah had rust issues. His troughs had to endure 40 days and 40 nights of rain. Ours has only been out two weeks.

Monday, 28 May 2007


They exist in many English towns, allotments—small plots of land separated by fences, set aside for local people to grow plants. Usually located on council property with an accessible water supply, they rent for £20-£25 ($40-$50) a year.

Allotments are primarily used for growing vegetables, but some choose to raise ducks and chickens, and several plots can be combined into horse pastures. Though some allotments are immaculate, the majority seem to have a personality all their own, with rickety sheds and barely-standing greenhouses.

The photo above, from nearby Meadowfield, shows the best relation of an allotment to a town, and the range of allotment uses.
. . .
30 MAY 2007
A friend suggests one of these would make a strategic private office for Ben. Brilliant! Out in nature... Healthy snacks all around... Free pony rides... Oh, here. I’ve found just the spot.

Comes with free courier service.


Photo: Harry's pigeons, Tudhoe Village Allotments

Monday, 7 May 2007

Benny and Vera

His house is around the corner from the allotments,* not far from the hungry chickens, near the start of our daily walk. He sits opposite his living room window keeping one eye on the street and one on the telly. Eighty-four-year-old Benny is housebound by a stroke that stole his mobility but not his spirit.

It’s quiet on his street, interrupted only by the occasional clucking of the horse-drawn carriage that comes and goes out of the last century. Or the tapping on the black-and-gray car in perpetual repair two drives down. Or children returning home from school. In the summer he can hear the young ones play in their inflatable pool, teenagers on Heelys** and mobile phones, the football games on the green nearby. Comforting, neighborly sounds. But once daily, year-round, an audible assault violates our peace from the far end of town, slowly, deliberately invades our neighborhoods in pseudo-cheer. His name is Mr. Whippy. The ice cream van. Themes from old cartoons and WWII jingles blare out-of-tune in full volume on infinite repeat. Songs that annoyingly linger long after the van and its performance disappear. Today, it’s raining. The ice cream van comes driving exuberantly into our street playing Raindrops Keep Falling on my Head. This is not amusing.

Benny sits inside watching the world go by without complaint. “Cowboy films,” he says, “I like them.” And he never misses a thing that goes on outside the square confines of his living room window. Every day we wave as we walk by, and with a big grin he waves eagerly back.

Vera is Benny’s best friend. Benny can barely walk, but drives an immaculate Fiat Punto and visits Vera’s on the days she makes broth. Benny loves broth. Vera lives in the next village. She’s tiny, raspy, animated, and does all the talking when they’re together.

One day when Vera was visiting Benny, I popped in to say hello. “She’s got cancer!” Benny blurted without greeting. “In my woooomb,” she echoed. Vera’s pre-op tests were scheduled at the end of December, on her 70th birthday. By the new year her womb was gone.

Benny’s bungalow is tucked in a row of small, tidy council homes (subsidized public housing). The door is left unlocked till evening since he can’t move fast to answer it. The day after Vera’s first chemo I tapped and let myself in. “She’s canny!***” He said, relieved. “She wanted to go for fish-and-chips right after treatment, so I took her to her favorite chippy on the seaside.”

That was Vera’s last real meal. Two days later she was in excruciating pain. And every treatment did her in a little bit more. “She’s drugged and she sleeps all the time. I just go and sit with her,” he said.

Today, as Benny reports on Vera’s welfare, a Western is playing on TV, mute. He sits on in his cream-colored sofa clutching the remote, and waves it around to emphasize his points. His arms make up for the legs he can barely move. He loves to tell tales of old times when he worked in the local mines. How at 19 an entire load of coal tipped over him and he was left for dead. What the neighborhood looked like back then. How the very first time he cast eyes on his (future wife) Nan, she was painting stockings on her legs.**** How Nan had sworn she’d never marry a “pit boy.” And how, after many happy years together, her life abruptly ended when she got gangrene due to a physician's medical negligence.

On the mantel to Benny's left stands an old-fashioned bone-china boot painted with delicate flowers, an ornament left by Nan, the picture of health, who passed away from that sudden illness and left Benny alone the past ten years. Next to the china boot a copper bell sits in symbolic silence. In the center, a miniature pendulum clock trapped in a glass case ticks Greenwich Meantime, but the pendulum’s immobile. I look at Benny stuck in his chair, alone, staring out the window, suspended in time, waving his arms as he talks but never complains. He says Vera hasn’t eaten in weeks. His voice is alarmed, desperate.

