How the village cleans a beach

I hate to get all hopeful and upbeat on you—it messes with my carefully cultivated image as a crank—but I attended a village event that could leave a careless person feeling good about life. At least briefly.

It was a beach cleanup, and this is how it came into being: For about a year (you know better than to think that number’s accurate, right?), J. and P. did spontaneous, two-minute beach cleans on their own, and as everyone who isn’t me does these days, they posted about it on social media. Which led to people wanting to join in. Some of them might even have done it. I went never got past the thinking stage.

Irrelevant photo: meadowsweet, a wildflower that was once used to flavor mead. Or so my flower book tells me.

Irrelevant photo: Meadowsweet, a wildflower that was once used to flavor mead. Or so my flower book tells me.

Eventually, they organized a weekly beach cleanup, making it easier for people to join them. And that led to some organization or other donating gloves and squeezy pickup thingy-sticks (sorry for the technical language here) and plastic rims to hold garbage bags open and it’s all gotten very organized. P. even gives a safety briefing, which he apologizes for but does anyway, because this is Britain and safety briefings run deep in the culture. You can’t pour tea without a safety briefing. At an indoor event, a safety briefing might be something like, “The fire exits are there and there. The tea’s very hot. Please don’t wear it. Please don’t throw knives. If you need a defibrillator, it’s across the road at the store. Thank you. Thank you very much, thank you.”

Thanking people is also very British. It may or may not be a safety issue. I’m not immersed enough in the culture yet to report on that reliably. Thank you for being patient with my limitations.

Really. Thanks.

Saying please is also very British. But enough of that. We were talking about the cleanup.

At the beach, P.’s safety briefing was something along the lines of, “This is a beach. It can be a dangerous place. Don’t do anything stupid.”

Since the beach cleaners drifted in one by one and two by six, P. had to give the safety briefing over and over before sending people out to work. I was the only one there for the rendition I heard, and since P. puts up with me unusually well I felt free to jump in and list the beach’s dangers—wild animals, unbridled sunburn, melted ice cream, all that sort of thing—and it threw him off his stride. Which is a way of saying that I don’t really remember what he said except that he had apologized before I started making jokes and might have even been relieved when I did. Who’s to say? He’s a good sport and if he finds me annoying he hides it well.

For which I should thank him but I haven’t. I’m just not British enough.

While P. waited for more people, J. and I took our plastic bags and wandered in different directions, looking for anything that wasn’t sand, stone, seaweed, or jellyfish. It doesn’t take long before the eye trains itself to spot the things that don’t belong—fishing line, bits of commercial fishing net, candy wrappers, broken styrofoam and plastic, nails from the wooden pallets people burn for bonfires.

More people drifted in—26 in all, a mix of residents and visitors—and we bumped around like those automatic vacuum cleaners I keep hearing about. You know about them? They travel through a house, changing direction when they bump into furniture and dogs and that missing TV remote you’ve been looking for all week. It seems random, but give them enough time and they clean the entire space.

As an aside, F. told me about a friend who had to lock hers in the garage. If she left the door open, it would escape and vacuum the yard (which she calls the garden). If she left the gate open, it would vacuum as much of Cornwall as it could reach before it ran out of power.

I don’t know if we covered the entire beach. It started out fairly clean that morning, P. had reported, so if we missed a part it wasn’t obvious. The amount of junk depends on the wind, the tides, the currents, how hard the sea monsters flap their terrible tails during the night, and of course human activity.

We worked for about an hour, stopping to trade news and greetings when we crossed paths with people we knew, then we pooled what we’d found and P. weighed it, which made what we’d done measurable and left us all feeling like we’d accomplished something. We had 11 kilos of trash and two dead and very stinky half fish. One of the kids found a Lego figure and took it home with her. I found three bits of sea glass and did the same with them.

The next morning, J. (that’s a different J.) left a note on Facebook saying that the beach was looking “a bit sorry for itself” when she looked, so she’d done her own cleanup. You can’t just clean the beach and expect it to stay that way. We throw our junk in the sea–or on the land, or in the rivers, and it ends up in the sea–and it comes back to us. Or it doesn’t. It gets eaten by fish instead, and they die with stomachs full of plastic. Or it does assorted other depressing damage, which I won’t go into because either you already know about it or you can google it and find someone who’s posted a far more competent summary than I could. Depressing as it is, it’s worth knowing about because it’s, you know, reality, and what we don’t know will bite us in the ass the first chance it gets.

A few days later, P. posted that he’d found and cleaned up the wreckage from a party, including cans, a vodka bottle, a disposable kite, and a collection of women’s clothes—outer and sexy under—that some partygoer must have decided were also disposable.

That leads me to ask why, at least in the straight world, it’s always the women who take off their clothes, not the men.

Okay, I don’t know for a fact that it works that way. It’s been a long time since I immersed myself deeply enough in that section of the straight world to know who takes what off when these days. But I’m reasonably sure I’ve got it right, so let’s explore this a bit: Does it work that way because men are shyer? Or have we been programmed by movies to believe women’s clothes drop away spontaneously while men’s are stuck to their bodies by some mysterious force no one’s bothered to study yet? Or when men start taking their clothes off, does everyone shout, “Put that back on. We don’t want to know what’s under there”?

Do, in fact, straight men ever take their clothes off in public? Do they take them off in private? Do they actually have bodies under their clothes or are they like Ken dolls, which can be undressed only as far as their bathing trunks. Or their underwear. Or whatever it is that Ken wears.

Oh hell, am I even right about Ken dolls? Do they undress down to an anatomically incorrect mound of plastic?

Yes, I do remember what’s anatomically incorrect. It’s been a long time, but it was still in this lifetime.

I’m not asking this out of prurient curiosity but because the different strands of our culture need to understand each other if we’re to foster mutual respect. So I can hardly wait to find out what you-all are going to tell me. I’m sure we’ll all be wiser by the end of the discussion.

We had a topic, though, and I’ve wandered, so let’s go back to it: Cleaning the beach is a tiny gesture toward the serious work that needs to be done, but at least it gives us a chance to do something more than moan. And it makes us think about where all this junk is coming from and what, on a larger scale, we can do about that.

It also lets us gossip about the way other people behave on the beach, and boy did that underwear start some discussions. Isn’t that what life’s about?

There. I’ve returned to my usual cranky self. What a relief.

Village life and chickens

People turn to the internet for all kinds of reasons: to learn something new, to be reminded of something old, to confirm what they already believe. To kill time.

Of course, some just want to know the chemical composition of lipstick or what time it is in Tanzania when it’s 6:33 p.m. in Latvia. But never mind all that, what I want to talk about is a search that led someone to my blog: It read (reproducing the lower-case style that all good searches hold to), “if you never chased chickens then you don’t know village life.”

I should stop and explain, for anyone sane enough not to know this, that some of the search questions that lead to a blog show up on a page the blogger can find if she’s obsessive enough to care, and I’m going to take a wild and irresponsible guess and say that most bloggers are at least that obsessive and probably more so. But not all the questions show up. Most, in fact, show up as Unknown Search Terms. Unknown to who(m, if you like)? No idea. Why are they unknown? Even less of an idea. It would drive me around the bend if I let myself think about it for too long, so let’s move on.

