Tag Archives: Cultures

Caribbean Cruise: Part 5, The Finale

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Caribbean Cruise: Part 5, The Finale

And about time too. This Blog has been going on for months and needs to conclude. Problem? There are 3 more islands to visit. But as one island is much the same as the next (Aruba notwithstanding), the final 3 shall be handled here with much the sameness. The only difference is St. Vincent, though it is much like St. Lucia except that its claim to fame is providing the Jamaican scenery from Pirates of the Caribbean. So, I guess apart from that, St. Vincent is St. Lucia.

Some might disagree. It’s all a matter of perspective. It’s also a matter of all those hills, or mountains of a sort and bendy, twisty roads and palm trees and banana groves and volcanoes and hot weather. Oh, and very nice, but ubiquitous beaches. The other exception to this is St. Kitts which has mountains but we didn’t drive through them, just around them. St. Kitts also is where the Atlantic meets the Caribbean in this part of the world and you can see the two collide.

And since all of the Caribbean islands were formed from volcanoes spilling land from their tops and sides, it is no wonder that the islands in this part of the world have so many similarities. The third of the last 3 we visited, Antigua, was another beach day. We didn’t see much of the island. The sea was rough and someone said there was a shark sighting. More shell gathering. Not so memorable.

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Fryes beach, Antigua.

St. Kitts was another story. Our tour guide made the day. I called him Fancy Danman. He had a very dry sense of humour and loved to tell us at every turn that the British pretty well wiped out the indigenous people of St. Kitts. Never mind that everyone on the bus was British.  No one took the bait. We all acted like the polite British people we used to be. I say we because my family background goes back to William the Conqueror and Border Scots even though most of my life was lived in Canada. Mostly I am polite. I wanted to tell old Fancy Danman to blame the privileged classes of Britain for past misdemeanours, but my best friend gave me one of those looks and I kept quiet. That too is very British unless one is a Football/Soccer Hooligan.

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Fancy Danman (aka Rastaman) our guide on St. Kitts.

Most of St. Kitts seems to be for Medical and Veterinary students from everywhere. Then there is the old sugar plantation with a Batik shop that is the real reason we were here. Lovely stuff….not cheap. We didn’t feel guilty because St. Kitts had been spared the worst of Hurricane Irma. We stopped where the Atlantic Ocean meets the Caribbean Sea complete with a lady in a shack painting pictures for tourists. I went in and bought one of an island couple in traditional dress.

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One of the medical colleges on St. Kitts.

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Woman working on Batik.

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Batik drying at old sugar plantation on St. Kitts.

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Where the Atlantic Ocean meets the Caribbean Sea.

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The artist’s studio on St. Kitts.

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The artist in her ramshackle studio on St. Kitts.

Back on the bus and off to a cliff that overlooked a lava rock beach. Quite a sight. But the best feature of this tourist spot was at the back of our bus. Our driver, not Fancy Danman, had lowered a ledge behind the bus and was supplying us with another very potent rum punch. I kept going back for refills, and though we were supposed to have only one, the driver obliged with a knowing wink. Tourism is thirsty work.

I felt no pain for the rest of the trip. When we got back to Bassetierre, we walked into town to find a bank to replenish our dwindling funds. In the middle of one garden square is the statue of a half-naked island girl. It was commissioned by the British government to stand atop the tall plinth in Trafalgar Square. But it was deemed too risqué for the sensibilities of Victorian England and so Admiral Horatio Nelson won the honoured spot. That’s how Fancy Danman told it anyway. I have been unsuccessful in finding any corroborating evidence to Danman’s story, but he would be the first to say it is a conspiracy of silence.

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The clock tower in Bassetierre’s town centre.

So much for politics. On to St. Vincent. Our day began on a catamaran, the reverse of our day on St. Lucia. The sea was rough this day and we bobbed about like a cork. Some people were sick and the rest of us just hung on. We passed all the places used in the filming of Pirates of the Caribbean, including the bay that substituted for Nassau Town (Jamaica) where actor Johnny Depp was said to have been drunk for the entire 3 months of filming here. Apparently, it became impossible for Depp to stay at the resort nearby because of the damage he did to the place and so he was moved to a boat anchored in the bay with his own onboard chef and rowed to the day’s film shoot.

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Rainbow from the bow of the catamaran.

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Scene used in first Pirates of the Caribbean film.

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Lava Beach where I snorkeled.

We anchored at a beach consisting of black lava sand. One of the film’s scenes was filmed here (the one with the big wheel for all those who know the movies) and we were told we could swim or snorkel. Problem is, the trip planners had not said we had a swimming break. I went in any way with mask and snorkel….and not much else (island fever had taken over). Lots of colourful fishies. But the current was strong and at one point I had to crawl up on to the lava beach to catch my breath. Ended up cleaning lava sand from every part of me for the rest of the day.

