Saturday, 14 July 2018
Your friendly neighbourhood bloggerman coming at you once more with my overly eloquent recounting of my transatlantic life. Go on, carry on reading, you know it makes sense... Now, while its certainly true that when I think of the words that I write, they really do make sense, I'm not sure they do when they reach the page. Still, people still seem to read them, so something must be working.
So, when I last wrote my blog, I talked about the Pacific Northwestern city of Portland, Oregon and the beginnings of the epic West Coast vacation/holiday of Team Geekrant! (that's the wife and I). Now I find myself in another motel room late at night, with my wife already asleep in bed, while I try to put into words the last week of our lives.
Now that might sound overly dramatic, but no words can be overly dramatic when it comes to describing the landscape of the American West Coast. There are times, in life, when a place takes your breath away by simply existing. I believe that God created everything in this world and his workmanship is always fantastic to behold and in those moments his handiwork is seen. Then there are times, I believe, when God simply shows off, that in creating some things he just decided to blow humanity's mind. To give us sights that we truly struggle to comprehend with our senses. That is the category that so much of the West Coast falls into, as if nature itself was singing out "be amazed".
We got our first feeling of this, as we started to drive from Portland on a Sunday evening, we needed to make a distance of some 170 miles, at five o'clock in the evening. In truth, where I come from that's a journey you should be planning out well in advance and getting up early in the morning for, where my wife's from that's something you ram through in the evening so you can start fresh the next day. As we drove through the state of Oregon, we got our first glimpses of landscape that was like nothing we'd seen before.
Leaving Portland, we drove though flat tan grasslands bordered by the deep brown of hills receding into the distance while far off in the haze of the horizon, we glimpsed the white capped tops of the mountains known as the Cascades. Gradually the land that we were driving through grew hillier and oddly shaped ridges rose seemingly from out of nowhere beside the roadway. It appeared sparsely populated, although there were many cars on the road. We were heading for a place called Roseburg, which lay roughly half-way between Portland and the Californian border. This was our first stopping point. It was a town held high in the arms of the advancing wooded hills which gave us our first echo of the Redwoods.
The Redwoods area of California, is I would wager, like no other area on Earth. Now, that, I now know could be said of most of the West Coast of the United States. Although close comparisons can be found for much of the landscape here, nothing quite fits or exactly replicates the almost otherworldly landscape here. The Giant Redwood is an incredibly tall and incredibly old tree. There are some that are thousands of years old and when you drive, cycle or walk amongst them, it is hard not to be affected by the sheer majesty of such ancient things. All other trees seem somehow merely a reverberation of these behemoths.
It is hard for a man such as myself, born on a relatively small island to see such vastness, so close. This is a land of discovery, so little of this area was mapped even two hundred years ago and even though the world now revels in GPS and satellite navigation, still we are dwarfed by the awe inspiring massiveness of nature. Can anyone ever truly know a place like this and can anyone ever truly know themselves in such a place.
The morning of our second full day on vacation/holiday, we woke up in a Motel 6 in Roseburg,. Motel 6's are, I'm learning, often the most bare bones basic motel chain found on the roadsides of America. They have a bed in the room and a decent and clean shower with a T.V. but no fridge, no ironing board, no kitchenette, no minibar with over priced selections of cheap rum and even cheaper blended malt whiskies. This suited us pretty well, as for the next few days, the moment we got to our room we collapsed into bed, exhausted.
That day, we were heading for our first glimpse of the mighty Redwoods, the tallest trees on Earth. That meant crossing the border into California, it also meant an early start. For many Europeans, it is seldom that we will make drives of the length that we made during our trip. The size of this country still overwhelms me. By the end of our second day we already would have driven nearly 350 miles and that was just a tiny amount of our overall journey.
Having eaten a breakfast on the run and being fueled up and ready to go, we drove down Interstate 5 aiming for the dramatically named town of Grant's Pass. As the road kept on rising and vast vistas of evergreen covered hilltops and deep valleys opened up before us, I envisioned a hardy frontier town, a rural collection of wooden huts at high altitude with outdoorsy feel. A narrow rock cut through treacherous hills where many a pioneer died on his way to the coast... Yes, as so often in the end, the truth was a little more less epic.
Grants Pass was a charming and surprisingly busy town, lit brightly by the early morning sunshine. It bustled with activity and a good number of people. It would be our last reminder of anything remotely approaching a large town until we came to Eureka, California, a day and a half later.
We left Grants Pass by US Route 199 and headed onto the "Redwoods Highway", the local name for the collection of roads running through this area of north western California.
