After five years in Seattle, rural England is a culture shock, to put it mildly. Share my wide-eyed re-awakening to all things British ... laugh and cry along!

December 31, 2005

The Surgeon-General Says ...

One of the great British institutions is the 'greasy spoon' cafe, a place where 'organic' and 'healthy' have no place other than as answers to the crosswords in the tabloid newspapaers that litter the tables.

"Sarnies" in Cheltenham is one such 'greasy spoon' (the word 'cafe' being rendered redundant), tucked away down a side street a short distance from the town's shopping centre.

From the outside the big window gives a clear view inside ... well, it would if it weren't for the condensation. Open the door and you're immediately met by a warm, suffocating fug of kitchen smells, heating and cigarette smoke.

It's been a long time since I ate anywhere that doesn't separate smokers from non-smokers. The scallop shell ashtrays are from a time I thought had past ... but apparently not. Next to them on each table were the obligatory salt & pepper, malt vinegar and nasty plastic ketchup bottles, their red and brown contents congealing nicely around the nozzle!

The large wall menu was a dietician's nightmare, containing culinary delights I hadn't sampled in years. In the end I resisted the 'pie & chips' and went for the large all-day breakfast with black pudding. The plate that was presented to me included the following: bacon, sausage, fried egg, tomatoes, baked beans and the aforementioned black pudding. To save the feelings of the squeamish I won't describe what goes into this northern English delicacy, suffice to say that it's color comes from the blood of the pig whose offal ... well, you get the idea.

Perhaps I should have chosen the vegetarian breakfast ... no meat but mushrooms and fried bread. The latter is possibly the most unhealthy thing you can put in your body ... just a slice of white bread fried to a golden crisp in oil!

The woman at the table next to me tucked into her fried bread with relish ... judging by the look of her, it wasn't her first slice!

To be honest, all of the women in this shopping-day crowded cafe looked like they'd eaten too much of its food and stubbed out too many ciggies in its scallop shells. They were hard, unhappy looking women ... women who had had too many children, too young, faces aged prematurely by fags and booze.

For me "Sarnies" was a treat, for most of the people there it looked like it was a habit.

December 18, 2005

Great book! Posted by Picasa

Book of the Week

One of the benefits of being back in the UK is that I'm doing alot more reading. Maybe it's got something to do with the fact my parents only having 4 TV channels. Can you believe that the fifth terrestrial channel, the one my parents don't get, is the only one that shows American football?

Luckily, the broadcasts move to a channel my parents have for the playoffs, otherwise I might have to cough up $30 to stay in a local hotel and watch the games on satellite TV!

Anyway, this is totally off topic, so back to books!

I've just finished reading "As I Walked Out One Midsummer Morning" by Laurie Lee, the story of a young man from rural England going on the road in the England of the 1930's and then making his way to Spain, where he witnessed the first rumblings of the Spanish Civil War.

As I read the book I wondered what it would have been like if it had been written at the time rather than 30 years later. Is its lyricism a result of Lee's growing stature as a poet or would the young Lee have been able to describe his adventures with the same power. Whatever the answer, we'll never know but I do know that Lee's memoir holds it's own against contemporary writings such as Orwell's "Homage to Catalonia". I look forward to soon reading the follow-up volume of autobiography, "A Moment of War", in which Lee tells of his return to Spain to fight against Fascism with the International Brigade.

Orwel and Lee's books strike a chord with me because I was lucky enough, shortly after graduating from college, to meet several men who had fought with the International Brigade in Spain. Most of those I met were coal miners from South Wales whose stories are told in Hywel Francis's fascinating "Miners Against Fascism".

If anyone stateside would like to read "As I Walked Out ..." I would be happy to mail it to you ... first come, first served!

I'm now reading James Lee Burke's "Jolie Blon's Bounce". For those of you not familiar with him, Burke writes wonderful crime novels set in and around New Orleans. Believe me when I say 'crime novel' is nowhere near adequate to describe Burke's work. Try one ...

It's good to read ... more later!

December 17, 2005

A Village By Any Other Name ...

I grew up in a part of England that is well blessed with interesting names for the villages and towns around.

Stow-on-the-Wold, Bourton-on-the-Water and my own Moreton-in-Marsh are but a few. Stow is actually on a ‘wold’ (a hill), Bourton’s water is a stream running through the middle of the town but Moreton, thankfully, is not in a marsh. The ‘marsh’ in question is believed to be a derivation of ‘henmarch’, meaning “on the border”, the town being situated where four counties used to meet. However, since local government reorganization that number’s been reduced to only three.

Perhaps the strangest name of a local village, however, is ‘Slaughter’, of which there are two … Upper and Lower, sort of like first degree and second degree murder! Somewhat disappointingly the name has no bloody connections but comes instead, from the old English word ‘slohtre’, meaning a muddy place.

