Monday, August 27, 2007

Don't Tap Your Foot In The John

I couldn't have made this up if I'd tried. A U.S. senator from Idaho was arrested in June in the Minneapolis airport for "lewd conduct" in the men's room; he pled guilty in court but now says he was misunderstood and shouldn't have entered the plea. If he wasn't guilty, then I agree, he shouldn't have pled guilty; he says he was "trying to handle the matter myself".

The incredible part, however, is the account of the arrest:
Roll Call, citing the report, said Sgt. Dave Karsnia made the arrest after an encounter in which he was seated in a stall next to a stall occupied by Craig. Karsnia described Craig tapping his foot, which Karsnia said he "recognized as a signal used by persons wishing to engage in lewd conduct."
The message here is clear: under no circumstances should a gentleman, sitting in a bathroom stall in Minneapolis, tap his foot. You will be misinterpreted. You may be arrested.

No doubt some of my erudite readers will respond to this post saying that I'm wrong, and Sgt. Karsnia was right, and men tapping their feet in the bathroom are soliciting all sorts of lewd and indecent conduct. But I still think the whole thing is ridiculous. Is it now illegal to have a nervous tic that causes one to tap one's foot while sitting for a short period?? Give me a break.


If he'd lived this long, this Friday, August 31, would have been my father's 100th birthday. In fact, he died in 1994, at the age of 86; but the 100th anniversary of his birth has me thinking about him and his life.

He was the youngest of 5 in a hardscrabble Missouri farming family; he was the only sibling to finish high school. It took him until he was 21, because he had to work to support his mother. Issues I won't discuss here caused my grandmother to leave my grandfather when Dad was around 3 - they got back together, and then separated again, off and on for most of his childhood, which was not easy; as I said, he worked through high school. In fact, he worked most of his life; by the time he was old, he defined himself by the work he could do, which got to be a problem when he began to fail physically. He was never good at relaxing.

As the youngest son, and the last child to marry, he was the one who helped support his mother through the Depression - and half the time, the rest of his family and their children as well, since only one of his sisters married a man who would reliably support her, and his oldest brother was in and out of work. My grandmother was, in fact, quite capable herself - family legend says that she once ran a sawmill, and we know she worked in a cafeteria for the telephone company in Wichita, Kansas, because while doing that she injured her back and couldn't work any more. And none of the jobs they had ever paid what we'd call good money. So my dad worked - in an ice cream factory, in a shoe store, in whatever job would pay him. The ice cream factory was across town; he had half an hour for lunch, and it was a 10 minute trolley ride each way, so he rode the trolley home, ate lunch in 10 minutes, and rode back. He could clean a plate faster than anyone else at the table. He tried working in the fields in Texas but couldn't take the heat - he always had trouble with dehydration - so, back to Wichita and the shoe store.

The mantra today is that we must have a job that we like, a job that fulfills us - we're told to follow our passion. Dad's passion was to have any job he could get. This was before the safety net: no welfare, no SSI, no Social Security. If you didn't have a job, you could starve on the street, unless a private charity helped you. Hence all the people lined up for the soup kitchens, in the photos from the 30's, all in overcoats and hats because that was what you wore in public then.

His life wasn't all work and no play; in fact, he had quite a reputation. They called him "Wild Bill" (but his first name wasn't "William"!). He loved to dance, and he'd go to the dance on Saturday night with a half pint of whiskey in his pocket, and take a drink out behind the hall. He was a ladies' man, a real charmer, and a very sharp dresser; he liked to play cards, canasta and penuchle. He got into the occasional fight; in fact, my sister says he once told her he got into his last bar fight at the age of 55. Apparently, he knocked the guy down, dusted off his hands, and came home, and never said a thing. I remember him as a very calm and peaceful man; but that was at home. I know that at one point in the Twenties, the most obnoxious of my uncles came to the house where Dad and Grandma lived, and where my aunt was staying with her children (to get away from the uncle); and Dad pulled a gun on him, and told him he would see his wife only if she agreed to it. Dad also told me of the prank he played on a friend who had a Stutz-Bearcat car: the car was garaged in a shed, and Dad and some friends went one night, picked the car up, and put it down sideways in the shed, with only about an inch clearance front and back. Then they watched the guy try to get it out of the shed.

At the end of the Thirties, war was looming in Europe; and while a strong current of opinion in this country said it was none of America's business, nonetheless, the military shipyards on the coasts were booming. Like many other people in the Thirties, my dad came out to California, sometime in 1940, to work in the Navy shipyard at Mare Island, in Vallejo, California. He stayed at Mare Island for 31 years, doing everything from chipping paint, to driving a forklift, to moving officers in and out of quarters, to
supervising a team of men in the stockroom. In 1957, the Navy gave him an award for 10 years of supervision without a lost-time accident; he was a very careful man, and he trained his men to be careful. To the end of his life, he could get more stuff in a U-Haul trailer than anyone else I ever saw.

Because he wasn't a veteran (too young for the first war, too old for the second), every time they had a cut in funding, he got knocked back to laborer, so the better-paid jobs could go to veterans. He complained, but not much; he had a job, and by then he had a family too. (He actually had an earlier wife, but I never knew much about her. I don't think his mother liked her.) He met my mother through Mare Island - she was the bookkeeper at the Vallejo USO, and he met her through a sailor they both knew at the Navy Yard. They weren't sure at first they would marry - their mothers were both horrified. He was a Baptist, and a divorcee; my mother was a Catholic, and a Canadian emigrant. But eventually he told her that he had gas money to get to Reno, and asked if she would go - and she said yes. The "gas money to Reno" actually got them to Sacramento, and they caught the train over the Sierras the rest of the way. That was in 1944, and it was typical of Dad that he had gas coupons; he was always doing favors for the sailors and they'd pay him in gas coupons. (Both mothers ended up living with them. At the same time.)

