Tuesday, November 14, 2006

Old soldier, new media

I’ve plugged away as at citizen journalism as both a professional and researcher for more than two years. But it took an old soldier with a horribly toothy grin to give me a real revelation.

I’m in London this semester teaching a group of Missouri students to think globally – and trying to sneak in as much sight-seeing as possible. In the name of the latter, I attended the Remembrance Day ceremony Sunday at which the Queen and a long list of dignitaries placed wreaths at the Cenotaph.

I couldn’t see Her Majesty over the top of the bearskin hats, but I did have a wonderful conversation with the Falklands veteran standing in front of me and snapped dozens of photos of Britain’s finest soldiers past and present.

When I returned home, I went to the Web to see how my UK online colleagues covered an event attended by thousands cheering Brits.

Except for free-lance photos on BBC and The Sun, they didn’t. The nation remembered the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month, but the editors were waiting for something better.

That seemed a bit curious, so I downloaded my own photos to my Flickr site, tagging the set “Remembrance Day.”

Someone remembered. Within two hours, three people had labeled the Falkland’s vet photo a “favorite” and I had one direct comment. By Tuesday, it was a favorite for five people – and 203 had viewed it. In a few days visits topped 350.

That may not sound like a lot of people, but consider that to find my photo someone had to do a keyword search in Flickr for “Remembrance Day.” Could the UK media have simply waved the flag by linking to citizen sites like mine?The ceremony may not have been “big” enough to get the immediate attention of the online UK press, but the audience those journalists serve went to a lot of trouble to find old Peter Freestone in his battered Royal Army beret.

Cheers, Peter.

Tuesday, October 31, 2006

A-ha, Praha

So now I know that Walt Disney wasn't all that original afterall. Long before there was the Magic Kingdom, there was Prague.

What the Czech's call Praha and we call Prague for many years rivaled Vienna as the cultural capital of Europe. For the dark Communist years after World War II, it slipped away from us. But now thousands of tourists flock to the old city.

Tourists like Cecile and I.

Last week we spent our mid-term break in Prague. We decided against "Six countries in eight days" trip that most of my students planned and instead found a great little hotel near the Medieval city center and just spent five days wandering the cobblestones.
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PragueClyde Bentley's Prague photoset

Although it is very much "discovered," Prague is still a wonderfully simple city. The Czechs are honestly friendly. The food is hearty and very good. And the beer -- oh that beer! Czechs are Europe's biggest beer drinkers for a good reason -- they really know how to brew. The Budweiser brand (Budwar) started there generations ago but the version poured in Prague taverns is far richer than the This Bud's for You variety for which Anheuser-Busch borrowed the name.

Castles, churches, cobbles, smiles and a river that takes your breath away. It was and is a delight.

Thursday, October 19, 2006

Look homeward, Anglo-American

For the first time since arriving, I felt ready to go home today.

I was crossing a road on the way to school and forgot to look right instead of left. A black cab reminded me that Angles sometimes turn unwary Yanks into angels.

I'm fighting a cold and that puts me in a sour mood anyway, but I heard my mind scream "I'm tired of this! I just want to sleep in my own bed and smell the trees in my own yard."

It was just a flash of homesickness, but it was a surprise. I quickly came to my senses and looked up at a building that was an old place when Jackson was president. Then I was given an honest English smile from the old bloke ambling toward me. If you can survive the traffic, London is a nice place to be.

Nice, but not always comfortable. I think the elation of just being here word off today and I stumbled into the realities of English life. The Brits, as I discovered on an earlier trip, are masters of putting up with minor discomforts. They can wait in a queue for hours without grumbling. They are unfazed when a huge fire truck roars down a barely two-lane street at 60 miles an hour late at night -- but then, pedestrians have no right of way here except at the infrequent-but-boldly striped "zebra" (as in Debra) crossings. Water meekly trickles from century's old pipes, the composition of which you just don't want to know. And a rush-hour ride on a bus or an Underground train is Neptune’s reminder of what we do to sardines.

But it is amazing how a good cuppa tea will make you forget that lumpy, narrow bed. Or how the bright smile and "cheers" from the newsstand agent blows away your complaint about the prices. And of course, a pint of Guinness or cask ale can even make the rain seem warm.

Next week is mid-term break. Cecile and I plan to explore another famous city -- Prague. It will do us good to take a break from students, computers, telecommuting and the other stress we put on ourselves without the help of England.