Irrelevant photo: Lupine leaves after a rain and before being eaten by slugs and snails.

Irrelevant photo: Lupine leaves after a rain and before being eaten by slugs and snails.

The comment about the chickens—it’s not really a question, is it?, she said turning a statement into a question of her own—is the most interesting one I’ve found to date. So instead of merging it into one of my periodic posts on how people find a blog, I’m dedicating an entire post to it, and if anyone types it into a search engine again (as surely people must, day after day, hour after hour; think an infinite number of monkeys with typewriters eventually reproducing the works of Shakespeare, although not necessarily with the words in the right order). Let’s start over, because I got lost there and I’m going to assume you did as well: If anyone types that into a search engine again Notes will be number one on the list of places addressing this very important question.

Since it’s that important, I need to fill in my background: I have never chased chickens—not in the village and not in either Minneapolis or New York, the other places I’ve lived. One of our dogs, Minnie the Moocher, did chase a chicken in an incident that involved both feathers and (a mercifully small amount of) blood, but I dragged her off in disgrace and the chicken wisely took herself off to her own side of the fence. (That was a friend’s fence and his neighbor’s chicken, so yes, our neighbors are still speaking to us.)

I have chased cattle. I’d tell you whether it was a cow or a bullock but the truth is that I didn’t look. I’m a city kid at heart. I do understand the difference, and if I look I can spot the signs, but noticing isn’t second nature. I mean, if it’s not something I need to know, why do I need to know it? So I’m using the plural, cattle, even though it was only one animal.

What’s the singular for cattle? Cat?

The incident with the, um, beast, didn’t happen in our village. Wild Thing and I were tourists then, on our first visit to Britain, and we’d gone to Avebury, which is near Stonehenge and has a big stone circle running through the middle of the village. The stone circle doesn’t have those impressive cross-pieces that Stonehenge brags about, but it’s still breathtaking, and you can wander into the middle of it and lean against the stones, which they don’t let you do at Stonehenge anymore.

We were wandering around being suitably amazed when a couple of guys ran up, trying to herd a—for the sake of simplicity, let’s say cow—into a field. She was young and spry and not interested in going through that gate, and every time they got her close she broke off and ran in some other direction. There weren’t enough humans involved to hem her in.

Wild Thing once co-owned a small farm in northern Minnesota, and they rented their field to a neighbor who ran cows on it. She swears the cows thought of nothing all day long but how to get out of the field and stand either in the yard or the road, so she knows a thing or two about herding cattle. By my standards, that makes her an expert. Besides, her grandmother spent her honeymoon cooking on a cattle drive, which gives Wild Thing all kinds of bragging rights.

Talk about romance.

So without being asked we posted ourselves where we thought we’d be useful. Wild Thing waved her arms and whooped when the cow came in her direction. I did what she was doing and I sounded like a New Yorker trying to sound like she knew what she was doing. We didn’t have a lot of cows on 75th Street. The cow jogged right, jogged left, saw an opening, then decided it was too small, what with all these humans jumping around. She looked for a different one, didn’t like the look of it either, and eventually she gave up and ran through the gate. One of the guys closed it, the other one gave us a wave and a nod, and that was it. We were tourists again. The life of contemporary Avebury snapped shut and was once again as distant from us as the lives of the people who’d wrestled those massive stones into place some 4,500 years before.

End of story. Beginning of questions: 1. Do we get extra points because a cow’s larger than a chicken? 2. Do we lose points for not living in the village where the chase took place? Or 3. do we lose all our points because the chase didn’t involve a chicken?

Since we moved to the village, we’ve seen and sometimes chased, all sorts of loose animals: one ewe with her two lambs who were on the road and terrified; a small herd of bullocks grazing happily in the Methodist cemetery; assorted wandering dogs. The best thing to do in these situations isn’t herd them home but figure out where home is and let the farmer (in the case of the sheep and cattle) know. This usually involves either knocking on doors or getting on the phone, and sometimes both.

We’ve also looked for lost cats—sometimes ours and sometimes other people’s. And I did watch a bus chase a peacock very, very slowly down the road. The peacock had his tail fully fanned out and was cursing in peacock, but the bus was bigger and he eventually gave up and went home, screaming all the way.

Chickens, though? We know a few people who keep them, but they (that’s the chickens) don’t seem to wander. For a while, M. had one lone chicken. She’d had three but two died and the survivor was so lonely that it followed M. whenever she worked in the garden and tapped on the window when she went inside. Was that chicken going to wander off? Not a chance.

T. kept chickens in a pen. They never got loose. J. and Co. kept extremely free-range chickens and they took themselves home, thanks, until the fox saw to it that they didn’t need to.

I can’t leave the topic without mentioning the things that have chased us. I’m still hoping to earn points here. One was a leg of lamb that Wild Thing had ordered from A., the owner of a local café, who raises both sheep and cattle.  When Wild Thing went to pick it up, though, A. had already sent it up the hill to us with J., who was headed in that direction. It would save us a trip, she figured. Only we weren’t home—we’d probably gone to pick the thing up—so J. left it with a neighbor, another J., who didn’t notice us coming home so she didn’t turn up on the doorstep with it. Instead, we called the first J. and she sent us to the second J. and eventually we claimed and cooked the damned thing.

Have I mentioned that I’m a vegetarian? Even when the leg of lamb’s gone free range, which this one clearly had.

We’ve also been chased by bullocks. They get bored standing around in fields all day with nothing interesting on TV, then they see someone walking through with a dog and think, Ooh, that looks like fun, and over they trot, rib to rib to massive damn rib. They’re big animals, just in case you haven’t spent any time with a herd of them gathering around you. If you’re inclined to be intimidated, they’re intimidating.

This happened a lot when we had an elderly and by then somewhat demented cocker spaniel who we couldn’t let off the leash because he’d developed a habit of turning around and running back where we’d come from. And since by then he was pretty nearly deaf—. So, yeah, we kept him on a leash. We left more than one field with me in front, leading the dog on a fast march, and Wild Thing behind, walking backward, brandishing her stick, and giving them a shout or two when they didn’t take her seriously enough. She’s the daughter of a woman who took on a snorting, pawing bull armed with nothing better than a broom and won. In a showdown between Wild Thing and a herd of restless bullocks, my money’s on Wild Thing.

This was back when her ankles allowed for this kind of carrying on. We miss those walks. More than I know how to tell you.

Until last Wednesday, we were being chased by a blue banner that says “Save Our NHS,” but that was chasing us around the entire county, not just the village, so I’m not sure it counts. When I wrote the first draft of this, it had reached the outskirts of the village. By the time I did the final edits, it had reached us.

Since I’m getting increasingly tangential, I might as well tell you that I was chased by—well, something bovine, but we’ll get to that—when I was too young to remember it. My family was in Vermont on vacation and my father walked across a field with my brother and me and we were chased by what he swore was a bull. He lifted us into a tree and heroically held it off with a stick (which probably would have broken if he’d hit anything with it). It became one of those family stories that are told repeatedly. And at this point in the story, my mother would say, “Peter, that was a bullock.”

“It was a bull.”