In 1950 he bought a house in Napa, 15 miles away from the shipyard, and set up a carpool to save gas money driving to work. He always drove; his riders paid him. He paid $6,000 for that house and lived in it for 43 years, until he died. He rebuilt the inside of it himself, in his spare time. He floored it with 1 by 4 oak planks that he bought when the Navy tore down the married servicemen's wartime housing in Benicia - all the units had had solid oak floors, covered with linoleum! He paid $150 for a truck load of the boards and floored the whole house, upstairs and down, except for the kitchen, back hall, and bathroom; he had enough left over to build a fence around the back yard. He laid the floor boards himself - it took him 3 days to position the first one. Then he hired a man to finish the floor in one room, watched him do it, and did the rest himself, with rented equipment. I remember crawling on that floor on my hands and knees, with a can of paste wax and a steel wool pad, polishing the wood.

When he finally retired from Mare Island, he didn't stop working - he had a civil service pension but no Social Security, so he got a job as a roustabout in an auto body shop, washing cars and sweeping up, to work his minimum Social Security quarters. It would have been wasteful to pass it up. When he finally retired from there, they begged him to stay - they said he did more work in an hour than most of the "boys" did in a day. After that job he just stayed home, doing repairs on the old house (built in 1907), doing favors for neighbors who needed them, and worrying about his daughters, since at that point neither of us was married.

Getting old is hard on a man who defines himself by the physical work he can do. I remember him complaining to my husband, shortly after we married, that he was past it - he couldn't haul a 100 pound sack of cement out of the car trunk any more. I believe he was 80 at the time. He began to get little strokes; his whole family had a problem with atherosclerosis; and eventually one killed him. The real trouble was his quality of life; he wouldn't fix himself up. He had cataracts, and was almost blind when he died. When the doctor diagnosed the cataracts, Dad asked if he needed to have them fixed; if the doctor had said yes, he would have done it. The doctor said that Dad would decide when to get them fixed; and Dad never said the word, because he was an "old man", and "worthless." I could have killed that doctor. I predicted what would happen, and I was right; but I couldn't get through to Dad. He would have been so much more comfortable if he had been able to see. He was also pretty deaf (one of his jobs at the shipyard had been chipping paint, and without ear protection; but, of course, the Navy said it wasn't related); but he felt it was "a waste" to pay good money for hearing aids and of course he couldn't see to manipulate them. How do you teach a man to value himself?? He'd never have let a car get into such a state for lack of maintenance. He was never really the same after his best friend died; they only saw each other every couple of years, but they'd known each other since they were 11, and when Walt died, a piece of Dad died too.

Well, he's gone now; but he lives in my memory, and in my sister's, and the rest of the family. He was a good man; an honest man; a kind man; and he paid cash for everything. (He may have bought one car on credit once, I'm not sure.) If you needed a shirt, he'd give you his; if your car needed fixing, he'd fix it. He paid special attention to the car repair needs of "widow women." People I didn't even recognize turned up at his funeral. The Mexican family that rented the house across the street came to the funeral and said he was the only one in the neighborhood who came to talk to them; he called them "neighbor".

Rest in peace, Neighbor.

Saturday, August 25, 2007

Chester and York

We hadn't originally planned to visit Chester; but at least 3 different people we met, hearing that we planned to drive from north Wales to York, told us that we must visit Chester. Chester, they all said, had a magnificent Elizabethan downtown shopping district, with beautifully preserved black-and-whites still in use. So we stopped at the Chester park-and-ride and rode the bus in for a quick tour and lunch, despite the fact that it was raining cats and dogs when we got there.

Chester really does have a magnificent Elizabethan downtown; it's more interesting because it isn't exclusively Elizabethan. It's been updated in all periods, including Victorian and modern, and somehow it all fits together. But the black-and-whites: they're fabulous. Some of them are four stories high, each story projecting out a little farther than the one below, in meticulous repair. The shopping district has a long section of adjacent black-and-whites where the first two stories are in use as stores and restaurants, and you can get to the second story from the city wall, which is also still in use (as a walkway, not a defensive perimeter). It stopped raining after we'd been there about 10 minutes and we walked around, had lunch on the second floor of a black-and-white (in a regrettably modern sandwich shop, but the 1638 Boot Inn a couple of doors down looked like a little more than we had time for). We thought we'd found a restored Roman garden by the city wall (Chester was a Roman camp), but it turned out to be someone's idea of what a Roman garden would have looked like if the Romans had used the masonry fragments that the gardeners had to hand.

We also toured the Chester Cathedral. This isn't one of the major cathedrals like York or Canterbury, but it's impressive in a brooding way: it's all made of a dark red stone, which looks even darker when it's wet. We walked around it on the city wall, and came back out to the shopping district through the cathedral close, which is still in use for offices and so on (and strictly Georgian in architecture, except for the medieval gateway). We went in and took the audio tour; the first religious foundation on the site was a Saxon church, founded in 907 to hold the relics of St. Werburgh. After the Norman conquest, the church was turned into a Benedictine abbey beginning in the late 11th century. The abbey church was turned into a cathedral by Henry VIII after he dissolved the monastery. Chester Cathedral contains a room that was used as a consistory
court (trying cases of ecclesiastical law) into the early 20th century and could still be so used today if the Chancellor of the diocese chose.

However, we had to get not only to but past York by evening, which meant passing both Manchester and Leeds in the late afternoon. We met some very heavy traffic but had no serious delays. It was a little disconcerting to come off a ramp from a major motorway to a lesser road, and find ourselves staring straight ahead at about 5 huge cooling towers for a nuclear power station, but then, the British do that.

