An Empire Revisited

An Empire Revisited

People sometimes ask me, “What is the difference between baseball and cricket?”  The answer is simple.  Both are games of great skill involving balls and bats, but with this crucial difference: baseball is exciting, and when you go home at the end of the day you know who won. ~Bill Bryson, Notes from a Small Island

The morning of our recent London trip, the newspaper read that two unexploded car bombs had been found near Picadilly and Soho. A third incendiary bomb had been detonated at Glasgow Airport.  John Smeaton, a Glaswegian baggage handler, became a national hero when he tackled and fought with the terrorist bent on incinerating himself and an airport full of people headed for holiday after term break.  Smeaton shared with the BBC, “I thought to meeself, what’s the score here; I’ve got to get this sorted.”  After breaking his leg and teeth in the thrashing of the terrorist, “Smeats” was an instant celebrity – a subject of news specials, blogs and proud recognition.  His reward?  1000 pints of free lager at his local pub.  To other would-be attackers, he was heard to remark with strong Scottish accent and cigarette dangling from his mouth, “This is Glasgow, we will set about on ye.”

Much has changed since our time in the Emerald Isle four years ago.  Gordon Brown is now the Prime Minister of England.  Smoking is banned in all restuarants and pubs, lawyers air personal injury ads, the US dollar enjoys the exchange value of a Mexican peso, and the property prices have gone from ridiculous to absurd.  What has not changed is the constant rain that disrupts Wimbledon, tiny loos, the threat of terrorist activity, great ethnic food, the Royal family as the face of the realm and a National Health Service under siege.  The Royal Mail still arrives the day after a letter is posted.  Manchester United still leads the Premiere Division and, alas, the red eyed, shaved headed lad still stumbles onto London transport wearing his soccer jersey and a sweat suit, clutching a can of Black Carling lager and daring anyone to make eye contact.

The British enjoy a love/hate relationship with their own country.  The NY Times recently reviewed The Angry Isle – Hunting the English, a book by British critic and polemic, A.A. Gill.  His theory is that every classically British trait – stiff upper lip, stoic humility, good manners, keen wit – is an ingenious strategy to deflect anger.  Gill asserts that the English are a culture founded on rage and aggression.  “The English created the queue because if they did not they would kill each other.  Gardening is a displacement activity for unresolved anger.  Pets are preferred as it is easier to love something small and fuzzy than another human.  Nostalgia and deep reverence of the past have helped medicate the embarrassment of Britain no longer making history but merely being resigned to curate it.”

Tradition and history are tricky things.  While Continental Europe is long on tradition, it easily eschews history for the sake of modern conveniences.  Independent England will fight to the death to defend history as tradition – the pound, the Royal family and the size of a phone booth.  History and tradition are fraternal twins and nostalgia is their mother.

Jane Walmsley, an American married to a Brit, crafted a brilliant book called Brit Think, Ameri-Think, which humorously contrasts England’s clash of restraint and tradition with American loud naiveté.  Walmsley jokes that the English bathroom is so small because the British have so little roughage in their diet that they actually never need to use the loo.  As an ex-patriot, you come to understand how clearly your country defines you and that subconsciously we are walking caricatures whose footprints occasionally fit less flattering stereotypes.  Our English neighbors in London could always tell the American houses because every light in every room of every house was illuminated at night.  “It’s as if you are having a party each evening,” one remarked.  We were hopelessly uninformed about European government, law or history.  The Tudors?  Aren’t they kinds of houses?  And what about that strange extra toilet that sprayed like a drinking fountain?  (The kids kept trying to brush their teeth in it before some European friends explained the concept of a bidet.)