When I got back on the catamaran, the crew was handing out ….you guessed it….more of that potent rum punch. But before that, those of us who had braved the waves were asked if we would like to sample a special rum. I am a gamer. What I didn’t know was that this rum was 90% proof and I swallowed it all at once. Like lighted gasoline in the throat and belly. Forgot my pain. And washed it out of my system with a few rum punches.

We headed shoreside to the place where lunch was arranged, along with one free drink. But to get there, we ploughed through some of the roughest water yet. By this time, I was feeling no fear or pain and ended up on the bow of the catamaran, holding on to a guy wire, woohooing all the way to shore. No wonder sailors drank rum. Gets you through anything.

Once safely ashore, we had lunch at a restaurant by the water. I ate my chicken something or other and drank my locally brewed Hairoun beer as I watched little sand crabs moving about, disappearing down holes at the slightest sign of danger. They move very quickly. After a stop at another Botanical garden and waterfall, we drove the long, twisting, up and down road to our ship in Kingstown. Then it was off to Barbados and the flight back to cold, wet England.

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Enjoying a Hairoun brewski on St. Vincent.

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Waterfall at the Botanical Garden on St.Vincent.

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Crossing the rickety bridge in the Botanical Garden on St. Vincent.

Ciao Caribbean Cruise. Like a distant memory as I write this. Will I ever go back? Most of me says ‘Been there, done that’ but you never know. If I ever do, it won’t be to Grenada. I’ll probably stick to Majorca….closer and cheaper….so far.

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And it’s goodbye from the Caribbean.

Caribbean Cruise: Part 3A, Grenada

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Caribbean Cruise: Part 3A, Grenada

I’ve talked to a lot of people about the Caribbean Islands. Everyone has a favourite. And it follows there are islands they don’t particularly care for. We had a great time on St. Lucia, one of the next 2 islands we visited. Someone I met said they hated the place. Someone else loved Grenada. Not me. Here are my reasons for loving one and not so much the other. A tale of two islands. Grenada first.

Grenada, the Spice Island. Well, it’s supposed to be. But Hurricane Irma of  last September decimated the crop and because the storm hit the United States, everyone forgot about Grenada. Not a good year for the island. And not a great tour of the island for we tourists. Not because of the problems of the poor islanders, but because of our tour guide. The worst in history. My history at least. He was, without doubt, out of his depth and quite useless. I’ll tell you why, shall I?

The day was a very hot and humid one to begin with. This must be understood or nothing I am about to tell you is going to sound as harrowing as the day ended up being. And before I get too Dickensian about it all, let me say I could write a book about our day on Grenada. I still remember in 1983 when America, plus some others, invaded the island to rid it of a perceived communist threat. Anyway, without researching, that’s how I remember it. Weird politics and machete wielding islanders makes you wonder. Still, fascinating all the same.

So, our driver picks us up in the worst minibus of those waiting at the port at St. George’s to take others from our ship hither and yon over the island. We were supposed to be on a 3 hour trip. Turned out we were the last to get back to the ship. First, let me tell you about driving through St. George’s. The streets are narrow and clogged with traffic, both vehicular and human. People stare at us as we go by….slowly by….as if we have no business being there, but please leave us your money. I guess you can’t blame them in one sense. Most of us only barely tolerate tourists in our back yards.

Finally we leave the confines of the city and begin the endless ascent into the very high hills, along winding roads, hairpin bends, houses on stilts and amazing views of the bays below. Our driver hadn’t said a word to us yet, after 30 minutes on the tour. We had to wonder what we were looking at. And the young driver delighted in shifting gears so that the minibus lurched forward with each change of gear. Then we stalled, started up again, stalled again. This happened a few times before we finally came to a halt for good, on a hill between two sharp bends. It was hot, humid and we were nowhere.

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houses in the hills on stilts.

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Going nowhere in the heat.

The driver mumbled something and got off the minibus, looking the thing over as if it might tell him what was wrong. He managed to communicate with one of our passengers that he would call for help and we should stay on the bus. Forget that in this heat. All 18 of us filed off the bus, taking our chances in the hot, humid morning air. The driver protested our leaving….health and safety and all that….but we were having none of it, being stuck in a hot tin can.

Some of us questioned the driver as to the possible reasons for the breakdown. He just shrugged his shoulders and got on his mobile (cell) phone to call for help. The rest of us tried to find shade where we could find it. Fortunately, we had parked right in front of a house with a large veranda that seemed to be empty. The front of the house was on pretty solid ground. The back was on stilts. Most of the passengers sat on the steps of the veranda, battling the ants that kept trying to greet them. Some of us wandered about exploring the area. We became a great source of amusement to all who drove by, especially the locals.

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Keeping cool on the veranda in Grenada.

