Rain Can’t Dampen Spirits at Football Match

You know you’re finally acclimated to the UK when you:

  1. Actually crave British food
  2. Drink British beer
  3. Attend a football match in crappy weather
  4. All of the above

The answer is C. Attend a football match in crappy weather, as evidenced by our attendance at Friday night’s Bristol City vs. Huddersfield Town match at Ashton Gate in Bristol. The other two are unfathomable (see why at bottom).

This was a pivotal match in the Championship, the league right under the English Premier League. What I especially like about football is that it’s a game of comers and goers. Have a great season, and your team gets promoted to the next higher league. Fall apart, and you get relegated to the next league down.

Promotions and demotions

If American baseball were organized in the same way, it would be like the three or four worst major league teams getting sent to AAA, while the best AAA teams got promoted to the big leagues, just like players do. Nothing like the threat of being relegated to get complacent owners to invest in their teams!

Declan would watch football seven days a week if he could, so we purchased our tickets well in advance of the match. Huddersfield Town is near the top of the Championship, where the top two teams advance automatically to the Premier League and the next four have a playoff for the third transfer spot. The home team, by contrast, sits near the relegation zone to the next lower league.

Our tickets were in the second row, near the American football equivalent of the 40-yard line. That’s the good news. The bad news is that our seats were not covered and it was misting cold rain the entire time. I guess we could have moved up (good but not great crowd), but Declan liked our primo seats, so we endured as best we could. The rain swirled around the stadium the entire match.

A neck injury to a Huddersfield player resulted in a lengthy, but necessary, halt in play early in the match and an unheard-of 14 minutes of stoppage time at the end of the first period. But after that false start, the match picked up speed, with Bristol City winning 4-0 to help them stay out of the relegation zone. A friend who is a lifelong Leeds United fan was virtually shouting encouragement during the match because his team is fighting Huddersfield for the final transfer spot.

Unfortunately, I missed the third goal while in the bathroom, but it was apparent what had happened from the roar of the crowd.

A little help from our friends

We have to thank several people who helped us get to the right bus stop, get off the bus at the right place, find our seats and reverse the process to get back to our hotel. These include the clerk in the hotel who looked up the bus schedule and gave directions to the bus stop; the nice woman at the bus stop who confirmed we were in the right place; the bus driver who promised to announce the stop; Bristol City supporters who pointed out the bus stop for the return and walked with us to the right entry gate to the stadium; and the bus driver on the return trip who dropped us off at the right place.

It was a 45-minute bus ride in each direction, and the wait for the return bus was in excess of 30 minutes. My feet didn’t unfreeze until a cup of tea back at the hotel, and I shudder thinking about the cold two days later.

But, for Declan, it was a highlight of the trip, right up there with fossil hunting in Lyme Regis and above visiting Stonehenge. We were all tired the next day flying home, but staying home because it was raining was never an option.

Why the other answers were incorrect: A. No one craves British food beyond fish and chips (or curry and chips). In truth, the food is getting much better and more varied than on early visits. But, as a cuisine, I’ll take just about anything else.

B. The same goes for British beer. On a UK trip with Marilynn more than a decade ago, I tried every British beer I came across—and was left disappointed and thirsty. Lest you think I’m equating Guinness and my beloved Smithwick’s to this bunch, both are Irish beers brewed in Dublin.

Exeter Cathedral: Looking Good for a 900-Year-Old

For all of its grandeur, Exeter Cathedral tries hard to remember its central mission as a community of God. And, for the most part, it succeeds. We were fortunate to walk in on a recent afternoon just as the hourly tour was starting. The docent was in great spirits and obviously was enthused about sharing this great Gothic cathedral with others.

I’ve been to many of the great (and likely not-so-great) cathedrals in the US and several countries of Western Europe, and Exeter Cathedral holds its own in terms of prominence, beauty and history.

Linebackers (not) Wanted

Started on the foundation of an earlier Norman church, two towers and about 10 feet of the nave walls remain from the earliest building. But atop those humble walls sits the longest continuous medieval stone vault in the world, about the size of an American football field.

Despite its age (started in 1114, with a rebuild in Decorated Gothic style in the 13th and 14th centuries), the cathedral seems much more open and airy than many other cathedrals I’ve visited. Part of the reason may be the bomb that hit the back of the church during World War II, which blew out most of the stained glass windows. Fortunately, the Great East Window was removed and stored in Cornwall during the war, so the 14th century glass remains. You can still see gouges in the columns that resulted from flying debris from the bomb blasts. One of the new windows depicts the bombing and its aftermath.