We didn't stay in York proper; we stayed in
a one-pub village called Stockton-on-the-Forest, about 10 miles from York on the Scarborough road, and rode the inevitable park-and-ride bus into the city. York has been inhabited since the Romans (who called it Eboracum and used it as a major administrative center); in our touring we saw an excavated Roman bathhouse, the Jorvik exhibit of the town in the Viking period, and, of course, York Minster. We had lunch in a building that dated to the early 14th century; we were on the 3rd floor (I think; I lost count of the stairs we climbed), and the floor tilted out toward the windows so sharply that when my husband tried to get up from the table, he almost fell over. York has a street called The Pavement; I found this extremely confusing until someone explained that it was the first area of the town that ever was paved, and was used in the middle ages for public announcements.

The word that comes to my mind for York Minster is "light". The stone is light, the building is even more full of light than most cathedrals. I noticed that everything in the Minster looked fresh, as if it had just been restored; in Canterbury, many statues and tomb carvings had bits knocked off, but everything in York Minster looked beautifully kept. Of course, some of it was almost new; they had a ghastly fire in the early 1970s which took out the entire South Transept, and they had to rebuild that section almost from scratch. But they did it to match the rest of the building.

I found what I thought was an absolute jewel in a side chapel: one wall panel was painted in almost perfect 14th century trompe l'oeil style, with a man walking down a street next to a building, and inside the building a man in bed, and everything just so to show the perspective, because they were just learning to draw that way. The guide book, which I read later, was a major let-down: the panel was painted in 1930 in memory of the 1st Marquess of Zetland, and based on the background of Crivelli's Annunciation. Drat. But it's still gorgeous.

I chose to explore the crypt, which was laid out to show the Roman and Viking and Norman foundations, the history of the site, and the church treasury. I passed on climbing the tower, which was the equivalent of 19 stories high. My husband climbed it.

God help the York householder who wants to expand his basement! The Roman bathhouse was discovered when a pub owner wanted to do just that, and the pub now runs an archaeological museum downstairs. Seeing the Roman bathhouse reminded me that the Romans really lived very like us: they had centrally heated houses with hot and cold running water, they bathed in public baths with hot, tepid, and cold plunges, and they had indoor bathrooms with running water (and sponges taking the place of toilet paper) which flushed into a central sewer. (Of course, the sewer dumped into the local river, but you can't have everything.) And three hundred years after Rome fell, people lived either in wattle-and-daub huts or stone castles; the heat in both dwellings was a firepit in the middle of the floor, venting through the roof; people bathed once a year, maybe; and I don't even want to think about what they did when they "had to go". The Jorvik exhibit (which was aimed at getting 11 year old boys excited about archaeology) had a replica Viking toilet (with animatronic user) which was pretty crude. And all of this happened because of Christianity; the Christians assumed that if the godless Romans were cleanly, then there must be something ungodly about cleanliness. I wonder what daily life will be like 300 years from now; and if it does decline as life did after Rome, then what will cause it.

We spent one day touring York, and we probably could have spent more time. But by this time we'd been traveling for two and a half weeks, and we were starting to run down. Three weeks is about my limit for an extended vacation, and after that I want to go home and put my feet up. Have you ever noticed that vacation lodgings are short on places to put your feet up? I always end up sitting on the bed with pillows piled at my back. So after spending one day in York, we spent one more day touring the neighborhood.

We spent that last touring day on two sites: Castle Howard and Rievaulx Abbey. I'm not sure whether my husband planned it this way, but they represent the extreme developments of the religious and the secular ways of life in England.

Castle Howard was begun in the early 18th century by Charles Howard, 3rd Earl of Carlisle, a major figure in the English government (First Lord of the Treasury), largely because he owned the land and he could. It actually took most of a century (and 3 Earls) to "complete". My main reaction to Castle Howard was stunned disbelief at the size and opulence. I can't find anywhere a simple statement of how many rooms the place has; I have to wonder whether they know. I've lived in apartments that were smaller than the Atlas Fountain. And the most stunning thing about the place is that part of the Howard family (but not, any longer, the Earl) still lives there, including two small children. Imagine raising children in a place filled with genuine Roman statuary (collected by the 4th Earl) and fine art (collected by the 5th Earl); for that matter, imagine trying to find small children on a thousand-acre estate. To give them their due, the Howards run the place as a non-profit trust, dedicated to preserving the art, buildings, and gardens; and the docents I talked to on the tour all seemed to adore the Howards personally. But as I look at pictures of the place, I still can't imagine brushing my teeth there.

If Castle Howard represents the epitome of the English aristocratic (secular) way of life, then Rievaulx Abbey represents the height of the medieval monastic movement. Rievaulx was founded in 1132 by Bernard of Clairvaux as the first, and eventually largest, Cistercian foundation in England. The Cistercians, at least in the 12th century, felt that the Benedictines were too rich, and corrupted by their proximity to towns, commerce, politics, etc.; so the Cistercians built their monasteries as far from all that as they could. Rievaulx was built on the Yorkshire moors; it's still a long way from anything, although there's a small town right near the site. All the Cistercians wanted was lots of land to raise sheep on (and other necessities of life; the abbeys were intended to be self-sufficient). Since they continued to expand their land and sheepholdings, and to sell the surplus wool, they too eventually became rich and corrupt; but that's another story. Rievaulx at its height had around 800 monks, a bigger population than many villages; and all that money from the surplus wool sales built a soaring abbey church, plus a large refectory, living quarters, etc. As with most monasteries, only the walls survive (and not all of those); the roofs tended to be made of lead, which was salvaged and reused by Henry VIII when he dissolved the monasteries. The windows were destroyed to salvage the leading, or simply broke; and the ruins were quarried for stone to build other structures. The site today is extremely peaceful and beautiful. It can also be viewed from a garden up the hill, Rievaulx Terrace, which was built by a local landowner in the 18th century, to give himself a convenient place to stroll and observe his "ruin," since the 18th century considered it very fashionable to have a ruin on the property. Some people went so far as to build fake ruins, but the owner of the property above Rievaulx, of course, didn't need to do that.