Good news, the driver announced to a couple of us who stood near him, waiting for information. Help was on its way and would be here in 15 minutes, a replacement vehicle he said. An hour and a half later, a taxi with a couple of tourists inside pulled up behind the bus. A man got out carrying a jerry can full of petrol. We hadn’t broken down after all. The twit had run out of gas. He claims his petrol gauge was broken. He also told one of our fellow travellers that the reason he could not give us any information about what we were looking at was his microphone was broken. Strike 2

The chap who had the jerry can forgot to bring a spout to get the petrol into the bus. He hunted around until he found an empty plastic water bottle and proceeded to ask us if any of us had a knife. Oh yes, of course we do. They issue them to us as we leave the ship to fend off marauding communists. No, we don’t. You’d never get them by the ship’s scanner anyway. Another search for something sharp. He finds a coconut shell, smashes it in two and uses a sharp edge to cut the plastic bottle into a makeshift funnel. Enterprising but an annoying waste of time.

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Pouring the petrol everywhere.

As the petrol spilled over on to the side of the road as much as was poured into the bus, we all began gathering back around our vehicle in anticipation of finally getting on our way. As the gas cap was closed, we noticed movement from our bus. The driver was not back inside and we were all standing outside. The bus was moving backwards on its own and about to ram the taxi behind. We all yelled and our driver was quick enough to get to the brake in time. Just. He said the parking brake failed. Actually, he hadn’t put it on. Strike 3 and we still had the whole day ahead.

So we got on our way, in silence, trying to guess what sites we were viewing as we twisted our way up one hill and down the same, then around a sharp bend and up again and down until we found ourselves in one of those villages that time has forgotten. Locals walked around as if in a trance. We were here in a village with no name….our driver didn’t tell us and when asked mumbled something incoherent….to visit a nutmeg factory. It was an open barn with lizardy things crawling around the floor. The place had not had a makeover since being constructed many years before. Nothing was going on and the guide from the factory was incomprehensible. So, we learned nothing.

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The Nutmeg Factory

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A shop in Nutmeg Town.

I left the group and wandered about looking at cobwebs and sacks of what I presumed contained nutmeg at some stage of  usefulness. Put me off the spice once and for all. Nothing worse than knowing where your food comes from. Everyone was herded through the strangest gift shop before getting back on the bus. A few items on rickety shelves and postcards that had been on display since who knows when, dog-eared and wrinkled. No one was in the mood to purchase anything. The shopkeeper, a sour-faced woman, didn’t seem to care. She sat reading a magazine, never looking up. Island malaise.

And back on the road, this time to a volcanic lake. That was it. A small lake surrounded by trees. Nothing to see here really and, of course, no info coming from our driver, with or without a microphone. We drove up to a place that overlooked the lake….ought to have come here in the first place….where souvenirs were sold and gardens could be viewed. But we were behind schedule and had no time for that. Three old toothless men played island tunes badly on instruments they really had no idea how to play. But you have to make money some way I guess.

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The Volcanic lake

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The Volcanic lake from the tourist spot.

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The Touirist Spot

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What we had no time to explore.

By now the sun was sinking but the driver was determined to get us to every scheduled site. The last stop was at a lovely waterfall with beautiful gardens and the chance to swim in the lagoon beneath. Trouble is, by now it was nearly dark. At first the chap looking after the entrance booth didn’t want to let us in because it was too late. But somehow our driver convinced the him to let us enter. By the time we reached the waterfall, it was dark and the pathway wet and slippery. No time for a swim. A quick photo, with flash, and off we went, back to the bus, slipping and sliding all the way, iPhones lighting the way.

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The Volcanic Waterfall in the dark.

Friday night in St. George’s. Traffic worse than when we left that morning. People everywhere. A ballet of chaos and colour. Our bus edged along. We could see our ship now, but couldn’t get to it. When we arrived at the port….finally…. everything was shut. No one was around to let us onto the quay. We yelled. We banged things and finally a man came and let us through. The ship couldn’t leave without us, but all they knew, once we arrived at the gangway, was that we were missing. No one had told them on board where we were. Lost on Grenada.

We went as a group to the desk on the 5th deck that handled trips and we complained through a group rep. They don’t like complainers, but a mob they cannot ignore. We got a refund for the trip. Don’t misunderstand me, please. The island is lush and verdant, teeming with life and lots of mountainous terrain. Invading it would not be easy. Exploring it is not easy. Never going back is a breeze.

 

Chilli Day

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Chilli Day

Let’s talk all things spicy. Perhaps not all things, just those related to food. Specifically, let’s talk chillies. All kinds of chillies from everywhere. Whether you are a person who loves your food hot and spicy or as plain as boiled rice, sometime in your life one chilli or another has shown up in your food. If you’ve ever eaten chilli con carne, you’ll have had chillies in spades….unless you’re like my best friend who likes her chilli (not her favourite meal) mild as can be. Chilliless.