My parents were also city kids. Whatever chased us, it was bovine and male, that’s all I know. All three of us lived through it. My parents were an exceptionally loving couple, but they did have a habit of arguing out the details of each other’s stories. At length. I think they enjoyed it.

So do I know village life? It’s hard to say. I’ve lived here for ten years, but I’m an incomer with a funny accent and a better understanding of subway trains than of chickens.

Does the person who typed that statement into Google know about village life? Are they looking to confirm an existing belief or to challenge one? I don’t know, but I did type it into Google myself to see what I could learn. First, Google suggested that what I really wanted to know was “if you ever chased chickens then you don’t know village life.”

Nope. The original statement said “never” and it makes more sense that way.

Google then led me to a hunting magazine which would be mortified if it knew it was promoting chicken hunting but that ran an article containing the words if you don’t know and chickens. Close enough. Notes from the U.K. came second and third on the list because I have a category called Village Life and because I use the phrase don’t know (as in I don’t know) a lot. I never noticed how often.

One of my posts also used the word chase.

If you’re an SEO-hound (and for those of you pure enough not to know what SEO is, please stay that way; it means search engine optimization, and bloggers can get obsessed with it), then you know that appearing second and third on a Google list is almost as good as appearing first, even if it’s in answer to a question (or in this case, statement) as obscure as this one. After this post, I expect to come first, second, and third. So please encourage all your relatives to type “if you’ve never chased chickens you don’t know village life” into Google. It won’t do me any good, but it’ll give you all something to talk about at the next family party.

But to go back to the sites Google offered me: After Notes, I found blogs about village life in England, in Spain, and in Turkey. They used the words village, life, know, and you. One used the word never. Clear candidates. Horse and Hound used the word never and cockerel in close proximity. Google seems to recognize cockerel as a variant on chicken.

I stopped after Horse and Hound, no wiser about either village life or the person who so hauntingly googled it. Whoever you are (she typed plaintively), if you happen to read this, I’d love to hear from you. What were you really looking for?

Life in the village: the white cat

The latest village uproar—or, to be more accurate, the latest our-small-section-of-the-village uproar—involves a white cat who breaks into other cats’ houses and sprays. And, of course, other cats’ houses means other people’s houses.

Okay, okay, it’s the latest uproar in our house. The neighbors have been putting up with him (reluctantly) for years. But before I tell you about it: all you city dwellers, listen up: We live in a small village. We take our scandals where we can get them. Y’know how in some place you have the Mafia? Well, we have the white cat.

And let me add that there is juicier gossip to be had, but I can’t repeat it. Because I’d like to stay here, thanks. So even if I knew who’d done what with (or to) who( or whom, if you prefer), I couldn’t post it.

And I’m not saying I don’t know. I’m just ducking the issue.

Don’t you just hate it when people go all discrete on you?

A surprisingly relevant photo: Fast Eddie, guarding the house.

A surprisingly relevant photo: Fast Eddie, guarding the house.

The white cat, though, doesn’t give a rip who says what about him, and besides, if my neighbors had to choose between me and him, even the ones who don’t like me would choose me.  Because even at my worst, I do not spray in the house and never have.

We first heard about the white cat some years ago. One set of neighbors had two cats at the time, along with a cat flap, and the white cat would come in through the flap, then all three cats would go into a panic and try to escape through the flap at once.

All very funny if it’s not your house, and since we don’t have a cat flap I got all smug and thought we were immune. But we do have a window, which our current cat, Fast Eddie, and his predecessor, the mighty Smudge, have used instead of a cat flap. The smudge on the wall underneath it bears witness. They’ve braced their front paws there so many times of the way in on the way in that it’s become permanent. We do clean it every so often, just to pretend we’re the kind of people who clean big smudges off the wall, but it never completely disappears and it’s back to full smudgeliness in no time.

If you look at something like that long enough, it goes invisible.

It’s been demonstrated that if our cats can get in, so can others, but we didn’t give it much thought. When we first moved here, a different set of neighbors had a cat named Missy who went visiting by moonlight, and when Wild Thing was in the U.S. getting our cats and dog ready to ship over, I’d wake up in the night and find Missy in bed with me. I used to think I should rise up and say, “Excuse me, have we been introduced?” because I don’t know about you, but I like to know the names of the creatures I sleep with. But I’m not sharp enough in the middle of the night and the subtler the joke is, the more it’s wasted on cats.

Besides, we had been introduced.

I didn’t really mind her curling up with me, but she was noisier leaving than she was coming in, knocking over lamps and scrabbling against the wall, and after a couple of nights I closed the main windows and opened a little transom window to let some air in. That night I woke up to frantic scrambling and Missy dropping onto the bed triumphantly.

I closed the transom window until Wild Thing arrived with our cats, who explained in yowls of one syllable why Missy should go sleep in her own house.

Which is a long way of saying that I should’ve known we weren’t white-catproof but I didn’t and the other night I looked through the glass of the hall door and saw him ghosting along behind Fast Eddie, who hadn’t noticed the white cat because he was totally involved in scratching at the edge of the closed door and teasing Moose.

I opened the door and yelled, the white cat turned to leap for the window, Fast Eddie gave chase, and Wild Thing let the dogs out the back door. The dogs were ecstatic: Something to chase. Something that runs away. Wheee, pant, bark, pant, bark. We’re dogs, we’re dogs, we’re dogs. They ran around the corner of the house, barking as seriously as if they really were dogs, which being shih tzus they only kind of are.

So now we’re on high alert. We’re forming a militia made up of two armed dogs plus Fast Eddie to do recon and summon them when they’re needed. The white cat must not enter the house. No pasaran, if you know your Spanish Civil War history, although the verb there is plural and missing an accent mark and the white cat is singular and couldn’t be trusted with an accent mark and besides he almost certainly doesn’t speak Spanish. Why should he? He doesn’t speak English and he hears a hell of a lot more of that than he does Spanish around here.

There’s a lot of complaining about him on the village Facebook page. Some of the neighbors, Wild Thing tells me, are talking about catching the cat and getting him neutered, but the owner doesn’t want it done and no matter what they say, nobody’s likely  to do it. That’s a British thing, I’m told: talking to anyone except the right person about what needs to be done so that it never happens. (If you’re interested in this as a cultural phenomenon, look in the index of Watching the English under “moaning.”

From what little I know about cats and spraying, neutering wouldn’t help anyway. Once they start, they continue, vet or no vet.

So that’s the latest uproar here in romantic Cornwall. We live an exciting life

The Soulbury Stone: ancient tradition meets four-wheel drive

The British are proud of their traditions, even when they haven’t a clue where they came from or what (if anything) they commemorate. It’s one of the things I love about the country—that mix of deep history and complete insanity. For today’s example, students, turn your textbook to page—. Sorry, I’m dating myself. Click your magic tablets to (and you can take your pick here): the Guardian, the BBC, or the Leighton Buzzard Observer, which doesn’t necessarily have the best article but does have the best name. Don’t you wish you wrote for the Leighton Buzzard?

Irrelevant photo: Davidstow Moor.

Irrelevant photo: Davidstow Moor.

