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.

The cream tea wars

Cornwall and Devon are separated by the River Tamar and by a whole lot of bitter claims over who makes the best cream tea. Since a few people have left comments lately saying—and I’m about to paraphrase them both inaccurately and irresponsibly—that almost no wars are worth fighting, I think it’s time we stop and contemplate whether this one might not be. Because some things really do matter.

But first, for the sake of those of you whose feet have never been tucked under a table blessed with a cream tea, I need to explain what I’m going on about. The cream tea one of the few things that might convince this atheist that heaven exists. You take a scone and split it in half, then put jam and clotted cream on each half and as you take that first bite you’ll notice your eyes rolling upward toward the heavens in thanks.

swanage 073

Irrelevant photo: To be fair to both Cornwall and Devon, I’m posting a photo from Dorset. Which probably also thinks it invented the cream tea.

What’s clotted cream, though? It’s roughly as thick as whipped cream (don’t quibble; I did say “roughly”) but unsweetened. As well as yellower, gooier, and better. Ignore the disgusting name.

What’s this got to do with wars? Well, in Devon they think they invented both clotted cream and the cream tea. And they put the cream on first. In Cornwall, they also think they invented clotted cream and the cream tea and they put the jam on first. You at the back, settle down. This will be on the test.

In fact, it’s on the test every time I get a cream tea—which isn’t often because the arteries will only put up with just so much abuse. But it does happen now and then and when it does I sit in front of the scones, the dishes of cream and jam, and can’t remember which goes on first. Because I live in Cornwall, and this is serious stuff. It’s also exactly the kind of stuff my mind spits out like a toddler offered rutabaga. Ptooey, it says. I’m not remembering this, and it dances off to review some song lyric it already knows perfectly well, or the name of a wildflower, or something else of its own damn choosing.

Meanwhile, I could get myself run out of the county for this. And if I do, my mind’s going with me so I wish it would pay more attention.

Why does anyone care? Once upon a time, I’d have said it was just something to fight over, but food scientists have researched the issue, looking for the perfect cream tea formula. It turns out you want 40 grams of scone, 30 of cream, and 30 of jam. And—although they don’t mention this—a good-size pot of tea. With milk, a sunny day, and some people you like. Because hurling yourself at a cream tea on your own is right up there with drinking alone.

It turns out that the Devon method makes it easier to spread the fillings but the Cornish method allows you to serve the scone hotter, because the jam insulates the cream and keeps it from running. They don’t actually say which is better, the cowards. Which means they’ve been overtaken by the fate of most peacemakers, which is to piss off both sides.

You will, of course, pledge your allegiance to whichever side you choose, but don’t be surprised to make a few enemies when you do.

If you don’t live in Britain but want to make your own cream tea so you can participate in our wars? You’ll find a scone recipe in a back post and you shouldn’t have any trouble finding strawberry jam in a store, but you’ll have to either find a fancy supermarket and pay an outrageous amount of money for real clotted cream or try to fake it. Here are a couple of attempts I found online. I can’t vouch for either of them. This one’s from Food.com and used heavy cream and sour cream. And this one’s from Just a Pinch and uses cream cheese and whipping cream. Both add a bit of sugar, which makes me skeptical, but it may work. For the real thing, you’ll have to visit. On a sunny day. With friends.

Why is Britain called Great Britain?

The question of why Britain’s called Great Britain popped up in a comment thread, and if I were a better person I’d go back and figure out where it was and link to whoever raised it (it was a British reader in case that strikes you as being worth knowing) but I’m crazed lately. I made a note to do sixty seconds of research on the topic, forgot to copy the link into my notes, and here I am, without a clue where we were at the time.

Sorry.

But the question persists. What are we talking about when we say “Great Britain”?

If you wander around London long enough, you’ll eventually stumble into a street called Great Russell Street. It’s not a particularly big street, but I’m assuming it’s bigger than (not great) Russell Street, which you’ll also stumble into if you stumble long enough. (All this stumbling relies on the same principal as those thousand monkey on typewriters who will eventually produce the entire works of Shakespeare, assuming you can convince monkeys to type. And assuming I can get you to wander long enough. You’re welcome to stop for tea as often as you like if that helps. Or a beer.)

Great, my friends, isn’t a value judgment in either context. It means big. Big honkin’ Russell Street, Big honkin’ Britain.

Irrelevant photo: Fast Eddie is growing and would now like to be known as Great Eddie.