So, on the heels of the Sausage Sizzle, here we are in Eddie’s BMW, top down on a hot August afternoon, heading for Benington, a small village 4 miles east of Stevenage in Hertfordshire. We were going with Eddie, Mimz and two other friends, Sandy and Graham. Graham took his Porsche with its top down too. Regal travel and all. The destination was The 2017 Chilli Festival held at Benington Lordship Gardens, featuring 7 acres of gardens, a carp pond, an old Georgian Manor House and the ruins of a Norman motte and bailey castle. So very English wot?

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The Norman Gate.

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Castle wall ruins and gardens

I remember years ago in Canada, some Italian guy I worked with on the Eaton’s (like John Lewis in Britain) delivery trucks gave me a pepper from his lunch and dared me to eat it whole. Poor naive me did just that and paid the price. I can’t remember what variety it was but when it took hold, it nearly killed me. I have been wary ever since. But my interest was piqued during the finale of the Chilli festival when the annual chilli eating contest was held.

9 brave or reckless souls sat at a table with a beer and a bucket in front of each of them before the contest commenced. The MC had been running the show for years and educated us as the event wore on as to the name and effect each pepper would have on the contestants. Chillies are rated by their SHUs (Scoville Heat units). The New Mexico green Chilli, for example, can be anywhere from 0-70,000 SHUs. That seems quite a range, but most of us, except for my best friend, can handle them.

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Beware of the Chilli. Booth at the Chilli Festival.

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Chilli Festival and rolling hills of the Benington Lordship Gardens.

From there, we go up the scale until we get to a chilli known as Dragon’s Breath from Wales of all places. It has a SHU of 2.48 million. The chemical produced by the pod of chillies is capsaicin. If you swallowed a vial of that, you’d be ingesting 16 million SHU and you’d be dead. But then even eating a whole Dragon’s Breath can kill you. It was developed not to be eaten but to be put as an anaesthesia on the skin for people who can not have normal anaesthetic.

The competitors started with chillies at around 100,000 SHU and it went up from there. By the time they got to the Scotch Bonnets at around 500,000 SHUs, only half of the group remained. Then it was on to around 800,000 SHU and more dropped away, using the buckets provided to….well, you know. Red Cross folk were on hand to provide aid to contestants who were overcome by their chillies. They had milk and sugar cubes to counter the effects. Interesting.

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Some of the Gardens and the gardener’s house.

 

One young man who began foaming at the mouth and dribbling profusely hung in there despite his anguish. The audience began to chant ‘Dribbler, Dribbler….’ but Dribbler had enough and off he went. Two remained. They had to eat a whole pepper at 1.6 million SHU and did so. It looked for a moment like the contest would end in a draw, but one of the two decided he couldn’t go on and took a sip of the beer….which meant he capitulated. The winner got a case of Budweiser beer as his prize. No thanks.

Meanwhile, a Chilli Festival was going on….60 pitches (booths) with everything from chilli cheeses to chilli chocolate, fudge, chutney, sauces, pickles, seeds, plants and, naturally, booze. These were the top echelon of independent chilli traders. Very nice and all but a bit samey after a while. There was a carp pond and lovely gardens as well as views of rolling countryside. A very satisfying way to spend a holiday Monday. My life is full. But not of chilli. The only thing we ended up buying was a non-chilli  butterscotch, spicy liqueur. Hot enough on its own.

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Chilli stalls and Manor House.

We wandered about in the heat after arriving and getting something to eat first. The food vendors were from many cultures. There was Greek, Texan, Italian, British, of course, South American and South African. I had a South African steak sandwich with chakalaka….some spicy tomato, onion and pepper mix. Yummy. Then it was on to the Chilli festival and all that I described. What a treat. I must say I tried to sample at least the sweet stuff. Loved it. And I do like some chilli in my chocolate.

Started in 2006, the Festival has grown in size and popularity. It runs for 3 days over the Bank Holiday weekend. They even have entertainment for the whole family. This year it was the famous Bruce Airhead (never heard of him) and his big green balloon. But the hit of the show was the young lad Mr. Airhead picked from the audience who, much to the surprise of even the Airhead, actually entertained us with an array of gymnastic routines while the famous Bruce prepared his balloon. I think the lad was supposed to be a flop, but fooled us all. Even Bruce admitted that perhaps he ought to step aside and let the kid do the show.

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Bruce Airhead and his young assistant.

Just before the chilli eating contest, my best friend and I found a shaded spot beside the marquee where the contest was to be held. A man, dressed in those khaki shorts with millions of pockets, an unironed T-shirt and a pair of well-worn brown trainers (sneakers) sat in a chair just in front of us. A woman came from the audience and introduced herself to this chap as the wife of someone he knew. They spoke of food preparation or something. Turned out to be Richard Bott, owner of the place. Unassuming, charming and so very English, right down to the shoes.