It seems that at some dim point in history, the village of Soulbury built its main road around a stone. A big ol’ stone—the kind of stone that defeated two tanks during World War II, when someone decided that the only way to beat Hitler was to get that stone out of the middle of the road. Hitler did eventually lose the war, but the tanks lost the battle. Local wisdom says that the Soulbury Stone always wins.

But let me backtrack. When I said they build the road around it, I don’t mean that they detoured around it. I mean that the thing’s sticking up right in the middle of the road. Judging from the photos, it’s the height of an average person’s thigh. You’ll notice I avoided saying where it would come up to on the imaginary person’s thigh. A thigh’s a longish bit of anatomy. So this is a rough estimate but close enough to let you understand that the stone’s not the sort of thing your average village leaves in the middle of the road. Or that your average driver looks at and thinks, I don’t need to detour around that.

At one point, a lamppost stood beside it, but that’s gone now—maybe the tanks got it—so it’s just the stone these days, sticking out of the pavement all on its own.

I should stop here and tell you a bit about Soulbury. The population, according to Wikipedia, is 736. In 1891, it was 510, so yes, it’s been growing madly. Most references to it are on genealogical sites and its main claim to fame seems to be the stone. Once I ran through nine or ten entries about either the stone or somebody else’s ancestors, I was suddenly looking at listings about Sri Lanka and Tamil separatism. I should probably have followed the links to see if there really was some connection but I preferred to think it was a random collision of electronic bitzies.

Don’t you just love Google?

What brought the stone to national attention was an incident—or an alleged incident—involving a four-by-four and the Immovable Object, after which the county council decided the stone was an obstruction and needed to be removed.

Mind you, they weren’t going to crush it to smithereens. They understand the power of village tradition. All they were proposing was to move it to the village green. To which the village said, reasonably enough, “Obstruction? Whaddaya mean obstruction?”

Sorry, wrong accent. I can’t  help myself.

One resident threatened to chain himself to it, although it you look at the pictures you’ll be hard pressed to figure out how. My friends, I’ve done civil disobedience. Never in that particular form, but I think I’m safe in saying that a roundish stone isn’t something you can chain yourself to.

A move is afoot to have it declared an ancient monument, not because anybody’s Neolithic ancestor erected it—it was left there by a glacier— but because it would protect the stone. And, well, just because, as the kids used to say where I grew up when they had to explain something that couldn’t be explained, which usually meant some rule that originated with the grownups.

According the the Guardian article, “Even local people can’t quite put a finger on why they value [the stone] so highly. Debbie Olié, who lives at the bottom of Chapel Hill, appreciates that it’s a handy way to direct people looking for her turnoff. Jacqui Butler, who lives in the large, early-18th century house in front of the stone, says her teenage son likes to stand on it every Thursday evening waiting for the fish and chip van. Janet Joosten, who lives a few doors along the main road and is a member of a druid society, believes the stone has ‘particular energies’.

“Some people think it was a mounting block for horses. There is a legend that Oliver Cromwell stood on top of it while his troops were ransacking the village church (though villagers are happy to admit the sourcing on that may be sketchy). Some cite a legend that the stone rolls down the low hill every night at midnight only to reappear each morning, though sceptics scoff at such superstition and say it only happens every Halloween.”


Local belief also holds that only an eighth of the stone is visible aboveground. If that’s true (and how would anyone know?), it would explain why no one moved it a few hundred, or thousand, years ago, before anyone got sentimental about the thing.

In the name of safety, the stone is now surrounded by orange traffic cones. Last I heard, the fight was still going on.

And people thought I was making things up on April Fool’s Day. With a country like this, who needs April Fool’s Day?

The British and their pets

Let no one say I hide from the tough topics. I asked what you wanted to hear about and I got questions about budget cuts (destructive), mental health services (needed more than ever given the budget cuts), British television (mixed but I’m not much of a TV watcher these days), and what the British think of Americans (long story). So let’s start with the heavy-duty stuff and talk about the British and their pets. This is justified because Sandy Sue wrote, “I’d love to hear about Brits and their pets. In one post you said they don’t holler for their animals like we do–I loved that. More!”


Spoiler alert: The Big Guy's been found.

Spoiler alert: The Big Guy’s been found.

Dogs played an important part in introducing us to the village. Wild Thing has a gift for starting conversations with pretty much anyone, and if she sees someone with a dog she stops to talk if she can. In any country. In Kate Fox’s book Watching the English, I read that dogs are an accepted conversation starter. A bit like the weather. They’re a nice neutral topic that allows shy people to connect, and Fox writes about the English as a publicly shy people. The national assumption is that each person goes into the public sphere surrounded by an invisible privacy bubble and it would be rude to break in. Commuters who see each other morning after morning may, after a year or so, go all out and nod to each other. Which is why they need pre-programmed topics—the weather, the dog, the whatever—in order to break out and enjoy a bit of human companionship.

Lucky us that Wild Thing’s quirks fit so well with the country’s. Our acquaintances and then friendships in the village grew out of Ida’s habit of talking about dogs. When we first came here as visitors, we met a few dogs, and through them a few people, and through them a few more people, and here we are, all these years later, still pestering them.

One of the first things Wild Thing noticed was that if you asked people about their dogs, a certain number of them would tell you entire tales: She’s a rescue dog and she’s settled in wonderfully but she’s still afraid of people with hats. Oh, he’s had a difficult day—he saw the vet this morning. Last week she was stung by a bee and it’s been very traumatic. These weren’t just dogs we were hearing about. Each one was the central character in a novel.

I don’t know if more people adopt abandoned dogs in the U.K. than in the U.S., but I do know we hear about it more often. Stop to admire a dog and if it’s a rescue dog that’s the first thing you’ll learn. Which leads me to wonder not only if more people adopt rescue dogs here but if more people abandon them. Or is it that more of them find a home? Or do we just hear about it more because people need the outlet of talking about their dogs?

Dogs are welcome in more public places here than in—well, it’s hard to generalize about the U.S., but certainly than in Minnesota. Lots of cafes and pubs welcome them. If we’re not sure and don’t see a sign in the window, we’ve learned to poke our heads through the door and ask. A few even offer dog biscuits. Some set water bowls outside the door, whether or not dogs are welcome inside. At singers night in the nearby pub, dogs are a regular part of the mix. Every so often one will add a well-timed howl and be welcomed with general hysteria. One of the organizers has a small repertoire of dog songs that he’ll sing at times like that. Mostly, though, the dogs are content to listen and hope someone will drop a sandwich.

As a result of being taken more places (or I’m guessing it’s a result), dogs are generally more relaxed in public than a small and unscientific survey leads me to believe they are in the U.S. I do hear and read about aggressive dogs, but so far our experience has been good. A bit of growling now and then, the occasional pup who’s too big and enthusiastic its brain, but mostly they get along peaceably and behave well. Even if one or another of them howls at a song. We’ve all wanted to once in a while, haven’t we?

We’ve usually warned away from snappish ones by their owners.

