Monthly Archives: October 2009

Spooky in the UK

I’ve been living in the UK for 13 years, and only now is Halloween starting to get the attention it so rightly deserves.

When I first arrived in this country, there was an oblivious-ness.  Oh yeah, Halloween – that’s something you Yanks do, right?

Then there was the sneering acknowledgement: Halloween – dreadful commercialism and disgusting creeping Americanisation.

And now there’s a kind of acceptance of Halloween, a bit of dressing up, a bit of candy,  Bill’s nursery had a Halloween party and went all out on the decorations.  And Bill went all out on the offered snacks…unfortunately for his little tummy and our sheets.

We’ll see how the trick or treating goes down tonight.  Must stock up on our Halloween candy.

Evil petting zoo

Petting zoos have been getting a bad rap in the UK lately.  Several have been shut down after a nasty E coli outbreak among the toddlers who were visiting the farm style attractions.  The main source of concern was a petting zoo I’d been planning to visit shortly before news of the first hospitalizations emerged.

Lucky escape.

But at the same time, there was significant debate about whether petting zoos or farm attractions for city kids like our Bill should be allowed for the under-5s or at all.

From a Guardian story about a month ago:

The number of cases of E coli linked to a farm in Surrey rose to 64 today as the government asked a panel of experts to decide whether children should be banned from petting farm animals.

The decision to rethink the current guidance came after one of the country’s leading authorities on diseases said parents should “think very hard” about letting under-fives touch animals at petting farms.

Think.very.hard. about petting animals at a petting farm.  What is it, an evil petting zoo?

Swine Flu

In a turn-about in a sort of  ‘Man Bites Dog’ news story, some fine pigs displayed at the Minnesota State Fair came down with swine flu.  It’s suspected that the porcine victim caught it from one of the 1.8 million visitors to the fair.

We’ve probably had swine flu over the last week.  We went through the National Pandemic Centre online and were diagnosed with flu and given a special code to pick up our free doses of Tamiflu.  We were never actually confirmed as H1N1 carriers, but since I don’t think the normal seasonal flu has hit big, I’m reasonably confident that we had swine flu.

It wasn’t the worst flu I’ve had, but it was the worst one I’ve had in a long time.  I missed a whole week of work and for me that’s unbelievable.  Our boy Bill had it, too.  But he didn’t suffer nearly as bad as his parents, which meant that we had to not only deal with our illness but (slightly less than normal, but still) overactive toddler.

We managed to get out today for the first time.  And where did we go?  To local petting farm.

Feeding the sheep

Feeding the sheep

But we did not let Bill touch the pigs.



Because they bite.

On our way out, as we passed the red spotted pigs we passed some folks commenting on the possiblity of catching Swine Flu from the pigs at the farm.

Simon whispered to me “That’s not where their imminent danger lies.”


From an oral history I took with my grandfather.

When I first went to the University of Tennessee [1935-36?], I didn’t know how to dance and they had mixers where they had boys and girls would come and learn to dance and learn to meet each other.  Maybe I already knew how to dance then, I don’t know.  But it was at the gymnasium – old gym – Alumni Memorial Gym at the University of Tennessee.

At that time nobody’d ever heard of air conditioning and they had great big fans.[1] There were lots of people there dancing.  Lots and lots of ‘em.  There was a little short girl, her name was Sadie something, I’ve forgotten what, from Opaloosa, Louisiana.  I was dancin’ with her, and of course I chew mints all the time now, but back then I don’t think they had mints and I chewed gum all the time.  It was hot and I danced over and got in front of one of those fans so we could cool off.  She was a little short girl and her head came up just about under my chin and I was a-chewin’ away on the gum and danced over there to that fan and her hair blew up in my mouth.  It got tangled up in that chewing gum and I didn’t know what in the world I was gonna do.

I think I told you or some of ‘em later on that I got so hot that the gum melted but actually what I did, I started chewing with my teeth and I chewed her hair in two that was on the gum.  I don’t know whether she ever missed the hair or not.   I don’t know whether she ever figured it out or not.  Sadie, I’ve forgotten her last name.  But that was a hot night in more ways than one.  It was.  It was.

[1] At the time I attended the University of Tennessee, starting in 1988, Alumni Gym still had no air conditioning.  They still relied on those giant, ancient fans to keep it comfortable.  I don’t doubt that those fans were the same ones my grandfather remembers.