Parts of the cathedral also retain their original paint. Stone certainly is beautiful in its own right, but paint brings out a warmth that stone can’t match. The stone figures outside the cathedral were once brightly painted, but the docent said there are no plans to recreate those colors in the cathedral.

Whip it Good

We particularly enjoyed the astronomical clock that dates from 1484, when the earth was thought to be the center of the universe. The minute hand was added at the relatively late date of 1760.

Other relevant features of Exeter Cathedral include:

  • A 4,000 pipe organ that was recently refurbished. According to a history of the cathedral, the longest pipe is 36 feet tall.
  • The elephant misericord, one of 50 tie-up seats that ran along the walls of the cathedral so clergy could sit while appearing to remain standing. Seats are a relatively “modern” convenience. These misericords were carved in the 13th century.
  • Proof that idiots exist in every age can be seen in the extensive graffiti on the alabaster effigy of Bishop Edmund stafford, who died in 1419.
  • The 14th century Minstrels’ Gallery features 14 carved angels playing a dozen medieval instruments, including the bagpipes.
  • The windows above the Minstrels’ Gallery were for the dog whipper, who kept order in the nave, which was the social center for the town for centuries. In the illustration the docent showed, the dog whipper was going after a canine who had just peed on one of the columns.

Our nearly hour-long tour flew by, and we were left with a deeper understanding and appreciation of Exeter Cathedral’s place in history and in the life of the Anglican church. During our visit, activity ceased within the cathedral as the duty chaplain called for silence and offered a prayer for those within the cathedral and for the larger world.

That simple act reminded everyone that while parts of the cathedral are more than 900 years old, the church remains vibrant today.

New Sign Needed for Narrow UK Roads

After three days in Cornwall, I’ve come to realize that UK road signs don’t address the sphincter-tightening condition of many roads in the middle of nowhere and in the middle of small towns that have been around since the Normans.

If you think roads around my Tennessee hometown of Fayetteville were twisty and narrow, you need to think again. They are interstate roads compared to what we’ve been driving on.

One-lane road with tall hedgerows on either side. Single-lane road that twists around a 16th century building that some guy is painting, leaning out into the already restricted road. “Larger” two-lane roads where you inevitably meet a 16-wheeled lorry going around a corner. One-way street through the center of town, with dogs and tourists and women with strollers walking in the street, oblivious to the danger. And this in a rental car with a 1,000 pound deductible.

These roads have been here forever and aren’t going to change. I guess it’s one reason most cars in the UK are so tiny.

But I do have one small suggestion: a new sign that warns of what’s to come. Get the lube ready, because the road (and your sphincter) are about to get tight.

About the sign: First you do a Google search for “animated buttholes.” Then you try to figure out how to merge an image with a shape with words. And once you actually manage to put them together, you can’t figure out how to group the damned things, so you take a photo and go from there.

Few Fossils, but Lots of Fun in Lyme Regis

After a morning of fossil hunting along the beach at Lyme Regis, I cannot escape the feeling of being Charlie Brown at Halloween. The geologist was polite as he dismissed my sure fossil finds as flint, beef limestone, a clay waterpipe—and in one instance—a piece of wood.

Gentle as the Lyme Regis Museum geologist was, all I heard was, a la Charlie Brown, “I got a rock.” It was a familiar refrain among the three of us on a misty Sunday morning, when about a dozen amateur fossil hunters joined Paddy Howe for a dinosaur walk.

Although we pulled out a bagful of ammonites, belemnites (ancient squid-like critters) and a single ichthyosaur (big fish) vertebrae from the sand, the rocks and the muck, Paddy was most apologetic we didn’t find more stuff. His preferred fossil hunting weather is high winds and pissing rain, so we didn’t feel too bad we didn’t pull a giant ichthyosaur from the cliff face.

She really sells fossils

Unless you had a kid enthralled by all things dinosaur, you may not realize the significance of Lyme Regis. Do you know the tongue-twister, “She sells seashells by the seashore?” That’s actually a reference to Mary Anning, who lived in Lyme Regis during the 19th century and was credited with discovering the first complete fossil of an ichthyosaur, which roamed the area 200 million years ago.

To support her family, Anning actually sold fossil bones and ammonites by the seashore, but hey, that doesn’t rhyme quite as well. We passed by Anning Lane while walking from the car park to our flat, so it’s apparent that she remains relevant today.

The Natural History Museum in London has many fossils that Anning collected, including a complete ichthyosaur, that we’ve seen (and photographed) on a previous visit to London. It if weren’t such a pain to access our backup files, I’d go looking for it.

