Saturday, December 31, 2005


I haven't been to San Francisco since I was about 8 years old. My dad had a meeting out in California and we went out to stay with my aunt and uncle and cousins on their land about an hour and a half north of San Francisco. Despite it being warm and lovely everywhere else in California, it was freezing and rainy in Frisco. But I swam in the pool and looked at the sea lions and we ate at a really cool Morroccan restaurant on cushions on the floor and hung out at the apartment of one of my Uncle's criminal associate. (He used to be in the import/export business, primarily bringing in herbal products from Mexico til he got busted, now he's an environmental scientist thanks to the rehabilitation program).

We arrived to San Jose airport (what a freaking dump) and took the train to San Francisco. I thought we'd see countryside, but we saw progressively nicer backyards. Our journey was lengthened unfortunately by taking the wrong train. At the Santa Clara station there appeared to be only one platform, and we couldn't find any directions or instructions, so we got on the first train. It went the opposite direction. When we realised our error, I got a little panicky.  It was never clear we were fnally on the right train (the same train incidentally, just reversed at San Jose) until we were actuallly moving.

Once in San Francisco we were offered helpful advice from a local who then asked us for money so he could catch the train home. He was rather large, so we gave him a dollar.  This didn't entirely satisfy him, but we made our escape.

We took the bus from the station to the hotel. That was quite a ride. They all told us we were on the wrong bus for Fisherman's Wharf, we weren't but it was a little unnerving.

The Vol-in-Law was a little traumatised by it all, so we didn't get out as early as we should have. I went out to try to find a sandwich for less than 7 bucks (that was an adventure in itself, but I succeeded!).

We then went out for dinner, enjoying a lovely seafood meal and watching the sea lions off Pier 39.  I was liking the sea lions until in the darkness I realised they looked like big giant slugs lined up on the floating docks.

In the morning I discovered that I had stepped on my glasses during the night and broken them. This is the second pair of glasses broken on this voyage (the Vol-in-Law broke his pair earlier). I can see alright, but not great without glasses, but I do get headaches.

However, we were able to use the gym free of charge (as you would expect at any normal hotel) and swim in the outdoor saltwater pool in the San Francisco drizzle.  We went back to look at the sea lions in the daylight - when they look less like slugs.
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Thursday, December 29, 2005


They snaffled my lighter at airport security in Vegas. Since they used to allow smoking on planes I cannot fathom why we are not allowed lighters. Note I brought this lighter from the UK in carry on and I have carried it on two internal US flights since. I gave up the lighter, but refused to accept the security lecture.

All I have to say is that if a terrorist manages to bring down a jet plane with a French designed Bic lighter, this is a war we cannot win. Kudos to you. I don't even think McGyver (sp?) could accomplish such a feat.


Ok, my first impression of Vegas is not favorable. Perhaps I came to Vegas too late after I hd already started my life as an International Gambler, and was therefore was spolied for Vegas.

I first gambled in Natchez, Mississippi on the Isle of Capri River boat. The Vol-in-Law had to drag me down the jetty. Perhaps more of attending my grandfather's Church of Christ stuck than I thought, but I was convinced that the maw of hell was going to open up right there on the Mississippi and swallow me up. But we walked out a buck fifty ahead and I was hooked.

Since then I've gambled in Helsinki at the only casino in Finland (local Finns strongly warned us against it saying it was full of Russian mafia, which it was), in Sinaia, Romania (flourescent lighting, dire, we lost) and Budapest with my brother, and in Prague where I cleared enough to buy me and the Texan a round of 30 cent beers. (This appeared to be an unusual occurrence sine the attendant/ bartender struggled to cash us out). And in Tunica, Mississippi. So yes, I'm an international gambler, having wagered small stakes in Mississippi and the eastern fringes of Europe.

In all these places, winning or losing, I never had to queue more than three minutes. Vegas is the land of waiting and queuing it appears. We queued to check in, we walked past 5 or 6 queues seeking lunch, we queued at the player's clubs, we queued at the cage. See this is not my idea of fun, I can queue in London.

We did have a couple of successes. The Vol-in-Law wanted to see Celine Dion, and although people had been queuing since the morning for returns for last night's show he got a single ticket for the 1st of Jan (when we'll be back in Vegas). We also walked right into the night club in Treasure Island for a good view of the pirate show. (Much writhing about on the riggings and pyrotechnics).

The biggest disappointment was that they charge 20 bucks each to go to the gym. I have never had to pay extra to use a treadmill at a hotel. I was so appalled I complained, to no use. However, we did swim in the outdoor pool, which yes was cold, but we felt better for it after the excesses of Christmas.

Sunday, December 25, 2005

Merry Christmas

Merry Christmas everyone

I've been away from the blog for a bit, but I've been busy. We had a heckuva long day on the 23d - drove from Asheville to Nashville. Lunch at the Opryland Hotel, which was much bedecked with flora and faux fauna and lights and ribbons and bows. All very impressive, photos later...

Then to the Frist to see the Hudson River School show, the Vol-in-Law was much impressed with that, and gazed admiringly at the paintings. However, I could see the influence of English painters - which I don't care for too much.

Then on to the Grand Ole Opry - which was great and deserves a post of its own. But Christmas dinner is nearly ready...

Lots of running around Lawrenceburg yesterday, I nearly got the Vol-in-Law to buy a pair of cowboy boots in Loretto at Lawsons (worth a visit for the bow hunting emporium in the basement alone). The ViL decided cowboy boots were perhaps not his style.

Breakfast at a friend of the family's this morning with some 20-some people, biscuits and country ham and grits (yum).

We still haven't opened presents yet...

Gotta go.

Thursday, December 22, 2005

Back on the net

I haven't been on a PC for days, so this is the first time I've had a chance to tidy up the blog or read any comments or look at anyone else's blog.

Today we headed out for Asheville, what a cute and funky town. I'd never spent any time here. A couple of people I went to college with live here now. Being a librul, (sort of) you'd think this might be the kind of place I might want to live should I head back stateside. But I have to wonder that in a town stuffed with so many progressive, creative people I might just not stand out from the crowd. It is pretty, though and full of fun-downtown-ness.

Here's a blog about Asheville advertising a Drinking Liberally meetup tonight at a local pub Jack of the Wood. (My host's husband plays on their over 30 soccer team). Tonight's all about the "War on Christmas". Should be a hoot.

Hooray for Dollywood 3

When we got back in from Dollywood, VolBro asked: "Did you see any rednecks?"


Ok, Dollywood was cold. I mean cold. I mean witches and brass underwear cold.

Kids were screaming on the rides, but above all the general shouts you could mostly hear cries of "I'm cold!"

The lights and Christmas decorations are amazing and the show was OK, but it's mostly one big mall for Smokey Mountain memorabilia.

I have NEVER seen so much UT orange wear outside of a game day. I thought I'd be very flash in my orange gloves, but my orange accents and accessories were drowned out by Vols track suits and jackets and hats.

I can't say that Dollywood was really my cup of tea, but since the last theme park I visited was Opryland, I guess no theme park is really my thing. The stuff I enjoyed most was probably the Dolly Parton museum, with her amazing dresses and an intractive display allowing you to "virtually" try on Dolly wigs through the decades.

The one thing that kind of put a little damper on stuff were the greetings of "Merry Christmas". At first it was nice, cheerful, in the spirit of the season, but then I began to realise that the greeting was a pointed political statement, with a sizing up to see how we'd react. (Some people genuinely meant it, I must say) See I like "Merry Christmas" but please don't use this as a litmus test to see how much FoxNews I watch.

In the little tram ride out to the car, the conductor wished us all a Merry Christmas and then said, "That greeting is not as generic as it should be, but I guess you figured out that Dollywood's not a generic place.". He then went on to say that people at Dollyood remembered the reason for the season of Christmas. Great. How 'bout a little goodwill towards all and peace on earth or at least East Tennessee?

Wednesday, December 21, 2005

Hooray for Dollywood 2

Today's the Vol-in-Law's birthday. So we're off to Dollywood.

We've already had a nice walk this morning- from 16th Street in the Fort up through the World's Fair site to Market Square and on to Gay Street, where I did a little shopping at Yee Haw industries and bought a Knoxville Girl t-shirt and an excellent Buford Pusser poster: he cracked skulls for justice.

(Thanks to Swap Blog and the Knoxville Christmas Post for alerting me to that store- sorry I can't link ya on this thing).

I was also able to show the ViL the Gay Street wig shop featured in that famous Simpsons in Knoxville episode - the one where the SunSphere gets it.