Kanye on the Cumberland

This is a story from a cousin of a cousin (who may or may not be a cousin  of mine) that I saw on Facebook.   Do you have to be from Middle Tennessee to appreciate it?

Mister and I portrayed Thomas and Mary Elizabeth Ryman (as in the famous Ryman Auditorium) in a historical cemetery tour over the weekend. Part of his script talked about how Ryman and his dad froze flatboats full of water in the winter, then cut blocks of ice from the boats (and sometimes from the frozen Cumberland River) and stored them in caves & whatnot, usually packed in sawdust, till the summer.

Now, some of you who have been to Monticello have seen Thomas Jefferson’s icehouse, which is a big ol’ stone pit where they stored blocks of ice. So when Mister got to his part about the ice, I said……

“Mr. Ryman, that’s all remarkably fascinating, and I’ma let you finish, but Thomas Jefferson had the best icehouse of all time.”

From Ariedana

The Nobel Peace prize and my random thoughts

Some lucky year Barack Ombama’s having, first the US Presidency and then the Nobel Peace Prize.   Sweet.  Did he deserve it? No. He hasn’t done anything yet.  Should he accept it? Yes.  What can you do “No, I spit on your silly prize.  I spit on peace.  Spplshttzss!”


It’s good that Obama won the Nobel Peace Prize.  One more win for America. We should have everything.  USA! USA!


At the gym yesterday, I was watching Bonnie Greer (American commentator-artiste type with longstanding British connections) and some pasty-puffy neo-con-ish British politcal pundit having a discussion on Sky News about whether or not Obama deserved the prize.  Bonnie was saying “It’s in the gift of the Nobel prize committee, they can give it to whom they like.”

Well, that’s certainly true.

And pasty-puff guy was saying “But he hasn’t done anything yet except be elected. He hasn’t really had time to do anything yet.”

Well, that also seems to be true.

Then I noticed that the Shakira She-Wolf video was playing on another channel, and that seemed a bit more important, so I switched the sound channel to that.  When Shakira stopped with the heavy breathing and the cage dancing (she certainly is limber).   Bonnie and the pundit were still going.  Here’s what they said:

Her: It’s in the gift of the Nobel prize committee, they can give it to whom they like.

Him: But he hasn’t done anything yet except be elected. He hasn’t really had time to do anything yet


You know who I feel sorry for in all this? Michelle Obama.

Last week Simon and I moved the bed in our room and since the floor slopes so badly in our old terraced house, we had to do some secondary re-inforcement [bodging] so our feet wouldn’t be higher than our heads.   I was less than happy with the stability of the arrangement.  Simon assured me that the stability was fine, I did not agree.

Me: It’s not ok.

Him: It’s fine

Me: How many civil-engineering courses have you had?*

Him: are you trying to pull some kind of “science” rank on me.

Me: Yes (although technically engineering is not science)

So imagine the Obama household.  Some kind of argument or bickering.

Michelle:  I think we should vacation in the Hamptons and not Hawaii this year.

Barack: Are you the President?

Michelle: Well, I don’t really think that’s relevant.

Barack: I think you should seek an alternative path to resolving this dispute.

Michelle:  What?

Barack:  How many Nobel Peace prizes do you have?


If the Nobel Peace Prize is awared to Barack Obama for potential and a call to action, shouldn’t the real prize then go to the American people.   So that’s about 3 kronor-cents per person or whatever they call it.  By the way, I found more kronor than that when I was going through the glove box of my old car.


* I’ve had hydo-geology and geo-hydrology (one’s more science slanted, the other more engineering slanted) so in fact I am qualified to determine the porosity and permeability of our furniture.

Scrumpy Bill

Just as Eve knew, forbidden fruit tastes the sweetest.  The apple trees at RHS Wisley don’t provide the knowledge of good and evil, but for many their fruits are absolutely irresistable.

We often go to Wisley to enjoy the beautiful gardens, including the extensive apple orchards.   Beautiful during Spring, in Autumn the boughs heavy laden with fruit are not only a visual treat and fragrant with apples, but the fruit is pretty tasty, too.  (I’m told.)



Signs within the orchard advise visitors that picking fruit is strictly not allowed and that even windfall apples are used for scientific monitoring or cider.  But the sheer volume of rotting apples on the ground suggest otherwise.