The first person to use great in the context of Britain seems to have been Ptolemy, who wasn’t writing in English so we’re fudging our facts here, but it’s interesting anyway. He called what we now know as England, Scotland, and Wales (and Cornish nationalist would add Cornwall)—in other words, the bigger landmass hereabouts—Great Britain, and Ireland—the smaller one—Little Britain.

Then everyone forgot about it for centuries. They had other things on their minds. In the twelfth century Geoffrey of Monmouth called that bigger landmass Greater Britain to distinguish it from Lesser Britain, which wasn’t Ireland but Brittany. And then they forgot about it all for another long stretch of time.

The phrase pops up again in the fifteenth century in a not very interesting context, then gets serious in the seventeenth century, when James united what were still and continued to be two separate countries, England and Scotland, under a single monarchy—and (although it’s not relevant to our discussion) claimed Ireland and France as well. In the next century, England and Scotland were united into a single country. Wales had been conquered some time before all this and the English had gotten into the habit of thinking it was part of England (the Welsh thought differently), so it didn’t get a separate mention right then.

James, by the way, was either the first or the sixth, depending on whether you’re standing in England or in Scotland when you count. I told you not to trust me with numbers—they go all shifty when I’m in the room. It should also be noted that James couldn’t spell for shit. He called himself the king of “Great Brittaine,”

Well, he was king. He got to spell it any way he wanted. Who was going to tell him he had it wrong? Besides, pretty much everyone did that back then, with pretty much any word they set their feathery pens to.

Fast forward to the days when Britain had an empire. The Great in Great Britain must’ve been handy and did take on the tone of a value judgment. But the origin? Big. Nothing but big.

These days, Great Britain means England, Wales, and Scotland. (The link here is basically a footnote in case you’re seriously interested. I could also link to some kid’s school paper, which for reasons I won’t stop to think about came up at the top of Google’s list, but I won’t.) And Cornwall, as the Cornish nationalists would remind us. Along with some of the surrounding small islands but not others, which are self-governing dependent territories.

Don’t ask.

It doesn’t include Northern Ireland. But in everyday speech, people often use British to cover the entire United Kingdom, which does include Northern Ireland. A website called Know Britain says that from a legal point of view this is inaccurate—and just afterward it notes that the phrase is often used to mean exactly that in legislation, especially in reference to nationality.

So there you go. Are you confused yet? Then my work is done. But because I don’t like to leave a topic until I’ve overdone it, I should add that Know Britain says the British Islands is a political term meaning the United Kingdom, the Channel Islands, and the Isle of Man. But the British Isles is a geographical term meaning Great Britain, all of Ireland, and all the smaller islands around them. Don’t you just love this language?

Someday when I’m feeling particularly brave I’ll tackle the question of which categories of people would say, “I’m British,” and which ones would say, for example, “I’m English,” or “I’m Cornish” and so forth, and what all that means. Or may mean.

But for now we’ll end there . It may not all be good, but it’s great, isn’t it?

Dealing with the public, U.K. style: part 2

Last Friday I posted a piece about what it’s like dealing with the public in the U.K. Then I did the grocery shopping and became the public.

I need to bore you with a bit of personal background here. On Thursday, I made pizza for Wild Thing, a friend, and myself. Two pizzas to be exact, because our friend is young, with youth’s boundless and enthusiastic ability to eat a lot of whatever’s available. I make a decent pizza, if I do say so myself, with homemade dough but, sadly, bottled sauce. I used homemade sauce once, and although it’s good on spaghetti it was all wrong on pizza. So I use bottled stuff.

But pizza calls for mozzarella.

Irrelevant photo: beach huts at Swannage

Irrelevant photo: beach huts at Swannage

Now unlike the U.S., Britain never attracted a serious wave of Italian immigrants, and it’s a poorer country for it—something that’s worth keeping in mind as we battle it out over how many refugees we’ll allow to reach these green shores. So Cornwall shouldn’t be your first stop if you’re planning a mozzarella tour of the world. When you ask for mozzarella here, most stores will show you little wet balls of the stuff, called fresh mozzarella, sealed in soft plastic coffins.