Rievaulx Abbey was the end of our touring. We had a final pub lunch in a nearby small town, and a last helping of banoffee pie; and the next day we set out for Staines, Heathrow, and home, an epic journey which I ranted about back in July. I hope you've enjoyed reading this as much as I've enjoyed writing it, which is unlikely. But thanks for staying with me, if you did; and check back from time to time, as I'm working on a photo gallery for my web site, and will note here when it's ready.

Sunday, August 19, 2007

Term Limits, California Style

Once again, the California Legislature has failed to pass a budget on time. As nearly as I can tell this time (and I admit to some bias here), the Assembly Democrats passed a budget which actually reduced the deficit, sort of, and at the last minute the Republicans in the Senate held out for even more spending cuts and put the whole business on hold.

Frankly, at this point I don't care if those details are right or not. This happens every year, and I'm fed up with it. Every year, thousands of poor, ill, elderly people, and the businesses who serve same, have to sit and wonder when they'll get their payments, and if they'll be able to make it through until the Lege acts, because state payments to them are frozen while the legislators posture. People are even expecting this:
The state keeps humming along, however, largely because thousands of people, from hospital administrators to school officials in all parts of the state, have learned to prepare for California's chronically late budget deals. They know either to have cash on hand or which banks to turn to for short-term loans when budget negotiations bog down.
This idiocy is also why California has the second-worst state credit rating in the country; only Louisiana is worse.

These people are incompetent. An employee of a business with a bottom line, who repeatedly behaved like this, would be fired. And on top of this they have the brass-bound balls to ask us to extend term limits so they can spend more time in office. Well, I have another suggestion, and I'll bet it would pass if we could get it on the ballot:

No member of a legislature which failed to pass a budget on time would be eligible to run for state office again. Any state office, ever. This is what it'll take, folks; we've already tried suspending their pay while they argue about the budget, and it doesn't help, because it's "only a few weeks", and they all have the resources to ride it out, unlike the poor people dependent on state aid whom they routinely nail to the wall, every year, for political points.

Saturday, August 11, 2007

Snowdonia Looks Like Northern California

Yes, it really does. Specifically, it looks like the north coastal California mountains in winter (it was really green; but then, everyone was complaining that it'd been raining for 5 weeks), only without so much obscuring vegetation and maybe with more exposed rocks. The hills are about the right height and about the right slope, and have the frequent rock outcroppings that will be familiar to any resident of Napa or Sonoma Counties. The rock, however, is slate. As a national park, Snowdonia is astoundingly beautiful; it's also cold, barren, and remote. It has a few small towns dedicated to the tourist trade, specifically the ski trade; this is one of the places Great Britain goes to ski. It's also where Great Britain goes to climb rocks, but that's a smaller population. Apart from the tourist trade, the only other means of making a living that we saw were sheep farming, and quarrying slate (and what a mess that made!). Snowdonia can also make you feel very small and isolated, stopped at a road pull-out with (as far as I could tell) nothing for about 5 miles in any direction. The day we drove around, it didn't rain too much, but it was overcast all day with a steady, biting wind; visibility good, only the very tops of the mountains were in the clouds. I considered it the authentic Welsh experience (except there was no fog).

It's called Snowdonia because of Snowdon, the highest mountain in Wales (and the highest in Britain south of Scotland), 3,560 feet. (Shut up, you Sierra hikers; I can hear you sniggering.) You can take a train up Snowdon, if you don't feel up to the hike, but the day we were there, it was only going about 3/4 of the way up (probably due to cloud cover) and would take almost 2 hours, so we passed. During the stop, however, I got what I think was my first lungful of coal smoke. When we went to New Zealand, we rode a coal-burning steamboat up Lake Wakatipu, by Queensland; but the motion of the boat meant the smoke was behind us. Coal smoke is brown and extremely smelly; I can't imaging how people could have used it for heating and cooking.

During this drive around, we stopped at two places that really could not be more different: Portmeirion, and Harlech Castle. I'll take Portmeirion first, because it's the oddest. (If any of you are fans of The Prisoner, you may already know this, because it was largely filmed there.)

Portmeirion is a largely Italianate village, an eclectic collection of generally Mediterranean styles with an equally eclectic collection of decorations (I don't think of Buddha as Italianate, but there's a Buddha statue), set down on a Welsh hillside overlooking an estuary off Tremadog Bay, on the Irish Sea.
Portmeirion was built, over 50 years or so, by Sir Clough Williams-Ellis, who wanted to "demonstrate how a naturally beautiful site could be developed without spoiling it." I presume he didn't like stone buildings. He was over 90 when it was finally done. The buildings are set among elegant formal gardens, with classical statuary and a reflecting pool; there is also a band shell. The day we were there, the band was playing in the shell, while the rain came down outside; two people were sitting next to the pool listening, under a large umbrella. The buildings are all stuccoed, and painted various shades of pastel - yellow, turquoise blue, peach. The contrast with the rest of rural Wales, where I never saw a house that was any color other than stone, or whitewashed stucco, is staggering. (The "smallest house in Great Britain" was, in fact, painted red; but that's (a) in a town, and (b) a tourist stunt.) Portmeirion might come across as a charming Mediterranean village on a warm, sunny summer day; but we were there on a cold, overcast, windy summer day, and the whole place, as I heard another visitor say, was "surreal". God knows what it's like in winter. Since there isn't much to do there unless you want to worship at The Prisoner shrine, we walked around, had lunch, and went on to Harlech Castle.

