Monday 26 October 2015
I’ve just been to England, but not just any England. I might have been in Somerset, Yorkshire, Shropshire or Kent, because the comforts I found on this trip to the Hertfordshire/Essex borders are available in all four corners of my native country.
On the occasion of her 80th birthday the Snapper’s mum quite rightly decided to celebrate, so we gathered en masse, family and friends, and raised a glass to the matriarch.
We had cake, craic and karaoke and enjoyed a perfectly splendid Saturday, yet for me as an Englishman living abroad, there was also much delight to be found in the framing of the occasion.
Everyone involved lives around Bishop’s Stortford, the nearest town to Stansted Airport, so when looking online for somewhere to stay I was spoiled for choice, but not one part of me wanted to stay in an antiseptic plastic menu hotel.
I wanted both of us to know we were in England, so I booked a room at the Cock Inn Hotel, in a tiny village called Sheering.
We arrived in the dark, so it wasn’t until the next morning, when we were driving to her folks’ place, that our eyes could feast on the surroundings.
This was the part of the world in which my wife was raised, for her steeped in memories. To me it was a joyous cocktail of new and nostalgia.
As she reminisced about discos in village halls and pointed out her old riding school, my sight soaked up woods of majestic oak, ponds by village greens and swathes of horse chestnut, their great splayed autumnal domes triggering my own memories of conker fights long gone.
On the Sunday morning we stood under blue skies watching the Snapper’s nephew play football. As a lifelong fan of the Beautiful Game it warmed the cockles of my heart to see so many young lads raised on the Premiership proud to wear the colours of their local town.
Much more organised and skillful than I was at their age, they kept their shape, passed the ball and won the game 4-1.
By the final whistle my warmed cockles had worn off a little, my fingers starting to feel a bit nippy. Playing FIFA 16 on the sofa might feel more comfy and less muddy, but it won’t teach the team ethic that’s growing inside those young lads.
My father-in-law very kindly invited us out to Sunday Lunch - so much more than two words to the English - in a country pub with a carvery. While the rows of glistening meaty joints looked tempting, my eyes were diverted by the Specials blackboard: Steak and Kidney Pudding.
Being in polite company, I wasn’t able to make the noise I wanted to when I saw that, but for those colyoomistas who remember the Carry On films, it was the sound that Kenneth Connor used to make whenever he saw a blonde in a bikini:
Indeed, the pudding did not disappoint. Steaming suet, chips, peas and gravy on the side, thank you very much, followed by sherry trifle and back at her folk’s later, a battle with the urge to snooze on the sofa.
I’m sure her parents wouldn’t have minded, but I hadn’t seen them for years, greatly enjoy their company and very much wanted to spare them the Adley Snore, which can, on occasion, be accompanied by a particularly sexy dribble.
That evening we found ourselves sitting on barstools, back at the Cock Inn. Even though there’s much I love about England, there’s little I truly miss, but a pint of fine real ale, hand pulled by the Landlord of a rural Free House ranks close to the top of that list.
Bill Bedford and his cheerful efficient crew at the Cock Inn work their collective socks off in a very competitive market. Just as in Ireland, the combination of smoking ban and heightened Drink Driving laws have closed far too many country pubs, and these days it very much comes down to how much food you can sell.
We didn’t get the chance to sample lunch at the Cock Inn, but if the ingredients in their breakfast were anything to go by, a good feed is guaranteed.
Having volunteered to drive the family around over the weekend, I now embraced the opportunity to take a drink. Landlord Bill was delighted to find in the Snapper someone who knew a great deal about wine, so while I made my way through a couple of hoppy fruity pints of Adnam’s Ghost Ship, he asked her about which wines he should sell in the pub and which he might save for special occasions.
When I made some noise about going to bed I found a fresh Jameson placed in front of me by my host, as if to say:
“You’re going nowhere, mate. I need to speak to your missis.”
Never one to look a whiskey in the mouth, I downed it and returned to the beer, taking it upon myself to find out if English bar snacks tasted as good as I remember.
After snarfing a huge bag of Twiglets I moved on to Cheeselets, finishing my orgy of self-indulgent piggery with the mighty finale of Pork Scratchings.
Then it was off to our warm and comfortable bedroom upstairs, but not before privately raising a glass to my own father.
Much-missed, he taught me how to behave at all occasions, from the poshest to the poorest. Above all he instilled within me the understanding that while you might enjoy staying in a plush hotel, eating the finest of foods, there is little better than a pie and a pint in an honest country pub.
So thanks Dad. You’d have loved the Cock Inn at Sheering.
Beyond the happiness of time spent with family, I found immense pleasure in discovering that the vision of England I miss exists still, allowing a corner of me to remain forever England.