Do I sound biased? I’ve never tasted truly fresh mozzarella, but I’ve read that it has 24 wonderful qualities and one is lost in each hour after it’s made. The stuff in plastic coffins, then? It’s edible, even if I can’t get excited about it. But it’s Italian, and we’re all impressed with Italian food, so it sells. As the British recover from a traumatic food history, which includes not just rationing during and after World War II but long exposure to baked beans and overboiled cabbage, they’re exercising their gourmet muscles, trying to build up—well, maybe not a reputation as a gourmet nation but a something, a, um, gee, I seem to have gone all flappy and wordless as I try to describe this.

Okay, here’s what I’m trying to say: I opened Saturday’s paper and turned to the recipes while I worked up the courage to face the latest brutalities of the refugee crisis. Because—I know, in the context it’s grotesque, but our world a grotesque place these days—I love reading recipes, and trying a few of them. And the ones I found called for orange blossom honey, fresh curry leaves, and quails’ eggs. And good sherry vinegar. If you have any of the crappy stuff, don’t use it. Not to mention fennel bulbs. (Bleah—licorice flavor. Shudder, shudder, shudder.)

Not all in one recipe, to be fair about this. But still, you know, it’s not the stuff every home cook keeps on hand. Or the stuff rural supermarkets stock.

I can’t help thinking that these things get tossed into British recipes to establish the gourmetocity of the cooks who write them. You know: Look at us. Aren’t we worldly? Don’t we know our ingredients? So what if you never cook it: Aren’t you impressed?

I’ve wandered. Where was I? Fresh mozzarella in little wet packs that preserve it for so long that calling it fresh violates every Truth in Advertising standard ever established. It’s trendy. So the supermarkets sell it. Hell, even our village store’s been known to stock it. And it’s useless for pizza. Once, in desperation, I tried squeezing the water out of it and using it. I might as well have boiled the pizza.

I do not recommend repeating the experiment.

Plain ol’ mozzarella—the nonfresh stuff; I guess you could call it the dry stuff—is hard to find where I live. Maybe in cities it’s easier. For a while our local supermarket, Morrison’s, sold it by the block, which was great. Then they didn’t sell any. Then they sold it grated. Then that disappeared and was replaced with a mozzarella and cheddar mix, which is blasphemy. Then, finally, they sold a Morrison’s brand grated mozzarella again. And all was at peace in North Cornwall.

Until of course it wasn’t. Because the stuff I bought and used on our most recent pizzas? It was white and it melted—so far so much like mozzarella—but it didn’t taste like cheese. The packaging was the same as the mozzarella I’d bought before, but they’re substituted some uncheeselike substance.

And this in a country that takes cheese seriously. That makes and eats wonderful cheese.

And now we return to Friday, when I was shopping in Morrison’s, having made two bad pizzas the day before, and I was in the dairy aisle, where a kid was stocking something and on an impulse I asked him, “If I made a comment on one of your products, is there anyone who actually listens to that sort of thing?”

To which he said something along the lines of, “Gee, I don’t know.”

We both laughed. There was no point in going on about the mozzarella, but there was also no way not to, so I told him about it. We stopped to unscramble that I didn’t mean the fresh stuff, I meant the grated (since they no longer sell it in bricks).

“I only buy the red Leicester,” he said, “and to be honest that’s crap too.”

How could I not like this kid? I seem to remember Wild Thing swearing off red Leicester years ago, for just that reason, although on the basis of our recent experience I’m ready to guess that we don’t know what red Leicester really tastes like. I don’t remember what else we said, but as we were winding down I said, “Well, if there’s anyone to pass my comment on to, tell them some crazy American who lives here complained about the mozzarella.”

He said he would. We were both, I think, pretty sure he wouldn’t, because who was he going to tell? I thought about calling the emergency services number—which is 999 here, in case you need to know that—but I restrained myself.

Cornwall Gay Pride

We’re a diverse bunch here at Notes, or an ill-assorted one if you like, and I love that, but once in a while it means I second-guess myself before I post something. To be specific, how’s a more conservative subsection of readers going to feel if I talk about a Gay Pride celebration? Am I going to run anyone off?

When I worry about running someone off it’s not about numbers. Sure, I check my stats as obsessively (and pointlessly) as any other blogger, but mostly it’s because I don’t want Notes to turn into an echo chamber for voices who all agree on a 674-point charter that we argued over until we all hate each other. I value the comments I get, and the people behind the comments. I don’t want to lose contact.

But that can’t come at the expense of being who I am. If I shut myself up every time I might drag a reader outside their comfort zone, I’ll bore us all to tears. And right after that I’ll stop writing altogether, because good writing carries an element of risk. You’ll have to judge whether the writing here is that good, but as a goal? It’s what I aim for.