In Minnesota, state law governed where dogs could and couldn’t be taken. A coffee shop near our old house let dogs in because they couldn’t see a reason not to, and it worked well until they got caught by an inspector from the Minnesota Department of Dog Fur and General Bad Behavior and received a couple of stern warnings. They still couldn’t bear to kick dogs out but we took pity on them and stopped bringing ours in. Other dog-owning regulars did the same. Then the state passed a law that made it illegal to tie a dog outside while you went in for coffee. No, it didn’t specify coffee. It could have been shampoo or a bottle of milk. But it limited what people could do with their dogs. We could walk them and take them back home. We could keep them at home, and we could let them out in the yard if we had a way to keep them inside it. But we couldn’t integrate them into our lives the way we can here.

Because I live in the country, people keep other pets and semi-pets. On the other side of the valley, B. keeps peacocks. Come spring we hear them yelling something that sounds like “Help! Help!” The peahens want nothing more out of their lives than to lead their chicks onto the road and wander up and down it, and I’ve learned to slow down near B.’s house. The peacocks like the road as well. One year I saw the local half-size bus herding a peacock down the road toward me at maybe half a mile per hour. As the bird walked, he threw his feet forward—not quite in a goosestep but it was close enough to make me understand why they named the step after a bird. He had his fan spread and was yelling furiously for help, or for reinforcements. When he got to the house and no reinforcements had come, he stepped aside and let the bus through.

I didn’t have a camera.

Any number of people keep chickens and a few keep geese. Some of these are just chickens and geese and some are pets. One year two of M.’s chickens died, leaving her with just one, which was so lonely she’d follow M. from place to place as she worked in the garden and would sit on the windowsill when M. went in. Eventually M. got another hen or two and the chicken went back to acting like a chicken.

M.’s hens are battery hens that aren’t laying as heavily as they used to and would otherwise be slaughtered. They come to her practically featherless and in terrible shape, hardly knowing what to do with the great outdoors. Then before long they feather out and start pecking.

A few years back, someone not far from the village adopted a lamb with a broken leg that she found on the moor. She located the farmer and told him about it and the farmer offered to shoot it, so she loaded the lamb in the car, got its leg set, and raised it until it became a ram and a bit of a handful, when she found someone with a smallholding who was willing to take it. By that time, it didn’t consider itself a sheep anymore and didn’t settle in well with the other sheep. Eventually it made itself a home with the horses.

And then, of course, there are cats.

When the stray we adopted, Big Guy, disappeared a couple of weeks ago, we put a note on the village Facebook page, which is all you have to do to activate the village network. For a while, the comments were all about I hope you find him and next time try putting butter on his feet the first time you let him out. Then last Saturday night we got a phone call: The Big Guy had showed up outside S.’s house, yelling his head off, and they were feeding him. They’d heard he was ours. The kids wanted to adopt him and the parents were being won over. They said he was shy about coming inside but they’d made him a space on the porch, where the boiler is, so it’s warm. Their house is just downhill from where he was first found. Apparently that’s where he wants to live. It’s got a beautiful view and I guess he likes it. Wild Thing told them that he didn’t seem happy here, so if they were willing to keep him that would be great.

I stopped by on Sunday morning to bring them some cat food left when Moggy died. Fast Eddie still eats kitten food. And dog food. He plans to be a dog when he grows up. Anyway, I stopped by and there was the Big Guy, cuddling with one of the kids. He was happy to see me but not as if he’d been lost and I’d found him. He was indeed a bit shy about coming into the house but when he saw a bowl of cat food he decided he’d take the risk. It’s hard to know whether he’ll stay, but he does seem to like the neighborhood, they’re treating him well, and I think he’s found a home. Even if they do call him Marvin—Starvin’ Marvin.

I don't  think the Big Guy's going to sleep here--he's not much of a jumper--but they made him a nice warm bed in an old doll carriage.

I don’t think the Big Guy’s going to sleep here–he’s not much of a jumper–but they made him a nice warm bed in an old doll carriage.

While I was down there, Wild Thing got a call from S.’s neighbors, who reported that the Big Guy had been trying to get into their house. Then A. called. She thought she’d seen the Big Guy at yet another house in the neighborhood and she’d gone to ask if he was their cat but they don’t have a cat.

Oh, and W. thought he’d seen the Big Guy running across a back road nearby.

It takes a village to find a cat. And in Big Guy’s case, to house one. For the moment, though, he’s housed and fed, which is good because it’s been raining a lot and the wind has been so strong that during some of the gusts I couldn’t walk into it.

How is this any different from the U.S.? People in our old neighborhood people also put themselves out to care for cats. One of ours, the much-loved Big Ol’ Red Cat, was a stray who was taken in initially by our neighbor, D. But she couldn’t keep him because the cat she already had was pounding on him, so she brought him to us and he settled in happily. The underlying feeling about cats was the same. But in a city a cat can fall off the radar without wandering far. Just like a person can. Living in the city, you end up with a series of short stories. In a village, you hear the entire novel.

Cornwall and Calais: small actions, huge issues

This comes with a seriousness warning, along with a heart-warming-story warning. If you read on, you have no one to blame but yourself.

A couple of weeks ago, the refugee crisis activated J., who couldn’t sit back and wring her hands any longer, she had to do something, so set her network in motion and we helped her plan a village coffee morning. (She is one hell of an organizer—I wish I had half her skill.)

The coffee morning’s a tradition here. The Methodist Church has one regularly—something I know only because I see a sign out outside the chapel, not because I go. And the Macmillan cancer charity has a yearly one, which they call the world’s largest coffee morning since it’s on the same day everywhere in the country. And, and, and. Lots of similar examples that won’t make you any wiser if I take more of your time while I list them.

It’s not something I ever heard of in the U.S., but maybe I traveled in the wrong circles.

Soothing and irrelevant photo

Soothing and irrelevant photo. The cliffs on a hazy day in spring.

So J. got us all in motion, and it was already too late to get a notice in the village newsletter. The crisis was building and still is. We didn’t want to put it off for a month. So we put posters up and we got a notice on the village Facebook site, and the grapevine got to work.

In addition to collecting money, we were also collecting clothes, bedding, toiletries, and a few other things, because out of nowhere a Cornwall to Calais drive had appeared, gathering things for the refugees in Calais, who are stranded by the entrance to the Channel Tunnel, looking for a way into Britain. None of them have visas, and they’re desperate enough not to care. One told a reporter he’d rather die there than be sent home. If I remember right, he was Eritrean—a state I’ve seen described as being very much like North Korea. They’ve chosen Britain for the most part either because they have family here or because they speak the language. (As I write this, police have cleared the camp, forcing them out. Whether it will reform remains to be seen.)

I can’t help remembering that before World War II, a shipload of German-Jewish refugees were turned away by one country after another, because the fear of being swamped by Jewish refugees was as powerful then as the fear of being swamped by non-European, and especially Muslim, refugees is today. And when all their possibilities had been exhausted, the ship took them back to Germany, where they died in the concentration camps.

The Calais refugees, by their simple existence, have stirred up a lot of hostility, of the sorry-but-the-country’s-already-full-and-besides-it’s-ours variety. So we expected some hostility in the village to the coffee morning. With a very few exceptions, we didn’t find it. The photo of the Syrian toddler who drowned crossing the Mediterranean with his family had shocked people. The refugees are, suddenly, fully human in many, possibly most, people’s eyes.