The rot sets in

The rot sets in


The English are a law-abiding lot in general.  They like to queue.  They like things to be orderly.  They are respecters of rules and regulations to a degree which has occasionally seemed stifling to me (a natural born scofflaw).  But when it comes to gardens or flower shows, all that goes out the window.  Little old ladies will elbow and shove to get a better view of a show garden at Hampton Court.  The scariest moment I’ve ever had on the Underground was the press of gardening groupies shoving to get out at Sloane Square on their way to the Chelsea Flower Show.  Fortunately, extra police had been laid on. There’s also a well-known problem of keen gardeners taking a little cutting here or pinching a few seeds there from the garden of the Royal Horticultural Society (of which I am a member) and the blooming borders of stately homes.

And when it comes to the apples at Wisley…

I should first add that every single person who walks through the garden gates at Wisley is outwardly respectable.  No slackers or slouchers.  Generally people dress up a bit, smart casual – as they say. These are not people who would steal produce from the grocery store or filch a newspaper or make an illegal download of an old episode of  Gardener’s World.

But the apples at Wisley, for those in the know, are irresistable. A bit of scrumping is not unknown.

From the urban dictionary (for the sensitive, please skip past the first definition)

Definition 2:  Stealing fruit, especially apples, from someone else’s trees. British. It’s considered less bad than, say, shoplifting, but adults still disapprove.

Defintion 3:  The act of stealing apples from a cider orchard. (The word comes from Scrumpy cider) This term cannot be applied to a town or city enviroment. For example you couldn’t steal a stereo and call it ‘urban scrumping’

There are different approaches to middle-class scrumping.  Some people slink between the rows of apples trees, making a quick look around to see who’s watching before furtively taking some fruit.  Some walk brazenly through the central avenues, chomping apples, juice on chin and pockets stuffed with apples for later.

Some are justifiers.  One middle-aged couple saw us picnicking in the orchard without any visible purloined fruit.   They were enjoying an apple each.  “It’s alright to pick up the windfall,” they said.

Others are instigators.  Another couple who might have been bankers or teachers or government regulators held-up some half-eaten apples “These are the most delicious apples.  It’s called Melon.  So sweet – they’re just over there.”

And us?  Well…I’d like to say that we stayed above it all and had every intention of following the rules if we hadn’t been led astray by Scrumpy Bill. This is my story, and I am sticking with it.

Bill slept through our early tour of Wisley, but I woke him up in the orchard as I wanted him to see the apples on the tree.  He was grumpy at first, but then realised he was in an apple wonderland.  He loved running through the rows of apple trees.

Trying his hand at a bit of harvesting:

Finding the perfect windfall:

We couldnt stop him.

We couldn't stop him.

And sharing the biggest apple ever:

Thats a mighty big apple

That's a mighty big apple

Viewing in Facebook, originally posted at my blog Skimming the Surface.

There’ll be feathers on the streets of London

License-to-kill London birds, to license to the kill the birds

License-to-kill London birds, to license to the kill the birds

Yesterday out of the corner of my eye I saw this Evening Standard teaser board and my first thought, crazy thought, I know…was “license-to-kill” James Bond parakeets, ‘cos that would be cool.

But I knew without looking up the story that this was the declaration of open season on London’s growing population of feral green parakeets. There are various explanations as to how the parakeets came to London in the first place, escaped from the film set of the African Queen, released by Jimmi Hendrix as a symbol of psychadelic peace, escaped from a pet store…and so on. But however they came, they can be spotted in many of the parks of South West London.

I love them. I think they’re cheery, especially since their breeding season is in January so their bright green is often the only thing that colourful in gray and bleak midwinter. But apparently many people think they’re a nuisance – and apparently a group of them chattering in the early hours in your back garden can drive people to distraction.

So now they’ve removed some layers of bureacracy when it comes to a parakeet cull.

In hiding

In hiding

According to the Daily Mail:

Other species also added to the ‘general licence’ hit-list include the monk parakeet from South America, which can occasionally be found in the northern Home Counties, the Canada goose and the Egyptian goose.

Can’t say I’m particularly cut up about Canadian geese having their numbers reduced, but Egyptian Geese!  I’m shocked and deeply disappointed.  Egyptian Geese are my favorite birds, the only goose I’m not absolutely terrified of.

No open season on the Egyptian Goose please

No open season on the Egyptian Goose please

The commonality of all the birds on the hit list is that they’re foreigners.   Blatant discrimination.  The fact is these birds will work harder and for less bird seed than the native working birds, who frankly have become a little soft.