I've been home from my tour in Britain just long enough that the dog has stopped growling whenever I walk into the house, and now I'm heading back out on the road to Ontari-ari-o. This is a short trip - just a couple of shows with some time added on for visiting and, of course, shopping.
My first show is The Truth About Daughters, Friday night in St. Thomas - a stone's throw from London. London is where my oldest sister, Denise, lives. I'll get to visit with her Thursday night before heading out for an appointment on Friday morning and then to the show on Friday night, which, if you're in the area, is at Central United Church at 7:30. For tickets, call (519) 633 - 2686.
Then it's up early Saturday for a drive all the way across the province and a show Saturday night in Athens. That's right, travelling by car from London to Athens in one day. I rock the international travel scene.
The show in Athens is The Truth About Love and/or Marriage, and it's at the Joshua Bates Centre on Saturday night at 8 PM. The home page for the Joshua Bates Centre gives you ticket information, plus these helpful directions:
The JBC is located on the second floor of Athens Town Hall, at 1 Main
St. West, corner of Elgin and Main St. It is located at the only flashing
traffic light in town.
It's my second time performing in Athens. Like you, I was intrigued by the name of the town - I mean, it's not exactly a cosmopolitan city or anything. In fact, it's a lovely, quiet, rural Ontario town that you would think would be called something like, oh, Farmersville.
And you would be right. It was called Farmersville, up until a few decades ago when the citizenry decided their town needed to shed its bucolic image and get with the times. You can only imagine the cheers that must have gone up at the local high school when the new uniforms came in.
After the shows, I'll be heading into Toronto for a quick visit with as many friends (and stores) as I can fit in before catching a Tuesday flight back home.
I love Toronto. It's one of those cities that, I think, would be exhausting to live in but is exhilarating to visit - tons of night life (my friend Ellen MacPhee has already hooked us up with some concert tickets), great restaurants and did I mention the shopping? Yeah, there's that. Including a gigantic IKEA store which I'm locked on for Sunday around brunch.
As always, I'll have my laptop and wi-fi. I'm hoping to stay connected. Otherwise, the reviews tend to go "Nice show. Shame about the twitch."
This morning I started back in on Phase One of the South Beach Diet. It's the diet that helped me lose about 70 pounds over an 8 month period and keep it off for two years. So, I know it works - but I also know that Phase One is brutally boring.
Phase One is where you essentially cleanse your body of the sugars you've been ingesting merrily away and kick-start the weight loss. It's not particularly hard - you don't starve or anything, in fact you eat quite heartily. And the food tastes fine - you're not reduced to grazing on bean sprouts. But the menu is limited and by the end of two weeks, you're counting down the days till you can have some variety in your eating.
But at the end of two weeks, I'll have lost about 14 - 18 pounds, so I'm willing to make that trade. My daughter, who is going on it with me, will lose about 10 - 12 pounds and an inch and a half around her waist and a similar amount around her thighs. So, it works, and there's plenty of incentive.
I wish I didn't have to go back on Phase One, but since I gave up smoking I've packed on about 15 pounds. Nobody really notices it but me - but I'm the one in charge, ya know? So ... I'll suck it up for a fortnight.
What feels good is that I've finally learned that I AM in charge. That if I want to lose weight, I can, if I want to give up smoking, I can, that I'm the captain of this ship I'm sailing in. I think for a long time I just left it to ride the tides on its own.
So ... in a couple of weeks there will be less of me. As good a way as any to start the spring.
This videomade me LOLOL, and will make you do the same if you spend (or have spent) any time online ... it's a re-make of "You've Got Mail" with some added reality. Right-click on the small image and zoom to full screen - you'll have to be able to read.
And this videoproves that you don't have to be a Ho to love the ukelele.
My Irish grandfather, Hugh Henry Hutton, used to have a saying about St. Patrick's Day. It went something like this: "I'll be at the pub. Don't be botherin' to wait up."
Okay, so it's not a colourful saying, like "May the road rise up to meet ye, and may ye be in Heaven an hour before the Divil knows you're dead." Not all Irishmen are colourful. And they don't all drink heavily and get into fights. Those are just old, unfair stereotypes, like the "cheap Scotsman", the "orderly, humourless German", or the "Englishman with the stick up his butt".
(Okay, so all Englishmen do have sticks up their butts. Still ... stereotyping is always wrong, and people who engage in stereotyping are idiots. Most of them, anyway. Generally speaking.)