Harlech Castle is the absolute antithesis of Portmeirion, although it's only about 5 miles away. Like Conwy Castle, Harlech was built by Edward I in the late 13th century, as part of his "iron ring" around Snowdonia, to contain the Welsh. The coastline has moved, but it was originally perched on a crag dropping straight into the sea; it was essentially impregnable from the land side, while it could be supplied by sea during a siege. Unlike Conwy Castle, Harlech has no remaining interior walls of any significance. There are excellent photographs at this site, but the day we were there, we didn't see the beautiful blue sky; it's actually more impressive on an overcast day. The visible walls are the original inner walls; the outer ring of fortifications didn't survive the next 400 years of warfare. A siege during the Wars of the Roses is said to have given rise to the song, Men of Harlech. The castle last saw action in the 17th century; it was the final Royalist stronghold to fall in the English Civil War. Harlech is an absolute classic of medieval military architecture and beautiful in a stern way.

Castles and Walled Towns

After the Eisteddfod, we headed north again, grateful to see the weather clearing; our first stop was another Bronze Age ruin, a spot called Capel Garmon, with a handsome chambered tomb. This site actually was marked off with a fence, and a sign; but then, it was in the middle of someone's farm. In fact, it was in the middle of a pasture full of sheep; the fence was undoubtedly to keep the sheep from falling into the tomb, which was 3-4 feet deep. I felt a little odd driving down what was evidently someone's driveway (complete with sign reminding us to close the gate); but that's where it was. It was a lovely, peaceful spot. If you want more information on Capel Garmon and feel like exercising your Welsh, there is a Wicipedia [sic!] site on it, entirely in that language.

Having taken the requisite number of photographs (I'm working on the photo gallery, there are 16 rolls of film!), we moved on to Bodnant Garden, where we spent several hours in our usual fashion, Jim cruising the garden, looking for interesting combinations of plants, while I simply wandered around. My initial wandering was driven by the fact that I needed a loo, and had failed to use the one in the parking lot; the only other one was at the extreme bottom of the garden, down by the Old Mill. Having found the facility, I had a lovely wander back along the stream (massed blue hydrangeas) and up to The Poem (the local name for a mausoleum perched on a rocky hill; don't ask me why they called it that). The Poem, unfortunately, is under renovation until (as I recall) 2009 or so, and was entirely wrapped in what looked like tarpaper; but I still had a nice walk. Bodnant also had several gorgeous reflecting pools with the usual water lilies.

After Bodnant we moved on to our next B&B, in Conwy, at the mouth of the Conwy River, on the Welsh coast facing the Irish Sea. Conwy, like much of northern Wales, is quite hilly; and I assumed when I saw the medieval stonework (with round towers) climbing a hill some distance from the inn, that I was looking at Conwy Castle. I was wrong: it was Conwy's town wall, which is still intact; you can walk around the town on it, at least from one side of the Castle to the other. As a standard medieval defensive tactic, one can't get into the Castle from the
town wall. One can't get into the town without going through the wall, even in a car; and the arch that allows car traffic is one car wide, and one way. Watching buses negotiate the arch is amusing; I'm sure there's a limit on the size of bus they can use. Since our B&B was within walking distance of a gate in the wall, we left the car there when we went into town.

Conwy Castle is very well preserved, with a number of interior walls intact and even some of the decorations; it's possible to climb to the top of all 4 corner towers. In its day, it was a spectacular fortification, beautifully (and strategically) located at the river mouth overlooking the estuary.
Edward I built it at the end of the 13th century, as part of his campaign to control the Welsh, and the town, of course, grew up around the castle.

Conwy is a town, by the way, and not a city; we made a remark about the "city wall" to a local person and were sternly corrected. One must have a cathedral in order to be called a city; Conwy only has parish churches. I don't think there was much there before the castle, despite the location on a river, because of the Church of St. Mary's and All Saints, in Conwy. The nice parish lady explained to me that the church was founded in 1172 as the Cistercian Abbey of Aberconwy. When Edward I built his castle, a hundred years or so later, he negotiated with the Cistercians (read: bribed with more land) to move the abbey to another site, and the abbey church became a parish church - much larger than the population then probably warranted, since the Cistercians were notorious for putting their abbeys as far away from other settlements as possible. St. Mary's and All Saints, and its graveyard are in the "back yard" between two city blocks; all the neighboring houses back onto it. There's one actual road going to it, but I found it by looking down an alley.

Aberconwy House, now run by the National Trust, is a 14th century merchant's house which survived into the 20th century as an occupied dwelling (occupied during the late Victorian period by a Temperance Hotel). It's been restored, so that one room looks as it would have in the 15th century, and one as it would have in the 18th or 19th, and a couple as they were in the Temperance Hotel. It's very rare for a merchant's house to survive this long with the structure essentially intact. Conwy also has an Elizabethan house, but it wasn't open for touring. At the other end of the scale of importance and interest, Conwy contains the Smallest House in Great Britain, which I toured out of sheer curiosity - the whole house (2 stories) is less than 6 feet wide and just under 10 feet high.

Pity the Poor Immigrant (with thanks to Bob Dylan)

It was in the paper today that St. Michael of Homeland Security is going to Get Tough with those awful illegal immigrants. Specifically, he's going to start chasing down and fining U.S. employers who don't clear up those "no match" letters - the ones that say, your employee's Social Security number isn't in the file. He's going after the employers because, of course, his department's ongoing attempts to find all these illegals and deport them have had about as much effect as spitting into the wind. I have one question for St. Michael:

You and what army?

The standard estimate of the number of illegal immigrants in the U.S. is around 12 million. There are more illegal immigrants in the U.S., on that measure, than there are people in any of almost 150 countries (courtesy of the population list in Wikipedia).

In 2004 (the latest numbers on the official web site), Homeland Security had 183,000 employees. Of course that has changed; say it's doubled, to 366,000. Unlikely, given how cheap the Bush administration is for everything except the Iraq war; but assume it. That means that each Homeland Security employee, everybody down to the janitors and the guy in the mail room, has to go, and find, and process out, 33 illegal immigrants, in order to clean this up. And that assumes they do nothing else, including guarding the border and issuing the passports that everybody now has to have to go to Canada and Mexico and anywhere else.