But the nice part is that the taxis try to run over you from the left.

Tuesday, October 03, 2006

The importance of being urn-est

There are times that I feel I am living in a P.G. Wodehouse novel.

Wodehouse wrote a series of stories about Bertie Wooster, a member of the British idle rich in the 1920s. Most people remember him for his "gentleman's gentleman," Jeeves, but I always liked him for the crazy antics of someone with to much time and money on his hands. He was the successor to those Three Men in a Boat.

The residential hotel in which I stay is populated mainly be students and professionals from every country but England. However, there is a small corps of "permanent residents" who meet each night in the bar for a glass of wine, a political argument and a stream of very British jokes. They are always proposing but seldom executing some cockeyed scheme to either irritate the "foreigners" or to set the English-speaking world right.

A few years ago, the group was joined by James. He didn't live at the Vincent House, but was a frequent visitor. One day recently, James dropped dead while standing on a train platform.

Last week, one of the old boys came to breakfast with a large plastic bag. Curiousity got the better of Torquelle, who strolled over from his table to ask in his public school accent "Just what is it you have in the bag, Bill?"

Bill, ordinarily the most conservative of this conservative group, unemotionally replied "James. Won't you join us for breakfast?"

Bill had the ashes of James in an urn on the table. He was taking him for one last round of his favorite haunts.

After toast, beans, fried tomatoes and sausage, Bill led a party of friends on a long London pub crawl. Towards evening, they wobbled to the Thames and "pollute the river" with what was left of old James. The made it home for dinner as usual.

I can only hope that someone gives me such a last ride. Pip pip, James.

Tuesday, September 26, 2006

The celluloid throne

The Queen granted me a royal lesson in human behavior the other night.

Not Her Majesty, to be sure. Cecile and I had already been to Buckingham Palace without receiving an invitation to tea. But the opening of Helen Mirin’s new film, The Queen, was just too great an opportunity to miss for transplanted Yanks.

We paid the equivalent to $35 for two tickets at Nottinghill Gate Cinema -- and you thought U.S. movie prices were outrageous. There is a significant difference in atmosphere, however. The Nottinghill Gate is a former music hall with ornate ceiling decorations and a stage. The single-screen theater offers a full bar and a snack menu far beyond nachos.

And then there was the film. Until I was back outside and talked to a middle-aged British couple, I thought it was just my lack of Britannic experience that made me think the royal characterizations were “spot on.” But the press and most of the Britons I have run into are amazed not only at how well Mirin looks and acts like the Queen, but how well the nuances of Charles, the Queen Mother and especially Tony Blair came through.

Yes, Tony Blair. The film might have easily been entitled “Young Tony” as “The Queen.” It takes up right when Blair wrests the Labour Party away from its left-wing roots and sweeps into the country vowing to modernize while protecting social welfare. To be sure, the UK critics say director Stephen Frears gave Blair too much credit for bringing sanity to the Royal Muddle when Princess Diana died, but even if it is fiction the plot is food for thought.

The story actually has three streams, represented by three protagonists. The Queen and her family (Philip the Boor, Charles the Hesitant and Queen Mother the Irascible) are stuck in another era – an era that may have never existed outside the regal imagination. They truly believe the British people will simply smile and curtsy to their monarch without question and that it was only the press that stoked the fire of admiration for that nasty Diana.

Blair is something of an urban rube in an ill-fitting suit who is a bit overwhelmed by it all. His wife detests royalty and misses no opportunity to say so. But Blair is also an astute observer of the collision of politics and culture. When even his wife and aides advise him to go for the throat of the Royals, he recognizes the value of the monarchy to the Sceptred Isle. Implausibly, he is a radical realist.

The overlooked third protagonist in the film is Blair’s chief aide, Andrew Campbell. He is the archetypical political wonk – cynical to a fault, loyal to his man, impatient for the next big win. The sharp-tongued and sharp-witted Campbell must have either memorized or inspired every episode of West Wing -- politics is neither polite nor merciful. (It was Campbell, by the way, who wrote the joke about Blair’s wife that the PM used to critics this week. He also gets credit for naming Diana “the people’s princess.)

The tension between the three sides is the meat of the plot. That the three were able to reach even a fragile state of balance is rather amazing and very much worth watching.