All that long-windedness leads up to this: I went to Cornwall’s Gay Pride Day last weekend, and if that makes anyone uncomfortable, I hope you’ll stay with me anyway. If you don’t, I regret it but that’s what I’m writing about today.

Cornwall Gay Pride.

Cornwall Gay Pride. Photo by Ida Swearingen.

After all that rigmarole, of course, I’ve made myself wonder if anyone who’d be uncomfortable with Gay Pride Day is still around. If you are you’re more than welcome and if you left quietly by the side door I’m sorry to hear it. Thanks for not letting it slam.

Wild Thing and I been in together for 38 years now, which is long enough to have seen a lot of changes in the way same-sex couples are received in the larger world, and a lot of changes in Gay Pride celebrations as well. Here’s what struck me about this one:

First, Cornwall’s a rural county, so it wasn’t a huge gathering, but it was bigger than I expected. It was very much a family celebration: gay people and their families and friends, transsexuals and their families and friends, straight people who weren’t related to anyone but turned out to show support or buy a burger, sit on the grass, and enjoy the entertainment. Little kids, including one girl in a rainbow tutu. And dogs. Lots of dogs.

Organizations had set up booths promoting themselves—hotlines, political parties, the environment agency (!), the fire department (more exclamation marks), the police (multiple exclamation marks). Parents and Friends of Gays and Lesbians had a booth, and they always leave me with a lump in my throat. They were started by a woman whose gay son had been beaten up while distributing gay-related leaflets. First she wrote a letter protesting police inaction. Then she went on the radio and TV, then she joined a Gay Pride March. Soon she had an organization on her hands, and it’s been going ever since.

When so many gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transsexual young people have been rejected by their families, it means the world to see families stepping forward in this way, embracing their relatives and their right to live in the open. Which leads me to this: To the families of the gay etc. kids in my life, I hope you know how spectacular you are, and how much you mean to me.

And here I have to stop and say a word or seventeen about that phrase gay etc. For a while the most common phrase was simply gay, then it was gay and lesbian, then it was gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender, which was unwieldy enough that it was usually shortened to GLBT, which I can’t help thinking of that as gay, lesbian, bacon, and tomato. Recently I’ve seen a bunch of other letters added to the string, probably standing for pickles and mayonnaise and a side of chips, which in Britain are crisps, just in case this was in danger of sounding simple.

The world insists on getting more complicated. I’m as baffled as anyone else.

With the possible exception of mayonnaise, adding all these categories does make our language more accurate, and people get both passionate and political about it when they go to name an organization or write a leaflet. But it does make for a lot of words. Or letters. So for the moment, let’s settle for gay etc. I won’t argue that it’s the best phrase or the most accurate one, but it is the shortest.

With that out of the way, let’s go back to the involvement of the police. To understand why this struck me, you need two pieces of background.

One: Back in the day, when gay etc. sex was illegal (note: in Britain only sex between men was illegal, I’ve read, because Queen Victoria refused to believe that women would carry on that way), bars were one of the few places people could meet. The police could raid them at any time, though, because by definition what went on in there was illegal. Not that people were having sex on the premises necessarily. Dancing together was enough. Touching someone was enough. Being there was enough. People would be arrested, lose their jobs, lose their families. Lives were ruined.

Ah, the good old days.

Two, and this isn’t about the politics of being gay etc.: During one of the New York blackouts, a friend’s parents were in Grand Central Station. The friend’s father had MS, and when everything went dark and people started running around in a panic, his wife was struggling to keep him from getting knocked over. She saw a cop and went to him, saying, “Excuse me, but my husband has MS. Can you help us?”

To which the cop said, “Get outta my way, lady, I gotta help the people.”

And they were both straight and white.

God, I love New York.

I had a similar experience with a New York cop after a fender bender, but it wasn’t quite as outrageously absurd, so let’s stay with this as an example of what I expect from cops. I’m not even going to get into Ferguson, Staten Island, and black lives matter, but they’re not unrelated. When you’re outside the mainstream, you don’t assume the policeman is your friend. The history of the police and the gay community? Not friendly. And here they were, setting up booths about diversity, asking us to sign a petition to restore funding that’s been cut from the Devon and Cornwall police budget.

Wild Thing and I had been to a Cornwall Gay Pride Day before, so this wasn’t a complete surprise. That helps explain my final story.