© Charlie Adley
Sunday 18 October 2015
Your very own hitch-hiking space cadet,
courtesy of the excellent Allan Cavanagh of Caricatures Ireland
If you’re standing next to doctor at a party it’s hard not to mention your back pain, or your son’s allergies. In the same way, as a scribbler, people are always coming up to me with broad smiles and exuberant enthusiasm, announcing:
“Hey, I’ve got something for you to write about!”
It’d be plain ignorant not to listen to them, but more often than not their suggested material is exceptionally personal. While they think they’d like to see their tale of woe splashed over the media, 9 times out of 10 I don’t want the responsibility of being the bearer of their news, so I simply suggest that they should write about it themselves.
A hurt look appears in their eyes as they feel rejected, so then I have to rub salve on their wound.
“It’ll sound better coming from you. You feel it more!” I explain. “Send it to me when you’re done and I’ll edit it for you if you like.”
What mystifies me though is the tacit feeling among others that I might be suffering from a shortage of things to write about. Clearly their offers come from a benign and well-intentioned place, but do I approach architects and suggest houses they might build? Do I wander into a butcher’s and ask if I can cut up a carcass?
More to the point, do they really suppose that in a world crammed with 7 billion humans, there might ever be a lack of material?
Regular colyoomistas might by now be familiar with the way I describe our species as comprised of the ‘4 Effs of Humanity', but for you newbies out there it works like this: all of us are Freaked Out (life is scary), Fucked Up (we were raised by other humans), Fallible (yes very) and Fantastic (something we all too readily forget).
Given that unique cocktail of horror and joy, humans present themselves as the perfect inspiration for this scribbler.
Sitting outside Tigh Neactains on this rare sunny afternoon, I’m watching life in many of its forms on Galway TV. When I first arrived here in 1992, Galway was a city with a tourist season. Now it is very much a tourist city. 20 years ago the only class of tourist you’d find on the streets of the city at this time of year were well-off Americans whose kids had gone off to college.
Now coach parties parade along Quay Street, each pair walking next to and behind the others, as if still in position on the bus. With earplugs relating audio descriptions and phones raised to film shaky videos and take way more photos than they’ll ever need, these tourists are physically here, yet more involved in the process of visiting than being in the place.
Part of me wants to leap out my chair and point them all to the empty seats.
“Sit down and relax!” I might implore them if I were a much more friendly man. “This is the West of Ireland. You need to watch and chill out to truly sample our pleasures.”
That’d be great, save for the fact that they are all genuinely happy doing it their way. Not everyone enjoys sitting and doing nothing.
Yet really, in my stillness I’m as far from doing nothing as those rushing around very visibly doing lots.
The secret lies in the brainbox. Some people can process their lives on the go. Others like myself need time to sort it all out in the head, time to listen, watch and learn from others, time to stop and try to make some sense of this short sojourn we call life.
Some skills we nurture from childhood. I’ve always had the ability to space out, to stare at nothing in particular, while simultaneously contemplating everything.
At school I sat close to a window and was often reprimanded for not paying attention. In the fantastically egocentric way that 13 year-olds view the world, I used to feel unjustly accused: I had been paying attention. In fact I’d been incredibly focused, just not on whatever the teacher was warbling about.
It was the tall blade of grass outside the window that had earned my attention. That long plume of green leaf swaying in the breeze fascinated the hell out of me.
How old was it?
Why had it grown so much higher than all the other grassy stuff around it?
Had an animal poohed there and helped it grow?
How long was it going to survive, sticking out above all the other grass in that wind?
If I watched long enough would I see it fall over?
If I made funny contortions inside my brain, could I make it explode like that girl Carrie in the Stephen King book?
Boredom is a stranger to me. Everything is fascinating.
Doubtless this aptitude helped me enjoy the many roads I hitched. After the first 100,000 miles I stopped counting, but for years I was happy standing by the side of a road, in the middle of absolutely nowhere for hours, enjoying a view that maybe nobody had ever seen.
Eventually a car would stop, but for as long as it took, I’d stand there, loving my place in the world and the world’s place in my life.
It’s that mental skill - or failing - that helps me to pass time waiting for trains and planes. Put me in an airport or a station and I’ll happily pass time for many hours in a relaxed and happy fashion.
When I tire of watching people, my eyes stray to a window, where they’ll find a leafless tree, swaying in the distance. Doesn’t it look like an upside-down lung?
Now, thankfully, I’ve found my home, so I say thanks to all the people who have walked and lived before me. Thanks to all you who rush by, in such a hurry.
Maybe one day you might try stopping and let the world pass you by: it’s inspiring.
Tuesday 13 October 2015
Bring it on, that’s what I say. Bring on your Autumn gales that will bend the trees, ripping leaves from branches, swaying as if directing nature’s traffic.