Equally amazing was the timing of the film’s release. When the cameras started rolling for the movie several years ago, Frears could not have known it would premiere just as Blair is being ushered to an unwanted retirement. Good call. At the end of the film, Queen Elizabeth tells a cocky Tony that, as it did for her, his popularity could fall in a moment.

It did.

There is also a momentary quip that almost no American will get but that brought down the house in Nottinghill Gate. As Blair is dashing about solving a crisis an aide shouts “Gordon is on the phone.”

Gordon Brown is the Chancellor of the Exchequer, Blair’s erstwhile partner in the New Labour revolution. They struck a deal that Brown would get the PM spot in a few years but Blair liked No. 10 and refused to budge. Now Brown is the archrival who is forcing Blair to resign.

In the film, Blair curtly responds, “He’ll have to wait.” And though Brown waited and waited, I’m glad I didn’t.

A curtsy, M’am.

Thursday, September 21, 2006

Tea with the Queen

Sorry, Mom. I still didn’t have tea with the Queen.

This week I had the rare opportunity to tour the state rooms of Buckingham Palace. For years one needed at title more impressive than “Dr.” to gain entrance to these opulent halls, but then the Queen’s beloved Windsor Castle burned. To raise the pounds needed to restore that palace, the Queen agreed to open her downtown digs to the public for a few weeks each year.

For Cecile, I’m sure, it was a chance to view the stunning artwork and architecture. For me, it was another chance to remember my mother.

My mother was London born and bred, but her family was more on the “Andy Capp” side of the pedigree chart than the “Duke of Roxburghe” side. When I was a boy, hot tea heavily laced with milk and sugar was the medicinal equivalent to chicken soup. “What you needed is a good cuppa” meant sit down, get in touch with your senses and let’s talk for awhile.

But for my brother and me, tea was also the key warning that we had reached the limits of Mom’s patience. My mother insisted on a modicum of table manners – not a simple demand on a pair of rough-and-tumble 1960s boys.

“Clyde and Mark! Stop throwing food. How am I ever to take you to tea with the Queen?”

Tea with the Queen. Was that supposed to mean an old lady in a crown would help me recover from a headache or a bruised shin? It was several more years before I discovered “tea” in this case was the meal, rather than the beverage. But in the meantime, the phrase became part of the sophomoric banter young brothers share.

“Good one, Mark” I would say when his attempt to laugh while drinking milk resulted in a white geyser. “You’re never getting invited to tea with the Queen.”

For me, it was usually a reminder of my penchant for missing my mouth with my spoon. As I looked down on blob of oatmeal drooling down the shirt Mom had just ironed for school, Mark would say “So I guess you won’t be having tea with the Queen…”

But for the record, Mom, I was on my best manners when we were at the Palace. I said “please” and “thank you” instead of nodding and grunting. I didn’t wipe my mouth with my arm, burp or throw a sock at a surrogate brother. And on the food side, they knew I was coming: Large signs banned food or drink.

So I know it wasn’t my fault. I think the Queen was just away enjoying the Scottish air in Balmoral.

I guess she’ll never be invited for beer at the ‘Berg.

Thursday, September 14, 2006

When in Britain, do as the Romans do

Americans often say they love Britain for its “sense of history.” I think that I am more fascinated with the history ignored.

Much our official introduction to London over the past two weeks has been the history of this island. We have been to the Museum of London, the Tate Britain gallery and heard professors tell us of British culture and art.

You quickly realize that Americans have only a nominal grasp of “history.” And event that happened 200 years ago is more like old news to the British than it is historical.

Even so, I’m astounded by how easily we forget our past. Everywhere we turn we hear of lessons unheeded or that simply faded away.

On my last trip, I was surprised to learn that Great Britain was a thriving part of the Roman
Empire for more than 300 years. If the fact that England was Latin for longer than we have been a country was in my history books, I completely missed it.

But the bigger surprise was how civilized and comfortable that Roman life was. The Museum of London has several typical Roman living rooms based on UK excavations. As one might expect, the room where the governor or similar leaders lived was palatial – far nicer than any house I have lived in. But I don’t think most Americans would feel the middle class home was “primitive.” And even the working class home was as nice as most summer cabins.

My students were rather amazed to find that the Roman culture was very extensive in Britain and enjoy mostly by native Britons rather than Italians.

