One autumn afternoon many years ago I stood on the Plains of Abraham high above the St. Lawrence River in Quebec. It remains one of the most memorable scenic views of my life along with the Grand Canyon and the English Lake District seen from the top of Helvellyn. Fierce winds flattened the grass, dark storm clouds threatened above, and the gleaming silver ribbon of the St. Lawrence far below made for a dramatic scene. In fact the sky reminded me of about the only thing I knew at the time about the history of this place, Benjamin West’s famous painting of the death of General James Wolfe. For it was here on the Plains of Abraham in 1759 that a decisive battle was fought in the great struggle for domination of North America. The name conjures a battle scene of Biblical proportions, a recent book on the subject is titled Armageddon, but the bleak windswept plain came by its name in a more prosaic way. The farmer who owned the land was named Abraham.Continue reading “The Plains of Abraham”
Fifty years ago this month I arrived in New York on a student charter flight and traveled to San Francisco on a Greyhound bus. This is my account of my 1970 trip, first published in The Dabbler in June 2012.
The kiss was the longest, most passionate I had ever seen outside a movie. The passengers craned their heads above the seats for a better view while the driver tapped his fingers impatiently on the steering wheel. The young couple stood in the bus doorway, he on the dusty ground, she leaning into him from the bottom step. We were somewhere in America, the land spreading flat and empty and endless all around. The scene might have had all the emotional drama of a classic movie lovers parting, but we all knew these lovers had met a mere 24 hours before.
This is one of the most vivid memories of my cross-country journey, New York City to San Francisco, in the fall of 1970. I wish I could tell you that I travelled in a painted, Continue reading “Across America by Greyhound Bus”
The events of the past several weeks, the death of George Floyd under the knee of a police officer, the protests that swept the nation and the world, and President Trump’s attempt at brutal “domination” brought to mind an art work I saw in London this March.
I wasn’t sure what I was looking at. Viewed from the top of the long sloping floor of the former power station it looked like an enormous tiered wedding cake. Perhaps it was the effect of the bland white surface that brought cake frosting to mind. The sculpture stood at the far end of the cavernous Turbine Hall in Tate Modern, where on previous visits we had seen other art installations, none particularly memorable. This would be different. As we came closer we heard the water. The tiers formed not a cake but a fountain, water Continue reading “Fons Americanus – Art For This Time”
One recent morning I attended a health seminar. In the waiting room of a car service center in Gaithersburg. It was an impromptu kind of thing. Certainly not what I expected when I checked my car in for its 40,000 mile service, then settled down in the spacious lounge for the usual tedious wait. On the muted television CNN relayed the latest alarming news of the world but no-one paid attention. Vehicle anxiety and international crisis don’t mix well. We stared at our phones or worked on our laptops and avoided eye contact as strangers thrown together in public spaces tend to do. But we were about to be nudged out of our cocoons.
According to Wayne LaPierre of the National Rifle Association “the only way to stop a bad guy with a gun is with a good guy with a gun.” But in London on November 29th a bad guy with a knife was stopped by a good guy with a narwhal whale tusk. And another with a fire extinguisher. And a few more with just their bare hands. The incident reveals much about the difference between the cultures on either side of the pond.
First, the attacker used a knife. He managed to kill two people and seriously injure three others before he was subdued. But here in America he would undoubtedly have been Continue reading “A Good Guy With A Narwhal Tusk”
How would you pronounce the name of Poulsbo, a tiny town on the Kitsap Peninsula in Washington State? This is a trick question, because unless you live there or you know someone who does, you are certain to get it wrong. That’s because Poulsbo may be the only town in the United States, or perhaps the world, that ended up with the wrong name. All Continue reading “Can You Say Poulsbo?”
One of the oddest questions I’ve been asked since moving to the U.S. is “Do you celebrate Thanksgiving in England?” Yes, this was a real question. I resisted the temptation to answer “Yes, we celebrate that the Puritans left and took their repressive ban on dancing and merriment with them!” More tactfully I said “No, but we have our own November holiday, Guy Fawkes Day.” That met with blank stares. So I explained that Guy Fawkes was a guy who plotted to blow up King James and the Houses of Parliament in 1605. He was part of a Catholic plot to restore the true faith in Protestant England. “You mean you have a day to celebrate a domestic terrorist?” “No, no” I hastily corrected. “We burn him Continue reading “On Thanksgiving and Guy Fawkes Day”
The bride wore white. The bride wore red. It was an American wedding. The marriage of my cousin Christopher’s daughter Emily and Kunal, the son of Indian-Americans.
Family members of the bride and groom traveled to the little town of Roslyn on Long Island. We came from near and far, from New York City and Long Island, from Kansas and Virginia, from San Francisco and Washington State, from Maryland and England. We came to celebrate the union of two people, two families, and two cultures. The couple are both the children of immigrants, the bride’s father from England, of Irish heritage, and Continue reading “An American Wedding”
To celebrate the July 4th holiday I reprise the amazing true story of an American patriotic song, first published in The Dabbler on June 3rd 2015. Could it be that Yankee Doodle Dandy started out as a British insult?
In recent years I’ve spent a lot of time singing nonsense songs to my grandsons. Nursery rhymes and traditional children’s songs, often imperfectly remembered. So sometimes I make them up and improvise pure nonsense as I go. The other day I found myself singing the American patriotic song Yankee Doodle. This time I remembered the words exactly but, as if hearing them for the first time, it suddenly struck me what utter nonsense they are. What on earth does the song mean? Continue reading “The Amazing True History of Yankee Doodle”
The New Colossus by Emma Lazarus is a poem written in 1883 to help raise money for a pedestal for the Statue of Liberty. In 1903 it was mounted on the pedestal on a bronze plaque. Though beloved by Americans for over a century, the poem no longer reflects the America in which we live today.
I propose this new version as more in the spirit of the times:
The Great Again Colossus by Emma Mortifer
Not like the woman of New York harbor fame,
Who welcomed desperate migrants to our land;
Here at our brutal border wall shall stand
A bloated, boastful bigot, one whose flame
Is destroyer of truth and justice, and his name
Con-Man in Chief. From his puny hand
Tweet hate and lies; his heartless eyes command
This Land of Immigrants that twin oceans frame.
But “Keep, ancient lands, your worthless horde,” cries he
With pouting lips. “I banish your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
Your wretched refuse shall not infest our shore.
Send them, the suffering children, unto me,
And they shall rot in cages outside our golden door!”