Part way through the proceedings, I just happened to look up into the wide, blue yonder and there, flying right over head was the beautiful sight of a Second World War Spitfire. Made my day as the next contestant headed off behind the marquee to empty his insides into a bucket.

 

 

JAMES for PM

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I have met some real characters in my life. My best friend would tell you I’m one of them. Most of them I’ve got to know after spending time with them. My boat neighbours Eddie and Mimz are real characters, formed by the trials, tribulations, adventures and sensitivities their lives have led them to. My best friend is a character. That’s all I’m going to say about that. Except that she’s a character in a good way as are our boat neighbours.

We’ve all run across bad characters, sociopaths and even psychopaths. I have known a number of the former and a couple of the latter. Dangerous characters in so many ways, many of which are undetectable by normal characters. A normal character is a person who is crazy but has learned to curb the crazies and has great empathy for all the other crazies around them. We support each other rather than use each other….mostly.

I knew a man, a character par excellence, the mayor of a town I used to live in, who proposed that prozac ought to be put in the water system of our town to chill everyone out. Not a bad idea I thought at the time. He was a good politician because he told me of his plan in confidence, never making it a public statement. And, after all, most of the world relies on one drug or another to get them through the day. All I need is a small pork pie, a hunk of cheese, an apple and a glass of wine. And music.

I like rebels. Not destructive ones mind you. I like the kind that stand against the system when it has become lax, lazy, fat and even corrupt or just too big for its own hat. The rebels that I like in particular are the comic sort, the ones who tell it like it is but who also make us laugh while doing it. There are some clever clogs out there. Astute, funny, fearless types that make us think as well as laugh.

So, I was sitting with my best friend and neighbours Eddie and Mimz (she of marinagate and Cagney and Lacey fame) by their boat in Cassiobury Park a while ago enjoying a glass of wine in the sunshine, when two men walked by. As they passed, one of them turned sharply and called back to us, “Did you vote?” Stunned silence on our part. “Pardon?” Eddie asked. “Simple enough question mate. Did you vote?” My best friend and I indicated that we had. “Did you vote for Corbyn?” he asked. Silence on our part. Didn’t stop him from carrying on….”Well, if you didn’t, you should’ve.” he said.

“They’re all rubbish.” says Eddie, “All politicians. Liars, the lot of them. Don’t matter who’s in, they all promise the moon and give you nothing in the end.” Well, that set old James off. Back he trots with his friend in tow and begins a 4 hour tirade on the evils of the powers-that-be, the NHS (National Health Service), the invasion of foreign workers (with a tip to their industriousness over British workers), the lazy and disrespectful youth of Britain, foreign policy, the price of things, greed, sloth in general, the righteousness of Corbyn (the Labour Party leader who gave Theresa May and the Tories the fright of their life in the recent general election), the lack of justice….well, you get the idea.

He did it all in a machine gun verbal delivery that left us breathless and by hour 3 quite ready to do him in. But we didn’t. We listened politely and laughed at his take on things, which were, as I said earlier, quite humorous. At the end of each topical diatribe, he would end with, “And you know what they can all do with that? They can all f..k right off!” It became a theme. I’m no prude. I would have written the word fuck, but I felt it might be a smidge indelicate given the wide group of readers you’ve become.

And, I must say, most of what James had to say rang true with the 4 of us. His powers of observation dazzled us. He had that old kind of cockney wit that said it like it is and makes no apologies for it. Well stated, quite pithy in parts, great delivery and passion behind it all. I told him his talents were wasted. He ought to go down to Speakers’ Corner in Hyde Park. He’d be a hit there. James said he would have to decline on the grounds that only old geezers with a grudge and religious nuts ended up there. “Besides,” he said, ” you’re not allowed to curse or swear. That’d do me in right there. And you mustn’t say anything against her Maj. Well, she can f…k right off with the rest of them.”

With all due respect to the Queen, James had a point. Really, what has she to do with his life on a daily basis? James relies entirely on the people around him to give him support, be trustworthy, keep him safe and feed him. James, you see, lives in a place that looks after those who have broken down mentally….at least as society sees it. Rather than deal with the growing number of people in Britain with mental issues, the government feigns doing something by coming out with pamphlets warning us to be aware of this or that mental condition and to seek help. They don’t say where or how long you have to wait to be seen. And, bless her, her Maj can’t do anything about it….or can she? Does she? If she does, James doesn’t know about it.

So, they can all just ‘F’ right off. Maybe James should be the Prime Minister and the Royal head of state all in one. Couldn’t do any worse and we’d all have a lot of laughs. Anyway, after 4 hours of James’s platform, he said his goodbyes. His mate, an Iraqi who came here a number of years ago to escape the madness in his own country and ended up going mad here, had gone 2 hours previously. He’s obviously had heard it all before from his mate. I wish them both well. I’d vote for James. And if you think I’m crazy too, you can just….well, you know.