So - this isn't possible, they're just blowing smoke to make the Republicans look good for the presidential campaign. Or, as one nurseryman I heard on the radio complained, they plan to turn local businessmen into their enforcement officers, and without any pay or benefits for doing the job, either. In fact, for some businesses, complying with this initiative will put them out of business, because as far as I can tell (from a couple of completely unscientific chats with people in the field), these really are jobs that many Americans will not do. It isn't just picking fruit, either - the jobs include a lot of stuff that used to be standard blue collar work: Hanging drywall. Painting. Doing garden maintenance. Making beds in hotels. Looking at the five guys roofing a house down the street from us, I have to wonder about them: do they have papers? Valid papers?

Which raises the question: even if it were possible to deport all these people, is this a good idea?? As far as I'm concerned, and even leaving aside the effect on agriculture, the service industries, and the construction trade, the answer is no. This is a country of immigrants. Everybody here, if you go back far enough, descends from an immigrant - even the Indians. They just got here first; but they came (it's pretty clear) from Asia. This country was built on immigration (see the verse on the Statue of Liberty); and it's been a good thing, too. The "greatest generation", the people who fought in World War II? Immigrants, or children of same, most of them.

I discussed this whole issue before, back in May 2006 (see The Immigrant Uprising), where I, and the commenters, covered many more aspects of this than I plan to go into here. If you're interested in the subject, I recommend you go read that thread. What got me posting today was the sheer chutzpah of the whole announcement, with no resources to enforce it any better than what we're doing now, except to put the whole thing on the business community, with threats of fines for non-compliance.

And, oh - if the immigrant has stolen an actual, valid Social Security number and is using that? No problema, amigo, the system won't catch it - and what an incentive to identity theft that is!

And given that Congress has already failed to produce a workable immigration bill, and has further covered itself with disrepute by handing the Attorney General the keys to the telephone system before scuttling home for a vacation which I hope they do not enjoy - I guess we're stuck with these yokels until the election.

Monday, August 06, 2007

And Now, Wales

After our stay on Dartmoor, we left Cockington (once more fighting our way through the morning traffic in Kingskerswell) and got on the motorway for Cardiff, in Wales. You know immediately when you've entered Wales: suddenly all the road signs are in two languages. (Of course, the bridge over the Bristol Channel is another helpful guide.) This wouldn't be much of a problem if the languages were consistently in the same order, but they vary - some signs are English then Welsh, and some are Welsh then English. I wasn't driving but even I found this distracting, as you glance at the sign and then have to figure out whether you read the top part or the bottom.

I found the Welsh language signs interesting; languages have always been a hobby of mine. Some of the words in Welsh are obviously copped from English, along the lines of the "le hot dog" in French: "tolls" on the bridge is tollau, and "cameras" (there are security cameras everywhere) is camerau; also, "toilets" is toiletdau. From this I infer that "au" is a plural ending in Welsh, at least for borrowed English words. It isn't for all of them, since I also saw a shop (siop) advertising byrgyrs (and yes, in Welsh that's pronounced "burgers" as far as I can tell). The only words I remember (because they were on signs everywhere) that clearly have no relation to English were araf for "stop", heol for "street", and heddlu (pronounced, I think, HETH-lee, with the th as in those) for "police." We had dinner in Cardiff at a pub called Y Mochen Du (trans: the black pig; so du in Welsh is maybe related to dhu in Scots Gaelic, which also means black? Sorry, I got sidetracked), and none of those words seem to have any English taint. Many of the Welsh consonants can only be pronounced properly by people who learned them before the age of 5; I get very frustrated by trying to read words I can't pronounce, but I never did really get Welsh pronunciation.

Our trip into Cardiff seemed uneventful - we had a good map - until we tried to find our B&B. The web site said it was a "handsome Victorian", and we assumed (beware of that word) that meant it would stand out. It was in about the fourth or fifth block of identical handsome Victorian townhouses; none of them had visible street numbers, and every third one of them had a B&B sign in the yard. At least they had yards; the Welsh don't seem to build their townhouses right out to the sidewalks as the English do. Also the parking was down the alley in back of the place, not intuitive at all. However, once we got in it was very nice, and we walked around to Cardiff Castle and caught one of the last tours of the day.

Cardiff Castle is schizophrenic. In the middle of the courtyard is the original Cardiff Castle, which was built by the Normans at the end of the 11th century and is an absolutely classic motte-and-bailey fortress in stone. Surrounding it is the rest of the castle that has grown up in the subsequent thousand years or so; but the only part of the history you actually see on the tour is the work of the 3rd Marquess of Bute (yes, that is a Scottish title) in the late 19th century. The web site says that the 3rd Marquess was
"destined to become one of the greatest private patrons of architecture this country has seen"; what he actually did at Cardiff was to transform a whole side of the castle wall into a series of chambers that represented what a well-educated late Victorian thought the middle ages ought to have looked like. (While he had a remnant of the real middle ages out on the motte...) Money was no object; our docent suggested that Lord Bute was the 19th century equivalent of Bill Gates. The staggering thing about all this architectural fantasy is that he did it in a residence where he only spent about 6 weeks out of the year - I suppose if they're always working on the place, you wouldn't want to spend much time there. I won't really try to describe Cardiff Castle, it has to be seen, especially the pre-Raphaelite style cartoons on all the walls representing various historical legends and events; but if you ever find yourself in Cardiff, go take the tour. The web site (under the link Present) has a pretty good photo gallery, but you have to see the 3 story coved (and gilt) ceiling of the Arab room to appreciate it - the photograph does NOT do it justice.