On our way to the park, Wild Thing and I ran into friends, one of them in a wheelchair. We knew the name of the park but weren’t sure how to find it, and we asked a cop if he could point us in the right direction. You can’t do that just anywhere. But he offered to walk with us, and when the way got steep he took over pushing the wheelchair. He was young. We were once, but it was a long time ago. The pride I once took in doing that sort of thing myself has taken second place to the practical problems of bad backs and creaky shoulder joints and the need not to set that wheelchair rolling downhill when it’s supposed to be going up.

I did take responsibility for the liter of milk he’d been carrying.

So there we were, a young cop pushing a woman in a wheelchair to a Gay Pride gathering and three of us following behind with his liter of milk. I won’t argue that the world’s problems are over, but a few things have changed, and it gives me hope to see it.

People risked a lot to make that happen—their jobs, their families, their education, their peace of mind, sometimes their lives. In places around the world, they’re still taking those risks. Here’s a moment of silence to acknowledge them all.

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.

Serving Texas hamburgers in Cornwall, part 2: the definitive recipe

I already told you that the only ingredient in a Texas hamburger is beef, and that’s true but I may have oversimplified things. So I’m going to give you the full, formal recipe. Don’t leave here without it.

Before we get down to business, though, I need to explain that the difference between a Texas hamburger and any other kind of American hamburger.

Cornwall; Madron Holy Well

Screamingly irrelevant photo: Tree at Madron Holy Well, near Penzance. The tradition of tying cloth to the tree goes back to pre-Christian times, when it was believed to cure illness. Exactly why people do it today is anyone’s guess. Maybe to cure an illness; maybe to brush shoulders with something ancient or add their bit of cloth to something compelling. I was tempted, because it is compelling, even though I don’t believe it can cure and wasn’t sick to begin with.

People don’t notice regional differences in countries that aren’t theirs, but if you live there, they matter. A California burger comes with lettuce and tomato, and if you live in California it’s just called a hamburger. It’s the rest of the country that calls it a California burger. And a Texas burger? It has one ingredient no one else can match and it has its own cooking method.

The ingredient is attitude. A Texas hamburger has it, and much as I love other parts of the country we just can’t rival Texas for its outright and usually charming bullshit. Without the good ol’ Texas bullshit, what you have is a plain ol’ American hamburger. That’s not bad, but it isn’t from Texas.

If you’re not from Texas can you do Texas bullshit? Probably not. Many and many a year ago in a queendom surrounded by the sea, we were trapped across a table in a broken-down train with an Englishman who lived in Texas and thought he’d learned the trick. What he’d learned to be was loud, self-important, and obnoxious. What he hadn’t learned was charm. It was a very long wait for that train to get moving again.

What do I recommend, then? A) Invite a Texan and turn her or him loose, B) offer your burgers to a group of people who don’t know about the secret ingredient and won’t miss it, or C) call it an American hamburger. Do not, under any circumstances, try to substitute a low-cost bluster for Texas bullshit. You’re better off without it.

And the cooking method? You cook the burgers outdoors, on a hot grill, and you cook them, at most, medium rare. When the burger’s almost done, put the top half of the bun on it. This spreads the grease on it. Wild Thing assures me that’s good.

The grill has to be hot, so the outside gets seared and dark. If you’re using charcoal, Wild Thing tells me you have to let the coals get white hot. Tossing a bit of water on them will release some steam and heat everything up. It’ll also bring a little drama to the process. She uses a gas grill, and she buys hardwood chips, soaks them, and tosses them into the grill to give the meat a smoky flavor. Oak is good, but any hardwood will do. Pine won’t.

What about the folks who can’t bring themselves to eat their burgers rare? We-e-ll, it’s up to you, of course. I suspect Wild Thing’s becoming a bit of a missionary about this, but the fact is that she did re-grill the hamburgers that were brought back to her. Whether she can bring herself to do it a second time is anyone’s guess.

So here’s the recipe. Be sure to get the proportions right:

Texas Hamburgers

Good ground beef

That’s it. Nothing else. Not even salt and pepper. No eggs, no bread crumbs, no shoelaces. Don’t (as I’m sometimes tempted to do) buy cheap ground beef, telling yourself the fat will cook out. Get the good (for which you can read more expensive) stuff, divide it up, pat it into shape, and grill the hell out of it. Put it on a bun, put some ketchup on it, and eat it.

And remember, you got the recipe from a vegetarian.