Let the rains fall in great vertical sheets, so that we can barely see through them. Let it fall on the horizontal too, that notorious Galwegian sideways rain that finds its way under and through your protective clothing.
Let the turloughs rise once more from their seasonal underground retreats, splattering the landscape with a million extra lakes. A quarter of our back garden will disappear under water, and I will stand on the back step, wondering yet again if this year it will creep too close to the house.
Will the apple saplings and 4 year-old Oaky tree survive the flood? Well, younger and weaker they survived the last three Winters, so I’ll feel less fear this year.
I’ve no idea what Galway’s weather is like today, as I’m off visiting the Snapper’s family in England. This colyoom was written last week, while we were enjoying the calm of the blocking high pressure system that brought dry mild foggy weather.
Don’t get me wrong - I’m not in a rush to wish away this season. It feels wonderful to leave the jacket behind early in the morning, when I walk Lady Dog. By February I’ll be dreaming of wearing only a t-shirt on those walks. but after the failure of our Summer I’m not in the mood for any more meteorological mediocrity.
Autumn offers us a chance to ease into Winter; a contrast between the long days of heat and brief blips of Winter daylight, but ever since our cool dry June, there has been little more exciting than Summer rain and Autumn breezes.
Indeed, the leaves are barely browning on the trees, compared to their English cousins, already flying through the air in rushing flurries of russet and crinkle.
Normally I love this season. Walking the same bog road four or five times a week with Lady Dog, I’m privileged to see the minuscule changes that each plant undergoes.
As she stops to investigate another sniffy locale - in the process revealing to me the homes and highways of our prolific local wildlife, by virtue of trampled grasses running under hedges - I look around me and revel in the tranquility: the whisper of the breeze; the singing of the wind on the metal bars of a gate; the ferns, now collapsing under their own weight as they turn brown, when four months ago I watched the same leaves unfurl in a process that marries green lace doilies with party trumpets.
As the pink towers of willow herb whisp to white strands and fly away, it’s the turn of the thistles to stand tall, bursting with proud purple flowers. Old Man’s Beard and bright orange berries, plump sloes and fading ragwort are all pushed aside by rabid brambles, their burgeoning fruit contrasting perfectly with the bright yellow orchids that carpet the bog at this time of year.
Apart from the blackberries there is little growing out there beyond the bellies of small burrowing creatures, chowing down in preparation for hibernation.
Last year’s wild food harvest was so sumptuous we ended up freezing bags of blackberries and still to this day have a basket full of hazelnuts that should have been eaten months ago.
This year the countryside of the west of Ireland still feels wondrous, as it always will, but there is nothing unusual going on.
Having experienced life in extreme weather conditions elsewhere, I am grateful to be living in a temperate country, where for 300 days of the year sunshine and showers are the norm, while temperatures rarely stray beyond 10º- 20º C.
When I lived in Sonoma County, California, the midday temperature might reach 38º, at night dropping below freezing. I’d be de-icing my car windows before driving to work, and then, as the temperature soared, I’d take off one piece of clothing after another, as I commuted from high in hills shrouded by cooling Pacific fog, down to the baked valley below, parched dry, laying in the lee of the mountains.
It would stop raining in May and you’d not see a drop until November, when this Englishman was to be found dancing with joy and abandon in the car park outside my flat.
“Rain lovely wonderful life-giving rain! Yay! Yay! I love rain!” I sang, as bemused neighbours looked on.
We might dream of blue skies and dry heat, but after 7 months of dryness this soul cried out for seasonal change.
So while I love Autumn’s gently fetid smells and damp fungal wafts, I’m ready for something to hit. If we can’t enjoy real heat from the sun then let’s be cold. If we cannot have dry weather for weeks then let there be downpours.
The dark mornings are so hard, so difficult to deal with, but at the other end of Winter’s day I don’t mind the long evenings. As dusk falls around teatime, I allow myself to call an earlier end to my day; to turn on the lights, light the fire and prepare casseroles of beef, porky hotpots and Sunday roast dinners that bring the comfort of heat to our bellies.
Truth is, I’ll enjoy whatever nature brings, but here on the edge of the Atlantic Ocean, we sometimes experience the thrill of extreme conditions. During that recent Winter of 12 storms, each stronger than the last, there came a gust of wind which felt exactly like an earthquake jolt.
This house shook to its foundations, and several days later, whilst having breakfast in a pub 10 miles away, I heard others talking of the same gust, felt that far away at just the same time.
Feel free in February to remind me of this dreaming of storms. By then I’ll doubtless be regretting such rashness, but now I say:
“Bring it on!”
I’m ready for some big weather, whatever form it takes.
Monday 5 October 2015
Whispering Blue comes into the living room bearing two strong sweet mugs of tea.
“Thanks mate. Don’t know what came over me today in town, but I know I didn’t like it.”