Good value Knoxville

We all met VolDad for lunch yesterday and ate at the Copper Cellar. It's kind of weird being on the strip visiting your old drunken haunts.

The Vol-in-Law got good Christmas from VolDad. A bottle of Basil Hayden's Kentucky bourbon and an Oxford University pewter hip flask. He was thrilled. Not only has he always wanted a flask, but he got one with the logo of his alma mater and made in the city of Sheffield, England where he did his PhD. Sheffield has an ancient and venerable pewter and cutlery industry and truly we should have stocked up when we lived there.

After lunch we went to the Knoxville Museum of Art, which was very enjoyable. On the way in we were asked for our zip codes and explained we lived in London. The volunteer at the entrance was quite interested and asked us how we had found out about the KMA. Ummm... well, not in London. I'm not sure the Vol-in-Law had ever been, but both VolDad and myself used to be quite frequent visitors.

If you haven't been, the KMA is quite small but they take a lot of care with their exhibits. I've seen stuff I don't particulalrly care for there but I can't remember seeing any junk. And that's the thing with modern art, a lot of it is rubbish. The Tate Modern in London (well worth a visit for the building alone) is huge and chock-a-block with crap -and lots of great stuff, too. They take more of a weird quantity over selective quality apprach to curating at the Tate Modern.

There was a knowledgeable dosun who explained all sorts of things. After a number of years in London with only limited visits out really, you get kind of used to the cold and distant human relationships and when someone does approach you, you're always sort of wondering what they want. I couldn't help but think - get away, can't you just watch me suspiciously like I might steal or damage something? What do you care which piece I like? But, his presence enhanced our visit tremendously. There was an excllent exhibit of light and image display by I think Jim Campbell (sorry can't remember the name exactly that might be it -I'll revise when I get Internet access again.) although the first thing you come to was a kind of "sound sculpture" - the kind of thing I precisely hate. I like visual art, music, the spoken word, performing arts, etc. But don't record bits of spoken words and then hang a speaker up on the wall and expect me to be impressed.

Later on we went to the dollar theater out west. I fully expected it to be 2 or 3 dollars, but it was only 1.50. I can remember when Movies 7 opened and it was only a dollar. Maybe a year or so later it went up to a buck fifty. Some nine years after I left Knoxville it's still the same price and I can't help but feel that I had to bear the brunt of the inflationary pressure on ticket prices.

We saw 40 Year Old Virgin which I thought was quite good. All the better in that it was less than a pound. The ViL and I hardly ever go to the movies any more and it's mostly because we almost never walk out of the cinema feeling we got out our money's worth. It's a lot easier to get that feeling of that movie was worth my money when the ticket's under two bucks compared to over 12.

Tuesday, December 20, 2005

Tecnical difficulties

My email hasn't been working since sometime yesterday. So I haven't been able to post. I've been going through withdrawal pangs. I think I have a problem.

The ViL and I went to the Knoxville country dancers contra dance last night, and it was great. I used to go every Monday at the Laurel Theater. If you're in the Knoxville area and like folk dancing I highly recommend it. It's easier than square dancing and they always have live music.

Afterwards VolBro and I went to Krogers where our groceries were bagged by a fellow in a stars and bars airbrushed gimme cap. He spontaneously asked my brother "Do you like Lynyrd Skynyrd". Of course.

In England no one ever bags your groceries for you and my first couple times I stood at the checkout waiting for someone to appear. Just lately, ccasionally, the cashier will offer to bag, but the offer is made so grudgingly that I usually just do it myself. They certainly wouldn't ask you if you like Lynyrd Skynyrd.

I'm still having a little trouble with the jet lag and tire early and then wake up ridiculously early. We went up to Hardees this morning for a sausage biscuit while it was still dark.

We also made it down to the UT bookstore, where we I got me some UT paraphenelia. The prices were so high I got that same queasy Big Orange Screw rip off price feeling that I had when I was a student. Ahh nostalgia.

However, I am now the proud owner of a roller bag emblazoned with a big orange Power T. There probably won't be too many of those in London. I needed one anyway, since my old one broke and the small ones are ideal for overnight journeys to the crap towns I have to go to on business occasionally.

I also bought a mug because it turns out that VolBro has but one mug in his house. I had to drink my morning coffee from a plastic Solo cup.

At the counter on impulse I bought the special Rocky Top mix CD (all Rocky Top all the time, I'm looking forward to the Techno mix) The student cashiers were much amused. They said they were sick of Rocky Top. I explained that the further away you get from Knoxville the better it sounds. I used to be sick of it myself, particularly when I worked at the stadium and had the privilege of lisening to the band practice it for what seemed like hours every day during the summer. I did truly think at one point that if I heard Rocky Top one more time I'd kill myself or use the base of the giant V atop the stadium as a gun rest so I could spray bullets at the scattering members of the Pride of the Southland Band.

UPDATE: The techno Rocky Top mix was kind of amusing, but that amusement wears thin pretty quick. Should be a smash hit at the old summer BBQs, bet my neighbors are gonna love it.

Arrival in Knoxvegas

Well, I had a very relaxing morning at my cousin's house. I cooked up some bacon and frozen biscuits, drank coffee and riled up her dog.

After lunch, we headed up to Knoxville.

A couple of observations:
There's a lot more Christian rock on the radio. All we could find in a quick scan of the dial was gospel pop and post 9/11 kick-some-A-rab-ass country.

Apparently there has been no maintenance to 440 since the I was here 2 and a half years ago. The Interstate appears to have fallen to Arkansas roadway standards.

There sure are a bunch of people who feel obliged to wear their patriotism on their vehicle.

My home state is beautiful.

Once we'd arrived in Knoxville, we got to my brother's apartment - the Chateau VolBro - only to find that he's at a poker tournament. Hope he wins.

Update: Nah, he didn't win.

Monday, December 19, 2005


Well, I made it. I was too keyed up to post last night and too tired. Cousin A met us at the airport and ferried us back to her house somewhere in the suburbs of Nashville. I think we might technically be in Brentwood, but I'm not sure.

They've moved into a new house since I was last here. It's very nice, but probably not particularly large by local standards, it's a three bedroom house. But both the Vol-in-Law and I were amazed by the size and space of things.

It gets me every time how much bigger things are in America, how much more space and choice and the relative inexpensiveness of things.

Sunday, December 18, 2005

Across the pond 2

Well, I made it to america. We're xonnecting out of Detroit. I was last in this airport about 9 years ago and thought it was so horrible I vowed never to fly Northwest again. It was as filthy and unpleasant an airport that I'd had the misfortune of visiting in the 1st world. But let me tell you this airport is transformed.

I'm actually sitting in a bar where smoking is allowed. How civilized! Everything is clean and well organised. Best of all our mobiles and blackberry work! Hope I can pick up a Nokia charger.

Customs and immigration was quick and not too humiliating.

Once I get my beer everything will be A-OK.

Across the pond

Well we left the house one minute before schedule. My suitcase is very full with googaws and Christmmas bric-a-brac.

The biggest volume item are Christmas crackers. These are a traditional Engliah item - a decorated paper tube stuffed with a cheap prize, a dumb joke, a paper crown and a small amount of explosive. The idea is that each person grabs an end in a circle round the Christmas table and then pulls. The explosive is triggered and you get a small bang. I have 32 in my suitcase, which may be enough to trigger the sensors.

I told the Vol-in-Law that I was worried about the crackers.

He said: Don't, I'm sure your relatives will be on their best behaviour.

sleeping in Nashville

This time tomorrow I'll be sleeping in Nashville at my cousin's house.

I'm going to try to be live blogging my transatlantic journey (not on the plane, as electronic devives may interfere with the navigation system), and with my current technology I should be able to get as far as the departure gate at Gatwick.

Saturday, December 17, 2005

Hooray for Dollywood

Gosh, tomorrow I'll be back in TN. Wow. The Vol-in-Law asked me if we could go to Dollywood. I said "Sure, we can." I've never been, myself. I didn't go when it was Silver Dollar City, and I've never made it since Dolly opened her theme park.

The ViL hasn't checked the admission prices. Forty bucks and change each. Holy moly, that's pricey. For that kind of money, I want a complimentary blonde wig.

I'm thinking I should have gone in those derelict years when it wasn't anything. My theme park visits at Pigeon Forge were limited to Porpoise Island. Anybody remember that? My Oak Ridge grandfather loved that place, we went every year. I can still remember the thrill of watching the young Polynesians twirling flaming batons in grass skirts. That's gotta be a fire hazard.