Returning to the UK after four years, we quickly fell under the spell of Central London – jogging under the massive elms and horse chestnut trees of Hyde Park, peering through the grated fence of Buckingham Palace hoping for a glimpse of the Queen, navigating the phalanx of pedestrians at Covent Garden, Leicester Square and Picadilly Circus and perching like a peregrine falcon atop the London Eye.  The theatre district remains a joy and high tea is still a tonic for anything that ails you.  London’s richest history is perhaps its most macabre, as recounted deep in the The London Dungeon where children hear stories of serial killers, plague, executions and the Great Fire of 1666.  Outside, the fickle weather unleashes great sweeping thunderstorms, hail, gusting winds, angry grey clouds and the constant tease of intermittent sunshine.

Our village of Wimbledon was dressed to the nines for the tennis tournament as players, visitors and locals mixed every evening in the Dog & Fox Pub and spilled out on to the high street.  Our old church, Emmanuel, had a message board that read, “God made Roger Federer.”  The vicar, Jonathon Fletcher, was quite proud of this; it drew attention to the pleasant Anglican Church.  We went on to Hampshire to overnight in a 500-year-old manor house.  Once the children were bedded down, the lady of the house shared “I did not want to alarm the children, but we have a very active ghost in the room where your daughter will be sleeping.”  My wife and daughter quickly conferred; it was decided that I should sleep in the haunted room.  Around midnight, the door creaked open and as I braced for a poltergeist, my son slipped into bed next to me.  I sighed in great relief…I did not want the house awakened by a grown man shrieking.  It would have been very bad form.

A few observations on touring England:  When boarding a tube, always put the children on first with an adult, lest you leave one on the platform.  Never give a child under 10 a pound coin (they are worth $2 and seem to slip from hands faster than greased acorns).  When anyone offers you pudding, take it.  Remember a yard is an abandoned lot.  A garden is a space in front or behind a home with flowers. Public school boys go to private schools and state schools are public.  The world of a teenager is made up of “shavs,” “skaters” and “preps.”

Although some inside and outside the UK may poke fun at the British, most Americans are Anglophiles at heart and Britain feels as if you’re visiting a close relative you never really got to know very well.  As for their unwavering support of America in these troubled times, we can learn a thing or two from our British cousins regarding their steely resolve, their patience, their pride…and their sense that regardless of what tomorrow brings, we must simply carry on.

Bye, Bye Bat Boy

Bye, Bye Bat Boy


Years ago, I returned home from work on a blazing Northern California Indian summer afternoon.  Our recently hired landscaper was drenched in sweat, installing a drip system on a steep hillside slope that fell to a retaining wall that abutted our ranch style home.  I quickly changed and went outside to offer him a glass of lemonade.  As we sat chatting, the conversation shifted from native plants and strategies to deter deer to hobbies and interests.  Bob shared his interest in “color therapy “- – the use of lights to help people get in touch with their hidden pasts and true identities.  As I innocently probed deeper, Bob revealed that “we” were all really slaves on earth and that an alien culture had brainwashed us into forgetting that we were not here of our own free will. He may have worn tinfoil inside his pith helmet to scramble the signals from the invisible aircraft hovering overhead.  This discussion, by the way, was years before the film, The Matrix, where Morpheous asks Neo to decide whether to eat the red pill and see the truth or the blue pill and continue to live in ignorance.  Perhaps Bob was also landscaping for a struggling screenwriter.


I am certain Bob was among the millions of periodic perusers of the scandalous grocery store periodical The Weekly World News.   It is with great regret that I learned last week that the Weekly World News had ceased its operations.  The purgatory of supermarket check out will never be the same as I can no longer be astounded by pictures of aliens shaking hands with Presidents, moms giving birth to 17 children at the same time, the teenager who hacked into heaven on his PC and my personal favorite:  Bat Boy Discovered In West Virginia Cave”.