We only spent one night in Cardiff, but I learned one other thing that has cleared up something that has bugged me for years; or at least I thought it did until I found the nursery rhyme site. There's an old nursery rhyme that begins, "Taffy was a Welshman, Taffy was a thief." I never could understand why "Taffy" should be an insulting term for a Welshman, until I learned that the river that runs through Cardiff is the River Taff. That made sense to me until I found the nursery rhyme site linked above - which says that "Taffy" is derived from "Amaethon", the name of the Welsh God of Agriculture. If you can see how "Amaethon" could translate into "Taffy", you know more about Welsh than I do; my guess still makes more sense to me!

Our first destination in Wales was actually Llangollen, which I will NOT try to put into accurate phonetics; the "ll" is one of those consonants you have to learn in the cradle. A reasonable fake for an English speaker is "clan-GOCH-len" where the "ch" in the second syllable is roughly equivalent to the one in the German "ach". LLangollen hosts the annual International Eisteddfod, a music and dance competition that lasts most of a week; we were there for one day, staying two nights in Corwen, a nearby village. As a musician, this was a high point for me; the groups that compete in this festival are really good, and we spent most of the day listening to the choral competitions (mixed chorus, chamber chorus, folk song chorus), and a couple of the Celtic music competitions. The singing was superb and I was pleased to see American choirs (de Paul A Capella, Voices of the Academy from Chicago, Mount San Antonio College Choir from L.A., University of Maryland Chamber Singers) take firsts and seconds in several of the competitions. I'd like to go back another time and take in some of the dance competitions, and the smaller groups.

The music was the plus; the weather was the minus, this was one of the days it rained all day, and in fact waited until we were trying to get back to the car (walking most of a mile) to come down in roaring buckets. Oh, well, we hung everything in the bathroom and dried out overnight. The festival grounds were sort of paved, in some places (our B&B landlady says they've actually improved it a lot, it used to be much worse), but a great deal of it was a complete swamp. I wore light colored trousers and they were muddy to the knee, and I didn't even fall. The countryside was gorgeous: Llangollen sits in a river valley (the River Dee, no relation to the one in Scotland), and with all the rain everything was very green, and dotted with the inevitable sheep.

Friday, August 03, 2007

Glancing back at Brighton

I've realized that I forgot to include something we saw in Brighton that was really fun - in a street blocked off as a pedestrian mall, they had a street fair. In the course of one block, I counted:

Two lightning caricaturists;
One portrait artist (chalk);
One palmist;
Two Tarot readers; and
One elderly Oriental man doing chair massage.

This was in addition to the usual collection of people selling bead jewelry off quilts on the sidewalk. It was a lively and very urban scene; I can't recall the last time I saw street artists (as opposed to graffiti taggers).


Since my wish to see the Dartmoor was at least partly based on years of reading The Hound of the Baskervilles, I was tempted to title this with some cheesy remark about "... the footprints of a gigantic hound!" However, the really interesting book about the Dartmoor is not the Conan Doyle classic, but the Laurie King sequel called The Moor, in the Mary Russell-Sherlock Holmes series (all of which is very strongly recommended). Also, there's a series of medieval detective stories by Michael Jecks, set near the Dartmoor in the early 14th century, in which the tin miners on Dartmoor occasionally show up - we'd call them "wildcat" miners today, they usually worked alone on the moor. The moor itself is always in everyone's mind, in all these books. I wanted to see a place that impresses people to the extent that they include it as a character in their books; so after avoiding the Tour de France mess, we rolled westward on the motorways to the suburbs of Torquay. We never actually got all the way into Torquay, since we stayed in a suburb called Cockington (which may actually be no more than a neighborhood, but a charming one). We also realized, fighting our way through the local traffic in Kingskerswell for the 3rd or 4th time, that we might have found one of the smaller towns farther north (Newton Abbott or Bovey Tracey) a better base for exploring the Dartmoor; but so it goes.

We spent 2 days driving around the Dartmoor, looking at sheep (lots of sheep), a few cattle, very occasional wild ponies, and staggeringly beautiful landscape. The Dartmoor is a raised granite lump (I believe I've read somewhere that it is a pluton, but if it is, Wikipedia doesn't mention it), rising sharply some 1200 feet above the surrounding Devon countryside. It's covered with peat where the rocks aren't exposed, and can become very boggy; it was very green (especially given that it had been raining for the past month). We didn't personally encounter any bogs but we found lots of mud. The granite outcrops at the top of hills are known as tors, and climbing up to them can provide a superb panorama of the surrounding countryside. If it isn't raining. We climbed, of course, up to Hound's Tor, which doesn't look anything like a hound (it's supposed to resemble a hound's teeth; didn't look like it to me). The
wind was quite stiff, but the view was wonderful; the rocks themselves were occupied by two separate sets of technical rock climbers, a group of adults on one stack and a larger group of middle or high school children, with teachers, on another.

We were fortunate that, for most of the 2 days we spent poking around, it was merely overcast and windy, and the sun even came out once or twice. Since the Dartmoor is now a national park, it's about as developed as it's going to get; but it's been developed for hundreds of years. No, actually, thousands of years - we went to 2 different bronze age ruins, one near Merivale, and one at Grimspound.

Looking at prehistoric ruins in the U.K. is entirely different from looking at them in the U.S. In the U.S. we'd have parking lots, and graded trails, and educational signs, and railings to keep people off the ruins, and maybe even a ranger to answer questions. In the U.K., and especially on Dartmoor, there is nothing. There are no parking lots; there are no signs or railings, and certainly no rangers. There is a general description of the sort of thing you can expect to find, and a dot on the map that suggests where it might be, but you'd better know what a line of standing stones or a hut circle might look like because you are on your own. There are no trails; you hike up the hill (everything here is up hill) until you see something that looks right. I found refreshing the complete absence of any attempt to keep you from breaking your neck on anything; Americans have become too damn litigious.
If you want to sit on the rocks, or try to flake off a piece (we didn't), no one will stop you: no one is there, at least during the week (we were there on Monday and Tuesday). We found Merivale very frustrating because of this, the remains there are quite scanty; so the next day we went to Grimspound, which is much better marked (but still invisible from where we parked, up an unmarked hillside from a secondary road).