Anyway, before I figured out how dear Dollywood tickets* are, I composed this little ditty. Apologies to Mr Johnny Mercer.

Hooray for Dollywood
That screwy, ballyhooey Dollywood!

And any barn maid
Can be a star maid
If she dances with or without a fan
Hooray for Dollywood!

Where you're terrific
if you're even good!
where anyone who can do some pickin'
can be the next Little Jimmy Dickens

Come on and try your luck
You could be Owens [comma]Buck
Hooray for Dollywood!

Hooray for Dollywood!
That phony, not so tony, Dollywood


* Maybe we'll check out Euro Dollywood instead, that's in Alabama.

War on Christmas

Someone in this household wants to remove some of our dearest held symbols of Christmas. Miss Fancy must be some kind of sneaky communist or card-carrying ACLU member.


First she chips away at Christmas, nibbling at the symbolism:

Then Fancy attacks the very foundations of Christmas
2005-12-17 057 crop

Finally, she brings it down all together, surveying with glee the damage she has wrought.
2005-12-17 052

Won't somebody call Bill O'Reilly or John Gibson for help?

Friday, December 16, 2005

What not to wear

A certain person yesterday condemned my dress sense as a bit outlandish and said I belonged on a British show called "What not to wear". On this show, hosts Trinny and Susannah ridicule their guests for their poor sartorial style and then take them for a London shopping spree to have their image remade.


I will admit to taking a fashion risk. And with any gamble sometimes you win and sometimes you lose. I will admit to slobby days.  I will admit that my usual approach is iconoclastic. My sensibilities are artistic. I like to believe that I have style.

Not only that, but living in London allows me a little fashion lattitude. As I cast my eyes around my Northern line carriage I can see fellow passengers who have skated to close to the edge and have, I might say, fallen off.

To wit, the woman across from me who wears: a purple suedette slip dress, a mint green cotton jacket, a kelly green loose hand knit acrylic yarn hunter's cap, an olive green scarf shot with metallic threads of silver, gold and bronze, black tights, cobalt blue tennis shoes (with red detailing) and turquoise leg warmers that are so well worn they must date from the late 70s early 80s.

(Apologies for lack of semi-colons, I'm on the Blackberry)

My critic herself has a strange passion for velveteen blazers paired with low cut lace trimmed cotton t-shirts and never, ever wears an appropriate overcoat.

Anyway, in for a penny in for a pound. Today, I accessorize with orange and cowboy boots.

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No tears for Tookie

Not much time for blogging I'll just point out a couple of posts from Sarai at Anglofille.

First, she sheds no tears for Tookie, then dismisses European sneers at the US penal system by illustrating some of the ridiculously low sentences handed down in the UK for killing your wife or girlfriend.

I do want to state that I don't support the death penalty. I'm not willing to accept the death's of innocents or the fiscal implications of numerous appeals in exchange for the unproven deterrent value of capital punishment. I don't like the State turning me into a killer when they execute on my behalf. But there are people on death row whom I think the world would be better off without, I can't say I was too worked up over Tookie Williams.

Thursday, December 15, 2005

ViL: Newt Gingrich on Fox

Just been watching Neil Cavuto interview Newt Gingrich on Fox News. For a softie pinko left-liberal like me, it was chilling stuff. According to Newt:

1. The US's war with (bad? couldn't catch word) Islam (he said Islam) will last 50-70 years.
2. US forces will remain in Iraq permanently, like in Germany, Japan and South Korea.
3. The US will probably invade Iran within 3-5 years.

#2 especially is news to me. I think it might be news to the people of Iraq, also. #1, I don't know where Newt got that figure from, I think the purpose was to entrench the idea of the War on Terror as permanent. #3, I knew the US was planning to attack Iran but I thought they were planning a limited war (albeit probably using "bunker buster" tactical nuclear weapons) with no major ground invasion; according to Newt though it will be a full "regime change" operation as with Iraq.

Hm. I hope:
1. Newt isn't speaking settled White House policy.
2. Somebody sensible gets elected President and has a good think about this.

A late addition to my list

...or hurray for heucheras

For a couple of years, I've asked VolMom to buy me a book on heucheras (aka coral bells) for Christmas. She didn't. Not her fault though as the book simply did not exist.

Now it does.

It's probably too late for this year. But I did see Heucheras and Heucherellas on sale last week. I almost bought it for VolMom, but didn't because she's actually not that fond of them. And I could have seen myself saying "if you don't want that I'll take it", which really isn't in the spirit of the season.

Heucheras and heucherellas (a cross between heuchera and tiarellas -the foam flower) are increasing in popularity in the UK and my guess would be also in the US (where the major breeding programs are).

Native to North America, they are a hardy, decorative foliage plant with less than spectacular blooms. When I worked for Oakes Nursery in Knoxville these many years ago, there were basically two varieties - green foliage with small pink blossoms and burgundy foliage with white flowers. Multiple small bell shaped flowers are borne on racemes which extend above the basal foliage mound. They were, frankly, kind of dull but useful in areas of partial shade.

Now there is an amazing assortment of heucheras and heucherellas. They come in a variety of colors from bright chartreuse (Key Lime Pie) and a rich pinky-gold (Amber Waves) to deep reddy purple (Plum Pudding). A number have silvery variegation against a purple foliage color (Pewter Moon). Some work has also gone into improved blooms with slightly larger flowers or more intense coloration. My current advice is not to be tempted too much by these as the blooms aren't really worth it. For example my H. Ring of Fire does have blossoms in a deeper red, but they are often overpowered by other brighter, prettier flowers in the vicinity.

Really, it's best to collect heucheras for their foliage. They are a reliable border plant and stay looking good through most winters. I’ve hardly even touched on heucherellas, but my favourite is Kimono – and I think they actually have a nicer bloom and more striking leaf variegation, but there isn’t really the huge variety of collectible cultivars… yet.

Oddly enough, despite the fact that much of the breeding and development is going on in the US, I can get new cultivars through the Royal Horticultural Society plant shows quicker than most of these varieties are available at commercial nurseries in the US.

In UK gardens, heucheras can be susceptible to vine weevil (especially paler varieties like Amber Waves and I have lost two to this scourge). But their main advantage is that slugs and snails don't like them. These nasty gastropods are the bane of my gardening life.

ViL: policing Sydney

Very interesting article here from a Sydney police officer, hat tip to Devil's Kitchen.

The Australian situation seems very similar to that in France in terms of hostile gangs of young Arab-Muslim men turning areas into no-go zones for other ethnicities and religions.

impeccable timing

April 2004: flawed intelligence
July 2004: flawed intelligence
Dec 2005: Bush admits flawed intelligence

Too funny

An anonymous Vol is selling his football loyalty to the highest bidder on eBay (via Great Smoky).

The bidding is high - over $700. Wow.

I kinda wish I could do that. But I can't. It takes me a long time to develop sporting loyalties. My Tennessee Volunteers thing is congenital - so I'm not sure how I could shake that off if even I wanted to. By association, I like the other UT - the Longhorns, 'cause I have lots of Texan friends, and well, they're still UT in a way.

I've struggled for years to find a professional soccer team in England to support (I'm leaning more strongly toward Chelsea than any team I've ever considered). I also have a bit of thing for 2nd division Millwall (but that's a topic for a whole 'nother post).

I do wholeheartedly support the England national squad* in the World Cup and the European tournament, but getting there was a long and sometimes painful journey. Like the Vols, England is good on defense, sometimes a little lacklustre on offense, some discipline and focus issues. Full of promise and amazing talent, they'll break your heart in the end. I expect at least one episode of genuine tears this forthcoming World Cup.


The ViL likes to tease me and once asked me in front of my Vol crazy brother (VolBro) "Who would you support if England were playing the Vols?".

I reply "Well, it's not the same sport, or same country, one's NCAA the other's pro, it just wouldn't happen."

"But what if they did?"

I can tell my England fandom is huge since I have to think about it (VolBro says thinking about it is a sign of disloyalty), but in the end I have to plump for the Vols.

Wednesday, December 14, 2005

Very very superscary

Several scary things:

Scary thing 1
Yesterday there was some kind of security alert centered around Bank Underground station. A lot of people I know were caught up in it in some way (my line goes through there, so me too). Nobody was making any announcements as I travelled the system, no staff on hand. The ViL reports that the Oxford Circus area was full of police in and out of the station, some armed with fully automatic weapons.

I'm writing as I dash between meetings and there have certainly been lots of cops in high visibility vests between King's Cross and Victoria today.