My grandfather used to hate St. Patrick's Day, because it brings out the “Once-a-year Irishmen”. These are much like the “Pretend Cowboys” you see on country music videos, wearing designer chaps, snakeskin boots and shirts with sparkly embroidery.
You just know if they wore those outfits on an actual cattle drive, the cows would all tip over from laughing. And the Pretend Cowboy would wind up naked, weeping, tied to a cactus with a big Circle O branded on his delicate little designer tush.
The Once-a-year Irishmen are just as phony as Pretend Cowboys. They wear the stupid plastic green derbies from the dollar store and drink the green beer and say "Top o’ the marnin’!" to you, even when it's ten at night. It's the only Irish they know.
(Well, that and "OK, pal ... da fuck you lookin' at?" Which isn't technically “Irish”. More just “drunk fighting words”.)
My grandfather hated those guys. So he got grouchy every St. Patrick's Day. To him, you didn't need a day to celebrate being Irish. Being Irish wasn't an event - it was who he was. Grandad didn't much care for cultural dabblers.
And that included St. Patrick himself. Grandad used to rail against St. Patrick, whom he accused of secretly being Scottish. Or maybe even - and this really made the veins in his forehead stand out - English. Apparently St. Patrick was born in either Scotland or England about 1600 years ago, and only came to Ireland because he was kidnapped and sold into slavery. Grandad called him "that English tourist".
So if he didn't care much for dear old St. Paddy, you can imagine how he felt about some guy named "Swischuk" or "Kobrinsky" or "Firrelli" swaggering over, spilling his green beer on the table, and wishing my Grandad "Top o' the marnin'!".
Over the years, more than one dust-up started that way. But Grandad was a canny old guy. He was never around when the paddy wagons (which were, by the way, named for his people, and don’t think he wasn’t inordinately proud of that) showed up.
You don't learn those kind of authority-evading skills in Canada. But Grandad grew up in Belfast. He learned early on in life how to throw a rock and be washed up, dressed in a suit, and safe in his church pew before the sound of breaking glass echoed in the street.
For all that, you never met a gentler guy. And he never had a drop of liquor in the house. My grandmother wouldn't allow it, and he would do whatever she said because he adored her. My grandmother was - and this always makes me chortle - English. Grandad was shunned - cut off and left for dead by his entire family - for marrying her. But they were married for almost sixty years, until he died in his sleep, a happy but tired man.
On St. Patrick's Day.
So every March 17th, I have a drop of Bushmill’s finest in honour of my Grandad. I don't wear green, I don't carry a shamrock, and I don't fight. But for that one day, I feel as Irish as a guy named Ling can feel.
Except I can't bring myself to hate the English. Even if they do have sticks up their butts. Generally speaking, of course.
Meeting Emma in Chesterton. The woman drove an hour and a half to see my show (on British roads, which is like driving in a five-story parkade at 60 MPH for 90 minutes, and mind you don't nick the chrome on the walls), and was wonderful and sweet and kind and effusive in her compliments afterwards. Wish we'd had more time to spend with her - but I suspect we'll meet again. Meeting up with Joy and Glenn in Belfast. They're the kind of friends that you can be away from for a long time - in this case, I'd last seen them eight years ago - and when we get together, it's like not a heartbeat of time has gone by. Except, of course, everybody else looks older.
Meeting Tricia and Jim Black and family in Thurton, Norfolk. They were wonderful and hospitable and funny and interesting and generous and kind. Lots of times I say "Well, if you're ever in Canada, please stop by." and I'm not completely sincere (unless I said it to you, in which case, I was). But in this case, I really do hope they come and visit, if only so I can repay even a fraction of their kindnesses.
Our reunion with Jackie. Jackie Ashbridge came to stay with us one summer when she and our older daughter Erin were both 12. Jackie lives in the same house she did then - an attached two-story in a clean but modest working class neighbourhood in Belfast. But the angry graffiti from her childhood still scars the walls nearby. It tells you this was a place where the Troubles had real meaning, and families were only too happy to send their children away for the summer to get out of what was a war zone.
Jackie was a lovely guest - after the initial shyness wore off, she fit right in with my daughters and got the same constant teasing and tweaking they had to endure - and endured it with every bit as much mischief and humour as my girls. We were sad to see her go, especially knowing that the chances of seeing her again were not the best.