By the end of April Vera is back in surgery having more cancer removed from her body. Two days later she is scheduled for chemo to treat the first cancer. But she’s too fragile to go through it. Benny and Steven, Vera’s son, bring her back to her house and tuck her in. She’s on morphine now, and in constant pain. “She’s poorly,*****” Benny says shaking his head softly. He phones twice a day to check on her. She’s too weak to talk. Within three days she is gone.

Benny orders the biggest heart of blooms to go on Vera’s tiny casket.

“I’ll miss her,” he said. “I’ll miss her so much.”

*Allotments are small plots of land people rent to grow vegetables, turn them into chicken coops, or combine several into horse pastures. All these scenarios exist in the allotments between our development and Benny’s house.
**Heelys are shoes with wheels inside the sole. You can roll, walk or run on Heelys.
***Canny means nice. It can describe the way someone feels, a person’s looks, the way a car runs... even the weather can be canny.
****In 1943, during the war, silk stockings were in short supply. It was considered rude for women to go around bare legged but the government had forbidden employers to make women wear stockings. So many girls painted their legs with makeup and drew a line down the back to look like a seam.
*****Poorly, in short, means unwell. However the word is never used in conjunction with the state of being, such as, “I’m feeling poorly,” but simply, “I’m poorly” (pronounced “poolie”).

Monday, 16 April 2007

Easter Sunrise Vigil at Durham Cathedral

Sunday, April 8, 2007, 5 a.m.

President and Preacher, N.T. Wright, the Bishop of Durham

. . . . .
Since we are members of a congregation of nine, we are fortunate to experience this annual celebration of corporate worship

“I’ve set the alarm for 2:45.”

Ben’s last words hang in the dark as he falls asleep before I can protest. This has become our annual tradition, the only day I’ll rise before the crack of dawn. Ben needed to allow me and visiting sister Sylvia plenty of time to wake, shower, consume a caffeinated beverage, and get out the door early enough for good seats. Last year we complained that the (only) security light was shining directly into our eyes through the first service which begins in the dark and ends at dawn. We had also learned that though one can arrive bedraggled for the pre-dawn vigil where one can’t be seen, this leads directly into the Easter morning service where new arrivals come in Easter bonnets and an array of gay apparel. The first year we were caught shamefully unawares. We came to the vigil donning our warmest fleeces, scarves and walking boots (I know)... I had slept to the last minute and had no time for shower or makeup (I KNOW!!) All was well while shrouded in cozy darkness, until we were flung into bright morning light amid hundreds of parishioners dressed their finest. We were humiliated and disgraced (but warm).

This year, early rising permitted time to bathe and arrive most appropriately clad. At 4:35, we were first at the Cathedral door. In fact so early that the main entrance was still securely gated and locked. The famous knocker which afforded criminals sanctuary for centuries, was bolted down. We thumped on the heavy wooden door; our cold knuckles barely made a sound and roused no one.

It was chilly but not windy, our best Easter morning ever. While we realized photo opportunities in the dark, small groups of pilgrims dragged themselves up the hill and queued silently behind us. At 4:45 the cross-bearer, nervous he would miss his cue down the aisle, made some calls on his mobile phone. Within moments an embarrassed verger appeared, unlocked the door with no apology, and quickly faded into the dark. Apparently the priests and choir had let themselves in through the back and forgot to open the main entrance.

One Hour Before Dawn: The Chapter House

The Easter vigil begins in the Chapter House, a large, beautiful, 12th century apsidal room not usually open to the public, used only by priests and the choir. We walk through the Cathedral in the dark surrounded by dim skeletons of pews and pillars. Our collective footsteps echo up the nave, out the South door and into this magnificent space. That offending single (security) bulb is on; we find seats away from its glare.

The priests and the Bishop silently process to the front. The deacon begins with a reading of Creation. When “there was light,” two tall candles are lit in the front. Readings from the Old and the New Testaments follow, with a prayer, a unison Amen, and a long, wonderful span of silence. This triptych repeats itself till 6 a.m, when the first glimmer of pre-dawn light shines through the clearstory stained glass windows.

Dawn: Out to the Cloisters, in the Cathedral

We move from the Chapter House into the cloisters, holding an unlit taper candle each. Here, in the center of the green, a large iron basket of fire is ablaze. The Bishop lights the Paschal candle from this fire, passes the flame to the priests, who pass it to the choir, who pass it to us and to each other. Through clouds of incense and the dawn’s early light, priests and boys’ choir lead the candle-lit crowd into the Cathedral. As all things are perfect this morning, we secure nearly-front-row seats directly behind the two rows reserved for the confirmation candidates. Easter is a high day for baptism and confirmation here, upholding a tradition practiced over hundreds of years by the early Christian church, when baptisms took place annually, and only on Easter Sunday.

