For you Americans, when we say "Number 10" here we mean Number 10, Downing Street, which is where the prime minister lives. (Unless he lives at Number 11.)
(And yes, I know that if you have to explain a joke it's no longer funny. Fortunately this one wasn't that funny to begin with, so no harm done.)
We spent last weekend in North Devon, just outside Exmoor National Park. Having just given a talk on "Creating Fresh Imagery" I was in the mood to create word images...and Devon, with its green, green pastures, is now my go-to image for "green". Nothing is as green as Devon.
Want to describe someone's eyes? Someone's shirt? A slash of paint? Try a comparison to Devon's verdant pastures, where florescent green grass stretches for acres and acres.
My camera can't do justice to the effect, but some of these photos will give you a visual taste of what Devon is like.
A view from the edge of Exmoor.
We stayed in a cozy way too small cottage. The inn next door was built in the 13th century, so I suspect, judging by the beams in the low ceiling and in a checkerboard across the walls, that this row of cottages wasn't much younger. I guess people were smaller then, and a two-seater sofa was all they required in the way of seating, but we were a little cramped. We actually left a day early, eager to get back to our spacious, modern house. (I actually had to sleep on that two-seater—i.e. love seat, for you Americans—since the dog couldn't go upstairs and he'd've been a bit frantic if we'd both disappeared up those treacherous steps to the loft.)
But enough of that. The area around the cottage, in Knowstone, was gorgeous. We walked down the lane, stopping to admire the views and the sheep every few feet, sometimes at the same time:
We took the dog to Dunster Estate, with acres and acres of forest and well-marked trails, in fact, it's due to our own ignorance we wandered around semi-lost much of the time. Our dog was in heaven: a new forest with lots of new smells and trails to explore, including a stream we had to ford several times as it wound back and forth over the path.
Dunster Estate has the tallest trees in England:
The view from the top of the trail:
The green valley:
Authentic old street signs, still in use near Dunster Estate:
More photos below:
The other day I went on a hike in the Chilterns, near Saunderton and Lacey Green. Toward the end of the walk we saw a sweet cow, standing on the path in front of the gate. He sauntered off as we approached, and then we saw there were several young male cows (technically, they were steers, but who's looking?) in the pasture, on the other side of what would have been a fence if it had been complete.
(No, I did not have the dog with me, for precisely this reason: so many animals are not properly fenced, and Sparky doesn't share my love for livestock.)
I asked this young cow and his buddies to pose for a few photos, and they obliged (as cows invariably do, unlike sheep).
Such friendly guys, just living the bachelor life on the green pasture. And then one of them, who must have been out sowing wild oats in the next field, snuck up behind us and started licking my friend's sweater, leaving a trace of slobber. She seemed a bit upset by this but I wouldn't have minded. Cow slobber, as I found out, is nothing like dog slobber.
One of the cows I was photographing seemed to want to smell me, so I put my hand out, and then he wanted to know what I tasted like, so he licked me. And then another wanted to lick me. (If you give a mouse a cookie...or a cow a sniff...)
Cows have rough tongues, sort of like large, thick cat tongues. None of them showed any teeth, unlike the horses I tried to befriend at the Home of Rest for Horses. (It's no wonder I much prefer cows to horses!)
These guys looked to be less than a year old, not quite full grown, but old enough to be separated from their mums. I haven't seen any spring younguns in the pasture yet; maybe with the late spring their debut has been held up.
I'll have more photos next week, of some sheep we came across in the same place. They were not quite as friendly as the cows, but then few animals are, I've found.
Cows just want to love you. All over. With their fat tongues.
It is somewhat ironic that, the week that a weak gun control measure failed to exceed the votes in the Senate needed to overcome a filibuster, the Tsarnaev brothers used two bombs, rather than guns, to kill three people at the Boston Marathon.
This is surely a moral victory for gun rights advocates, right? Bombs kill people too! Why ban guns (or in this case, require background checks at gun shows) when a criminally-minded individual can simply kill victims with another weapon, like a knife or a bomb.
But instead of supporting gun rights advocates' arguments, the story of the Boston bombers illustrates perfectly why we should keep guns out of the hands of people who would use them to harm innocent people.