Scary thing 2
A colleague happens to live nearish the Hemel Hempstead fuel depot fire and she was telling me about it today. She was awoken by a loud bang Sunday morning, and the sky was a freaky yellow in one direction and blue in the other.

Despite ominous headlines in the local papers "Toxic clouds over London tonight" kind of thing, I've seen little evidence of it. The weather has been fair and I haven't noticed any beathing difficulties which can't be attributed to smoking or my daily commute on the Underground (which health officials equate to smoking some astonishing number of cigarettes).

However, today it's been drizzlling and I do worry that the particulates will fall out in the rain and get that oily, sooty mess on my new coat.

Scary thing 3
This morning when I was drying off from the shower a big giant spider (at least the size of a silver dollar) crawled out of the folds of my towel toward the naked, still damp flesh of my shoulder. I am not normally scared of spiders and can generally cohabit with them quite happily, but this MF was huge! I did scream and the Vol-in-Law came running. The spider had hidden in the towel again but when he saw the giant spider he yelped, too.

Neither of us felt able to deal with it, so we sicced the nearest cat on said spider. Fancy was a little trepidatious, but she killed it in the end - our little feline heroine! (Though sadly she did not eat the whole spider so there was a bit of a disposal job).

Granddad blogging: What's bad? knives and locust trees

Last week marked the end of my grandfather's war story. This week I go back to the beginning, with stories of his boyhood in Wilson County, Tennessee.

To put a little perspective on this story, my grandfather had a dud pinky finger. It wouldn't bend right if he made a fist. He could fold it in manually, but he couldn't make a proper fist. Like most morbid little children, this was a source of fascination and he used it as a key prop in the life lesson: Why I must not play with knives.


How I cut my finger. I was a little old boy, and like lots of little boys, I was fascinated by knives. And my Uncle Ben had a real pretty little knife with a real sharp blade. He always kept a sharp knife, and I wanted to see it. He didn’t much want me to see it and my daddy said not to, but anyway somehow or another I finally got to see it and I took it and stabbed in a locus tree and I didn’t have a good hold on the handle and my hand slipped down the blade of the knife and sliced into my hand down into the bone, cut the leaders in two and that’s the reason always now my little finger is still stiff on my right hand and not as large as the little finger on my left hand.

And it hurt real bad, and my daddy said that was good enough for me. And we were supposed to go pick beans that afternoon, and I didn’t want to go ‘cause I’d hurt my hand and he said if I hadn’t played with that knife I wasn’t supposed to I wouldn’t have hurt my hand, so let’s go pick beans. And he gave me a big basket and we picked beans and got it full. I couldn’t carry it in my left hand so I had to carry it in my right hand and I guess that pulled my hand a little more. But anyways it was a long time before my finger got well and it’s always been stiff.

I would say I was about 8 or 9, pretty young. Cause I remember where we were. In our front yard there was four locust trees that grew real close together and I was standing sort of in the middle of them and I stabbed this knife in one of those trees. And they stood there for a long time, til a storm came through and blew ‘em down. The locust trees have pretty flowers on ‘em that smell good. The bees liked ‘em but they also have thorns on them and they would fall off. Little old barefooted boys runnin around would step on these thorns and get ‘em up in their foot and then they would start hurting and they would fester and you had to lay down and hold your foot up and let your mother take a needle and poke around and stick and finally pick those thorns out of there before they would get well.

So I was never very fond of locust trees. We had a great big locust tree right outside the front door of our house. I remember it was a big one. The trunk was as big around was as big as you see on some big beech trees, big poplar and big oak trees. And it had a big holler in it, and we lived up on a hill and storms came through an awful lot. They worried about that tree blowin over on our house for a long time. And finally it blew down some other locust trees and didn’t blow that one down. So my daddy cut it down and cut it up into firewood. And we burned it up a stick at a time one winter.

This is the first in the series of boyhood tales - for more including his WWII experiences:
Go to the granddad blogging portal page

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Tuesday, December 13, 2005

Pardon me, celebrity guy

When we went to see Jon Stewart on Sunday, this guy was sitting in our row. I had to stand up to let him get to his seat.

I did stare at him a little bit, because well, there were a ton of Americans there, some of whom I know reasonably well and some of whom I know by sight...a little bit. I'm rubbish with names and faces or where I might know you from, so you can imagine social situations are often a little bit uncomfortable for me. I thought "I know this guy, but from where? Is he going to feel snubbed if I don't speak to him?"

I knew he could tell I was on the verge of recognition and he was looking at me a little bit funny. I thought he was trying to place me, too. But no - it was British stand up comedian Jimmy Carr and he was probably just trying to place me in the continuum between adminiring fan and dangerous stalker fan.

This has happened to me several times, because as bad as I am at recognising people I say, went to high school with or who lay for three hours on the gurney next to me giving me a life saving transfusion, I'm equally bad at recognising celebrities. I've walked past Patrick Stewart thinking "Who does that old guy think he is? Why is he smiling at me like that?", before taking another hundred steps and saying "d'oh".

Monday, December 12, 2005

Seeing Tennessee - advice please!

Well, guys and gals - in less than a week I'll be back in the land of my birth. I'm really looking forward to seeing my old haunts and friends. But I'd like to show my husband the best of Tennessee, (no offense to my old haunts and friends) and I'd be most grateful for any advice.

I'm in to Nashville next Sunday then straight to Knoxville on Monday. On Monday night I plan to go to the Knoxville Country Dancers at the Laurel Theatre - I shall be staying at the nearby Chateau VolBro. Yep, I'm staying in the Fort, the neighborhood of my birth and many a lost weekend (aw, hell, truth be told, a lost 1989-90).

VolBro works at a local booze emporium, so this is their busy season (gettin' people drunk in East Tennessee is hard work). He'll be working from 2 to 10 a lot so we'll have our afternoons and evenings free - though I will be trying to hook up with some old friends.

So gentle readers, any advice of how to kill a couple of afternoons that doesn't involve ____ Town Mall would be most helpful.

VolMom called tonight about our Middle Tennessee plans. Looks like we'll be back in Middle Tennessee around the 23d. She wants to go and eat dinner at the Opryland Hotel. I've done that. It's fine. But we do have a lot of swanky hotels in London, believe it or not. (Although fair to say, none quite like the Opryland Hotel.) And we will be off to Vegas later in the holiday, so mega hotels decor, will be a poker chip a dozen.

I kinda want to go to the Opry. I think our time in Nashville will be heavily regimented (i.e. cousins and aunts and uncles and stuff), but any advice would be most gratefully received.

Yes, looks like we'll be stuck happily visiting in Lawrenceburg for eternity a number of days. Does anyone have any advice of things to do and see in Lawrenceburg? Thanks to Murfreesboro blogger Rex L Camino, who knows about these things, I've now been assured that the Owl's Nest, a fine drinking establishment on Hwy 43 North is still in bidness. Not only that, but it's for sale... I could give up the old public policy game and open me a dive. I'll ask the Vol-in-Law what he thinks.

Actually, I hear my bad, bad cousin Steve will be in town, back from his permanent exile in Texas. So, it should be fun.

Reelfoot Lake - looks like I won't have time to be going there - again. I've never been.

The thought that counts

The Vol-in-Law wins the prize for bad gift giver. Guess what I got for my birthday this year? I would say nothing, but he (and friends H and V) did clean the blood off the floor at my birthday party (while I took drunken victim to the emergency room) and he did cheerfully wear the frilly tuxedo shirt I bought him for said party.

Guess what I got for our wedding anniversary? He didn't even bother to clean any blood off the floor.

Christmas last year? I think I got a bottle of Jack.

Valentine's Day? Hah!

When I helpfully suggest that he may wish to skill up in the present buying department, he mutters and mumbles and says something about a joint account and it doesn't really seem right spending my own money on a gift for me.

I know it's shallow, but I gots to keep up with the Joneses on this one. When returning to the office or speaking to friends and relatives - I'm asked "What did the Vol-in-Law get you?" I have to say something like "Well, we're getting some new flooring," and then I get the pitying expression, followed by "My husband/partner/boyfriend got me the most perfect...."

In his family of origin Christmas is an understated affair. But in mine, VolMom let you know when she didn't like your gift*, and was pretty clear what an ungrateful son/daughter/husband you were for not putting enough thought/taste/effort/expense into a gift for her. So on the one hand, I don't want to go down that road, but on the other I want me some loot.

