Friday, November 3, 2017

Blue Skies Over The White Cliffs of Dover

Don't let anyone ever tell you the skies of England are never blue or the sun is always obscured by clouds. Don't let anyone tell you the famous white cliffs of Dover are really not white but a shade of gray, that the symbolism of the past has been buried in the present.

On the day we returned to the white cliffs the sky was a deep azure and the chalk cliffs gleamed in the afternoon sun. The downland shimmered and rolled down to the magnificent bastions. Dover Castle was the solid presence it has been for the past 10 centuries.

Much has been written and sung about this place. Famously Dame Vera Lynn sang.

There'll be bluebirds over
The white cliffs of Dover
Just you wait and see
I'll never forget the people I met
Braving those angry skies
I remember well as the shadows fell
The light of hope in their eyes
The song is old and it stirs memories of another era when the white cliffs meant more than pleasant walks to the South Foreland Lighthouse. The white cliffs meant bravery against the odds. They were the very last bastion against the waves of darkness.

August 2017 was three-quarters of a century removed from August 1940. The skies high above the white cliffs were empty from here to the hazy outline of France but for the white and wispy clouds. 

Yet back in 1940 they echoed to the low roar of bombers. Wave after wave of Heinkels and Dorniers hummed overhead like heavy black birds shackled with swastikas and bombs. It's no exaggeration to say the future of the world depended on those chaotic August days above the white cliffs of Dover. The Nazi threat may be consigned to the history books but it lives on in popular culture be it the Nazg├╗l from Tolkien's Middle Earth George Lucas' Death Star.

I'm not naive enough to believe in good guys and bad guys even though I would pester my parents during every movie when I grew up; who are the good guys who are the baddies? Are the cowboys good and the Indians bad?

Yet during the summer of 1940, there was no disputing who the real heroes were. Day after day the sleep-deprived British pilots scrambled in their tiny fighters to the skies to tackle their vastly superior foe. Airfields such as Biggin Hill were bombed over and over. The ground crews would work round the clock to patch up the runways and the Spitfires and Hurricanes would return to the skies. These men in their rickety flying machines were the last defense against the unthinkable.

The RAF pilots suffered terrible deaths in their tiny planes and manpower ran short. The toll inflicted on the enemy was even greater. In the end, the Luftwaffe lost heart and turned to the easier targets of bombing Britain's cities at night. The thin line held and the white cliffs were never breached. Adolf Hitler turned his murderous intent to the icy wastes of Russia where his armies would meet a terrible end.

The pilots of the RAF had stopped the darkness from spreading and often paid the ultimate price.

The words of Winston Churchill traveling back through time sound more like a movie than the kind of thing we would expect from a contemporary politician.

"Never in the field of human conflict was so much owed by so many to so few."

Today those who lived through Britain's darkest hour are dwindling. The fighter planes have long since gone from the skies over the white cliffs. Hitler's invasion fleet that never went to sea is a footnote in history. We won our freedom and the specter of hate has been vanquished. 

Yet around the time of our walk about the cliffs, I was disturbed to scroll through my phone and read the news from my home state of Virginia. Charlottesville, where I had been just months earlier at a climate change march. Now it echoed to the sounds of riots. In the streets, young men attacked protestors dressed in the hideous helmets and garbs of the Third Reich. Thickset men with bull necks sported swastika tattoos on their arms. The menace that had lurked so many years ago on the hazy outline of France was reborn. Or perhaps it had never gone away.

Today racism is again on the march and the sickening pall of the furnaces that burned the flesh of the many is belittled and discounted. 

I didn't see any bluebirds over the white cliffs of Dover and the blue skies were empty of bombers. I found myself wondering for how long.

Friday, October 27, 2017

Robbie Williams - A Brit Naughty in the USA

I chanced on this video the other day and it made me wonder whatever happened to Robbie Williams. There's something rather appealing about seeing Robbie out west in Montana or Colorado or wherever this video is shot.

He looks a bit like an odd fish out of water on a horse, a naughty Brit in tight Union Jack jeans who is intent on getting frisky with the local girls - or at least one who looks like the lady who was a Mermaid from Splash.