So what happened here? Britain went from flush toilets and central heating to open sewers and pigsties and smoking fire pits. It took more than 1,400 years to regain the general level of comfort and sanitation that the Roman Britons enjoyed. The lesson for me was not to take technology for granted – it can be (and has been) erased from our society in a historical eye blink.

We often talk of our lapse into mediocrity as "Dark Ages." I can't help but think "Dumb Ages" is a better description.

Saturday, September 09, 2006

Portobello Market

A few hundred yards from my hotel, the world comes to shop.

Portobello Road is a mile long, winding lane that has attracted shoppers, browsers, street performers and pickpockets for nearly 300 years. Weekdays, it features a few produce stalls and one of the best selections of antique stores in the country. Each Saturday, however, it comes alive with a fantastic array of stalls.

At the Notting Hill Gate end of Portobello Road, the stalls are mainly upscale antiques and artwork. As you stroll on, it becomes decidedly downscale with stalls of souvenirs, T-shirts and rummage. That rummage, however, might sell for premium prices at Missouri antique stores. It takes a few hundred years for something to be a real antique here.

About halfway down the road, it becomes an international food mart. Sausages, fruits, great loaves of bread, exotic olives, fresh fish and a mind-boggling array of cheese tempted my palate. I resisted (OK, I had a pastry), but couldn’t help consuming all the conversation I could. There was chatter in at least a dozen languages as London’s global community joined tourists from all over looking for the right ingredients for tonight’s meal.

I am trying to resist spending too much at the market until Cecile arrives. I drooled, however, at a stall filled with 19th century tools. I love the concept of labor combined with art and the Victorians made almost every common tool into a masterpiece,

I can tell now that the Portobello Market will be a regular Saturday morning pleasure for me. If nothing else, it will give me an opportunity to exercise my photographic voyeurism. Speaking of which, you can click here to see more of my Portobello Market photos. I will add to them through my stay here.

Thursday, September 07, 2006

Cut to the quick

Ah, England -- where the weather is damp but the wit always dry.

Tonight as I was going through the dinner buffet I came upon a large bowl of spinach-like greenery that had no apparent connection to the main course. One of the hotel's permanent residents was near me, so I asked "What is this?"

He looked at me for just an instant before making his decree with a very British accent:


(Another resident explained it was watercress, much disliked by my culinary guide but generally prized by the British.)

Tuesday, September 05, 2006

Birth of a Newspaper

Witnessing the birth of a metropolitan daily newspaper is a rarity something akin to watching a volcano erupt or a comet streak by. Especially in my profession, where we are much more experienced at mourning that celebrating.

Monday I watched a lively metro spring full-grown from the loins of the inimitable Rupert Murdoch. That in itself was remarkable, but I had missed the earlier debut of of yet another paper only days before.

In the newspaper business, England swings. London is home to a dozen English-language dailies of all sizes, styles and political persuasions. And, unlike many American newspapers, they each choose very different stories for their front pages.

But as in the States, daily newspaper readership is declining. Young readers want their news fast, free and a bit on the ragged edge of propriety.

Murdoch’s answer to that – an Associated Newspapers 10 days prior – is a free daily tabloid handed to commuters near Tube stations ever evening. The two evening freebies join the pioneering Metro and CityAM.

Associated publishes the Evening Standard, which identifies itself on the front page as “London’s Quality Newspaper.” It was hard to miss its new product when I came to town this week, however. London Lite looks very similar to the supermarket tabloids that U.S. journalists dismiss but readers snap up. Monday’s front page, for instance, had a huge white-on-black headline block “The Croc Hunter is killed by a fish.” And in boxes above that, “Liz’z love boat” and “WILL ANTI CELLULITE BERRIES WORK FOR MISCHA?”

Considering Murdoch’s reputation, I expected worse of thelondonpaper (all one word, lower case in the Internet style). And the debut front page in deed recorded the demise of the TV star, but with a more sedate “Steve Irwing Stabbed in Heart/CROC MAN KILLED BY STINGRAY. The other headlines on the page were much tamer, referring to stories on Rocker Pete Doherty’s court appearance, sports salaries and coffee addiction a rock.

Damn. Where is the “Alien meets with Bush”?

The young Londoners at which the free papers are aimed didn’t seem to care. Thelondonpaper came out at 4:30 p.m. By 5:30, the only way I could get an issue was to ask to see the copy a street person had on her lap (“That’s OK, love. You take it – I’ve already ready read it.”) I later took a bus from Notting Hill Gate to Picadilly and, despite my second-deck vista, never saw a leftover copy in the sidewalk detritus of the day’s news.