So - ViL, jewellry is nice. West End tickets are good. Those beautiful Tennessee Orange Liberty gloves (size S) This dashing chapeau. Iitala glassware (available at Selfridges and Liberty), and these people have some pretty cool stuff. (HT to Swap Blog and the Knoxville Christmas post).


* I am exceedingly nervous about this year - as I am certain that I haven't put enough thought/taste/effort/expense into VolMom's gift. I would go into it here - but she reads this blog.

Sunday, December 11, 2005

Nine pounds short of laughs

For about three months now, we've had the Daily Show on British television, almost daily. Today, Jon Stewart appeared in a West End theatre in London - the Prince Edward, which normally shows Mary Poppins.

The Texan booked tickets so we all went down to see the matinee performance. On the way up to town, the I told the Vol-in-Law that for £21.50 (including booking fee), I expected to laugh about 40 times. That's just a little over 50 pence a laugh, which I thought was a generous measure.

Well... it was pretty good, but I'm not sure we got our money's worth.

In public speaking, there are really two things you gotta know, your stuff and your audience. Jon Stewart, his producer and writer, knew their stuff, but they hadn't quite worked out who their audience was. Now, I know that when you go to a city like London, which is in England, you might expect an English audience. But, I know London crowds a little better, and I'd estimate that at least half, if not more, of the audience were American (with the occasional sneaky Canadian thrown in.) After all, the Daily Show hasn't been on that long here, so it's mostly Americans who know who this guy is and are willing to cough up the West End ticket money. Jon Stewart and Co kept saying things like, "In your country...". I wanted to say "Dude, your country is our country." They also failed to recognise the curious accent that Americans long-time resident in this country get (kind of like Madonna's faux English accent, but just not as strong) and assumed that at least one American was a Brit, until she corrected him.

Mostly they just read from America, the Book. There was a little stand up, and a little Q&A. And Woody Harrelson* came on and read a bit (he's currently appearing in the West End Tennessee Williams' Eye of the Iguana). In all, we estimated that it was worth £12.50 - nine pounds shy of our ticket price. I expect to pay little or no money to see somebody try to flog their book, which we did not buy as I expect we'd paid enough into the Daily Show coffers as it is. The Texan was so certain she hadn't received value for money that she would be less of a fan now. I said I would still watch the show for free. She said she'd watch the show, but would only laugh grudgingly.

The Q&A was probably the best part, although the few British (& one sneaky Canadian) questioners kept going on about damn Kyoto protocol stuff, to which Jon Stewart replied "Well, this may surprise you, but we don't actually make policy at the Daily Show."

The final question was: "Condaleeza Rice vs Hilary Clinton, who would you rather see as president and who would you rather have as your wife?"

The response: I'd rather bang Condi.

Update: Others in the audience seem to feel the same: Let me axe you a question and The Golmal Press

* Is Woody Harrelson the Hollywood star recently turned down for a dog from Battersea Dogs' and Cats' Home? Enquiring readers want to know.

Yuletide ornament stand

So what's up with all this "Christmas stealing" malarky. I don't know...

1. I am annoyed by people who twist themselves into a knot calling the Christmas holiday anything but and who seem to think that some people will be offended by other people celebrating a holiday that for some is religious and for some other is secular with only the vaguest religious connection.

2. I am annoyed by people who twist themselves into a knot over what other people call Christmas -who cares? There's not a thing in the world wrong with saying Happy Holidays or Season's Greetings. Back when I used to do Christmas cards, I always got an assortment of ones with religious motifs, secular Christmas motifs, and winter "Season's Greetings" type motifs. I tried to match the cards with the perceived world view of the recipient.

I'm not the least bit churchy, but to me this season is Christmas. My celebration of Christmas no longer has any religious significance. I don't believe that Jesus Christ was born on 25 December, but I don't know when he was born. Maybe it was around that time. I enjoy the Christian elements of Christmas (the religious carols, occasional Christmas services). I enjoy the pagan elements of Christmas, the Christmas tree, the holly and the ivy. I enjoy my own family traditions, oyster casserole, the big dinner, cornbread dressing, etc. I enjoy other people's cultural traditions, the Christmas crackers (ewwww to the Christmas pudding though!). I enjoy the commercial aspects of Christmas - the gifts, the decorations, etc. I like the lights and the glitter and egg nog and the office Christmas party, etc.

The term Christmas is still in widespread use in the UK, and I'm glad of it. My council, Wandsworth Borough Council hands out posters to local merchants that say "Happy Christmas and a Prosperous New Year" and another one that says "Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year" (the latter sounds dangerously Americanised!). The funny thing is, many of the merchants on my road aren't Christian, they're mostly Tamils who follow a Tamil form of Islam. If they are offended by the poster they throw them out, otherwise they can put them up. Almost every Muslim owned business by me has the Christmas poster in their window! Only silly Lambeth Council decided to change the name of the Christmas lights to Winter lights, and then changed them back again. (Pragmatic Wandsworth uses the same lights for all things, switching them on and changing the name as the seasons progress, look now they're Diwali lights, hey presto, now they're Christmas lights.)

The UK is nominally a Christian nation. We have an established church here, despite the fact that I think England's pretty godless. I believe in the separation of church and state, but I also believe in holiday fun. I don't think it's appropriate to have a creche or manger scene on the courthouse lawn (I grew up thinking it was both idolatrous and a violation of the establishment clause.) But I can't see anything wrong with calling a decorated tree a Christmas tree if it's seasonally appropriate.

Sadly, the Vol-in-Law has been watching too much FoxNews and is a little exercised by the "War on Christmas". Perhaps he will explain his reasoning. If he goes on with this, I will be changing the name of our Christmas tree to Yuletide faux pine ornament prop, just to lather him up.

Sick in the head

I see that the blogosphere is all a-flutter about the Washington Post article on extreme bias as a psychiatric condition.

A number of bloggers seem to worry that this is going to let racists and folk who get all in a lather about gays off the hook. And others take it as proof that right wing people are crazy after all.

In Random Thoughts from Marybeth, Marybeth seems to hit the nail on the head.

The article begins with a few examples: a recovering alcoholic who won't attend 12-step meetings for fear of encountering a gay person, a waiter who is hostile to black people, a Vietnam veteran who is afraid of Asians, and a woman who thought Jews were diseased and would infect her so she wouldn't see a therapist for her OCD problem for fear that her therapist would be Jewish.

It's hard to tell from the summaries but I would suggest that it's likely that the prejudice is a symptom of a disorder rather than a separate disorder in and of itself. It also seems to be taking the focus away from the person suffering whatever delusions or paranoia that result in the prejudice and putting too much emphasis on the object of the bias. Dislike of a group of people may cause more problems in daily life than an extreme fear of spiders but should the treatment really be that different? If the problem is an unreasonable fear or irrational belief, that is what should be treated. The object of fear is irrelevant.

If you read the article, the people described are clearly sick in the head. Their mental disorder means that they are not able to function normally. This is beyond mere "extreme bias". I know someone who has told me to my face "I don't like Jews," and I think a form of subtle and not-so-subtle anti-semitism is rife among the leftist chattering classes of England. But I don't think that these people have a mental disorder. They are just plain wrong, sometimes dangerously wrong, but most of them are not crazy. They are able to have jobs and relationships.

This blogger links fundamentalism with mental illness. I've seen that, too. People clutching and thumping the Bible or Koran who express their mania through religion. But I also know fundamentalists who aren't crazy, they're just fundamentalist.

It seems to me that extreme phobias can manifest themselves on anything. There are people who are morbidly afraid of buttons. The definition of phobia is an irrational fear, not an irrational dislike, or even a rational fear. (I worry about the rise of islamofascism and the effects of Bushist imperialism, but I don't think this is irrational.)

Racism is damaging because of the way it can affect the people who are the object of distaste. A phobia is damaging to the person who holds the belief. Sometimes these things coincide.

Saturday, December 10, 2005

The big boned cat

We took the cats to the vet today. Other Cat is very strong, and it was murder trying to get to stuff her in the cat box. Fancy just walked right in her box. Bless.

The cats sang protest songs on the way up. Sadly, they were not in harmony.

We had to wait forever and we failed to bring anything to read. I learned all about Leo, the 17 year old cat. He has 3 to 6 months to live. Max and Lester, the fluffy dogs of breed unknown (to me) are old and sick. One is fat and the other is crazy. They both looked fine.

We read all the brochures in the waiting room and a notice appealing for the return of Bob the Cat, who is described as lost. Bob is a handsome sleek cat of tuxedo pattern and is sadly missed by his people and feline companions. His owners have seen Bob several times but he won't return to the house. Sad owners, let me give you a tip, Bob the Cat is gone. He ain't comin' back. He's found a better living situation. You have been left. Bob will come back when the people he found that he likes better than you fail to live up to his early hopeful expectations.