At sunrise, a prayer is sung by the Bishop, ending with the pronouncement, “Alleluia! Christ is risen!” The congregation responds with, “He is risen indeed. Alleluia!” And then, in this most sacred service, the boys’ choir, secretly prepared for this their favorite part, bursts into unexpected, cacophonous uproar—kazoos, rattles, wooden sticks and clappers all break the solemn silence in joyous bedlam. Even the pipe organ joins the pandemonium. Everyone shouts. And the choir sings Gloria.

We regain our solemn (English) composure and the service continues with interactive readings, anthems, hymns and prayers. At the conclusion of the Bishop’s sermon, the priests dismiss the candidates for the ritual of baptism and confirmation.

Baptism, Confirmation, and Communion

Their ages vary from nine to old. Those baptized as infants will get confirmed; those not baptized as infants will receive baptism first (water on the head), then confirmation. First, the candidates are each called by name and take their vows. They are then led to the back of the nave where the font is located. The Bishop invites the priests, the choir, and the entire congregation to join them around the font, and we process back, singing, “Source and fount of all creation, Pour thy Spirit from above”... No one remains in the nave, hundreds of us surround the space around the font where the candidates kneel. The Bishop again names each candidate and crosses their foreheads with oil. He then takes rosemary branches, dips them in the blessed font water, and sprinkles them generously. Finally, he dips the branches into the water again and sprinkles the entire gathering, admonishing, “Remember your baptism.”

Back in our seats we are offered communion, and the congregation is dismissed by row to receive it. We decline going forward as we don’t fancy drinking out of the communal cup. We vainly long to be rendered invisible in our premium front-row spots, hoping our personal choice does not cast a bad example on others. We sit still for an eternity.

To conclude the service, we are invited to “exchange a sign of peace.” When we first encountered this a few years back, we had absolutely no idea what to do. Do we raise two fingers? In church? We waited uneasily till ones in the know made the first move. “Peace be with you,” they said, and shook our hands. After this brief warm interaction, a hymn is sung and our candles are relit, one to the other. We processed down the nave to festive organ fanfare, shook the Bishop’s hand, and walked into a sunlit Easter morning.

Easter Day

We returned home around 8, hungry for a hearty breakfast. It was a dazzling morning, and I happened to comment that we shouldn’t waste this rare and glorious day indoors. No sooner than we had swallowed our final morsels, Ben arrived with his maps to provide various “options” for our day. Unfortunately for him the only option sister and I desired at that instance was a nap. Upon awakening we would be ready for wherever, “as long as there are sheep and lambs,” said sister.

We spent the remainder of the day driving through rolling hills and dark-green pastures. There were lambs and lamas, pheasant, partridge, and wide desolate places. With streams and lonely farms and... What's this? A Roman road? Oh, and, surprise, the remains of a Roman fort! Everyone was happy. And the evening and the morning were the next day.

Some of you have asked...

About this year’s Easter photo.

It’s 3 days before Easter, mid-morning. I have no good ideas for our Easter e-greeting. I have a dozen free-range eggs from our local grocer, in the fridge, raw. The sun is shining pretty shadows through a sheer curtain in the hallway.

I run for the camera. I lay out (sorry for the pun) my fragile collection on the hard stone floor—not a quick process without compromising the integrity of the goods. Each egg is stamped with a red logo; turn logos out of sight. I count the eggs: one for each year we have been in England. The sunlight is hitting just the right egg. I sit on the floor. I move my shaggy-hair shadow out of the light and shoot. Sun has moved. An egg rolls out of place. I hastily rearrange. Careful. Should have boiled the eggs. I only have moments before the sun leaves the floor and climbs up the wall.

The feathers came from farmer Fred’s free-range chickens a mile down the road, on our daily walking route. From the one that didn’t get away. The fox had paid a visit to the chicken coop the night before to feed its pups. Happy Easter.

Wednesday, 14 February 2007

Cupid’s attack

It was an ordinary grocery excursion at our friendly neighborhood ASDA; till muzak was interrupted by a smooth, alluring voice announcing a Valentines contest for “the most romantic couple.” Ha-ha, I thought, not us. I hurried home, wrote a few paragraphs, added some clip art, and on our next trip for milk and honey, secretly ushered it to the customer service desk, parking Ben in books and magazines where time stands still.