The key test, however, was Andrew. While teaching in London for four months, I am living in an old residential hotel much like Fawlty Towers. It has a bar/lounge in the old London style, with high-backed chairs, a snooker table, wine or port on you account and a contingent of “permanent residents.” Andrew is something of the major domo of these gentlemen. He introduced himself soon after I arrived, noting that he was “former Royal Army” and not at all keen on these immigration policies. He reads the Times, the Telegraph and the Evening Standard daily. The Guardian, he miffed, is “mostly for those liberals…”

When I showed him my battered copy of thelondonpaper, his bushy gray eyebrows literally raised. “One of those free things, eh?” Though he harrumphed, he took it to his chair while I talked with the other residents. When I looked back a few minutes later, he was taking notes and nodding his head.

“This is quite impressive,” he said. “There were several stories I had not seen before.”

Thelondonpaper could indeed be a portent of things to come. It’s not just a “movie rag.” It’s a good read, with good reporting. But it is delivered free in a convenient package. Just like the Internet. It makes one wonder whether the touted popularity of Web news is based on electrons or ease of use.

Monday’s Media Weekly, published by the Independent, featured a long interview with the admiral of Murdoch’s fleet, Clive Milner. Milner was candid about the research that backed the paper and News International’s strategy of keep costs low by employing “multitasking” journalists. The same people write, edit and design pages via new user-friendly technology. And he vowed to eliminate the litany of rules and traditions that drive advertisers crazy.

Milner was especially blunt about his goal for the free daily. His sights are on the dominant paid-for evening paper:

“If I was an employee of the Evening Standard, I would be looking for career advice quickly.”

Sunday, September 03, 2006

Serious research

There are two things you simply must do when you visit London -- have a pint of hand-pulled beer in a pub at least 150 years old and have your picture taken next to one of the queen's guards.

I had the beer Saturday and posed with a Scots Guard at St. James Palace today. I don't think I need to bother the men in the busbies again, but I'm not quite ready to come home. I stiil have to do a bit more investigating on that first chore...

Wednesday, August 30, 2006

H is for the heart

If a homecoming is good for the health, this evening's hug from Harry should make ensure my old age.

Harry is my uncle ... well, sort of. My grandmother was his father's sister but in their working-class neighborhood in pre-war London, the kids from both families merged into virtual siblings. But that's another story.

To make it more confusing, Harry is also known as George. During his decades as a technician and cameraman at BBC, his professional moniker made him namesake of old London politician George Gibbings. And that's yet another story.

He is simply Uncle Harry to me -- a larger-than-life man with natty suits and jaunty bow ties who would show up in our home almost magically whenever "the Beeb" sent him to the States for some story. I took the Tube to his Harrow house this afternoon for dinner and a heartfelt homecoming.

Through the years, Harry has made me laugh, fascinated me with the most outrageous stories of our family and made my brother and I feel as if we were the sons he never had. An evening in Harry's company is one of my favorite tonics.

But he can top that. Harry actually makes people feel better.

"H", as the family calls him, has always been something of an eccentric. That role took a sudden upward turn toward the end of his BBC career when he was marking time between camera shoots by reading headstones in an old cemetery. He was startled by an unusually tall, craggy old man carrying a metal pole. The man thrust the pole to Harry, saying something about his unusually strong aura. Uncle Harry thought the tall stranger had outdone even H at eccentricity, but humored him by taking the pole as the man tossed a set of car keys into the tall grass.

To his own amazement, Harry was able to quickly find the keys with the rod. He never got the old man's name, but used his "divining" skills as a party trick for several years. Then one day he found he could divine someone's aching joints and the pain went away.

So now it is something of a family joke ... "Where'd Harry go? Did he stop to heal a waitress again?" He never takes money or accolades for his special skill, but you are seldom around him long these days before someone asks for his touch.

And, weird as it sounds, it seems to work. When H places his hand on your back, neck or shoulder, it goes right to that nagging spot you don't like to talk about. His hands become unusually warm, as does the spot. And when he removes his hands, the pain has diminished.

It doesn't keep away forever for me, but then I'm not much of a believer. But it works at least as good as a stiff drink -- with no residual hangover.