Maybe I’m not being fair in putting it that way. Maybe most people have, in a quiet way, always seen them as human (and not, as the Prime Minister put it, “a swarm”). What I do know is that the photo changed the conversation. People have publicly pledged space in their homes to refugees. Calais, rumors have it, now has as much in the way of clothing etc. as it can handle and what’s still being collected will end up going further—to Hungary, maybe, or to Germany or Austria or Italy or Greece or wherever it’s needed. The situation changes daily. It’s chaotic. We collected without yet knowing where it’s headed, and the people sorting it when we dropped it off weren’t sure either. What we know is that it’s needed, and it will be sent.

So we set up tables for donations at the coffee morning, and before long they overflowed—shoes, warm clothes, pots and pans, candles, toothpaste, soap, shampoo, belts, blankets, towels, tents, backpacks, rucksacks. We bagged it up to make room and more appeared. It was very moving—and all the more so because this wasn’t coming from just the usual suspects, the people we already knew were with us on this. The people donating crossed the political spectrum.

And the people who baked things to sell and who helped out on the morning also crossed the political spectrum.

F. contributed a cake to the coffee morning, and I didn’t try it, which I’ve been regretting because I’ve been hearing how good it was ever since. We’ve never talked politics, so I haven’t a clue where she stands. She grew up in Mauritius, and she told me about a flood they had there. She was helping sort clothes for the Red Cross, because people had lost everything, and they came across two completely impractical things: a wedding dress and a little girl’s princess dress.

The princess dress ended up making a small child very happy. And the wedding dress? A young woman who came in had made her own wedding dress and lost it in the flood. Everyone got together and remade the donated one—which F. said was very glamorous—so it fit her. She got married in it, and I have a hunch she carried herself like a queen and that the story’s still being passed down in her family.

I hope, in this time when people are desperate enough to walk across a continent, cross the Mediterranean in a rubber dingy, and trust themselves to traffickers because not to do so is even more dangerous; when those who can’t take those risks are being warehoused in camps with no schools and not enough to eat and expected to wait there until no one knows when; when countries are saying they’ll take some absurdly small number of refugees because if one more person comes in someone who’s already here will fall off; in times like these, I hope the small gestures of people in a small village will let a few people know they’re not forgotten, not invisible. And I hope it will add to a thousand other small gestures and shame our governments into doing something.

If anyone wants to make a donation, here are a couple of organizations that can make use of it: The United Nations camps were, last I heard, running out of money and needed donations desperately. And the British Red Cross has a Syria Appeal.

There are others, and I don’t know which is most important, which is making best use of the money, or which is placed where the pinch is felt most sharply. All I know is that people are suffering.

Putting the Kettle On

M. has my oven wired. When I bake, an alarm goes off in her house and she appears, as if by magic, at our door.

“Want a cup of tea?” either Wild Thing or I ask.

“Is the pope Catholic?”

She used to answer, “Is the pope a Nazi?” but that was before Francis. She was raised Catholic, so she gets to say stuff like that. I wasn’t raised Catholic so I don’t, but I will claim the right to quote her.

Irrelevant photo: flowers. As if you couldn't have figured that out.

Irrelevant photo: flowers. As if you couldn’t have figured that out.

I make a pot of tea and set out whatever I just finished baking. If I’m still getting it out of the pan, she asks, “Shall I put the kettle on?” Because you don’t want to stand between M. and a cup of tea, not even if you’re producing baked goods.

She never says, “You want me to I make the tea?” That’s what I’d say. With her, it’s all about the kettle. And while we’re at it, I don’t think I’ve ever said “shall I,” although M. says it as if it were a normal part of speech. And she doesn’t have what people here call a posh accent. She just, you know, uses it like language—ordinary, everyday language.

It’s this kind of thing that makes me doubt I’ll never write British (as opposed to American) dialogue. Oh, I can put together a line or two—enough to keep the blog fed—but if I wanted to write a full scene, never mind a full novel, in it? In no time at all I’d have one of my characters saying, “Want me to make the tea?” instead of, “Shall I put the kettle on?” Only it would be the equivalent on some subject where I haven’t noticed—or maybe even heard—the difference.

I know someone whose mind catalogs these small differences. Talking to her is like reaching into a grab bag: You (or more accurately, she) could pull out almost any sort of accent, along with any region’s phrasebook. It all lives in her head, organized into separate drawers (I know, I know, I’ve jumped metaphors; go ahead and shoot me), each neatly labeled, and none of it escapes to mix itself with her own accent—the accent she uses when she’s being herself. It’s an amazing, fascinating gift.

Me, though? I assimilate languages by steeping myself in them, and once I do I’ve taken on the new flavor. In other words, if I pick up a new accent or phrasebook in English, I’ll lose my clarity on the last one—the one I think is my own. Or more than that—is me. If I weren’t a writer, I wouldn’t have any problem with that. As a writer, though, I’m terrified that I’ll make such a cut-and-paste mess out of my accent that I won’t be able to write in any region’s English.

On being an incomer in Cornwall

What are we talking about when we say “community”? Or more to the point, what am I talking about?

Do a bunch of people who live in the same place automatically become a community or do we need to add some length of time? Or practical support, emotional support, friendships? What about mutual interests? By mutual interests I don’t mean everyone being obsessed with needlepoint or punk rock but that people’s individual self-interests intertwine with each other’s and with the group’s.

Irrelevant photo: pansies. They bloom all year round here. Having lived in Minnesota, I'm still knocked out by that.

Irrelevant photo: pansies. They bloom all year round here. Having lived in Minnesota, I’m still knocked out by that. These are the ones I’ve rescued, mostly, from the slugs.

Just to complicate things, if we have enough of those elements, do we need to share a place? Does it make sense to use community to mean something a lot like demographic—the African-American community; the Jewish community; the gay community? The groups that spring to mind as examples of this are all minority groups of one sort or another, which says something interesting, although to explore it I’d need a whole ‘nother post and—you may have noticed—it’s not really on topic for Notes.

So having asked those questions, I’m not going to answer them, just leave them with you. Sometimes just asking the questions is worthwhile. Or so I’m going to claim as I duck out on the tough questions.

All this comes to mind because I’ve tossed the word community around pretty loosely lately, and I’m about to do it again.

As an outsider, feeling like I’m part of the community is a big thing. It’s easy to romanticize the idea of community, or this particular community, when I can never be fully a part of it. If I’d grown up in the village, I can imagine my teenage self pounding against its limits, looking for a way out so I could get to what I would have been sure was the real world. I was like that in the community I did grow up in—which at the time I wouldn’t have called a community. As for the real world, I defined it as anywhere I wasn’t.

Some of the kids here are like that. It’s a small village, in a part of the world without a lot of jobs and even fewer that pay well—or that are even full time and year round. Not all the kids move out and not all of them want to, but some can’t wait. Others leave because they have to. Some stay and struggle through, and given the gap between pay levels and the cost of living, it’s not easy.

But here I am, retired and an incomer, counting the signs that I’m part of the community, knowing how absurd I am. I can report two new ones.