Serving the person before me, the clerk was certain the cash register was making mistakes and started doing math by hand. After several attempts on scraps of curly register paper, sighing and scribbling with faulty pen as the queue behind me grew, she gave the customer an acceptable (though not exact) refund. Up next, I waited a moment till she recovered from subtraction trauma and handed in my entry (no math required, I thought, put it in with the others). She stared blankly through her smart designer eyewear. She didn’t know what to do; she called another employee who didn’t know what to do; she paged someone who would know who didn’t know what to do. Finally she slid it under a pile of returned merchandise behind her desk and assured me someone would know what to do. My most romantic entry was buried under a moist bag of returned lettuce with a wad of hair or other foreign object pending investigation.

The next day I got a phone call: You’ve won! Unsuspecting Ben asked why ASDA was calling our house. We have to go pick something up at 11 am Wednesday, I said. Pick what up? He asked. (I didn’t hear.)

Wednesday. Valentine’s Day. Front entrance, ASDA. The grinning green-fleecy-topped greeter was expecting us. The fluorescent-yellow-vested assistant was expecting us. She said, the SpennyNews photographer is here, and the Northern Echo will arrive shortly. Thrust into publicity, we were handed a dozen red roses and a bouquet of carnations; total strangers congratulated us, the manager came to greet us. The prize was dinner, bed-and-breakfast at the Honest Lawyer (honest), worth £85. Ben, who had only slept 3 hours the night before, began putting two-and-two together in a befuddled daze.

Photos were taken by the volunteer middle-aged, long-haired, midget-sans-teeth photographer for SpennyNews, sporting a massive laminated “Press” card clipped proudly to his chest. Then by the young blonde ponytailed let’s be creative and shoot through a cut-out heart with my multi-tiered camera equipment I know what I’m doing Northern Echo photographer.

Heads spinning, before we left I asked how many had entered the contest. The fluorescent-yellow-vested lady said it was well advertised, including an ad in the paper. There were five entries. We won by sheer lack of interest.

Friday, 9 February 2007

Before evensong, Durham Cathedral

Evensong with the BBC Philharmonic

Wednesday February 7, 2007, 4:00 pm: Evensong at Durham Cathedral with the BBC Philharmonic and three choirs, broadcast live by the BBC to 250,000 listeners.

We arrived one hour early. The Cathedral was already full. Programs were handed out. Stewards hastened to-and-fro. One was of particular interest. I shall call him James, for he passed so quickly his name tag was a blur. A tall, thin, elderly man proud of all the activity in his charge, James walked sprightly past several times, bent slightly forward to get him there faster. On the first pass he whispered over my head (to no one, but everyone), “Nowwww, what’s next-hhh...” and scurried from here to there fulfilling his objective like a wind-up toy that bumps into the wall and returns. From our seats 21 rows back, I could observe James’ busy schedule. He ushered another elderly steward all the way down the nave to the front, stopped at the crossing, pointed his telescopic arms first to the right, then to the left, dispensed instructions, then returned down the length of the nave, eagerly clearing his throat, ready to tackle his next critical task. The lady steward appeared to understand, showed a few people to their seats and made her way to the back much slower than James, bent to osteoporosis and the weight of a small purse hung across her chest. Neither were seen again till the end, standing with the collection baskets at the back of the Cathedral.

Ten minutes before broadcast, we were warmly welcomed by the BBC producer who had read music at the University of Durham. The evening honored composer Charles Hubert Hastings Parry, probably best known for his arrangement of “I was Glad,” which, in our programs, opened evensong as the introit. Parry also wrote the alternative tune to the congregational hymn we would sing, “O praise ye the Lord! Praise him in the height”... We were also told that Charles Hubert Hastings Parry (never Parry, C. Parry, or even C.H.H. Parry; sometimes Sir Hubert Parry) received an honorary degree in music from the University of Durham in 1894. The BBC producer then graciously closed his talk with this beautiful prayer by George Herbert:
Thou hast given so much to me,
Give one thing more—a grateful heart;
Not thankful when it pleaseth me,
As if Thy blessings had spare days,
But such a heart whose pulse may be Thy praise.