Because those bombs those would-be terrorists cooked up killed three people. Only three people! As awful as it is for three people to have lost their lives, those three innocent victims would have been joined by countless others at the morgue if the brothers had each carried a Bushmaster instead of a pressure cooker bomb. Each one could have mowed down dozens at the crowded finish line. The scores gravely wounded by the blasts would have turned into hundreds with bullets designed to expand upon impact, unlike the nails and BBs that packed the bombs.
It appears the brothers used pyrotechnics to fuel their homemade bombs:
Tamerlan Tsarnaev bought two “good-size” mortar kits, consisting of tubes and shells, and black powder, said William Weimer, vice president of the store, Phantom. He said Tsarnaev paid $199.99 under a buy-one-get-one-free deal.
I had no idea this sort of thing was legal to buy, and frankly, I see no reason why it should be legal. Yet, mortar kits presumably have a use beyond killing people—which is why we don't ban cars, which are responsible for killing tens of thousands of people every year. Still, I suspect quite a few people will be clamoring for certain fireworks to be made illegal, or require, say, a background check before they can be purchased. And I'd be willing to bet some of the same people who called their senator and told him to vote "no" on background checks will be the ones clamoring for regulation of black powder.
See? I told you this was ironic.
The brothers did kill one man with a gun, which they'd obtained illegally. They used it to attack a police officer, apparently in hopes of taking his gun from him. Yet that gun was locked in a holster. A good lock kept this gun out of the hands of those who wanted to do harm. A good lock would have kept that Bushmaster out of Adam Lanza's hands, too, yet there are no laws in the US requiring guns to be locked when not in use.
It's not so easy to obtain guns in Massachusetts as it is in other states—the Commonwealth has some of the toughest gun laws in the United States. Perhaps if the brothers had lived in Texas they'd have bought Bushmasters and shot dozens dead at a Cowboys game.
It's easy to imagine a scenario where many, many more could be killed at a large event, using perfectly legal weapons of mass destruction. Adam Lanza killed 26 people in five minutes. Imagine if there'd been two Adam Lanzas, and those two had decided to keep on killing rather than turn the gun on themselves... Imagine if the Columbine killers had kept on killing, rather than aimlessly wandering the halls and finally killing themselves. Ironically, a suicide bomber will almost always up the number of casualties when he's willing to die, yet killers with a gun lower the damage they inflict by those same suicidal instincts.
Around 85 people die every day in the United States due to gun violence. That's 28 Bostons. Every day.
Yet nothing at all is being done about it. No increased background checks, no magazine limits, no assault rifle bans. I guess those 85 people don't matter, because they weren't killed by a "proper" weapon of mass destruction.
It's hard to imagine a terrorist bombing 85 people every day in America and getting away with it, isn't it?
The "wicked plot" with which I tempted Fate last Spring
As I sit here typing, it is once again raining. The weather experts promise brighter weather ahead this weekend, after condemning us to a miserable March and equally miserly first two weeks of April.
Last year about this time I inadvertently brought the wrath of the weather gods upon all of Britain: I bought garden furniture. I also bought flowers and plants and grass seeds. I planned to have a spectacular garden, which I'd enjoy from my new Lutyens bench, next to the chiminea on cool evenings.
What was I thinking, tempting Fate with such abandon?
For the past several years, our plans had been in flux: we assumed we'd be moving back to the U.S. each of the previous few summers, so planting anything in the garden didn't seem worth it, nor did I see any reason to replace my old metal patio table with a new one.
But last year we knew we'd be staying on, at least through another year. So I indulged. But buying patio furniture is apparently one of the Seven Deadly Sins, and in this case, it resulted in Seven Deadly Months of rain and slugs. It's as if my capriciousness reached into the atmosphere and bent the jet stream, causing untold misery to millions.
I'm pretty much all powerful like that.
The Lord hateth a "heart that devises wicked plots," the Proverbs claim. Buying garden furniture and annuals and potting soil is surely more wicked than Fifty Shades of Gray, which I also suspect had something to do with last summer's weather.
It's about time for the garden catalogs to arrive. I shall condemn them immediately to the recycle bin. I'm getting emails with tempting discounts from the many garden centres I signed up for last year, and I quickly send them to cyber hell. I haven't even uncovered my Lutyens bench; that would be like leaving home without an umbrella.