Henge Madness

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I was in Swindon not long ago. Not my favourite town. The people we visited are though. Nice couple. My best friend and the lady of the duo used to work together in London in the Civil Service. The male is a Doctor Who fanatic and has a collection of memorabilia that does the doctor proud. He also has other Super Hero stuff and a bunch of comic books. Shades of The Big Bang Theory (TV program for those less erudite among you).

No one goes to Swindon for a holiday or for cultural reasons. Even their football team was relegated to a lower division this year. And the Chinese restaurant we went to in town was closing that night after 14 years of trying to get Swindonians to eat more exotic dishes than Sunday roasts. Not a happening town. Unless you live there I guess. The last time we visited, the couple in question had moved from one new house to another, better built home, across the road from a farm and fields that were a protected property. Protected from greedy developers that is.

The protection comes from another source than it being a farm. You see, out there in that field lies what is commonly known as a Stone Circle, an ancient grouping of rocks that quite probably had astronomical and spiritual significance to people thousands of years ago. Their real purpose is lost in time, but some good guesses have been made over the centuries since. Mostly, many of these sites were abandoned for whatever reason eons ago and locals pilfered the stone for building and such and no one appears to have written anything we know about or have found that indicates their actual use.

But that doesn’t stop the theories or groups of wannabe druids, witches, pagans and the like adopting the various stone circles as the birthplace of their particular religious practices. Groups gather at significant astronomical times of the year….winter solstice, spring equinox, summer solstice and the autumn (fall) equinox….to sing, dance naked, wear other ancient garb or offer various sacrifices to whomever or whatever as a way of maintaining harmony and balance in the universe. Works for some.

Stonehenge, on the Salisbury Plain, has long been the ‘go to’ site for all and sundry, from pagans to Chinese tourists. Nearby is Avebury, not as spectacular but definitely worth the visit, a collection of  various sized stones and a big ditch around it. At other places all over Wiltshire, these stone circles abound. Some have completely disappeared. Henges are a little different because they involve earth works around them and sometimes they are wooden circles, but all these  circles and henges are understood to be linked together somehow. It is estimated that around 1300 stone circles exist in Britain. Many of them are dotted in and around Yorkshire. Some chappy estimates there are some 31 in the county of Wiltshire.

They missed one. Ours. Well, not ours, but I’m claiming it. It has a name and apparently it is now protected. Only 5 stones remain and they are fairly flat to the ground. It’s now known as The Coate Stone Circle. I didn’t name it (Googled it later). I just found it again when it had become lost. Out of sight, hidden from the masses and all but forgotten. Sit down and let me tell you a tale.

So, here we were, visiting our friends in Swindon…or just outside. They live in a very new housing development. As I said, bare fields lay across the street. We visited there once before, heard tell of said stone circle and carried on with the visit with the promise we would go to see it sometime. But this time, I said, ‘let’s go see this stone circle. I’m feeling quite nostalgic and stuff’. So, we put on our shoes and off we went.

It’s all so new that we had to gingerly walk across a patch of freshly laid and evened out soil over the road that led to the fields. They hadn’t even put down the sod yet. Our footprints were left all over the neatly groomed surface. Couldn’t be avoided. Our quest had to be fulfilled at any cost….or nearly any cost. We didn’t even know what to look for or where to find it. I guess that’s why it’s a quest.

We made it to the fields, the intrepid 4. A path lay before us. You needed a path because the grass and other weeds had grown as high as my waist in some places. And we were supposed to find a stone circle in this. Not a marker anywhere to be seen. No sign board with historical data….nothing. Very disappointing. But we were determined to find the stone circle if it took all day (it was 4pm and we had a dinner reservation for 5:30, so not that determined).

We waded through deep grass, sweeping aside huge swaths of the stuff to find some sign that the stone circle did, in fact, exist. Over this way, back that, crisscrossing the large field until, BINGO! there it was. A large rock, gnarled and worn. One of us stood on it while the others went searching for other stones. We found 2 more, smaller stones, buried deep in the grass. Progress. I stood on this one while our intrepid friend went wading off looking for more. So far, all we had was an arch of 3 stones.

Eureka! He found 2 in a row pointing west to where the summer solstice sun sets. That was our conclusion. 5 stones, which I was later to discover is the exact amount found by those experts who rate these places as the real stone circle deal or just another bunch of rocks in a farmer’s field. Were there other stones here? Probably. We may never know. What went on here? Like with the other stone circles and henges we may never know.  We have some good guesses (like ours), but no certainty. A mystery.