Grimspound was obviously a largeish fortified settlement: most of the stone perimeter circle is still there, with one obvious entrance gate (and a second opening that may just have fallen over); and it contains a number of hut circles, one or two of which look as though they might have belonged to someone of importance (standing stones marking a possible entrance). The site was below the brow of a hill, which I wondered about, as it would have been vulnerable to attack from above by invaders coming over the crest of the hill; but I believe the site was chosen because of the water: there was a stream flowing inside the stone ring. I couldn't find an origin spring, but I didn't look very hard; of course they would want access to water inside the perimeter. We shared the site with a large flock of sheep, wandering around, grazing and lying in the ruins. In fact much of the Dartmoor is unfenced range for sheep, and some cattle; on a couple of occasions we had to wait until they got off the road. They even had a road sign: Warning - sheep laying in road. It was quite accurate.

We also visited some of the towns on the Dartmoor. None of these towns is large. All of them have been there for a very long time; the houses are one or at most two stories, huddled down in folds of the land against the wind. Houses on the Dartmoor are stone or stucco; I didn't see any obviously wooden houses, no clapboard sidings here. Houses here are also not colored; they're either made of unpainted stone, or they're whitewashed.
It gives the place a very grim look. A surprising number of them have thatched roofs.

The first town we visited was Widecombe-on-the-Moor. That's the full name; it isn't just "Widecombe", which happens to be located on the moor. It's a tiny town with a beautiful 16th century church and an inn, appropriately called the Old Inn, which served us two very good meals. I found the Old Inn fascinating; for one thing, it's built into a hill and is, the entrance is up a flight of about 8 stairs from the main floor, and the high windows in that part of the inn are actually at ground level outside. There were no notes on how old it was; it's obviously been recently spruced up, with some very modern clever sayings painted on the walls (including the classic Groucho Marx quote, "Time flies like an arrow. Fruit flies like a banana."). It's built of stone and stucco and looks like it's been there forever. Widecombe is in a deep little valley; when you come to it using the route we took, you can see it from the breast of the hill before you start down the really precipitous road. It looks tiny; it is surrounded by very green fields, empty except for sheep; it looks very lonely. In fact, all the towns we saw on the Dartmoor looked as if they were there on sufferance.

Widecombe is, however, a real town, with real town things going on. The day we were there, the local school was having a children's art exhibit in the stone building that was once the old sexton's cottage. I attended it (and put 50p in the donation bowl) after having been accosted by an earnest 8 year old girl (clearly anxious that I was going to refuse). It is not possible to say "No, I don't want to see your art exhibit" to a worried 8 year old.

Widecombe-on-the-Moor has a fair, first held in 1850, which is the subject of an English folk song called Widdicombe Fair
(yes, the song is spelled differently from the town). The song has its own web page explaining the legend behind the song (and being very snide about variant versions from Wessex!); I was delighted to find out about this because it explained a line that Lord Peter Wimsey used in one of Dorothy Sayers' novels: "and Uncle Tom Cobley and all" (intended to mean, "the whole bunch of them"). This line actually comes from the chorus of "Widdicombe Fair". The dates are a little odd - the song's web page says that the song is "thought to have been heard in the early 1800s", which seems unlikely if the Fair only started in 1850 - but then, it's always hard to pin down folksongs.

We also visited North Bovey, largely because of its reputation for a beautiful, unspoilt town green. It is very beautiful: most of the houses are whitewashed stucco, and I'd say the majority of them have thatched roofs; one house had obviously just had the thatching over the doors redone, the straw was still straw colored. A thatched roof that's been there for awhile turns a very dark brown with weathering. I guess in this area, "Thatcher" can be more than just a last name. When we were there (a Tuesday around midday) there was absolutely no one else visible except, down one of the four streets, a man mending one of the area's ubiquitous stone walls; the sense of silence and peace was very deep. These stone walls are 3 dimensional jigsaw puzzles; they aren't drystone, they are mortared, but they are made of whatever stone pieces happen to be around, and yet they always have a relatively flat top over a collection of wildly different shaped stones, fitted closely together. North Bovey's town green is charming for a local habit: when some significant Event happens, they plant a new tree, and put a memorial stone by the sapling. We saw the trees they planted for Queen Victoria's Jubilee, and for Queen Elizabeth II's coronation, and for the millennium. You can look past the former town pump (the handle is now padlocked), in the middle of the green, and see the sapling, with its stone reading "AD 2000".

In fact, if you want absolute peace, silence (except for the wind, and the occasional low-flying fighter jet - sorry, the Royal Navy uses part of the Dartmoor as a bombing range), and remoteness (except for the bombing range), with pretty much unlimited hiking, you could do worse than to visit the Dartmoor. I sound like a Chamber of Commerce brochure, but it's true.

The only other "town" we visited was Postbridge, notable for its beautifully preserved clapper bridge over the East Dart River (these bridges seem to exist only in the Dartmoor area for some reason). Postbridge is also pretty much the exact center of the Dartmoor national park, so a lot of people use it as a base for exploring. This may explain why, when we were there, there were actually more people than buildings (total buildings, about 6, one of which had a
"For Sale" sign up, but maybe 15 or 20 people). Like everywhere else we visited on the Dartmoor, it is stunningly beautiful. We stopped at a place called Dartmeet, where the East and West forks of the Dart river converge, to see the remains of a ruined clapper bridge; this is listed on the map as a "town" but all I saw was a bridge, a public loo, a park information center, and a van selling ice cream. By Dartmoor standards, maybe that is a town.