Clearly, Robbie wanted to make a splash too, looking all moody in the hot tub, making eyes at the mermaid chick.

The video is funny on a number of levels, not least because Robbie grew up in Stoke On Trent, a place of grim back-to-back houses and beaten up chip shops. It's one of those places the train stops at on the West Coast Mainline to the great industrial cities of the north and you find yourself thankful you are not getting off at.

Robbie, by all accounts, was constantly in trouble at school. I doubt if he ever set eyes on a horse. He was selling double-glazing (not an expression you hear stateside) until he entered a talent show, joined the boy band Take That - and the rest is history.

He was married in 2010 after a couple of stints in rehab. The last media I can find on how was the cancellation of two concerts due to 'worrying test results.'

I'm hoping he's OK. It just wouldn't be the same if Robbie wasn's just a Brit naughty.

Sunday, October 8, 2017

Rochester - A Solid Presence on the Medway

I like Rochester. If feels as old as time itself and has an unassuming saltiness from the nearby estuaries and the Medway.

Although I would take issue with the Guardian writer who described it as "ravishingly beautiful," it's certainly pleasant and picturesque in a very English way.

Unlike Canterbury, Rochester is thankfully free of the hordes of tourists. It feels like a find. We were here half a decade ago. A picture of my daughter throwing a tantrum in front of the sold castle comes to mind.

To be fair, the castle has seen better days and worse days. Rochester Castle is famous for its huge, brooding keep. We climbed high up the ruin and gazed down at the chasm. Above the dank place that was once the cesspit we read about how in medieval times, all the human waste was dragged past the kitchen and out of the castle once a month. The lord and lady would make sure to be out of town on this particular day.

Rochester Castle is famous for the Great Siege of 1215, an event that brings to mind the defense of Helm's Deep in The Lord of the Rings. In the same year, King John had been forced to sign the Magna Carta, a document that placed the Monarch under the rule of law and arguably for later democracies and the American system of government.

The barons decided John could not be trusted to implement it and the scene was set for a bloody civil war. With rebels holed up in Rochester Castle, John laid siege to it. The siege engines battered the castle walls day and night, but still, the great keep held.

Eventually, a mine was set beneath the south-east tower, causing it to collapse. John was reported to treat the garrison mercifully, allowing them to leave after their hands and feet were lopped off.

The brutality of the past is hard to envisage on a sunny afternoon on the castle green. Below the steps of the castle, a Rolls Royce had pulled up and a bride posed for silence. The afternoon was punctuated by the sound of gentle tap tapping as participants in a renaissance event put up tents.

Rochester is a city of cobbled street and old pubs beloved of Charles Dickens who set Great Expectations and The Pickwick Papers here. Dickens spent his final days here and wanted to be buried in the understated cathedral. Instead, he was buried in Poets' Corner in Westminster Abbey.

Dickens' love of Rochester is understandable. It may not be ravishingly beautiful but the city is pleasant. It's like that friend or lover who you felt the closest to. No matter how long you are away, it's always blissful to come return.

Thursday, September 21, 2017

A Sorta Fairytale

Michael and Miranda crisscrossed the interstates together in her small gray car, from mountain valley to plain, the wind always rushing through the open window, the bike rack rattling.

The open road seemed to go on forever, her hand resting on his neck, his gently brushing her leg.

Like the song, it was a sorta fairytale. They could stop and start and pick back up whenever they felt like it. They could love and fall out and love again. They were constantly in each other's thoughts. They endured the miles. They lived for the next meeting. They lived for a day that never came.

The silver lining was elastic but it never snapped. Then one day Michael crossed a line. The bubble broke. Shattered car parts clattered across the road. Her final words were flat and cold. Words like rusty old car parts on the grass verge that had lost their meaning.

When Michael looked back down the highway it was empty, the road trips were a distant memory. Then he thought of the lyrics of the song.

"And I'm so sad
Like a good book
I can't put this day back
A sorta fairytale with you.."

Saturday, September 16, 2017

Passion in the Garden - Vita Sackville-West and Sissinghurst Castle

On my recent trip to England, I was glad to have made the trip to Sissinghurt Castle in Kent, because the notion of the place has always fired my half-realized imagination.