Strangest of all though, can be the way that those born and bred in the area pronounce the names of local places.

Both Ebrington and Broadwell, small villages nearby, are pronounced exactly as you would expect. At least, that’s how the Queen or I would pronounce them. But enter a local hostelry or supermarket perchance, and you might very well overhear people talking about the mythical villages ‘Yubberton’ and ‘Bradle’, places to be found on no map know to man.

As the saying goes around here, “I can’t read and I can’t write but I can drive a tractor.”

Winter Oak Posted by Picasa

Comfort Stuff!

Have you ever thought about how food roots us to our past, to places, events and a culture? It’s one of those things that really hits you after a time away. My parents announced that they were going grocery shopping to a big supermarket about 20 miles away (yes, that’s how far in the backwoods of rural England I live) and I was like, “I’m coming, what time are we leaving?”

Wandering around Morrisons was like going into Santa’s Grotto as a kid … I wanted everything there was. The difference is that when I was a kid I wasn’t allowed it … now I get what I want. One of the advantages of being the youngest child returning home from abroad is that Mum never says “No”!

The best find of all was some Tunnock’s “Caramel” biscuits. These are a delicious confection of wafer, caramel and chocolate, made by the millions in Scotland but not always readily available south of the border … “and no, mother, they don’t have them in the States.”

Of course, for every Tunnock’s Caramel, faggots or onion bhaji that I reclaim for my diet, there is something else that I miss … a bloody good latte being one!
As much as I sometimes like the idea of being able to find my favorite American things over here, and the best of British over there, the truth is that it’s missing and then re-discovering these favorite things that makes Atlantic hopping so much fun!

Cup Fever!

For those of you who read “Funny Round Balls” and, hopefully, smiled, there’s good news. Cheltenham Town, our beloved ‘Robins’ , beat Oxford Utd. 2-1 in the FA Cup 3rd round replay tonight … so it’s onwards and upwards to the 4th round and a clash not so much of titans as whatever the opposite of ‘titan’ is. Whilst a match-up against one of the legends of soccer (eg. Man Utd. or Chelsea) would have conjured up images of giant-killing (as well as a mega-payday) the forthcoming tie against Chester City is very winnable!

So I’ll be there on 6th January calling the Chester City goalie some name or other, saying “You’re shit, aaaaaaah-haaaaaaaa” at all the goal kicks and calling a hot beef pie and a pint ‘lunch’!

December 09, 2005

Three Wheels on My Wagon

From the country that gave the world Rolls-Royce, Jaguar and Aston Martin comes the Reliant Robin … 850cc of fiberglass monster machine, capable of a rip-roaring 0-60 in 16 seconds … hold on to your toupee Grandad!

Sadly no longer manufactured, the Robin was the vehicle of choice for … well, nobody actually. I saw one in town yesterday and tried to imagine it tooling around Seattle or flying down the freeway. Nah! It would attract glances but they wouldn’t be admiring ones. You can tell it’s a loser’s car ‘cos they have Reliant Owners Clubs full of men who customize and polish their cars (being careful not to rub through the fiberglass, of course) as if they were about to take their wheels to some vintage car gathering in Monterey. Dream on, guys!

Luverly Jubbly! Posted by Picasa

Bloody Lovely Grub!

For those of you revolted by the sound of my faggots, here’s what they look like … this is your classic English faggots, mushy peas and chips! What the heck are mushy peas, I hear you ask. Well, they’re one of those foods that divide a nation. Half the population’s probably never even eaten them. The half that has is probably equally divided between devotees and heretics. Perhaps the best way to describe their place in British cuisine (yes, such a thing does exist) would be to say that mushy peas are to the English industrial working class what collard greens are to African-Americans from the south.

Paradise on a Plate Posted by Picasa

December 07, 2005

Funny Round Balls

I'm a sports fan. I love watching it on TV but nothing beats going to games for real. I've been a regular at Safeco Field, home of the Seattle Mariners (baseball), and have also been to Seahawks (pro football) and Husky (college football) games too in the last few months.

I miss the sports that I'd not only learnt but had also learnt to love.

So when my Dad asked me if I wanted to go to a Cheltenham Town football game with him and Pete, I jumped at the chance. This is the kind of football with the round ball, rather then the small, pointy one! Soccer, in other words.

Cheltenham Town inhabits the very lower reaches of professional British soccer, perhaps the equivalent of class A or AA baseball, with a mix of those on the way up, those on the way down and those who have spent a long, long time going nowhere.

Their 'ground', to use British parlance (in any case, 'stadium' would be a bit of a stretch), is located in a residential area of the town. Parking is a pain but with an average attendence of 4-5,000, you never have to walk far.