       By Bill Creighton, Special Correspondent for the WWN:  Scientists claim to have found an astonishing “bat boy” in a West Virginia cave.  The strange creature has enormous amber eyes that enable him to see in the dark and oversized ears that work like radar….The boy appears to be four years old…and has started gaining weight since scientists altered his diet from human food to a room flooded with bugs


For those conspiracy theorists and the criminally insane, the Weekly World News was an important lifeline fueling their suspicion that there was a whole dimension of reality that was currently happening out of the eye of the general public.  Since the mysterious crash of what was rumored to be an alien aircraft in 1947 in an area adjacent to Roswell, New Mexico,  an undercurrent of anxiety has plagued America around suppressed stories of aliens, ghosts and of course, Elvis.  Over the course of my lifetime, I am certain I spent hundreds of dollars on the Weekly World News.  I often rushed home to share with my roommates the news stories that the syndicated media refused to run such as the ghost airliner that landed, bringing back dead rock stars who engaged in an impromptu concert shocking the city of Christchurch, New Zealand and then vanished again into the night.  The lineup was a who’s who of crash victims – Buddy Holly, The Big Bopper, Patsy Cline, Ritchie Valens, Stevie Ray Vaughn, Ronnie Van Zandt and Jim Croce.


Bat Boy held my interest longer than any other story.  He became a favorite marquee headline for the WWN.  That pesky little mutant escaped from the experimental facility where was being held.  He was recaptured.  He escaped and stole a car, rampaging across three states on a warped joy ride.  How Bat Boy actually learned to operate the vehicle was news enough.  The exclusive photos of the wide eyed, fanged freak behind the wheel of a purloined Explorer held America captive, or at least, it held Bob and I captive. 


From Michael Chiron, WWN correspondent:  Queen Elizabeth is reportedly set to knight Bat Boy after the intrepid freak of nature saved a British Patrol in Iraq….Palace insiders say that pressure to knight Bat Boy – who is more popular in British opinion polls than Prince Charles – will be impossible to resist…Bat Boy was later credited with helping US special forces find Saddam, thanks to the mutant’s sensitive nose and Saddam’s failure to bathe while hidden in his spider hole… Apparently, the defunct dictator was terrified and “went into hysterics “when the winged avenger leapt into his hiding place.  


 I read that Dick Cheney was indeed an alien which would explain his poor aim when hunting (he is much more accurate with a proton blaster) and his distain for anyone who could grow a beard.  I felt sympathy for the spouse of the logger who was held captive as a love slave by a female Bigfoot and when finally rescued had shouted at his wife, “can’t you just leave us alone? “ Talk about going native….There was the Pittsburgh man who died, went to Hell and was revived, only to report that Hell was great – – “loaded with booze, babes and one armed bandits” Perhaps, he had awoken from a blackout in Vegas.


I became envious of the WWN staff wondering if their Monday morning meetings resembled those of the early Saturday Night Live writers of Buck Henry, Harold Ramis, Chevy Chase, Al Franken and Tom Davis.  Was it like being a part of National Lampoon in the early 70’s where iconoclasts reigned and we were reminded to constantly question the sacred and sacrosanct?  Politics, celebrities, popular culture, religion, paranormal and historical events were all carefully reconstructed into a theatre of the absurd.  For many of us, we laughed hard.  We laughed at the audacity and the jaundiced journalism.  We appreciated that nothing was off limits and that anyone anywhere could be skewered with an outrageous lampoon.


In the end, the printers at the WWN fell silent.  The fact that Bat Boy was prophesized to become President in 2028 did not somehow reassure me.  It would be too long a wait.  I could not assuage my sense of depression that yet another independent view – – a twisted voice of satirical insanity was fading into the pantheons of literary kibble.  WWN was the intellectual equivalent of eating cotton candy but it was also a symbol of bizarre creativity.  It amused us and it challenged us to remember that imagination, humor and wit can find their place anywhere.  In a time where people and entire cultures are being categorized as either “friend or foe”, we need iconoclasts out there countering in their own crazy way, the absurdity of political dogma, rigid social mores and religious fundamentalism.  I am not sure anyone who sat around the editorial table at the WWN every Monday morning gave much thought to the significance of their “news”. However, in their own little way, they kept the field wide enough for all kinds of opinion. At a minimum, it made my wait in The Food Emporium a bit more tolerable. 


You’ll always be my wingman, Bat Boy.