But on this trip, Glenn took us around her neighbourhood. We knocked on the door at the only address we had. No answer. We were about to turn away when a woman from a nearby house returned home. We asked if Jackie still lived there.
"Sure and she does," said the woman, "She'd be after fetching her little girl from school, I reckon."
We couldn't wait around, so I pushed my business card - which had my UK mobile phone number on it - into the mail slot and hoped for the best.
She called a half hour later, thrilled we were in Belfast and insistent we come by for a spot of tea. We did, and met her little girl Jordan and looked at her photo albums (in which I had far more hair than I do now, but was also far chubbier, so there was a trade-off), and all in all had a lovely visit. And we're going to stay in touch. Jane and Ed Brown in Langley-on-Tyne were lovely and warm hosts who offered us many kindnesses. Ed is a publisher and designer and runs a cool travel website . They have two lovely children and perhaps the most pattable dog in existence.
Some highlights that weren't related to people we met, except tangentially:
Sitting on a Sunday afternoon in a pub just outside Manchester, watching Manchester defeat Newcastle 2 - 0 in football, then Arsenal defeated Liverpool 2 - 0 ... and finally Britain played France in an International rugby match. I guess that's as close to burrowing into the heart of England as a person can get. Wandering around the Malvern Hills. Another Sunday afternoon, and the hills were alive with hikers. Brits really love to go for walks, and on this afternoon there were no end of people on the well-groomed pathways. And yet, once you got to the top, you felt as if you were the only one who ever had been there. Small wonder that so many artists have claimed inspiration just from being there.
Oh, and had I slipped and tumbled down the hill ass-over-teakettle, I totally would have yelled out "Aaaassss Youuuuuuuu Wiiiiissssshhhhhhhhhh!!!!!". Just so you know.
Walking on Hadrian's Wall. Well, not me personally, because I don't vandalize world historic monuments by walking on them in defiance of signs posted to prevent that very kind of activity. But I did walk beside Hadrian's Wall, leaned on it, admired it, and drank in the historical significance. All the time saying "You're really not supposed to do that, you know."
We spent close to an hour looking for "Robin Hood's Tree". That's the tree that Kevin Kostner sat in near the beginning of Robin Hood, Prince of Thieves when he observed a young urchin being pursued by soldiers. A big fight ensued, which Robin's sidekick Morgan Freeman was oblivious to, and if you've seen the movie, you're already with me and if you haven't, well, I lost you at "Kevin Kostner". Anyway, we were evidently very close to the tree, but sadly, didn't get a chance to get a pic of me in it.
To the right is my Flickr link - I'm so proud to have learned how to use it. What I didn't learn was how to make the pictures appear in the order I want them to, so the photos are kinda random. But I've included some notes, so you won't get lost.
OK, off to visit some blogs I've been missing for the past three weeks. And yes, yours was one of them.
It was, in a word, unusual. You know how when you visit a friend, they take you around and show off some of the highlights of where they live? "This clock tower was built by the Duke of Gloucester in 1605" or "This canal was designed by Thomas Telford in 1899" or "This is where I met my husband/wife back in the summer of '76 ..."
Well, this was like that, except with bloodshed, destruction, hunger strikers, snipers, bombs, rockets, and policemen hauled out of their cars and beaten to death. Just your average hometown tour.
Glenn has spent the last 25 years as a Belfast police officer. Whenever the Troubles flared up, he was right in the middle of it all. He's seen the very worst that humanity can offer - kneecappings, murder, mayhem, terror, and much much worse.
The perfect guide on a grey Belfast afternoon.
"See that intersection just down there? That's where the Catholic and Protestant neighbourhoods intersect. We call that a flashpoint. When the trouble would start, that's where things would heat up first."
"This is the police station. See how the windows are all framed by chicken wire? That's to deflect the rocket fire ..."
"Yeah, this mural? That character in the arms of Jesus is Bobby Sands, the hunger striker. See below - "You can kill the revolutionary but you can't kill the revolution" ..."
It was fascinating. In two hours I learned more about what happened in Northern Ireland during the "Troubles" than I'd learned by reading newspapers and watching documentaries for decades. Glenn's point of view was distinctly based in the world of law and order, to be sure. But he seemed to hate Protestant thugs every bit as much as Catholic.