Lyme Regis is part of the Jurassic Coast World Heritage Site, which stretches for 95 miles along England’s southwest coastline. If you’ve ever visited a heritage site, you’ll probably remember hearing about how you can’t touch anything or take photos with flash, and how you must watch your kids and mind your manners—basically, touch something and we’ll kill you.

Polishing the turd

Lest you think we were stealing fossils, Lyme Regis is not a typical world heritage site. As Paddy explained, since the tides continually both uncover fossils and erode parts of the cliff every year, the authorities just want to catalog significant finds, and what nearly everyone finds is of no significance. You can’t dig into the cliff face, but if there’s something sticking out you want to dig out, you can—with permission. But if it’s in danger of being carried away, you can dig it out first, then seek permission.

And if you find an entirely new skeleton, it’s yours to keep, to sell to the highest bidder, donate to the British Museum or to do whatever you want with. So instead of leave no trace and take nothing but photos, here it’s haul off all you can carry and just watch out for the cliffs.

Marilynn gets the credit for finding the ichthyosaur vertebrae on the way back to the flat after the fossil hunt was officially over. This is one of the more rare finds. I had seen so much beef limestone that I didn’t believe her, so we had Declan run the specimen back to Paddy, who said it came from near the creature’s neck.

But I don’t think anyone found any coprolites, fossilized dino poo to us ordinary folk. Paddy explained that they are commonly found and were particularly prized as jewelry during Victorian times. The fossils were polished and made into necklaces, so as Paddy wryly said, it is possible to polish a turd—and wear it, too.

I’m trying to imagine those highly stylized women, like those on those PBS series that Marilynn makes me watch, wearing hoop skirts and brocade while basically wearing a piece of shit around their necks.

Side note: That afternoon, we traveled to West Bay along the Jurassic Coast to see the cliffs. Those who watched the UK version of “Broadchurch” would recognize the cliff face immediately as the scene of the initial murder. While you’ll never find me on a “Walking Dead” tour in Georgia or the “Games of Thrones” tour in Northern Ireland, it is pretty neat to see the same perspective in real life that you’ve seen on the small screen.

First-Hand Stories from the Troubles

My editor would have killed me, if I still had one of those. I attended a roundtable discussion among a republican, a unionist and a British Army soldier who fought during the Troubles and didn’t get anyone’s names.

I was a guest of the Agnes Scott College group visiting Belfast and Derry earlier last week at the session and didn’t want to intrude. I was more interested in what they had to say than who they were. And they said a lot.

The Roots of Riots

At least two of the participants were from lower socio-economic classes, the disaffected more prone to do what’s necessary instead of what might be necessarily right. The British soldier, who did two tours in the North before quitting, was a council house kid who dropped out of school at 16 and apprenticed with a butcher’s for a year, because the local mine was closed.

So the British Army was a step up, despite the misogyny, the beatings and the “you’re not paid to think” mentality. “We were given no Irish history—we were ignorant of the situation,” the former soldier said. “The Army doesn’t do complicated. It was black and white to them that the republicans were the enemy.”

They were taught that anyone is a possible suspect, even children who could grow up and become IRA soldiers. In open areas, they were taught to surround themselves with women and children to deter potential snipers.

He eventually came to realize, “We were part of the problem.” He left the army in 1996, got his qualifications, an education, settled in the North and started a dialog with former combatants.

Hey, hey, mister union man

The unionist also came from a working-class Protestant background and was indoctrinated into the unionist cause by an uncle who was a staunch supporter of Ian Paisley. He joined the youth wing of the UDF, a paramilitary organization, and later volunteered to be a gunman in 1981. He admits to being involved in murders, attempted murders and armed robberies and pled guilty to murder after being arrested. He was given four life sentences and imprisoned for 16 years until after the Good Friday Agreement was signed in 1998 that, for the most part, ended the armed conflict.

About five years into his sentence, “I began to see Paisley as part of the problem.” While still in prison, he began to work for peace, and he still does. Spotting a trend here?

Getting to the heart of the conflict

The nationalist joined the IRA as a teen-ager after seeing how the British Army treated residents in the Short Strand area of East Belfast, an island of Catholicism in a deep sea of Protestants. The Short Strand backs up to the Lagan River.

Basically, he saw an occupying army come in and take over houses, schools, hospitals, sports grounds and parish halls, turning them into fortresses. “Soldiers are not trained to keep the peace, they are trained to kill,” he said.