The magic is getting its toughest test now. Harry is 86, chipper, but with a weak ticker. The pills help, but the man with the healing hands can't use them on his own heart. For a fleeting moment, the impish delight vanishes from his face when he explains this divining Catch 22.

Damn unfair, isn't it? H has lifted more hearts than he will ever known.

Tuesday, August 29, 2006

The comforts of home?

I knew there was something that just wasn't right about flying these days -- something that was right there in front of my nose. But it just couldn't get it.

  • Maybe it was the decline in "style" since my 1963 trip on PanAm. Monday I flew with a herd of business and pleasure travelers on Northwest. Back then, airline passengers were special folks who were waited upon by classy stewards and stewardesses and who dined as if they were at a resort. I kept the tiny PanAm salt and pepper shakers for years. I don't think I want the paper condiment envelopes from this trip. And don't get me wrong, the flight attendants were nice -- kind of truck-stop diner nice, but nice.
  • Maybe it was the seats. I refuse to believe my girth has expanded that much beyond the national norm in the past few years. Instead, I think they mis-translated "coach" into "petite" when designing the plane. I rolled around for most of the flight trying to find a home for my mildly ample bottom. I hate to think what poor Mom would have done with her more substantial avoirdupois.
  • Or perhaps it is the airlines' odd sense of scheduling. It's bad enough that one has to wait hours at a "hub" for connections to a "spoke" that is usually a state or two out of the way. But then there is the fumbling over what used to be pretty good food service. On domestic hops, they've cut most of the chow. The cabin attendants just walk up and down the isle offering half glasses of ginger-ale. But they are still supposed to serve real food on international flights -- so eat whether you like it or not. We boarded at 9:30 p.m. eastern U.S. time (3:30 a.m. GMT) and got dinner at midnight (6 a.m. in London). I'm sure that fits in someone's schedule.
  • And then there is that herd metaphor. Nothing makes one feel like a world-class traveler better than an hour wait among your sweaty peers while someone rummages among the underwear.
But I don't think that was it. I realized just as we were about to land that the answer was not in FRONT of my nose, it was the schnozz itself.

I snore. Not just a little, but enough vibrate the bolts loose on a Lazy-Boy. True traveling discomfort is waking up with a snort on a crowded airliner that seems just-a-bit-too-quiet. And noticing, when you casually look around, that half the cabin is staring back at you.

Scotty wherever you are, for God's sake beam me up. That's the only way to fly.

Monday, August 21, 2006

Return to England

In many ways, I am the classic "man without a country." More precisely, I'm a "man with three countries. I was born in Germany, the son of an American GI and an English singer and actress. Each of my parents gave me an abiding love and appreciation of their homeland and I took it upon myself to learn the language and customs of Germany.

But next week, I return to the Mother Country. Or at least the country of my mother.

I leave Aug. 28 for a four-month stay in the United Kingdom, where I will teach in the London Program sponsored by the University of Missouri. A consortium of Missouri colleges under the banner of International Enrichment takes a large group of students to London each semester. The Missouri School of Journalism sends the largest group, along with a professor to give the students a class that is credited toward their journalism degree.

It's my turn to be that professor. Tough duty.

We teach at Imperial College, right next to Royal Albert Hall. Cecile and I will stay at the Vincent House, a residential hotel in Notting Hill. I teach one night class a week, help with a second class and chaperone the students on a Wednesday field trip. I also oversee the internships that each student will have.

My course will give the students a comparison of British and U.S. journalism. I plan to draw upon my personal experiences to give them a flavor of England.

It wasn't until I sat down to write this that I realized how extensive those experiences are. This will be my seventh trip to England. (Click here to see a collection of my travel photos) Sometime after my birth in 1951, Mom took me to visit my Nan, Pop and relatives at their workingclass London flat. Mom, brother Mark and I spent most of the summer of 1963 at that flat, discovering in depth our family ties.

I returned with my bride in the bicentenial year of 1976. Cecile and I spend nearly a month touring England in a white Mini borrowed from Uncle Harry. That tiny car took us on some of the most memorable adventures of my life -- and further cemented a love that has grown for three decades.

In 1990, we returned with the family we decided to have just after our 1976 trip. Gillian was a pretty and imaginative middle-schooler. Garrett was a rambunctious tyke. We had not quite realized how cold and blustery England would be in December, but the Christmas holiday was the time we had available. It was cold but wonderful. We heard the choirs at the London cathedrals and celebrated both Christmas and Boxing Day with family in Cornwall.