Our regular vet wasn't in, but the locum vet was very sweet. And even though I like our vet, I'm afraid seeing him is always colored by the memory of him killing our previous cat, who died of mouth cancer (well, technically of euthenasia drugs), taking a lot of our money with her as she went.

Other Cat had her examination first and the cat box had to up-ended and shaken before she would get onto the examination table. Fancy waltzed out of her box and pranced around the table demanding to be petted by the vet and the veterinary assistant. I was so pleased. For so long we've had freaky cats that ran and hid and I always worried that people would suspect us of abusing our cats. But Fancy is as gregarious as a cat can be and takes everything in her stride. Even the vet was impressed by her nonchalant reaction to the vaccination injection.

The locum vet, told us Other Cat was fat, putting her at risk of kitty heart attacks and feline diabetes, but that Fancy was just right. She suggested that we restrict Other Cat's diet and spend some quality time playing with her to keep her more active.

White and black cat garden
She's not fat, she's fluffy

welfare queen and curious justice

If ever, there was anyone deserving of the title "Welfare Queen", it's Julie Came.

But to be fair, she did work awfully hard. At her business as a market trader and at deception. She shopped hard, too. And played the London property game, all the while wrongfully claiming over £120,000 (around $200,000) in social security benefits, claiming to live the life of a pauper with her seven children in a tiny little London flat.

Despite her conviction for benefits fraud this week, she escapes a jail sentence because she's a single mother. When handed a posession order for £223 grand, she wrote a check for the full amount.


Contrast this with the case of Maya Evans*, this week convicted this week at Bow Street Magistrates Court of violating section 132 of the Serious Organised Crime and Police Act. Gosh, it sounds wicked, but what did she actually do?

She read out the names of each and every British soldier killed in Iraq at the Cenotaph (the memorial to war dead, with particular significance for the unidentified fallen of WWI).

But this broke the new law about protesting within a mile and a half of Parliament. A scandalous new law designed to get rid of one man, Brian Haw, who has been staging a protest in Parliament Square for years now. He has grandfathered protection from this law.

I don't agree with much of Brian Haw's position. But, I think his presence is a vivid reminder that England is one of the oldest democracies with a tradition of free speech. Getting rid of him and prosecuting others for peaceful protest is a scandal.

*Maya, too, escapes jail time. Good.

Friday, December 09, 2005

Sorry, we've run out of time for questions

The speech went well today. My ignorance was not revealed til the question and answer session - and the chair kindly stepped in and moved us on. I was speaking to auditors, and managed to get more than one laugh. That's a triumph. Hurray for performance enhancing drugs.


In the parking lot on the way out, I spied a car with a Alabama Crimson Tide window sticker. I could scarcely believe it. I left a note. Not sure they'll like it.


Despite the fact that London is known for its fog, in the time I've lived here it hasn't been a frequent occurence. Today, though, the day I need to drive a couple of hours on the motorway, it's a real pea souper.

The Brits, who spend so much time talking about the weather, ignore it completely when it comes to driving. They just do not slow down, rain, shine, snow, or fog. I will say that people allowed more than the usual six inches distance between cars at 80 miles per hour.


I stopped off at RHS Wisley on the way back. Lovely. Foggy.


Thursday, December 08, 2005

performance enhancing drugs

Well... I went to my local GP the other day for some antibiotics and while I was there I thought I might get me some nerve pills. See, I'm not the best traveller. I get nervous. And I have a 9 hour transatlantic journey ahead of me with a layover in Detroit. I'm not looking forward to it.

I'm not afraid of flying. I'm happy to do journeys of under 3 hours. I'm afraid of:

  • missing my train to the airport
  • missing my flight
  • going to the wrong terminal
  • leaving my passport at home
  • leaving my ticket at home
  • leaving the oven on
  • arriving at the airport the day after I have a valid ticket
  • getting the middle seat in the 5 seater central section
  • being surrounded by unpleasant passengers
  • being stuck on the plane for nine hours
  • being stuck on the plane for longer than nine hours because of malfunction, mis-scheduling or some other mis-adventure
Post 9/11 I have new worries. That they will hold my husband in some windowless cell in Detroit on visa entry violations (he's been a good boy), that they will touch my shoes, that some trigger happy air marshall will shoot us, or that they will have finally coordinated the passport checking system with the City of Knoxville's parking violation records (I have been bad).

So anyway, this all adds up to bad nerves for the Vol Abroad. Normally, I just self-medicate, but drinking on the plane is dehydrating and I've run out of the contraband Xanex that a relative in the medical profession gave me - or I just flip out. I asked for some Valium.

Me: Umm... so I get really nervous so could I have some Valium or maybe some Xanex?
GP: Have you taken this before?
Me: Well, not on an actual prescription.

Wrong approach. I know that now. When she said - you don't really want a sedative, I said I wouldn't mind, you know, sleeping on the plane. (I was thinking one on the way over, two on the way back and one for recreational purposes on Christmas Day - and perhaps one slipped in the drink of VolMom - she gets a little over excited at Christmas)

Anyway, she wouldn't give me the good drugs. She gave me beta-blockers instead. I was doubtful. I looked it up on the internet - and you know what beta-blockers are for? Post heart attack recovery and low grade anxiety. Stage fright, performance anxiety, that kind of thing. Apparently musicians use it all the time. I'm thinking...this isn't really going to be strong enough for me. But I was about to do some facilitation at a high pressure event, so I took one.

Hey, they really can help your performance. I'm a good facilitator, and I'm generally not too nervous running workshops, but I was so calm... despite the fact that I overslept, hadn't prepared because they hadn't given me it in advance, it was an absolutely crap brief (it was so bad that another facilitator actually teared up from the pressure of trying to run to brief) and I had a major nasty cold and chest infection plus some high profile people in my group. I have to say it went really well.

Tomorrow, I'm off speaking again, something that usually does make me nervous (though I do it and I hide the nerves well) and have I prepared adequately? Nahhh.. But that's ok. I have the performance enhancing drugs. I'll let you know how it goes.

Right where I belong...apparently

What do you know...

You Belong in London

A little old fashioned, and a little modern.
A little traditional, and a little bit punk rock.
A unique woman like you needs a city that offers everything.
No wonder you and London will get along so well.

I don't normally post these, but it just seemed so apt.

Tory roundup

David Cameron is the new Conservative leader, elected as expected by Tory party membership. He had his first Prime Minister's Question Time yesterday and by all accounts performed well. He decided to take a "non-confrontational" approach by supporting the Government education bill which takes power away from Local Education Authorities (administered by local councils) and puts it back in the hands of the schools and School Governors (parents and other local people - each school has a board.)

Mr Cameron has also appointed his new Shadow Cabinet. His opponent in the Tory leadership contest, David Davis remains Shadow Home Secretary (policing, immigration, etc) and William Hague rejoins the front benches as Shadow Foreign Secretary (similar role to Condaleeza Rice). These are both good choices, I think. David Davis was actually beginning to bite over the summer as Shadow Home Secretary and William Hague, well, I don't know what he knows about foreign policy, but he sure as heck is interesting to watch, and reputedly he's giving up over a million bucks a year in speaking fees to go back to the front bench. Hague was Leader following the dull, sad, scandalous years of John Major (dull and scandalous?, yep, an amazing achievement) and has been the most entertaining Conservative leader in all the years since Margaret Thatcher left. I'm glad to see him back.

Most of the people I work with are die-hard Labour, with the occasional Lib Dem. If you vote Conservative, you're advised to keep it to yourself. But some people were speculating that David Cameron might just put the Conservatives back in power. Of course, this is some years away, as we did just have a general election in May.

In other Tory news...Margaret Thatcher has been hopsitalised. She is old and unwell. Her son has been having quite a big of legal trouble (he tried to overthrow an African government!!). On the upside(??), her daughter Carol just won a reality tv show contest I'm a Celebrity Get Me Out of Here. I did not catch a single episode, but I don't wonder that the Baroness is feeling a little queasy.

Wednesday, December 07, 2005

If you were wondering...

There's an amusing anecdote about Christmas wishlists. A new British diplomat to Washington was warned about ethics violations and tempting gifts from powers foreign and domestic. He had been told that it was ok to accept gifts, if pressed, but that he should decline anything large and expensive, and ask instead for gifts of token value if refusal would offend.