The idea of Sissinghurst provided a dimly-lit corridor to a half-forgotten but glamorous past. To the Roaring Twenties, the age of art deco and The Great Gatsy, when America was a place to aspire to and Britain saw a flowing of culture and art; albeit with one foot still stained with the blood of the trenches.

However, to experience Sissinghurst Castle is all about layering. To my parents, who had never heard of Vita Sackville-West, Sissinghurst was another garden owned by the National Trust and a tall tower. They had been before and declared themselves disappointed. However, they had forgotten about their previous visit by the time I suggested a day out.

To my kids and my nephews, Sissinghurst castle was a great place to play hide and seek and to turn their nose up at the strange food in the restaurant.

However, for me visiting Sissinghurst was about experiencing something else, although I was woefully ignorant about Vita and her husband Harold Nicholson, I was captivated by the idea of change and the way they conjured beauty from an abject ruin.

Sissinghurst was once a Saxon pig farm. In the 1700s, up to 3,000 French prisoners captured in the Seven Years War were imprisoned here. The conditions were vile and inhumane with poor food, stinking sanitation, and rife disease in the cells.

When the poet and novelist Vita Sackville-West and her husband Harold Nicholson purchased Sissinghurst in the 1930s, it was in a shabby condition and the fields around were used to grow cereal crops, the National Trust notes.

The garden they created at Sissinghurst became famous for its enclosures linked by vistas, and its harmony of color.

Sissinghurst contains the Cottage Garden, the Herb Garden, the Rose Garden and the White Garden, with its brick paths, geometric compartments, and foliage of abundant white and silver lilies, tulips, roses, lilacs, and dahlias.

Its iconic tower is stacked high with books and further down the garden, a small but alluring outbuilding contains a typewriter with a window opening up onto a sweep of the moat chocked with lily pads.

Vita the accomplished gardener is, of course, only half of the Sissinghurt story. Vita was the only daughter of the Hon. Lionel Sackville West and his illegitimate Spanish wife, Victoria and a Latin passion beat behind her fine English exterior.

Vita is remembered for her sexuality and many affairs, most famously with the novelist Virgina Woolf. Vita was the muse for Woolf's revolutionary novel Orlando which circumvented the censorship rules in early 20th Century Britain, a place where homosexuality was not just frowned on but criminalized.

Vita was more than an author and a gardener. She wrote to an American penfriend. "As dusk falls, I come in and write the book I am trying to write ... and then I really feel myself in my tower, shut away. I become an author again and I am happy. But that is not the whole story."

Vita wrote of her love for Virginia Woolf in letters to her husband, who was also homosexual.

In one letter she wrote: "Dined with Virginia at Richmond. She is as delicious as ever. How right she is when she says that love makes anyone a bore, but the excitement of life lies in "the little moves" nearer to people. But perhaps she feels this because she is an experimentalist in humanity, and has no grande passion in her life."

Sissinghurst was gifted to the National Trust in 1967, the year of my birth. Today it feels preserved in a cozy timewarp like many other National Trust places. The genteel elderly men and women who monitor the visitors to the tower would as likely talk about homosexual love as they would cannibalism on Easter Island in 1534.

The gardens are a model of geometrical perfection. To walk down the brick paths and to smell the blossoms is to walk a scented path back to childhood. I visited so many of these places and the sun always shines. There is nothing wrong and jarring with the world. When we get thirsty we go to the tea room, when we get confounded, we head into a maze. There were never prisoners here, just the long and lazy acres of the rolling Kent countryside on a sun-kissed afternoon in England.

Thursday, August 31, 2017

Missing that British Service Culture - Not So Much

I was back in Britain earlier this month. I wasn't sure if I'd recognize Britain post-Brexit and all that. This time, I was happy to be able to travel there with the kids but was wondering how more Americanized me would cope.

I'm not saying I've got to the stage of referring to trainers as sneakers and wearing white ones. But nor do I say trainers much anymore because people Stateside give me a funny look and can't work out why I'd be wearing a personal trainer.

Although I still found some people here who were jealous about the notion of traveling to the Old Country, others shuddered at the thought of flying to London, imagining it to be in the grips of a Syrian-style Islamic war.