Like the soldier, the former IRA man said that everyone was treated as a threat. Teen-agers were targeted, forced against walls, searched and questioned. And if they gave the soldiers any “cheek” they were taken in for interrogation that lasted four hours or more.

He got arrested in 1973 and spent most of the next 26 years in prison, also being freed after the Good Friday Agreement. At first, those arrested were treated as political prisoners, which afforded them certain rights. But in 1976, the UK withdrew political status and started treating them as criminals, including taking away the right to silence and allowing torture, the nationalist said. At one point, he says 85% of people appearing in court were convicted by their own statements, most of which were obtained through torture.

The situation resulted in the hunger strikes in 1980-81, in which 10 men died. Although the government never did return political status to the prisoners, the hunger strike did shine a harsh light on the worst practices.
“Troubles” doesn’t adequately explain the circumstances that caused more than 3,600 people to be killed over a 30-year period. “I refer to it as the Conflict,” the republican said. “Trouble is what you have with a neighbor or when kids are fighting. It doesn’t capture the depth and gravity of what was happening here.”

Gunner Doing Better than Namesake Team

Don’t mind that cute kid … look at that gorgeous cat! Nine weeks into this adventure, and it appears that our cat Gunner has settled in nicely with our carer, Nancy.

That’s her granddaughter, who Nancy says is quite taken with Gunner. And that’s one of Gunner’s favorite positions, on top of the couch where she can survey the scene without appearing too interested.

Nancy says Gunner is very active at about 4 in the morning and following afternoon nap, which is when she was playful at home. She might have been playful at 4 a.m., too, but we keep our bedroom door shut. Nancy also says Gunner is getting along well with her old cat, Malachi.

We miss many things about Decatur, but we miss Gunner most. I left my black shaving kit on our bed the other day and thought it was the cat when I passed our room later.

It’s apparent that our beloved cat is doing much better than our not-so-beloved-these-days Premier League team Arsenal. Blown out of the Champions’ League, pretty much out of the Premier League race this year, but still in the FA Cup, which is football’s equivalent  of a Miss Congeniality prize.

A World Away, But Close to Home

We were so glad to welcome family friend Carina Gold to Belfast last week. OK, she didn’t stay with us or anything. She’s a freshman (woman?) at Agnes Scott College, just two blocks from our home in Decatur.

Marilynn and Carina’s mom, Katy, went to school together in Lawrence, KS, from elementary school through high school, and Katy attended our wedding. I’d only met Carina once before she came to visit the campus last spring, but we’ve gotten to know her much better in the short time she’s been in Atlanta.

An interest in the North

Freshpeople at Agnes Scott, a female undergraduate liberal arts college, go on trips during their first year, and Carina’s trip is mainly to Belfast and Derry with another two dozen young women led by professor Christine Cozzens. Christine has an interest in Northern Ireland, so of course Marilynn knows her. In fact, Christine hosted a speaker last fall that Marilynn brought to town as part of Ireland’s world-wide commemoration of the centenary of the Easter Rising last year.

We met Carina at her hotel, a short walk from our flat, and went next door to The Botanic Inn, a 150-year-old pub better known as The Bot. We’ve been coming to The Bot since Marilynn first hauled me to the island 17 years ago now because it’s where Stewart Parker drank. Except she recently remembered (from rereading her own book on Parker), that his preferred watering hole (across the street) was The Eglantine Inn, better known as The Egg. But tradition is tradition, and even Declan has spent many a day at The Bot, so The Bot remains our favorite local.

Friends of friends

We ran into Christine at The Bot, and she invited us to a talk by Northern Irish writer Anne Devlin that evening and the nationalist/unionist/British Army roundtable the next morning. We had to decline the reading because Marilynn had book proofs to look over, but I agreed to attend the roundtable.

As we were chatting with Carina at the hotel, Marilynn noticed Anne waiting in the lobby, so she went over and struck up a conversation. Marilynn says she met Anne at the Stewart Parker conference in 2008. She’s also met Anne’s son Connal Parr, who’s a researcher at Northumbria University and who wrote about Stewart (thus referencing Marilynn) in his forthcoming book. It’s a small world here, where academia and culture mix liberally.

I’ll never forget the first time I came to Ireland with Marilynn. She ran into someone outside Christ Church Dublin that she had attended Oxford with. Later, in Belfast, someone was yelling her name in the street, an acquaintance from the Institute for Irish Studies who saw us walking past.

In Ireland, it’s not six degrees of separation. It’s more like three.

About the photo: Declan and Carina at The Bot. A later photo series will feature Declan in the vicinity of tasty brews in some of our favorite watering holes.