We have two overlapping bugs making the rounds, and I caught them both, almost at the same time. What could be more community minded? One’s a bad, fluish cold and the other’s a cough that goes on forever. As nearly as I can reconstruct it, I gave one to Wild Thing and she gave the other to me. Is that a good relationship or what? We thought we were alone in our misery until she staggered to a meeting (you can only isolate yourself for just so long, and besides, the only way to get rid of a bug is to give them to someone else) and returned with a list of other people who’d had one or both for weeks.

So, we have the community cold. Isn’t that heartwarming? It’s also the reason I couldn’t follow up on the second sign that I’m part of the community: J. suggested I write about it the Horticultural Show—a central village institution that I can’t make heads or tails of.

I hesitated because I tend to write—. How am I going to put this? I don’t do travelogues. I don’t do isn’t-it-lovely? With a very few exceptions, if I can’t find something to laugh about—preferably but not necessarily me—then I don’t have a post.

To be clear, I draw the line at writing about other people in ways that would leave them feeling rotten, although the occasional unidentifiable stranger is fair game. As are public figures. I confess, I tend to forget they’re real people.

Given those restrictions, could I go to the horticultural show and find something to write about? J. and I traded emails, and in the process she morphed from the person I’ve known for some years into a cheerleader for the show. Enter something, she wrote. Flowers. Vegetables. Something baked. You’re a baker. It’s right up your alley. Or knit!

Kint? I know how to knit the way I know how to play chess: I know all the moves but much good it does me. I have no way to predict, when I knit, what size or shape the finished product will be, and given the cost of yarn–nah. Besides, I had something like two or three days by then, and if those aren’t enough reasons, I have carpal tunnel syndrome and knitting aggravates it.

As for baking, to enter the show you have to bake something according to a the show’s recipe, not your own. I don’t see the point.

But then, the entire horticultural show is a mystery to me. You wander through and look at, say, eight paper plates of runner beans. Each has the same number of beans. Let’s say three; not many, whatever the actual number is. They all look like runner beans. None of them have spots. None of them have been chewed up by insects. But one plate won first prize and another won second and another won nothing at all, and I can’t see the difference.

So I wrote back to J. that since I didn’t understand how the show is judged it didn’t make sense to enter. Besides, for no reason I could explain, I just plain didn’t want to.

“Let’s pretend,” I wrote, “that it would undermine my journalistic objectivity.”

If you’ve been around here for any time at all, you know how much journalistic objectivity I have, but I did at least include the word pretend.

So she invited me to help set up and watch the judging so I could understand how it worked.

I’d been invited into the heart of village institution.

Which is when I added Wild Thing’s bug (a miserable, fluish thing) to the one I was already carrying and I had to back out. Given that all I could have contributed to the gathering was my germs, J. was glad to have me stay home. And I can’t say I blame her.

Maybe next year I’ll be able to report on the mysteries. Assuming the invitation’s repeated. And assuming I’m not sworn to secrecy.

Crime in Britain, part 2: the village edition

Miss Marple doesn’t live in our village, but she’d be bored silly if she did. We’re short on murdered vicars and poisoned husbands.

What would she have to make do with?

Before I tell you about crime in the village, here’s my disclaimer: After drawing your attention to crime on the Scilly Isles and to the guy who was arrested for charging his phone on the London Overground trains, some of you were left thinking Britain’s a land with no serious crime. That’s my fault. The police really do have better things to do than arrest disoriented seals who wander into town. Or at least other things to do.

Marginally relevant photo: fog stealing the top of the cliff

Marginally relevant photo: fog stealing the top of the cliff

But for you non-Brits out there, the point is this: Britain’s a real place and part of the same world you live in. That’s another way of saying that it does have crime, and none of it is fun if you’re on the receiving end. Even the petty stuff can feel big. In contrast to the U.S., though, very little of it involves guns. They’re tightly regulated. People who want to get lethal are more likely to pick up a knife, but even so, things can get ugly.

I’m not going to tell you about that, though. I live in a village of some 600 people and I’m going to tell you about what Miss Marple would have to content herself with if she lived next door.



A few years ago, two men went into the village store in balaclavas. Even in winter the Cornish weather isn’t balaclava-level cold, but that doesn’t really matter since it wasn’t winter. They made the guys stand out a bit.

S. was the only person working there at the time, and when they pulled out a knife and demanded the money in the cash register, she gave it to them. Two of them plus a knife, and one of her? I’d do the same. Then they demanded the money from the post office, which is part of the store but separated by a lockable door and glassed-in window.

Now, the post office in Britain doesn’t just sell stamps. You can start a savings account there. You can buy travel insurance, or foreign currency. You can pay some of your bills. So you might expect it to have a bit of cash. But the village post office is closed on Wednesday afternoons, and this was a Wednesday afternoon.

S. said, “Well you can’t have it, can you? Because it’s closed.”

And they said, “Oh,” and left.

They drove out of the village still wearing their balaclavas and were arrested before they got to the main road. All the police had to do was look for two guys in balaclavas, but in case that got too complicated one of the store’s owners followed them in his own car.

Wild Thing thinks they should be grateful to have been arrested. They weren’t cut out for a life of crime.


Drug smuggling

A few years before we got here, someone tried to smuggle in drugs (I’m not sure what kind, but if I had to guess I’d say cocaine) from a boat. If you don’t live here, you could convince yourself that with all these empty beaches and fields nobody would notice a thing. You’d be wrong. Apparently the police already knew about the plan beforehand, but if they hadn’t somebody would have noticed. Whether they’d have called the police I don’t know, but someone would have seen them.



A year or two after we moved here, somebody set fire to a telephone box. H., who lived opposite, had done some consulting with British Telecom and told us (several times) that part (or for all I know, all) of his pay was a commitment that he’d always have a telephone box outside his house. I’m not sure why he wanted one, since he had a house phone. Maybe he liked the look of it. Maybe he thought it was good for the village. But you know those tales where someone makes a pact with a genie or a god or the devil and it all sounds great until they read the fine print and find out they got eternal life but not eternal youth or a lifetime supply of cake but it would all be nonfat and dry? Well, he forgot to say “a working telephone box.”

Fast forward to the era of cell phones–or mobile phones, if you prefer–and phone boxes aren’t making money anymore. BT’s getting rid of them anywhere it can. And then someone sets this one of fire.

BT left it in place for a while, fulfilling the letter of the agreement, then they carted it away and H. didn’t protest.

Wild Thing suspects they paid someone to burn it down. Me, I doubt they’d invest the money, but whoever did it hasn’t been caught. In fact, I never heard any rumors about who it might have been. Which in this village is highly suspicious.


More theft

We used to have eggs for sale in several places along the road. They were free range, fresh (or as A. puts is, “Still warm from the hen”), and cheaper than in the supermarket. Plus the money went directly into the farmer or smallholder’s pocket instead of the supermarket’s.

Then someone started stealing the money and eggs. Now most of the egg boxes are gone. I’ve heard lots of speculation about who it might’ve been—a visitor? someone local?—but no one seems to know.


Wild parties

There’ve been two loud dances, which escalated to property destruction (a toilet paper holder was broken) and people harassing the sheep in the nearby field. I can testify that they were loud. Wild Thing and I went to one but stayed outside because it was too painful to be in the room with the band. The rest is hearsay. We left before the party had really gotten going and already people were peeing in the hedges. I don’t know—maybe that’s just part of a good night out.