There shall probably never be a crowd of tourists in this field as at Stonehenge or Avebury or the like. But we intrepid 4 marked the place and wondered back through the ages as we stood on Coate Stone Circle what kind of folk stood here and what they were doing. And, I hear tell, a group gathers here at summer solstice to dance naked around the stones. They’ll have to cut the grass first….then I’m in.

Boat Stuff

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Boat Stuff

It has been nearly a year and a half since we entered the new life of canal narrowboating, unlike any other boating on earth. And we love it. Most of the time. No sour grapes here. Just doses of reality during moments of sobriety and general clear headedness. Living in a fixed home, on land, with plenty of room to spare never looked so good when things go wrong on a boat.

Not that we’d ever give up the boating life. Only old age and waning energy will determine how long we continue at this gig. Dying of old age on the boat is the best case scenario….but not for a long time to come hopefully. We simply ride through any problems that might occur on the boat and move on or not, depending on where we are at any moment. Most of our narowboating life so far has been static, living in a marina. In fact, we have only been on the move for about 3 weeks out of our time on board.

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Our arrival at Apsley Marina in August of 2016.

As I write this, it’s Christmas Eve 2016 and my best friend and I are spending Christmas at our old house in Welling, Kent. My best friend’s son owns the house now and their clan is gathering for the festive feast day tomorrow. A bit unusual Blogging on Christmas Eve, but I’m battling man flu and need a distraction. We’ve actually been here for a couple of days already and things are as familiar as ever and constantly warm. It doesn’t help that we are in the winter season and have to work hard to keep the boat warm.

And as I write this, I’m back on the boat and it’s the New Year. The steel tube, all 60 feet of it was freezing when we returned after our 5 days in a house. You could see your breath. So, we put on the old (or rather new) Wabasto central heating system while we lit a new fire. Took a while to heat up, but we got there in the end.

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The addition of a new pram cover for the stern.

All that aside, it has been a learning curve that continues to teach the longer we live on a narrowboat. And I’m always worried I may have missed some crucial information on this or that technical matter. Keeps me awake some nights wondering if there might be water in the bilge or did I shut this or that appliance or gizmo off or had I forgotten to close a hatch (which I did one time….messy).

The key to surviving this lifestyle is in making friends, especially ones with practical skills. I have none, other than writing and playing one of my musical instruments. Technical stuff either baffles or annoys me. I try to learn, but, really, the inner workings of a diesel engine, while fascinating, do not, by choice mind you, become part of my integrated working knowledge of all things fussy. I am an habitual asker for help. Let someone who knows what they’re doing do it. Besides, I’m a rather tall, large guy and my engine room is small and tight.

But it’s like anything else you do that’s new to you. You make mistakes and learn from them. Most often. I have the nasty habit of repeating mistakes and paying for them….in every way. Just, on a boat, a mistake can be costly….in every way. Haven’t made one of those errors yet. Hope I never do. Remaining diligent for a guy with the attention span of a gnat, takes a lot of energy. Energy I need for other things….like writing these Blogs and learning a new riff on my guitar.

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So, would I do it all again if I knew then what I now know? Probably. Because now,at least, I have an idea what this narrowboating is all about and still love most of it. At the moment, we are expecting a cold snap. That will be a test. And I’m running out of coal. But come March, all will be well again and from then until October, we look forward to happy cruising. Going north this time. Going south into the great city of London last summer was a once in a lifetime experience.

The chores of the day are done. Two shitters emptied, cleaned out and put back into place. Filled the water tank in anticipation of the cold snap. Filled the coal scuttle for the fire. Washed and dried the supper dishes. Threw out the rubbish over in the big bins in the bin shed. Skyped with my youngest who lives in Toronto at the moment. Made sure the boat was secure for the night and finally am finishing this Blog that began on Christmas Eve. The consummate procrastinator.

Keep warm and dry everyone. At least most of you live on dry land. But even you still have chores to do. What else is new? Oh, and I’m still battling man flu….just keeps coming back. Couldn’t be because I live on a narrowboat, a long, steel tube in the dead of winter….do you think? Nah.

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Can you spot our boat?

Are You In Or Are You Out?

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I don’t usually get political. Yes, I think all politicians are either corrupt or power hungry and I’ve said so, but that’s where I leave it. I have to say, though, living in England for the past 11 years has given me a new look at politics. Government politics in Canada is always a dull, forgettable affair, unless it’s between French Canadians and the rest of Canada. The same cannot be said in Britain. In fact, the political scene here is actually quite entertaining and very funny.

I say this on the day that Britain votes to either stay in the European Union (not to be confused with the old European Common Market) or leave that ‘union’ and go it alone. I put the word union in parentheses because what we have in Europe is anything but unity. That, in the first place, is laughable. The French intensely dislike the English. For that matter, everyone in Europe hates the English. I say English instead of British. That’s because the English that go over to the continent have a habit of annoying the shit out of everyone else.