Our cold spring has meant the bluebells will likely be late this year. I saw signs of them in Hedgerley on Easter Sunday, the coldest Easter on record. The puny green shoots shivered in the mud, while about them daffodils regretted ever coming above ground.
Cold weather in January is one thing; cold temperatures in April are quite another. It didn't help that our boiler went out last Thursday. It took five days for the replacement to be installed, five days during which we shivered, most of the house shut off so we could contain the heat from the two space heaters the plumber loaned us.
It's been great to have heat again these last few days (and more efficient heat at that!). But now I'd really like some of that heat outdoors. I'd like to take a walk without gloves and a scarf. I'd like to sit next to my chiminea and enjoy a piña colada...okay, I'm getting carried away.
Even thinking of a piña colada could bend the jet stream.
If it hits 20C as predicted on Sunday, you can bet I'll celebrate. But I swear, as God is my witness, I willl never buy garden furniture again.
After the tragedy in Newtown, many people said that school teachers and administrative officials should be armed in order to prevent mass shootings on school campuses.
Clearly, they missed the point.
It's the children themselves who should be packing heat.
In the last week, two four-year-olds in America have shot and killed people who presumably were threatening them. A deputy's wife was killed by a four-year-old who picked up a pistol and pulled the trigger, and a few days later another four-year-old shot and killed his six-year-old playmate.
I think this demonstrates that you're never too young to handle a gun.
Moms, dads, consider buying your pre-schoolers a Smith & Wesson when they beg for a new toy. Sign them up for NRA shooting lessons at the same time they get their booster shots. The risk that they might come to harm—from a crazed gunman, from a teacher who's having a bad day, or from a classmate with a grudge—is simply too high.
An unarmed toddler is a statistic waiting to happen.
Frankly, a parent who doesn't arm their child is no better than the parent who doesn't strap their baby in a car seat. Safety first, when it comes to our most precious resource: our children, whose gun-buying habits may provide just the stimulus this economy needs. (If cash is tight, consider cashing in that savings bond the grandparents gave your child when he was born.)
Gun manufacturers need to take care to provide age-appropriate pistols for their young customers. The hand grip needs to fit those small hands, more used to holding crayons than Walther P99s. And everyone knows young children are attracted to bright colors, so maybe a Barney-themed revolver would be the perfect gift to bring to that Chuckie Cheese birthday party. The parents of the birthday child will be grateful, and the other kids will be sure to invite your son or daughter to their birthday party. (Not being invited to a birthday party is a leading cause of playground arguments, which, of course, lead to playground shootings.)
And if your daughter is into My Little Pony, how about a My Little Pistol for riding the range? Older girls might want a Barbie assault rifle with expanding bullets. (Make sure the magazine is color-coordinated; you don't want your daughter to have to hide her unsightly weapon for fear of teasing.)
Remember, it's not guns that kill people. It's toddlers, and if your child spends much time with toddlers and pre-schoolers, you'll want to know he can protect himself.
If anyone tries to talk you out of making such a purchase—say, the overly cautious Wal-Mart associate who just started working in Sporting Goods and probably reads The Huffington Post while on break—remind him the Second Amendment guarantees the rights of all citizens to keep weapons, and last I checked, toddlers were citizens too. If that doesn't work, try having a tantrum. (Call it a "filibuster" though, if you want to be taken seriously.)
Yesterday I woke up to a cold house. Not that unusual, since I get up before the heat kicks on at 5:30, but by 5:45 I noticed the radiator still wasn't growing warm. I put it down to the time change, but later my husband investigated and discovered the boiler was out.
I only had a vague idea what a boiler was, but I knew it was a bad thing when they went out. I'm still not up on where they go when they "go out" but I've heard horror stories about what happens when they do, especially if it's over a holiday. And it wasn't just a simple matter of relighting the pilot light (which would be something I'd call in an expert for, frankly) but the thing was really, truly, "out".
It meant that the water that flows through the radiators wasn't being heated by the boiler, which is apparently its job. The boiler is equal to a furnace in the States, then. Without one, the house doesn't have heat.