“Why? What happened?”
“I left a trail of destruction in my wake, that’s what happened. Mad, really. Out there alone with the dog for days, really looking forward to coming into Galway, and then, oh dear god….”
Dropping my face into my hands I sigh and groan.
“Just went mental, mate. Shouting and screaming at people in shops and banks. Everything just seemed so bloody annoying. I apologised though, didn’t leave innocent victims wondering what they’d done. ‘Cept for the woman in the bank, She got no apology. Soon as I saw her grumpy face I knew she was on one. Not one please thank you hello or goodbye. Makes me go the other way, so I’m saying please and thank you as many times as I can, smiling at her to try and get a response, but there was no point.”
“So you shouted at her?”
“No, not her. Before I left I just turned to her and said I was sure that somewhere in her training the use of ‘hello, please, thank you!’ must have made an appearance. No, she was out of order, but it’ll be a while ’til I show my face in Marks and Sparks again, I can tell you!” My friend smiled, sipped his tea and leaned back in his armchair.
“Go on. What happened?”
“Well it was the special offer. I’m having a bit of a problem in the head at the moment with so-called special offers, because my local SuperValu have been sending me coupons that I never get right. Either I forget to take them or have them in my wallet and forget to use them, or the date’s wrong or I haven’t spent enough.
“When I used to shop at Tescos I felt a bit scared about how accurate their marketing was. They offered me coupons for products I bought regularly and money off any shop over 25 quid. But the Supervalu send me vouchers for stuff I never buy and they keep changing the amount I need to spend.
“Used to be a tenner off a 60 quid shop, but now some weeks I’m meant to spend 110 quid, 100 another, but most weeks my shopping comes in just under the ton. If they’re trying to get me to spend more than I need so I can save money, they’ve chosen the wrong punter.
“Anyway, so Marks had this offer with the Indian and Chinese - three sides two mains for 14 quid. Curry and rice, Singapore noodles and mini ribs, lovely jubbly. ‘Cept at the checkout I didn’t get the offer and just flipped my lid. I was roaring and shouting and swearing, the lot. Shocking behaviour.
“The women working there are well nice, didn’t deserve it, so I made sure to apologise, but turns out that the bloody Singapore noodles weren’t part of the deal. Same size, same shelf pretty much same ingredients as yer chicken chow mien, but one is on special and one isn’t. Bottom line though, not feeling good about losing it like that. Not at all.”
“Ah, it’s not just you mate. I was raging in town the other day and I couldn’t even tell you why.”
That made me feel substantially better. Whispering Blue is a calm gentle man. During a friendship of over 20 years, I’ve seen him lose his temper on rare and memorable occasions, but never without good cause.
“I know what you mean about the special offers.” he continued.
“The ones that drive me crazy are the Sky Eircom UPC deals, where you only pay 35 for the first three months but then you’re tied to a contract for a year paying 70 a month.”
“I know! It’s like they think we’re absolute morons. Trouble is they wouldn’t keep doing it if it didn’t work, so there must be loads of people out there stuffed to the gills with bills they can’t pay. Then there’s those mad offers that make me worry for us as a species. Like, y’know, if you buy your car insurance from idiotdrivers.ie you’ll get a free soft toy? I mean, who decides to buy their car insurance with a company because they’re going to get a teddy bear? I ask you.”
For a second we mirror each other, sitting back in our chairs, sipping our teas in silence. Inevitably it is your scribbler that makes the first noise.
“It just feels so Us and Them out there. Maybe that’s why we’re getting angry. They pretend they’re offering us something special, when all it does is make us feel like we’re getting screwed yet again.”
“Sure, if it’s bad now, just wait ’til they bring in TTIP.”
“God I know. Out of our hands, negotiated beyond our control, it’s going to turn Europe into America. Workers rights? Gone. Free healthcare? Gone. Food safety? Gone. Data protection? Gone.”
My friend sighed as he replied.
“Crazy days indeed, and you know, one of the worst things about TTIP is the way it allows corporations to sue countries. Right now Germany’s being sued for 4.7 billion by some Swedish energy company, just because it voted against using nuclear energy after the Fukushima disaster.”
“Bloody hell, I didn’t know that! Pure madness, mate.”
“Yep, it’s an insane Merry Go Round. You’ve got corporations suing the same governments who offered them billions in tax incentive bribes - ”
“ - while we're getting done over by both!” I interrupted. “Void of humanity they are, mate, monolithic predators prodding and teasing each other. We’re nothing more than fodder to them. Here, d’ya remember those huge piles of sugar beet that used to be left at the side of the road? That’s us now, that is. We’re the sugar beet. We’re the fodder.”
“Another cuppa mate?”
“Lovely, thanks! Now, what about the footie? City are looking good, eh?”