Shortly after taking up office, he was called by a local newspaper and asked what he would like for Christmas. Mindful of diplomat's guidebook warnings, he said "If I must name something, perhaps just a small bowl of crystallised fruit."

A few days later, his request was listed in the Washington Post alongside those of other members of the diplomatic community who had stated that their Christmas wishes were: world peace, and end to hunger, a cure for cancer...

Ever mindful of this...I will make my Christmas list now. I emphatically do not want a small bowl of crystallised fruit, but that and peace in our time, an end to hunger, etc would be ok if you can't think of anything else to get me. Of course you can always make a contribution to my online Salvation Army kettle.

My christmas list:

  • Noise reducing headphones - just so I don't have to listen to the leak from other people's headphones on my daily commute.
  • A rain gauge: I don't know why I want one, but I do.
  • Some new cowboy boots - I've had to resole mine and it's time to do it again. I need a pair like these, but something like this might come in handy. But since I always wear trousers over my boots - imagine people's surprise when I cross my legs in a meeting, the trouser leg rides up a little - and the tooling on these boots appears.
  • A new oven.
  • I sort of fancy a new digital camera, but I can't want it enough since I can't actually be bothered to do the homework enough to figure out which one.
Interested parties, may wish to bookmark this page - as I will provide further updates.

Pets for the stars

I have really been struggling on the blog front this week. I've been quite sick..and I can't drum up much interest in the world around me.

But we did get our quarterly magazine from Battersea Dogs' and Cats' Home yesterday and there were a few interesting snippets.

We got our cat Fancy from Battersea, and let me tell you, their adoption process is tough. We had to go through a rigourous interview, but I was determined! (Partly, because I knew someone who is very successful but who had been turned down and it is known as the pet rescue rehomer to the Stars) It took us three visits to Battersea before we could get her.

2005-10-22 034

In this edition of Paws, there's an article about the rehoming process and the "top ten things you never knew."

Fact 4 is:

The rehoming process is the same for everyone, regardless of who you are. A fact which a major Hollywood star found rather surprising recently when we were unable to let him have a dog that was clearly wrong for him. But we are not mentioning any names!

Hmm... First of all, they let us have a cat that didn't fit our profile. We were supposed to get a male cat aged 2 to 3 of a quiet disposition. We got Fancy, female, 9 months and craaaazy.

The Vol-in-Law and I speculated who that might be. Which American is currently resident in London? Val Kilmer? Rob Lowe? No... these guys are in West End shows and will be moving back to America. Surely they wouldn't go for a pet. Kevin Spacey, perhaps?

Kevin Spacey already has a dog and was attacked when walking his dog near Kennington, South London.

Tuesday, December 06, 2005

Santa's hole in the ground

I did a bit of Christmas shopping yesterday in Covent Garden market. They have a big Christmas tree there - (and yes, it's called a Christmas tree) - and next to it is Santa's Grotto.


Santa's Grotto is where little kids go to see Santa in the UK, there are grottos in stores, malls, markets, etc.

I just don't understand why they think Santa lives in a cave. Santa lives here.

ViL: Sympathy for the Doctor?

Andrew Sullivan writes:
"Should we feel sorry for Condi Rice? She wasn't exactly the architect of the torture policies of the current administration, but she sure hasn't stopped them."

Hm, I find this an interesting question. I find the question of Dr Rice's morality - or lack of it - strangely fascinating. It's easy to peg Rumsfeld and Cheney as gleefully* malevolent people who do bad just for the sheer joyful fun of it, and Bush as an arrogant, nasty little spoiled brat pretending to be a good old boy. Powell was an intelligent, over-cautious and naturally rather weak (for a soldier) man whose adherence to basic norms of decency brought him into frequent conflict with Cheney/Rumsfeld, Rice acting as something of a mediator between the two. But I find Rice harder to peg. She's smart enough to know that torturing people may be fun, but is poor politics. She has done a consistently competent job as Sec of State, though perhaps that's only noteworthy because everyone else in the administration seems to fall so far short of that standard - we're at a stage where "American meets foreign leaders, no diplomatic disaster" has itself become noteworthy news. It's hard to tell - I don't think Rice approves of Rumsfeld/Cheney's antics, but there' no sign she disapproves of them on moral grounds, either. Yet if she did disapprove, she might not show it - that would be "disloyalty", the only sin Bush recognises, and certainly Rice has always been 100% loyal. Because of this, she has been a better Sec of State than Powell, I think. I don't know if she is a good person. I don't think she's exactly a bad person, in the sense that Rumsfeld/Cheney are bad, but it may be that she is largely amoral. There are worse people to be running the country than amoral pragmatists IMO - misguided idealists can be a lot worse. I suspect that she might make rather a good President - certainly much better than Bush - but that she is unlikely to run, because as a candidate a black woman would lose some of the Republican base, and I don't think Condi Rice would attract many defectors from the Democrats, black or white. I might be tempted to vote for her, but I don't get a vote, and I think the Vol prefers Hillary Clinton. And maybe she's right.
I dunno.

*OK, maybe calling Cheney 'gleeful' isn't quite right... but you've got to have seen that smug grin on Rumsfeld's face as he discusses (eg) how there's just not enough cash in the kitty to get vehicular armour for the Tennessee National Guard.

Granddad blogging: The war ends

Last week my grandfather related how he got some Nazi loot and this week the war ends...rather abruptly. Maybe he just got tired of talking about it. But not to worry, there's loads more of his life growing up in Wilson County, TN his time at UT and in Lawrenceburg, etc.

Finally the war got over and we wound up in Salzburg, we went through the mountains, the Austrian Alps the redoubt area, but they had guns set up supposedly to stop us when we went through there, but they didn’t shoot at us or do anything. And we wound up in Salzburg and stayed there a pretty good while, stayed in a little old hotel where the people did the cooking and all we had to do was get the food there, all I had to do was get it there.

And then after a while they decided they were gonna move and they moved us to Castle (?) Germany, and that was the town that the British bombed in retaliation for 2the bombing of Plymouth and Coventry and it was pitiful what they did to that town. But we stayed there for a little while and while we were there they decided that they were gonna move us again and they moved us down to Esviege (?) and that was right on the border where the Americans and the Russians came together and while we were at Esviege I taught school. I taught a little agriculture and I taught a little history and I taught _______ people and any people who couldn’t read and write how to read.

But that didn’t go on long til we got a notice that if you want to go to school in England to fill out a form and I filled one out and said I want to go to school some more. And I don’t where, not Stonehenge, but some Henge there was a military school close to London that’s where I was sent to, and I studied, I don’t know what I studied, not much of anything to tell you the truth. But I got passes and I went to London for several things and I went to Edinburgh. I saw the Queen, the present Queen, and her sister. Just rambled around over the countryside and then school was out and they shipped us back then to Stuttgart in Germany and we stayed there a while and then they decided we were going home. They sent us to a port of debarkation, I guess it was and caught a little old Liberty Ship and wound up in Camp Bradebury (?) Indiana and that’s where I was discharged. And that’s the end of my story.

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Sunday, December 04, 2005

Dear Phil

Dear Phil,

Thank you for your letter.

I appreciate that you are disappointed with the University of Tennessee 2005 football season. I agree that the results are simply not acceptable.

Last night I watched UT enter the field in a blaze of orange and white and crush their opponents mercilessly in a 70-3 walkover of a conference championship match. I was wearing orange and I was happy, but yet there was a bitterness in my heart. It was not my UT victorious. This year, I will not be putting up my orange and white Christmas decorations, for us this year football is over.

As I sat in the bar where some 100 US alumni watched post-regular season football, I saw a former University of Colorado linebacker and fellow American expat congratulate the Texans on their win and say it was a good game, and I had a revelation. In your letter, you state that the pride and the passion of Tennessee fans are what makes us unique. But I must beg to differ. We do have pride and passion, but what makes us special our is orneriness. Our arrogance when we win and our somber sullenness when we lose. We are not always the best sports. We draw dislike from many other fans, and they like to rub it in good when we lose.

I, as a Tennessee fan, will not be changing my sporting attitude, so I'm sure you appreciate why we really, really need to have a winning football team.

Looking forward to next season (but sullenly),

-Vol Abroad

Squirrel madness

A pack of squirrels in Russia have attacked and killed a dog. And there are unconfirmed reports of cat harassing herds of chipmunks.

Russian scientist says: "...things must be pretty bad in our forests." Yesss...see this photo from the Eastern forests.

Dispatch this kid quick.