The house was already starting to chill. I called the aptly named Frost (our estate agent, which is like a real estate agent), who sent a plumber out to discover what the problem was.
That's right; a plumber, not an HVAC specialist, which is what would happen in the US. Because the boiler uses water, it's a plumbing problem.
Fortunately the plumber isn't an ordinary Joe Plumber; this guy is really good at what he does. He's identified plumbing problems before and fixed them, after other plumbers were stumped. It's almost enough to make me take back every bad thing I've said about British plumbing. Almost.
He got to work and made some calls, wrote down some part numbers, and identified two parts that needed to be replaced. But there were other problems with the old boiler, which caused it to exhaust carbon monoxide to the outside vent. As soon as he said the word "carbon monoxide" I swooned. Not really, but I did stop listening, and apparently the landlord did too, or else saw lawsuits in his future, so the plumber was quickly given the go ahead to replace the whole thing with a newer, energy efficient model.
Except not so quickly after all. Not-Joe the plumber will have to re-route the gas lines from the laundry room to the garage, where the new boiler will reside. It will be Tuesday or Wednesday before the thing is up and running. Meanwhile, he's loaned us two space heaters.
And that's not all: The hot water heater, which runs from the same boiler, has an electric immersion backup, which blew up when the plumber tried to turn it on, creating a shock in the tank—fortunately, the fuse box did what it was supposed to do and averted disaster, though not a nasty scare when we heard the "pop!". After our discussion about carbon monoxide I was in swooning mode again, frankly.
Fortunately, Not-Joe the Plumber was able to find a new electrical immersion element and replace the old one, which was corroded and twisted. He seemed to think that was awesome, and even took a photo, so I did too:
Here's the thing: I'm always a bit nervous when repairmen come to the house. It's hard enough for me to convey what's wrong with some gadget or another, not knowing the least thing about boilers and toilets and other residential mechanical ailments. But add to that my ignorance of the language, and I hesitate to say anything. The first time anyone came here to fix something he asked to see the "loft". "We don't have a loft," I replied, wondering if he'd mixed our property up with a chic London flat. He was incredulous, since clearly, we had an attic. It took both of us a few minutes to realize we weren't simply ignorant; we were speaking two different languages.
Even after all these years, yesterday I stupidly offered the plumber a flashlight. I quickly backtracked and offered him a "torch" instead. Which still strikes me as a bit ludicrous. A torch was the last thing I wanted to light, with possible gas leaks about the place.
And then there's my reluctance to say the word "garage", the source of most things mechanical, including the "consumer unit". (That's a fuse box, for those of us who prefer a more descriptive English.) The word "garage" has a funny pronunciation here, as if someone who hated the French tried to pronounce it in the least French way they could, so it comes out "gair-ridge". That's just a sound that's fundamentally difficult for my American tongue to wrap 'round.
So I ended up handing the garage door opener to the guy, pointing in the direction of the "gaRADGE" and told him to open the "door". The word door is easily understood by anyone, I've found.
Since I'll be spending three days with Not Joe next week, I'll have to brush up on my British English and figure out new ways to avoid saying "garage". Maybe from now on I can call it the "boiler room".
In the meantime, I'm rethinking that torch idea. Some old fashioned fire would feel good just about now, but if I want to light my fireplace I'll have to call the gas service man, and who knows how that conversation would turn out.
I think I've mentioned before that I'm having trouble getting out to see cows these days, since my dog isn't very cow friendly. But it occurred to me that I've got thousands of unused cow photos, right here on my computer, that will never be seen unless I expose their pixels to the world via Friday Cow Blogging, Nostalgia Edition.
We all like nostalgia, don't we? Otherwise why is the whole world watching Downton Abbey? It's certainly not for the longlived characters.
I found a batch of cow photos I took during a walk in the Cotswolds, with our previous cow-friendly dog. We walked right through this herd of cows, and she didn't give them a second look. She was good like that.
They lived (I'm pretty sure they don't live anymore, since cows rival Downton Abbey characters for longevity) in a pretty pasture near Minster Lovell, the prettiest spot in the Cotswolds.