By 2001, my family had endured my mood swings and self-induced poverty as I earned my doctorate at the University of Oregon. We felt that Garrett had been cheated from the family trips he should have enjoyed in high school, so Cecile and I took him to England. The itinerary was up to him, so he chose a hunt for castles. We drove through northern England and Wales looking at a fantasy land of old stone and mortar.

Cecile and I returned -- albeit briefly -- in 2005. We had gone to Ireland for a summer holiday with Gillian. She and Will were living in Dublin where he worked as an architect. While we were there, the family in England organized a reunion and party to mark the 85th birthday of Uncle Harry. Harry Gibbings is the spirit of our family -- a jovial and quirky former BBC cameraman. He has treated me as a son since that 1963 trip.

My life is full of memories, pictures and phrases from England. Now I get to add more. I also get to spend four months as a childless husband with my lovely wife. I look forward not only to rediscovering Britain, but reveling in the romance of a couple as we did in 1976.

Tuesday, March 14, 2006

A parent's song

You can escape it in no corner of the world when the March lion roars. Usually The Song comes on the silken voice of a tenor. But it could as likely be a sweet soprano or mournful guitar that grabs both ears and heart.

Oh Danny boy, the pipes, the pipes are calling…

From glen to glen, radio station to radio station, country bar to Irish pub, the unofficial anthem of those who wear green plays again and again. The reaction is inevitable – puzzled young people turn back to their conversation or drinks while the gray let tears flow down their aging cheeks.

I was one of the former for longer my hair color should have allowed. The Song was something of a joke for the most of my life.

I first remember paying attention to it as I watched my mother cry with great sobs as the instantly recognizable melody played on television.

The summer's gone, and all the flowers are dying
'Tis you, 'tis you must go and I must bide.

The occasion was a memorial to a great man, but the tears were for someone dearer. I thought at the time Mom’s reaction to the song was plain silly and it teased her back to an embarassed smile. It took many years and two children of my own to put that moment together with another, more poignant memory.

I come from an Anglo-Irish family. In those genes came a mix of anger and guilt tempered only by our familial admiration for a pint of stout and the indomitable spirit of both island nations.

Years before I watch my mother cry to The Song, I watched her weep as her father gave her what he believed was his last hug. We had traveled to England to see the relatives. As we left for the airport “Pop” was solemn. Mom gave him a hug and he looked up from his chair.

“I’ll never see you again. Goodbye, Diana Mary.”

Not “farewell.” Not “until we meet again.”


And if you come, when all the flowers are dying
And I am dead, as dead I well may be
You'll come and find the place where I am lying
And kneel and say an "Ave" there for me.

I still didn’t understand. No young man should understand The Song. To do so would keep us from straying far enough from home and hearth to move our society forward. But bye and bye we gain the painful wisdom of age.

About two years ago, my life and appreciation of The Song changed. My daughter, her husband and my cherished grandson moved to Dublin to be part of the economic boom the press calls the Celtic Tiger.

I realized that it was ironically fair that I give Ireland my daughter while I waited behind. Generations of Irish fathers had lost Dannys and Mollys to the Americas. And though The Song was written by an Englishman who never set foot on the Emerald Isle, it perfectly captured the emotion of parent letting go of child.

Not long after Gillian left for Ireland, I was alone in my car when The Song came on the radio. It was the very first time I understood it. With gray in my hair, I knew well my own mortality and the possibility that my child and I might never be reunited.

And I shall hear, tho' soft you tread above me
And all my dreams will warm and sweeter be

I cried so hard I had to pull over to the side of the road. Like my mother before me, I sobbed from the pit of my soul.

If you'll not fail to tell me that you love me
I'll simply sleep in peace until you come to me.

I sobbed ... but then smiled at the warm consolation The Song gives to parents who give their children to the world. It is right.

I'll simply sleep in peace until you come to me.

Irish or not, my eyes are smiling this St. Patrick’s Day. I sleep in peace these nights knowing that my child will indeed come to me – if only briefly before going to another new life in Oregon. I will again bounce my grandson on my knee, discuss the news with my son-in-law and let my now pregnant daughter kiss me on an aging cheek.

A cheek that will forever more be blessed with tears when a tenor sings The Song.