Other stuff

On a public level, that’s pretty much it unless you count some property destruction. Or rumored property destruction. Stories have a tendency to change shape as they circulate, so I won’t present this one as fact.

We also have some drug use. Or reliably rumored drug use. Sorry, but I stopped doing first-hand research into that years ago. How much is some? Quite a bit. Doesn’t that sound like a more accurate measure, even if it isn’t? No one’s been arrested, so I’m not sure it counts in the crime statistics.

A couple of people have been arrested for drunk driving. And I’ve heard about a theft that apparently involved someone settling an old score. But no one involved the police in that. We’re off the beaten track here. You have to work at it if you want to get arrested.

A couple of years ago, a police car parked on our corner every so often and sat there for ten or fifteen minutes, then drove off. And no, the cop was looking away from our house. In fact, he was barely looking at anything. He did a pretty good impression of someone hiding from a job he liked even less than killing time inside a parked car. The rumor was that it was a community policing effort, although I’d have thought getting out of the car would have made it more effective. Anyway, that lasted a couple of weeks, then he stopped coming.

And then there’s private crime—the kind that happens behind closed doors, within families, and isn’t remotely amusing. Once in a great while these spill into the street and get noisy enough to wake the neighbors. Some of us wonder who it was and eventually someone tells us. The fine art of gossip is alive and well here. Mostly I’d guess that whatever happens inside doesn’t get heard. That kind of crime is as common here as it is in cities, I’m sure, and as unlikely to be known about by outsiders.

We did find out about the guy who was arrested for trying to kill his wife with a knife, but there was no mystery involved. The police came, and the papers ran a story. It wasn’t good for much more than a paragraph. It’s by far the most serious crime I’ve mentioned, but I’ve dumped it here under Other stuff because it’s not funny.

Still, some of us—including me—watched the papers for details. It’s horrible, that fascination, and I indulged as much as anyone else. Miss Marple knew how to harness it, but the rest of us? We just pass the tales back and forth and shake our heads. J. works with a women’s center that deals with sexual violence, putting her head-shaking to good use, but all I do is write the occasional blog post.


The current crisis

Last Sunday night, Wild Thing woke up to hear a crash and a car alarm, then a car racing away. She looked at the time so she could remember it. Why do people do that? Because on TV shows it’s what the cops want to know. Or Miss Marple, only she’d ask if it happened after the vicar took the trash out. (Do vicars take the trash out? I don’t really understand what a vicar is or does, but it sounds good, somehow.)

The next morning Wild Thing told me the exact time it happened, but it involved numbers so I promptly forgot.

It’s all very suspicious. And you heard it here first.

Community life in a Cornish village

Some days you find an adventure around every blind curve in the narrow road. At least if you’re 144, as Wild Thing and I cumulatively are (I think; don’t trust me with numbers), it’s enough to pass for adventure.

We drove to a garden center on Sunday to buy a dwarf hydrangea. Doesn’t that sound like the kind of thing you do when you’re cumulatively 144 years old?

Irrelevant photo: St. John's wort, or rose of sharon

Irrelevant photo: St. John’s wort, or rose of sharon

We weren’t yet at the main road when we saw a ewe and two lambs on the road. I slowed to a crawl and thought I’d edge past them, but they weren’t having it. The ewe led her lambs straight ahead, so that I was either driving them back toward their field or further from it, only I had no idea which.  Either way, I was adding stress to their day.

City kids that we are, we’ve lived in the country long enough to know we needed to stop at the nearest permanently occupied house (this is second-home country, and vacation-rental country, so not just any house would do). But we weren’t near the nearest house—we were near fields, none of which had sheep in them.

Wild Thing got out of the car, thinking she could edge them to the side of the road, but they treated her the same way they treated the car: They kept going down the road.

Eventually we—me in the car and Wild Thing on foot—came to a field gate and they plastered themselves against it. I drove past and got out of the car while we talked about what to do. It was tempting to open the gate and let them in, but it was a recently mown, sheepless field. Wherever they came from, this wasn’t it. (If it had had sheep, we’d have had no way of knowing if it was the right flock, but never mind, it didn’t.)

We drove on and stopped at the next house, which turned out to belong to people we know slightly. They narrowed the possibilities down to two farmers and promised to call them both. In the meantime, a litter of six springer spaniel puppies swarmed us in that charming, brainless way that puppies have and they—that’s the people, not the dogs—said they had two left, did we want any?

I dragged Wild Thing away before she could claim them both and we got back in the car feeling very much like part of the community. Which is something, I suspect, that only people who aren’t quite part of the community bother to feel, but never mind, it felt wonderful.

We drove on and about a mile on the other side of the main road picked up two hitchhikers carrying skateboards. They were, at a wild guess, somewhere in their late teens and facing a long, long walk if they didn’t get a ride.

Wild Thing’s part of a group of people trying to create a skateboard park in the village. The group was kicked off by a couple of fathers whose kids—well, one of them is just walking and the other hasn’t gotten that far. So you can think of this as a long-term project. The village is a great place for young kids but not so great for older ones, and a skate board park wouldn’t solve the problem but it would help a bit. And it might keep the kids from skating on a stretch of road between two blind curves, where sooner or later somebody’s going to get smooshed.

So Wild Thing talked with them about skateboard parks and they loved the idea that someone wanted to build one. The three of them happily traded information for a few miles. They talked about how adults tend to treat skaters like a threat to the fabric of society—I’m paraphrasing here; I can’t remember their exact words—and I talked about how generation after generation adults are convinced that whatever kids are into is a threat to the fabric of society. The only thing that changes is the activity. When Wild Thing and I were kids it was hanging out on the street corner.

We dropped them in Launceston and left feeling like—you got it—part of a community. Then we bought a blue dwarf hydrangea and some pansies. I’d told Wild Thing just the day before that I wasn’t going to grow pansies anymore because the slugs and snails love them (yumm, salad) but they were so cheery that I bought them anyway. And I’ve been out slaughtering slugs and snails pretty consistently in recent weeks, so I might be able to get away with it.

From there, we drove home and walked to a village tea that was raising money for the Air Ambulance. We shared a table with two women from a nearby town and Wild Thing got a conversation going, which isn’t always easy but she has a gift. As they were leaving, Wild Thing said we’d stop by on Monday to help them eat the cake they were buying. They said we’d be most welcome. It was gracious thing to say, and since we don’t know their address(es), a safe one.

Then some people from the village joined us and J. wanted the recipe for a chocolate cake I brought to a party last week. Actually, she’d asked the day before and I hadn’t gotten around to sending it, but she explained that she needed it that day because she wanted to make it on Monday.

The recipe’s based on one in The Joy of Cooking, and I’m in love with it at the moment. British pie crusts are richer than the ones we make in the U.S., but their cakes tend to be drier. And I’m on a mission to mess with British baking anyway. Not because I don’t like it–some of it’s wonderful, and I’ve learned how to make a mean ginger cake. But what culture’s national cuisine couldn’t be improved by peach cobbler and New York cheesecake?

Anyway, being asked for the recipe left me with that same feeling of being part of a community, and we waddled home, happy and full of cake and scones.