We were following a walk that took us around Minster Lovell and the charming River Windrush, and which ended in cow drama. I wrote about that back then, when the moment was fresh. In all my years rambling around cows, it's the only time I've ever been in a situation that could have earned me the bleeding lead on Radio 4's Six O'Clock News: "Ramblers killed by cows," Eddie Mair would have intoned at the top of the hour.
Uh oh, I think I've just given Julian Fellowes a plot idea...
Anyway, read about that adventure here, which we survived intact.
Looking at the photos of these lovely cows brings back more pleasant memories of that day. It was a particularly hot day in a particularly hot summer. We haven't seen the likes of it since. We're currently shivering in a record cold "Spring".
And let's not talk about last summer.
I'd give anything to ramble out amongst those cows, on a warm summer day. Yeah, I'm feeling a bit nostalgic...but not for the drama.
I'd never seen Macbeth performed before last night, which might account for my surprise when I realized just how Scottish, and, well, brutish the play is.
This version, set in the year 2063, stars James McAvoy as Macbeth, and many other Scottish actors as well. I'd never really realized James McAvoy was so Scottish, either. Years ago I saw him play the boyfriend of Jane Austen (played by Anne Hathaway) in Becoming Jane. He seemed more Irish as Tom Lefroy. But he's Glaswegian through and through. There's no faking that accent.
The thing with Shakespeare, at least for me, is that it always takes a few minutes for my ears to adjust to the Elizabethan dialogue. The rhythm, the dialect, the sentence construction, is alien to modern ears. But by the end of the play my mind deciphers it with no problem. It's like being plunged into a room full of French speakers when you don't have a good grasp of the language. This time that adjustment period was confounded by the Scottish accents, and in the opening scene, with the three Witches, even more by the fact they were wearing gas masks. I didn't catch a word they said, or rather, prophesied.
But these were all top notch actors, and as I learned later, they'd rehearsed the play using paraphrased modern language, in order to get the meaning behind the words. I don't know how common that is for Shakespearean actors, but it seems like a good idea. The meaning of the words was conveyed by the actors in ways that went beyond language, and the inflections they added to the lines were what makes seeing Shakespeare in the theatre a completely different experience than reading the dry words on paper.
We happened to be there on the same day that James McAvoy was nominated for an Olivier Award. He deserves it. His Macbeth spit, vomited, bled, and raged upon the stage for two and a half hours in a performance that must have required quite a bit of stamina. It's hard to imagine someone doing that six nights a week, plus two matinees. Especially not without going hoarse.
The audience wasn't so lucky: A quartet of coughers punctuated the dialogue with jarring effect in the intimate theatre. I can't blame them; no one can control a cough, but it was unfortunate when it happened during the quiet interludes on stage. (I did notice that after the interval the coughing stopped. I also smelled wine from the cougher nearby. Apparently wine is an effective cough suppressant.)
The industrial set and tatty Army surplus costumes were perfect for the dystopian atmosphere called for in this post-modern, climate-change affected Scotland. In the program notes, we learn that Scotland has been especially hard hit by global warming, afflicted with endless rain that made coastal cities and flood plains uninhabitable. Food is scarce; enemies plentiful. It's an environment in which anyone who tells the citizens they'll take care of their enemies is immediately annointed leader, or even king.
Macbeth, spurred on by his Lady (played by Claire Foy, of Little Dorrit fame) as well as the profecies of the Witches, is increasingly willing to kill those he perceives to be his enemies. I don't know what they used for blood, but I kept wondering how they washed it off between scenes. There was a lot of it. Not even the tap installed in the front of the stage was enough to wash it from Lady Macbeth's hands.
"Out, damned spot! Out, I say!"
Speaking of blood, I've never seen a performance where actors were murdered on stage. It's quite disconcerting, especially when Lady Macduff was strangled. Her death throes were disturbing, as were the cries of her child soon after. No one under fourteen should see this play.
Macduff was played by Jamie Ballard, who I'd seen before in Emperor and Galilean. While he wasn't on stage for much of the play, having hotfooted it to England during the reign of increasing terror, his performance as Macduff was heartbreaking. When he's told of his family's demise, his grief is wrenching. And it's entirely appropriate that he's the one who brings the out-of-control Macbeth to justice, at the hands of a man not born to a woman. (We all knew that was coming, right?)