Terror at the seaside: we all get hysterical about gulls

Let’s talk about wild beasts. Specifically, let’s talk about gulls, since they’ve been in the news here lately. They’re vicious creatures who dive bomb innocent civilians and steal their ice cream cones. Visit to the coast and you’re gambling with your life and your sanity. I’m exaggerating, but at least I admit it.

Yes, friends, the British press is getting hysterical again, so let’s settle for just one link. Enough is plenty.

A rare relevant photo, although it's from Belgium, not Cornwall. From Wikimedia, by Loki11.

A rare relevant photo, although it’s from Belgium, not Cornwall. From Wikimedia, by Loki11.

Before I tell you the terrible tales, I should let you know what I’ve learned about gulls:

They’re not really called seagulls. They’re gulls, and since we’ve already irresponsibly established that they’re vicious we don’t want to make ‘em mad, so we’ll call them what they want to be called. If you don’t believe me that they don’t like being called seagulls, just ask one.

If you dare.

According to Wikipedia, they’re “of the family Laridae in the sub-order Lari. . . . An older name for gulls is mew . . . This term can still be found in certain regional dialects.”  That, irrelevantly, explains a song that mentions seamews. I always wondered what they were. Play nice or I’ll sing it to you.

But back to gulls. (Nice birdy. I’m leaving part of my sandwich right here for you. Leave the finger. I need that.) There have been some incidents, and as usual if they happened to me I wouldn’t be happy about them, but I don’t know how new, or newsworthy, any of this is.

In the most serious incidents, a small dog—a yorkie, a breed that can get so small they’re not really big enough to be dogs—was killed by gulls and a tortoise was ditto. With those two things at the top of the page to draw our eye, column inches have been devoted to cafes and take-away joints trying to protect their customers (and their food) from birds and to children and adults being frightened, and occasionally hurt, by the birds.

Ever since I moved here, I’ve been reading about problems with gulls, or seeing segments on the local news. Or protecting my scones from them. Cornwall’s full of seaside towns and villages, and seaside towns and villages are full of summer visitors, and with the visitors come picnics and ice creams and chips (those are french fries if you’re on the left-hand side of the Atlantic) and so on. And gulls are nothing if not scavengers. If food’s around, they want to know about it. As a result, in some places they now nest on roofs instead of (or more likely, in addition to) the rocky offshore islands they used to like. I seem to remember hearing about a street where the letter carrier refused to deliver mail after getting swooped on once too often. That was a few years ago, then the story disappeared and we never found out what, if anything, got done.

Oddly enough, although gulls sit around on our roof and our neighbors, they don’t do anything more right here than yell and get into the garbage if a fox has already torn the bag open. As far as I know, they don’t even tear the bags themselves, although I can’t swear to that.

In response to this latest flap, the prime minister, David Cameron, has pontificated—sorry, announced that we need to have a big discussion on the subject. He’s counting on the subject disappearing with the summer leaves before he has to figure out needs to be said in the discussion, never mind what has to be done–or worse, have to spend money on it. Should we kill all the gulls? Shut down the seaside? Issue visitors with plastic bubbles?

Saint Ives used to cull gulls and use birds of prey to keep them from nesting. They also had a van driving around town playing loud noises to scare them off. What the van did to the tourists, I don’t know. I wouldn’t think they’d be crazy about loud noises themselves. It probably kept them from nesting on the roofs too.

The thing is, all of that is expensive. A cull costs £10,000. We’re in an age of austerity. That it’s artificially induced (in my not particularly popular opinion) is beside the point. Local governments are having to choose between libraries and leisure centers and then realizing  that they can’t afford either. So St. Ives is trying flapping colored flags. I don’t know how well that’ll work on gulls, but I tried flapping computer disks to keep the birds (blackbirds, I think) off my raspberries. After the first day or two, they were onto my tricks. They not only ate the berries, they set up their laptops on the outside table.

Truro is trying paint that reflects the sun’s UV rays. My guess is that we’ll be seeing gulls with sunglasses in the center of town.

When this first came out, I heard a scientist interviewed on the BBC’s Radio 4. He’d designed a study of urban gulls with an eye toward finding a solution to the problems they present. Embarrassingly enough–not for him but the the government–it was first funded but then defunded before it ever got going. It’s an age of austerity. We can’t afford that sort of frippery until everyone gets hysterical and starts yelling that someone had better do something. Even if it’s random and ineffective.

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.

 

Theft

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.

 

Arson

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.