After a quick pint in the bar we took up our places on the terrace behind one of the goals. When I say "our places", I mean just that. Pete and his crowd have stood next to the same steel column ever since they've been Cheltenham fans.

It was thirty years since I'd been to a soccer, sorry, 'football' game with my Dad ... and just as long since I'd stood at one. The Hillsborough tragedy of 1989, in which 96 football fans died, brought about the end of terracing and the introduction of all-seater stadia for most professional clubs.

The poorer clubs, in the lower reaches of the professional game, would have been bankrupted if they'd been required to build all-seater grounds, so they were allowed to keep their terraces. Over time most have introduced seating but many, like Cheltenham, have retained one section of terracings. It's where you'll find the old-timers, the diehards and the hardcore fans

It was like going back in time ... and nothing like any pro sports event I'd been to for the past five years. You know how at baseball and football games the jumbotron tells you when to make a noise? Well Cheltenham Town neither has nor needs one.

"Turley is a smackhead" was the tuneful chant that greeted Oxford Utd.'s goalkeeper as he took up his place in the goal in front of us. Like many fans chants, it has to be heard for the humour to be appreciated.

And for those Dads out there trying deperately not to swear in front of their kids, a soccer game is the perfect excuse when junior slips an expletive innocently into his or her vocabulary. "He must have picked it up at the game, honey. The lads chants can get a little fruity."

I laughed and smile my way through 90 minutes of a 2nd Round FA Cup tie, with the winner going through to the next round, where they could meet the likes of Manchester Utd., Chelsea or Liverpool.

For some reason, both teams chose to play their best when attacking the goal in front of us. This made for great drama but I thought Pete was going to have a heart attack in the second half when Oxford were trying to score there. The woodwork saved Cheltenham Town three times before the inevitable equaliser to Cheltenham's opening score snuck past the goalie and hit the back of the net.

Cheltenham hung on for the draw, the game ending 1-1, with a replay next Tuesday ... watch this space for the outcome.

The result reminded me of another childhood ritual ... the pools.

This is possibly the most unAmerican form of sports gambling imaginable ... because you're trying to predict which soccer games will end in a score draw (eg. 1-1, 2-2 etc.). You choose 12 games and if you're right with ten or so then you'll win a shitload of money.

We tried to predict the game based on form, based on family birthdays and probably using a pin with our eyes closed. It was always done at the last moment, just before the 'pools man' collected the form and Dad's money. I think we won five pounds one time .... but maybe I'm dreaming!

Another nine like Cheltenham vs. Oxford and that trip to Cuba would be on. But as I never entered, I can't whine about not winning ...

Don't you just want to gobble them all up? Posted by Picasa

Don't They Look Lovely?

Take a butcher's (Cockney rhyming slang ... 'butcher's hook' = 'look') at the picture ... in three weeks time those virgin white eggs will be a deep brown colour, and the perfect complement to a nice baked ham, some strong cheddar and crusty bread!

It's the one part of Christmas that I've brought from my childhood. No matter where I've been or who I've been with, there have been pickled eggs on Christmas Day! You get a nice vinegary bite from the white and then a humungous acid explosion when you get to the yolk!!!!!

For those wanting the recipe ... it's one dozen hardboiled eggs and malt vinegar! Et voila!

The Note ... Posted by Picasa

Should I Be Worried?

My parents left for a short break in Bruges, Belgium a couple of days ago. When I came down after they'd left, I found a note from my Mum. It said "Keep back door locked when you are upstairs."

What is it that they aren't telling me? A little local crime spree or some crazed axe murderer? I've kept the back door well and truely locked ... and will be having a word with Mum when she gets back.

This is me ... Posted by Picasa

December 06, 2005

Market Day!

Tuesday is market day in the town where I grew up. The whole of the High St. (Main St. for my friends across the pond) is filled with stalls ... mostly selling cheap tat but I did pick up a Melton Mowbray Pork Pie. This is processed pork in jelly, all wrapped in a pastry case! Great with ketchup.

Then I had to return something to an electrical store ... unlike in the States, they don't customarily take goods back unless they are faulty but I think the very act of my asking caught the store assistant by surprise, so I got my refund.

Then it was onto the grocery store ... OMG, what a cornucopia of long-forgotten foods. I picked up some onion bhaji and a couple of faggots (like meatballs but baked and made from offal, all held together by sheep's stomach membrane). I will eat like a king tonight!

December 05, 2005

It's Funny How Things Seem

It's funny how some things to never stop changing, while others just stay the same. After five years liing in Seattle, I returned to rural Gloucestershire a week ago. As they say, "the song remains the same".

Over the weeks and months ahead, I'll be posting my thoughts on life in the US and life here ... watch this space! By the way, as I work in the media. cliches are my metier!