It is fair to say that I seldom seem so much greenery in my entire life. Even before we reached California, trees seemed to be everywhere hugging every hillside, overhanging seemingly every roadway that we drove around. As we drove onward, it seemed as if we drove further away from modern civilisation, from a world of computers and mobile devices, tablets and smartphones, Kim Kardashian and reality T.V. Here was a world seemingly untouched by the ever encroaching tendrils of modernity, the tarmacadamed surface beneath our wheels apparently the only ounce of tribute to any other world but this.
These were true backwoods, a forgotten place, protected by the desire to conserve and preserve nature and filled with a collection of characters, who for whatever reason, chose to live so far away from the modern urbanised universe. Aging hippies, hillbillies, mountain men, the people were all of these and none of these. My wife chose to stop at a shop called the "Crystal Kaleidoscope", hoping that it would be a cute tourist shop with postcards and "I <3 Sasquatch" t-shirts, I thought otherwise... I was right.
Now its not generally a sensible idea for a husband to declare his rightness over his wife in such a loud way and it is to be acknowledged that she generally has the drop on me when it comes to common sense, when it comes to weird however, I have a radar like no one else on this planet. After all, like knows like when push comes to shove.
Someone should have told the owners of said road-side attraction, that the 60s had ended, that crystals are not something one wants to drag around half of the American countryside with them and that no-one has had a dying need to listen to Enya since 1991. Still who am I to judge, if thats the shop they wanted to keep then that's up to them.
As we headed resolutely for the Californian border and the Redwoods, I reflected on just how disconnected everything was from the rest of society. If Portland had reveled in its socially conscious weirdness, shouting out to the world, spoiling for an incident and entreated you to do the same, then the Oregon back country simply didn't care what you thought, here was a place that was truly honest to what it was. It didn't much care who drove through, knowing that you'd be gone in a minute, heading onward to who knows where. They didn't seem to give much thought to politics or society although in the "Crystal Kaleidoscope" they were probably still wondering when Nixon was going to get impeached.
America is "one nation, united under God" but in truth, this trip is showing me that it is many nations, many creeds and many attitudes all looking into the wilderness and the raw materials of this land and trying to carve out a future. "E Pluribus Unum", so states the motto of the United States, "out of many, one", so much of what I have seen leads me to the conclusion that the question that has always driven the United States onward, is just how true is that motto and what does it look like in practise.
Maybe the U.S. is a nation always in search of its "better angels" and its American dreams. Already on this journey I feel that I understand a little more.
Until next time...
Friday, 6 July 2018
As usual, I hope my writing finds you in fine fettle and raring to read more of my fantastical adventures from all across the globe!
Last time I wrote, I was in a hotel room on the outskirts of Portland, Oregon, on the first step of my wife and I's vacation/holiday along the West Coast of the United States. That was four days ago. Oh! how I have aged in those four days.
Now, of course I exaggerate, but during an American road trip of this type, it can seem like far too many hours pass between waking in the morning and then collapsing into bed that night. It turns out a trip like this is not for the faint of heart after all. The landscape changes so quickly, the road takes you so far in a day, it can feel like several trips in one. When I last wrote, I was nearly 650 miles further North than where I am now, by the quickest route. We have driven that now, and many more miles beside, to explore out of the way places and areas.
The Americans truly seem to take this in their stride, seeming barely phased by such a journey. Maybe it is the experience of growing up in a such a large country that prepares them for the experience. All I know is I'm exhausted, and we're less than halfway through our holiday.
Our first full day on vacation, the lone full day that we experienced in Portland, feels a long time ago now. Indeed it feels like a couple of months has passed, not four days, since we were there.
We flew into the city on the evening of the 30th of June, arriving to a cool climate much removed from the heatwave that Madison was currently sweltering under. Portland, for those of my readers who are unaware, lies in the area of the United States generally referred to as "the Pacific Northwest".
Realistically, in my eyes and for simplicity's sake, this definition really only truly applies to two full states, Washington, which lies on the border of the U.S. and Canada, and Oregon which sits just beneath Washington on the Pacific coast of America (although Idaho is often counted in this area, I'm trying to keep this simple, so my apologies.). As, a result of its location in the Northwest of the country, it has a climate and general weather that myself and my British readers are much more familiar with than many Americans.
The city lies on the Willamette River not far from where said river flows into the Columbia river which is probably the most prominent river in the United States that flows into the Pacific. This much I knew, or at least had something inkling of, before Mrs Geekrant and I ventured into the city.