  • I've been squirrel hunting, once, with this guy, but we never managed to see any, much less shoot any.
  • At a Royal Horticultural Society show recently, I overheard a woman say that she had squirrel problems in her garden. In a cut glass accent, she said "I catch them in a humane trap. And then plunge the trap into a water-filled trough. They drown very quickly."

Rex L Camino needs to get on the case, kinkajous and rabid 'roos, evil squirrels and chipmunks, too.

Saturday, December 03, 2005

Tooting High Street Shopping

A frequent commenter on this blog, "John Galt" asked me what would "high street" be in SW17.

For my American readers, I must first expain "high street" and then explain SW17.

The high street:
The high street is the main commercial/social road in an area, where all your "main street" shops will be found. Although there are some mega-malls in the UK, many people still shop in town centers. The high street often has the official name "_____ High Road".

SW17 is the first part of my post code - which covers the whole of the Tooting area proper - and in London these codes are used as short hand for a neighbourhood. Having the right post code can add tens of thousands to your property price. My post code is SW17 XXX, a friend of mine who lives not very far at all from me, lives at SW19 XXX. That's the Wimbledon post code, and even though she really lives in West Colliers Wood - and Colliers Wood is crapper than Tooting - she gets the respectability and the cost of the SW19 post code.

Mr Galt's question:
I can't tell if he was being a bit sarky (which would not be out of character for this reader) but he asked What do you consider High Street in SW17?- perhaps he is familiar with the less-than-salubrious atmosphere of SW17? Or he was genuinely curious - or maybe both? I'll have you know that we have not one, but two yuppie coffee shops near me. And my borough - the borough of Wandsworth - is famous for supporting five high streets, one of them Tooting High Road, when many London boroughs can manage but one. This fact is so well known, that I only discovered it last night, after the Vol-in-Law told me. (He had been reading the council's PR rag).

Anyway, Mr. Galt, a picture is worth a thousand words, let me give you a little sample of Tooting high street shopping.

Looking for something that will put a smile on your face?

2005-10-22 021
Hmm... surely they don't sell just odd looking succulents? No, look a little closer.

2005-10-22 022
I go past this store just about every day and I never see anyone go in or out.

Not your style? Then, how 'bout some menswear?


And, trust me, the clothes live up to the name... for example a silver tie and vest set, or a dashing white polyester lounge suit have previously been in the window. It looks like one big joke, but the store owners seem so sincere about it all.

Christmas charity

Gentle readers,

Please note the new image in sidebar. It's my Salvation Army online kettle. Your contribution to the online kettle will go to support needy families and individuals in Tennessee (and possibly North Alabama, since I used my 38464 Lawrenceburg, TN zip code).

I've always been a big fan of the Salvation Army, they do a lot of good work and some of it they do in very creative ways. Plus that Guys and Dolls musical is a hoot!

I hope that you will give generously or consider starting your own SA online kettle. If a few of us do this, we can club together for a group kettle for the Tennessee online community. To start your own go here: The Salvation Army Online Kettle Campaign

For my UK based readers, you must have a credit card billed to a US address to contribute to my kettle. If you are a UK taxpayer, then please give generously to the Salvation Army UK where your donation will qualify for Gift Aid.

Merry Christmas (or Happy Holidays, or whatever)

- Vol Abroad

P.S. I had to steal the image of the kettle off the SA website - they're not really set up for bloggers. But it's all in a good cause, right?

ViL: disparate treatment of racist murders

There's a thoughtful article in The Times today about the different sentencing treatment of the racist murderers in the two near-identical racist murders. They include a factoid that of 22 officially classified (by the Home Office) racist murders in 2001-2004, 12/22 victims were white.
Assuming you have to be non-white to commit an officially classified racist murder of a white, here's some arithmetic:

The CIA World Factbook puts the non-white population (2001 census) at 8% of the UK population. Apparently members of 8% of the population carried out 54.5% of the officially classified racist murders in the UK 2001-2004. By my reckoning that means that non-whites per capita carried out 6.8 times* as many racist murders as whites. Of course "non-whites" is a very fuzzy category (eg according to the FBI's crime data east-Asians in America commit far less crimes of all sorts than do American whites), but it gives the lie to claims that it's mostly whites who carry out racist attacks.

*Edit: If any of the 10 racist murders of non-whites were by non-whites, which is highly likely (eg there were apparently two racist murders of blacks by Pakistanis and one racist murder of a Pakistani by blacks in the riots recently) then whites would have committed less than 10/22 of the murders and this number would be higher.

Friday, December 02, 2005

The Joys of Cousin Marriage

A piece in The Guardian extols the joys of marrying your cousin, which lowers the IQ of progeny by an average 7 points and greatly raises the likelihood of various genetic diseases, especially among already-inbred populations. Around 60% of Pakistanis in Britain marry a first cousin, who is brought over from Pakistan. I think there are several good reasons for banning the practice in the UK.

London shopping

Well, I've always been a bit contrary in the shopping stakes. Consumer boom, I buy nothing. Retail downturn, I'm away to the shops.

Yesterday after shopping at Heal's (why have this store and I not come together before?) I remarked to the Vol-in-Law that I couldn't believe I hadn't done much London high street Christmas shopping in year's past. It's marvellous. At Heal's last night they were handing out glasses of wine, there was a jazz trio, young attractive people kept tempting me with fudge and candy and a chocolate fountain and chocolate fondue. I played roulette (didn't win, but it was a free bet and the croupier was so charmingly flirty.) Sure, they were all trying to sell me stuff, but it was fun

The Vol-in-Law remarked that high street (main street) shopping was down about 20 percent in London, blamed on the bombings. For me this has been a boon. I live in London. I travel on the underground almost every day. So, what's one more tube trip to me? I normally can't be dealing with the crowds, so reduced numbers are great. And I'm just loving all the tricks and treats stores use to entice shoppers.


What to buy all the people on my list? See I've blown a sickening amount of dough on our flights to Nashville.

I don't reckon that anyone in my family actually needs anything within my budget that they can't go out and get themselves. So let me set out a warning right now not to expect much.

I'm trying to get a few little London-y momentos. So I hope y'all all love your Big Ben snow globes. Beats switches and ashes.

Doin' the time for hate crime

Are hate crimes - cromes motivated by racist, sexist, sectarian or anti-gay feelings - any worse than a crime motivated by greed, rage, intoxication or sexual jealousy? I don't know. Honestly, I don't know. It does seem particularly shocking when someone is killed over a physical trait they can't control. But are the murder victims of any kind of horrific slaying any less dead? No.

Two juries have reached verdicts this week in the UK and two judges have passed down sentence. In both cases, two young men were killed after walking a female friend to the bus stop. In one case, a nice young man was killed with an ice axe in an unprovoked attack. In the other, a nice young man had his face kicked in and was stomped to death in an unprovoked attack.

In both cases, they were killed because their attackers perceived that the victim had crossed some sort of racial boundary. Anthony Walker was killed because he was black, lived in a predominantly white area of Liverpool and had a white girlfriend. Christopher Yates was killed because he was white and had spoken to some Asian men on a drunken rampage. His killers did not appreciate a white man interfering with "Asian business".

The sentencing for Anthony's killers is complicated, but basically 20-year-old Paul Taylor's sentenced started from 30 year minimum tarriffs because it was a racially motivated crime and was reduced to 23+ years because he pled guilty. Michael Barton, 17 years old, gets a minimum sentence of 12 years as a juvenile and then got a top-up of 5 years and 8 months because the crime was racially motivated.

Christopher's killers Sajid Zulfiqar, Zahid Bashir and Imran Maqsood (26, 24 and 22 yrs old) get 15 years each (half as much of the basic sentence of Anthony's adult murderer) because the judge determined that his murder was not racially motivated. It was so determined because Christopher's murderers had attacked people of other races during their destructive spree. True, they caused a ruction in a curry house (Asian victim), but they also accosted and shouted racial abuse at black victims. It seems particularly daft to me that racially abusing a black person means your murder of a white person wasn't racially motivated.

Neither family is happy with the tariffs handed down and feel the sentences should have been longer. I'm not too happy either.

I'm generally againt specific penalties or top-ups for hate crimes, because nearly all murders are motivated by hate. In the juxtaposition of these two cases - one a "hate crime" the other not - one young man's tragic slaying somehow weighs more than the other's. Each set of killers had hate in their hearts. The law should apply equally regardless of the skin color of the victim or the murderer.


Around the blogosphere: The law is an ass again from London Blog seems fairly reasonable to me, and rather predictably there are responses which smack of unpleasant racism themselves here and in the comments here.

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