The Germans look through their monocles down their noses at the rest of Europe, knowing that whether through war or ‘peace’, they alone carry the burden of economically unifying the unwieldy beast called Europe. The new idea out of the land of the Hun is that since the fall of the Roman Empire, we are all Aryan at heart and probably genetically too. Even the British monarchy are of German decent.

Italy just wants to party….on its own. And it still thinks the Roman Empire will make a comeback. Doesn’t matter where you are in the world, Italians still think they are Italian even if they are born in another country. Inside Italy there is, of course, the usual regionalism as in all countries. It’s a wonder anybody , anywhere in Europe gets along. Oh, wait a minute, no one does. Not even at football (soccer) matches. The Croatians lobbed lighted flares at each other and their own players during a UEFA EURO match against the Czech Republic. Not surprising given their history, but silly nonetheless.

Sweden? Fine thanks. But hard pressed to find solidly good reasons to remain in the union. Their neighbours, Norway, are doing very well without it, thank you very much. I bet Sweden wishes it had followed Norway’s path.

Then we have the Greeks. They want it all and they want it now. They tried to stop spending but are now worse than bankrupt. Same with Spain, except the Spanish are more clever. They finesse their way out of trouble, acting like wealthy clients while actually being broke, skint, brassic. The Greeks are not so subtle. The world sees the results. Cultures clash and unity flies out the window. Nice idea, unity, but bureaucrats aren’t interested in the unity of the species, just the GNP bottom line. It’s the corporations who win in the end, not the corner grocer, the office slave or me.

Now throw into the mix all the old Soviet Union satellite countries in what we refer to as Eastern Europeans and the whole system gets mired in an economic stew that offers no way out. Except that the lingua franca of the world happens to be the one native only to Britain (if you can call Cockney or Geordie english).

Yes, learn a few english phrases, as the world does, and then come to Britain because the economic system in place has been a generous one. If I were Romanian earning about £1.10 an hour (minimum wage) in Romania, why not go to the UK….because I can….and work for 7 times that amount per hour. Even if my employer gives me less than minimum wage, let’s say £3 less, I’m still ahead. I can rent a room with several other compatriots, work 3 different jobs (I’m young and don’t need a lot of sleep) and still have money to send home to Romania. Most of those old Slavic states are in the same predicament.

There is no good or bad here, just economics. It doesn’t mean Bulgarian or Polish workers come to the UK for the sake of unity and good will. As I said before, no one likes the English anyway. I have spoken to a number of economic migrants (usually in restaurants, hotels or bars and pubs). They, naturally, tell you how bad the weather is and want to talk about their homelands. Perfectly understandable. I have only met one who does not want to return one day to his native land. That’s because he’s gay and his country takes a hard line against homosexuals. He still has national pride, though, drummed into him from birth.

Over here, in the land in question, the English are the ones pushing for a vote to leave the EU. Not all, mind you. The polls show that the race is close. And herein lies the humour of the whole damned thing. No one has a clue what will happen if Britain leaves the EU. So, to convince the electorate which way to vote, the politicians (sometimes on opposing sides of the same party) use scare tactics to convince us to vote this way or that. It got crazy. Leaving risked war. Staying meant open borders and losing national health. Leaving meant we’d all go broke. Staying means we can’t trade with whomever we choose. Leaving means free movement of labour will be stopped. Staying means we can’t deport even the hardened criminals and terrorists.

It goes on and on. Finger pointing. Name calling. Even John Cleese of Monty Python and Fawlty Towers fame has waded in for the Leave campaign. There has been a comedy of errors and uninformed and uneducated opinions on both sides. There is nothing more comical than Englishmen losing their wick. Especially posh ones. Obama came over to plead with us to stay. Michael Moore, the documentary film maker said it would be insane to leave. Normally, the English don’t give a shit what Americans think, but the Remain side have fallen over bacwards to accommodate their views.

And so today we voted, my best friend and I, torn between agreeing we have to leave while agreeing perhaps we ought to stay. I’ll not say where we put our ‘X’. Meanwhile, in typical English style, the heavens opened and flooded some areas of London and the south east. Older voters who would probably have voted to leave couldn’t leave their homes to exercise their franchise. Some are claiming the Remain campaign planned it this way, seeding the clouds. The Remainers just laugh into their Belgian waffles.

I have talked mainly about England. The Scots say they’ll vote to stay and if we leave they’ll leave the UK….again. The Welsh are divided. They will probably vote to Stay just to stick the middle finger up to the English. The Nothern Irish are too hungover after making it into the final 16 at the EUFA EURO football tournament in France to bother voting. Whatever happens when we wake up in the morning, two things shall remain clear. The Glastonbury music festival will be ready to roll….in the mud as usual….and Wimbledon shall go on as usual next week.