Still, if anything living in this country has taught me, there's only so much information can prepare you for. We had slept the previous night in a motel and had picked up our hire car at the airport and now found ourselves in a multi-storey car park in downtown Portland.
We planned to take in the city's renowned "Saturday Market", which also, apparently, takes place on a Sunday. It also takes place under a bridge. Now, when my wife talks about a market to me, I immediately think about classic British soap opera, Eastenders, classic British comedy, Only Fools and Horses, and Scunthorpe Market. That means I think about fruit and veg, dodgy items that have fallen of the back of a lorry/truck and an indoor market where, last time I checked they still haven't changed the advertising hoardings since before my 27 year old sisters were born.
However, this isn't that type of market. Its website talks about a "community of artists', which is true, with the exception of food venues dotted here and there, this place is full of artists selling their various wares, from people making candles out of geodes to a woman selling clay whistles in the shape of various animals. There is definitely no sign of a weather-beaten cockney selling "Fresh Fruuuiiiiiiitttttt! Six Apples for a paaaannnnnnddddddd!"
There's also not a lot of sign of what many might call normality here either. Portland revels in its weirdness, even in the market could be seen the city's unofficial slogan "Keep Portland Weird". The counterculture is strong here and it showed in the stalls. The weird and wonderful was definitely on display, from an artist who described himself as a psychonaut and looked just like you'd expect such a man to look to a lovely lady who sold paintings where the only drawn lines were mathematical equations and formulae.
The market took up far more of our time than my wife had expected and was also much more extensive. Chaotic, yet ordered, counter culture, yet fully aware of simple realities. Walking through the tents and stalls, it was easy to see what had made hippies so attractive so many years ago and what makes hipsters so attractive now. A refusal to fit in with societies norms, a free flowing creativity that knows no bounds, a community that supports all of these things.
Somewhere across the street, a herbal smell was beginning to blow in our direction, a smell I knew from the recreational habits of some friends I had in University. It reminded me that marijuana use is legal in Oregon which was very obvious as we walked through the market. It wasn't as if we saw a lot of people smoking but it was evident in the small wooden boxes being sold to keep the herb in to stalls selling hemp extract. Portland is a city that definitely revels in its reputation and identity as a hub for the counter-culture.
It was a pretty city, full of bridges and water, trees and flowers, hippies and hipsters. As we walked down "Burnside Street", one of the main streets through the city, however, it no longer felt like a city but a citadel preparing for war.
There are some who say that America is headed for a civil war and there are those who argue say it has already arrived. That it is a war of beliefs and ideologies carried on through speeches and newspaper columns, social media accounts and youtube videos. That America has become increasingly polarised and its been happening silently for a long time.
As we walked through Portland, it was easy to believe these people. Signs were in nearly every window declaring their intent to serve everybody regardless of race, ethnicity, gender or sexuality. Rainbow flags flew from the tops of buildings as if daring people to take offense. Powell's City of Books, one of the most famous independent bookshops in America, was selling a whole range of "Read, Rise, Resist" merchandise. It was like an army of people were stating their position and daring their opposition to do their worst.
We ate briefly in a pizza place however in Portland that meant a place called "Sizzle Pie", all punk rock ambience and alternative attitude. Again Kelly and I felt more than a little bit too ordinary for the place. Many people might point to the current American president as the cause of the stand that these people have made, but it felt like this had been building for a lot longer.
America, it so often seems to me, is a country founded on an ideology and a dream. The trouble is, everyone in the country sees the dream slightly differently. More and more these individual dreams seem more and more separate from each other.
Powell's City of Books felt like some sort of massive staging area for radical and, some might say, enlightened thought and living. In my whole life I have never seen a book store like it, it filled an entire city block and in some places occupied two floors. It was full of people, especially young people, searching the shelves for hints to the fulfillment of their personal dreams and answers to the polarized American dream. Books shelves stood floor to ceiling but also merchandise was everywhere, a capitalist intrusion into such an egalitarian location.
It was, truthfully, a wonderful place, a dream for a bibliophile like me. I wish I could have spent longer there, gazing at forgotten book titles and old stories, but the market had worn us out and had given us a brief hint of how with had a long way left to go on our journey.
We found our way on the city's transit system back to our starting point and picked up the car. Our hotel for the night lay nearly 200 miles away in a town called Roseburg, Oregon and the sooner we got driving, the better. As we headed out from Portland heading south, I reflected, as wannabe writers are want to do, on the place that I had just been.