I saw the Shankill Road. The Protestant tenements. The Catholic row hourses. The places in Belfast where police erected 25 foot fences to discourage rock throwing between neighbouring streets. Pubs where IRA leaders were gunned down. Houses where Ulster Loyalists were hacked to pieces with an axe. Streets where they found the bodies of star-crossed lovers, one a Prod, one a Catholic.
"That tenement on the corner, see that? Aye, that was where I was on Christmas morning in 1984, taking evidence from a crime scene where an IRA informer was chopped up with a hatchet. God, that was a dirty one. The duty officer, letting us all out and in the front door, found a half bottle of whiskey in the cupboard and by the time I got there had sucked down half of it. When I asked him what the fuck he was after doin', he pointed to the corpse and said "Fuck 'im. Sure an' he ain't gonna be drinkin' it now, is he?" He offered us a drink. We took it. He was right."
In a way, it was morbid, and you can see why the Northern Ireland Tourism Board is less than enthusiastic about the "Black Cab" tours, where visitors are escorted around some of the most gory sites of the Troubles.
But damn, it was fascinating. Today I learned why so many Belfast neighbourhoods have giant letters H pinned high on trees (first prize to the first explanation below!); why hunger strikers in Ireland are usually portrayed in their underwear (ditto); and a hundred other factoids that may or may not come in handy one day.
When the tour was done, I felt sad for what had happened and - sort of - hopeful for the future. Belfast still has immense problems with poverty, which translates directly into sectarian violence, but gradually the angry, defiant wall murals are being replaced by messages of peace.
But there are, and will always be, reminders of The Troubles. And that's fit and proper. Those who do not remember history are doomed to repeat it. And that seems more tragic than a just God would allow.
There was a time - not so very long ago - when flying to Belfast for a two-day break would be considered an odd thing to do. During the "Troubles" (as they were called, with decidedly atypical Irish understatement), troops were in the streets, rocks, bombs, bullets and bottles were flying through the air, and Northern Ireland was looked on as a tourist destination the way we might now look at Baghdad.
But that was then, and this is now. While the political situation isn't completely wine and roses, things have settled down to the point where it's not considered suicidal to walk around downtown Belfast.
Which is what we're doing on a bit of a break in mid-tour. After a Herculean battle with Manchester morning rush-hour traffic - and please, you have NO idea, I've seen the worst traffic in North America and this was ten times more frustrating AND frightening - we jumped a Flybe airlines flight from Manchester to Belfast (74 pence return, so ... $2.00 or so Canadian. Really. No, REALLY. Check it out.) and landed here Monday at noon.
We were met by our friends Joy and Glenn Miller. We first met Joy and Glenn years ago when they served as chaperones for a group of Irish youngsters who were invited to Prince Edward Island for a summer vacation. These were disadvantaged kids who came to Canada for a break - the Troubles were at their peak back then - and we'd agreed to have a little girl come into our home. It was a rich and rewarding experience for everybody - our kids, the children from Belfast, and us. Meeting and befriending Joy and Glenn was an unexpected and lasting bonus.
The first order of business once we landed was, of course, to go to a real Irish pub and order a pint of Guinness. I mean, how can you not? Could you go to France and not have wine? Scotland and not have Scotch? It's what you do.
That said, I (looks around, whispers) don't much care for Guinness. It's a deep, dark, intensely bitter ale (beer? stout? What the hell is it, anyway? Feel free to weigh in, Al), and it's served ... yuck ... warm.
As he was slowly, patiently drawing our pints, I remarked to the landlord (innkeeper, bartender) that it must get crazy when the pub was full and a pint takes so long to pour.
"Nah," he said. "It's worth waitin' for. Fella come in last week and says to me 'Can yez pour me a pint in a hurry, I have a bus to catch!'. I says to him 'Yez are gonna have to decide which you want more, the Guinness or the bus.' He picked the Guinness."
Tuesday we have a single day to see as much of Belfast as we can - the tour resumes in Northern England on Wednesday. Glenn and Joy are Belfast police officers. They know their way around the city. We'll drink in as much as we can as fast as we can and decide what we'll need more of the next time we come back. Because we will be back.
It's utterly gorgeous in Northern Ireland - rolling green hills crosshatched with roads and hedgerows, the Morne mountains faint purple in the distance one way, Scotland and the Isle of Man visible in the other direction across the Irish Sea. It's been described as a "terrible beauty" but the terror is all gone. The beauty endures.
More people ought to come here for a holiday. If you do, plan on more than a day.