We flew on Virgin for the first time and it was a rather delightful experience. The hostesses smiled sweetly when they talked about tea. It was everything we Americans expect from Harry Potter land.

The immigration staff were jocular, unlike their American counterparts who are usually reaching for the plastic glove at the first hint of a shifty look.

Even the car rental place was easy to deal with this time. We are not going to mention my confusion at finding three pedals rather than two and having to ask a surly Croatian how to start my tiny rental car.

However, it started to unravel a bit on the M25. Not only was the traffic even worse than I remembered it, but those lost hours started to catch up with me and I found myself nodding off at the wheel.

In the end, I was forced to pull off at one of those hellish places called a Motorway Service Station. When it comes to motorway facilities, the United Kingdom seems to have stood still. There were no new facilities and the ones that remained were as grubby and unedifying as ever.

We stumbled half asleep into a Costa, which is like a pedestrian Brit version of Starbucks. I asked for an Americano. The acne-ridden guy behind the counter who looked like he's been on a youth training program since 1988, looked at me blankly and said "wot."

I repeated my request. He said "wot" again.

It was a shock to realize he couldn't understand my pseudo-American accident. After much pointing and grunting, I made myself understood.

Not that this was the end of the ordeal. A piece of paper went down the production line to a lady who was clearing out a coffee filter in slow motion. No amount of throat clearing was going to speed her up. She was enviably oblivious to all around her as she filled up the cups with an agonizing lethargy. At this point, the urge to become all American and start yelling came over me. I resisted.

I propped up the counter for about 15 minutes as she shunted to my order. Then she suddenly went off on a break and I was faced with acne boy.

"Wot do you order.?"

"Oh dear God."

We finally supped our insipid coffee and over sweet Bakewell tart as I realized how much I didn't miss the British service culture.

Monday, July 24, 2017

Up On the Blue Ridge of Virginia

For weeks the idea of losing myself in the wilderness had become more and more appealing. I'd disappear for a weekend of solitude away on the Blue Ridge. I'd set up camp and wake to the sweeping vistas, birdsong and meadows of wild flowers.

Of course, when you tell people you are going camping alone, you get strange looks. Folks inform you, you will almost certainly fall off the trail and your body will never be found. If you survive the fall you will get eaten by bears. Or you will sustain a deadly snake bite in a place where nobody can hear you scream.

Even if these fanciful notions don't come to pass, people will tell you lone camping is plain weird. Kids will see you emerging from your tent and tug at their parents' shirts to warn them of the weirdo who has just emerged to steal their Lego.

Anyhow, I defined the naysayers and headed off alone to the Shenandoah National Park, home of numerous bird species and the elusive black bear.

The plan was to get to Big Meadows camp ground by 12 to bag a camping spot. In the event, I became embroiled in a circular argument with Siri in Charlottesville and arrived an hour late. In the age of modern communications, you clearly don't need a partner to have a navigational argument.

By the time I drove to the camp ground there was a sign up saying it was full and a trail of scruffy Australian tourists waiting for the next spot to become available at midnight.

I thought 'screw it' and hit the trail. At the Pinnacles Picnic Ground, I loaded up with Cliff bars and water and hit the alluring Appalachian Trail. There are few things more fulfilling than starting off on an open trail with sweeping views east and west on a clear blue day when most of the summer heat has been left behind in Tidewater.

The first person I met was a girl in her 20s who had been walking the trail for months alone from Georgia. This put all those warnings about the dangers of one night in the wilderness into perspective.

However, for much of the day, I was alone with my thoughts. The blue ridge was as blue as ever and the views from Mary's Rock were dazzling in all directions. Even the slog back to the parking lot which was a much more consistent climb than I remembered put me in a pleasant late afternoon haze.

I found a motel in the Shenandoah Valley, an unthreatening place of floral bed spread and bear prints that might have been designed by one's Scottish aunt.

I drove through some of those places we had visited on family holidays years ago. When I saw the signs for the caves, I had fleeting thoughts that the kids might like it here. But all in all, I felt placid and wonderfully lost in the sweep of the mountains.

I went back for more the next day.