I won't spoil the brutal, gruesome ending—let's just say I was happy to see the entire cast take a bow with all body parts intact. Again, seeing a tragedy like Macbeth performed is quite a different experience from seeing a comedy. But it's still an experience that's moving and awe inspiring, not simply for the timelessness of Shakespeare's stories but for the incredible talent that engulfs the stage, echoing to the very rafters: The "sound and fury" indeed.
"Life's but a walking shadow, a poor player
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage,
And then is heard no more. It is a tale
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,
I had to yell at some guy in The Camp today when a Dalmation wouldn't get out of Sparky's face. After yelling for the owner to call his dog, I walked over and told him to enroll in a recall workshop. He had no idea why he needed to, even though his dog was busy ignoring him when he yelled "Murphy!" Murphy had found a young cocker spaniel to play with, and the two of them kept trying to get Sparky (who we'd put on a lead) to join in. Sparky, of course, has no desire (or know-how) to play with other dogs, so when they got too close he barked at them in an effort to make them go away. Probably my attempts to move the dogs out of the way was riling him up even more, since he thought he needed to help me out.
Anyway, after arguing with the guy, and explaining to him that we try really hard to keep Sparky from reacting like that and his dog being in his face didn't help matters, he told me that it simply wasn't a problem if Sparky went after his dog. It would teach Murphy a lesson, he told me.
The problem is, Murphy was just as likely—even more so, in my opinion—to "teach a lesson" to Sparky. Sparky's a 'fraidy cat. He's never escalated into bite mode; as soon as a dog looks at him funny he runs crying in the opposite direction. It wasn't likely that he was going to teach this bold Dalmation a lesson.
When I was trying to get Murphy's attention, I knew I was dealing with a dog who wasn't going to back down. He wanted a good sniff of Sparky, and he was determined to get it, regardless of the frantic barking he was hearing.
But the owner had no clue. He was convinced his dog was just being "friendly" and when I told him he needed to teach his dog some manners he probably wrote me off as a stupid American (insert slander here)—well, I've been called worse.
So we kept Sparky on the leash (he was perfectly happy to be close to us) and went around the Camp until we found a space clear of ill-mannered dogs.
The Camp has become as bad as a dog park in the States, all because so many owners think it's fine for their dogs to run up to other dogs, head on, and try to engage them in play. It's a shame that we can't enjoy our time there without having to be on guard, unlike in other places where dogs generally go on their way without running up to every dog they meet. There's something about a semi-enclosed space, even one that's several acres wide, that makes dogs and their owners think nothing of interrupting their ramble to have some one-on-one action with other dogs and their owners. They just get too bored there, walking around in giant circles.
As we left, I decided I should print out Suzanne Clothier's excellent article "He just wants to say hi" and place it on the cars parked there. I've often wondered how I could get other people to realize that their "friendly" dogs aren't so friendly—to other dogs. What looks like friendliness to us is extreme rudeness to a dog, especially to a dog who's busy telling the other dog in no uncertain terms that he'd like them to stay away.
Sigh. I'll probably never do it, and besides, we have other issues to work on with Sparky. Like his behavior in the car. We've planned a trip to Devon, and we hope to take him with us, but only if we can keep him calm in the car. I firmly believe in the power of positive training to work miricles, but so far we haven't had any success; if anything, the problem is getting worse. So I'm calling the vet next week to talk about medication.
I'll post an update, for those of you who tune in to read about Sparky's progress...I know this blog has gone from being an eclectic, niche-free blog to being The Life and Times of Sparky, but this is my world right now. Well, that and my latest book. I think my next book will feature a dog's point of view.
Because I've got a great understanding of that, now that I've learned to hear what Sparky is trying so hard to say.
"Sparky needed a home and needed one fast—he’d had to spend his first night in England in a car."
I just loved this interview between Mila Kunis (she's an American actor, but I'd never heard of her before) and a BBC reporter who's apparently doing his very first interview.
He's like a young Hugh Grant, bumbling and charming and incredibly fresh.
I also wonder how long he's going to last if he invites every actress he meets to his friend's wedding in June. I kind of think Horse and Hound might be a better fit for him.
Anyway, do watch, especially if you're interested in the differences between American English and British English.