3:55 pm. The producer exited. Everyone watched the red bulb which would light when we went live. I have never seen the Cathedral filled to capacity and yet so still. Not a whisper, not a stir. Only the occasional irresistible light hack—the nervous, check-if-I-still-have-a-voice ahem-cough-cough. It caught like a yawn, and several echoed their throats. Apart from this ripple, there was no sound. No one moved. We endured five minutes of a stillness that seemed longer than the hour-long program of scripture readings, first from the Old, then the New Testaments; the Magnificat (sung); Simeon’s Prayer (sung); the Apostles’ Creed (recited by all); the Collects—a prayer sung on one note by the Succentor, the Reverend Gilly Myers; the congregational hymn; the blessing; and finally the Voluntary (Pomp and Circumstance March No. 6 by Edward Elgar). At the conclusion of this rousing piece, the same silence returned. With outstretched necks we watched the red light. As soon as it blinked off, after slight hesitation, we broke into applause.

A view of “Ben’s new office”

Ben’s new office

Left, and above, are views of our living/dining room (otherwise known as sitting area and eating table). This state of insurgency began in Summer of 2006, when Ben O’When and his chief operative known simply as Apostle Paul moved South (downstairs) to occupy this space until talks resume to renegotiate a peace treaty with neighboring factions to evict at least one of the settlers. Sources say the situation is unlikely to resolve until the degree is in hand. Chief security spokeswoman observes that it is a peaceful siege, with minor riots and no injuries reported thus far. Investigators indicate a solution could be imminent.

Tuesday, 6 February 2007

A view from “freedom afternoon”

Freedom afternoon

We had no commitments after church and made none. We drove straight home, added layers of clothes, didn’t waste time for lunch since we had precious few daylight hours left (sunset @ 4:30). Instead we made hot chocolate and tea to-go. It was a gorgeous afternoon, but windy, and freezing cold. In February the sun has no obligation to shed warmth.

We drove the scenic route, stopping once for sheep pictures.

Our destination was the Roman ruins in Corbridge, not far from Hadrian’s Wall. When we arrived, at-a-glance I realized this site looked the same as the ten others I’ve experienced in-depth. My English Heritage card is expired, I wasn’t paying £4 to see more of the same, I would take a walk instead. However when I came into the ticket office a few minutes after Ben, having stopped at the loo first (too much tea), the woman, knowing I was with him, assumed I had a card and let me through. So instead of walking round the car park, I walked briskly around the perimeter of the ruins for 25 minutes while Ben took photos, imagined all things Roman, and froze.

Invigorated and cold, we left Corbridge near sundown for Newcastle, and our favorite Middle-Eastern restaurant, Basha. It took ages to find parking in town. Street parking was £3 ($6)/hr, 1 hr max, no return. We found one in front of a Subway, £ .50 per 15 mins, 1 hr max, no returns. We finally succumbed to the parking garage at the movie theater complex.

Basha is not a fancy place. No napkins shaped as swans grace the formaica tables; only one paper serviette comes with each place setting. The food here is not judged by the lovely glazes, drizzles or wafers decorating a plate, but in the generous outpouring of olive oil pooled over each traditional Middle-Eastern dip lavished with garlic. The more oil poured, the more generosity shown. We sat near the door, surrounded by framed papyri, lightly-soiled yellow silk flowers (yellow being the theme color in the 14-seat diner); Arabic sayings burnished on pseudo-cedar hung over mirrors—did they say Death to Hezbollah, or Long Live Syria? We didn’t ask.

The cook and the waiter recognized us (at least pretended to, which rendered a generous tip from our Ben). We ordered our usual: falafel for two, one side of hummus and tabbouleh to share. Their bread, made on the premises, is the most authentic I’ve tasted outside Lebanon, even better because there’s no difference between the top and the bottom—both layers are soft bottoms! Nothing commercially available even pretends to come close to this bread (get thee behind me, pita). It is made at time of order and comes to the table piping hot, inside a boat-shaped plastic basket. We ate our (very) late lunch to our heart’s content and then went to see “Night at the Museum.” Ben, and some kids sitting beside me, really loved it.

When we got to the parking garage, parking cost £5.90 ($12)—and we had only been there 3 hours!! So I asked (told) Ben to stop at the security office so I could complain, as it was significantly more than the posted rates. The attendant said, oh, we know... heh-heh... the machines switch prices at 6 pm and charge full price for the time before, and the time after! Unbelievable, a parking meter that has a known fault and these people are making money off it every day!!! He gave me a £2 credit and off we went home, happy, happy... It was a rare and perfect evening.

We calculated, not including petrol, what a simple night out had cost:
Basha meal: £14
Movie: £13 (with Ben’s student discount!)
Parking: £4
Total: £31, more than $60. Unbelievable.

This is a test

Hello. I know the world doesn’t need another
blogger. (Discuss.)
Will I like it? Does anyone
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return. But if you do, leave a note to let me
know you were here.