I really liked Portland, in the end, the climate, the buildings, the environmentally friendly bikes and public transit systems were all wonderful. It was a blast, a real enjoyable place to start our journey. It was also far too "out there' for my taste, not that there's anything wrong with that, but as I get older I realise I'm far too boring and ordinary to keep up with such shenanigans. It was tiring to adjust to so much "difference". Maybe I'm missing out, but anyone who's met me knows that I'm quite weird myself and its quite that I can't cope with any more weird than myself, right now. Or maybe I'm just boring...
Portland was wonderful, if you visit, remember you've got to keep your freak flag flying and carry on resisting. Until next time...
Saturday, 30 June 2018
Welcome back to the pages of my blog! It truly is a blessing to be able to write to you and I'm touched that anyone reads my words. I really appreciate it.
As I'm learning the more that I write these blogs and post them online, our words have power. So many of us in these modern inter-connected times, share all of our innermost thoughts with the world. We post onto the message boards, social media and websites of the internet, with no filter. The relative anonymity of a computer keyboard or smart phone touch-screen creates a separation between the reader and ourselves which causes us to write so often without care. We wail at the world, we explode in anger, we call the powers to be to account. As if we were the only judge, jury and executioners that matter.
Our way of seeing the world becomes the only way. Anyone who allies with the other side of an argument or even merely suggests that we exercise restraint when expressing our views is naive at best and a moronic simpleton at worst.
When I was a teenager, it seemed that the internet offered so much hope of a more accepting and tolerant world, I'm sad to say that it hasn't followed through on that promise, at least in my eyes. The internet has, it seems, become the perfect place to craft our own world and world view, blocking anyone who disagrees with us. Secret Gardens which only the partisan faithful may enter.
I'm not attacking people who write like that, they are merely trying to work out their world just as I am, mine. I simply mean to say, that when I write, it is for you, as much as for me. I am no judge, I'm a university drop-out who struggles with feelings of inadequacy. I try to explain the way the things I see in this transatlantic life of mine make me feel, but I have no true certainty in my conclusions. I'm simply trying to let you see through my eyes for a moment. I hope I do that well.
America is a fascinating country and although I have lived here for nearly 3 years now, I have still seen relatively little of its massive area. Most of my writing, therefore, has been about what I have so far experienced and observed, which tends to mean the American Mid-West.
Today, that changed. My wife and I decided to take our first proper holiday together in the U.S. A road trip from Portland, Oregon, all the way down the West Coast of America to Camarillo, California, where Mrs Geekrant has family.
Today, I took my first "commuter" short haul flight across the United States. The first flight I have ever been on where my passport wasn't needed once. I have glimpsed the mighty Rocky Mountains from thousands of feet in the air, the massive expanse of prairie plains stretched majestically below us too.
I am still amazed that I get to live in the U.S.. I never thought I would ever see the Rocky Mountains or the Pacific ocean, or the massive redwood trees reaching for the skies. And yet soon I will have done all three.
I like flying, which is ironic for someone who is as afraid of heights as I am. Airports are a little too much for me however, all the rushing around, the hustle and bustle, the delays. The flights, however, I enjoy. They help me think.
As I looked out, from the plane window, on a land so vast and strange to my comfortable island-bred eyes, I was struck again at the bravery and, truthfully, the possible insanity, of the men who pioneered this country, stepping into nowhere, walking landscapes as alien to them as the Moon was to Neil Armstrong.
I realised, and not for the first time, that America is as much an idea and an ideology as it is a nation. The land these men found was a dream to them and to so many who came after. They built the foundation of the West Coast of America, The Old, Wild, West. They were legends.
Legends made the land here. Heroes who, in their own time were as famous as any celebrity who exists today.
America is still figuring itself out, however, trying to understand the dream and just who's interpretation of the dream matters most. It is an argument that so often in recent months has become more and more violent, even in the online world.
As I flew towards Portland, however, looking out at all of God's beauty scattered over the landscape, I understood that America has weathered greater storms than this and built a nation out of nothing. For that, I am grateful to them as a people. As I sit here tapping away at my keyboard in a Portland hotel room, I am blessed to be here.
It maybe easy for us as non-Americans to take sides in the online fights of our American cousins, judging them through the medium of meme and smart mouthed internet comments. We miss the point when we do that, I would argue. We are not a part of the nation that carved modern civilization out of this land and the President of this country isn't our President. Its not our job to call him to account when, for many British people I see making comments online, he has nothing to do with us.
The Rocky Mountains made me feel small, dwarfed by such beauty, I am nothing and my opinions matter little. It is not for me, or any other outsider to make judgements on the U.S.. I just say what I see. This journey is about so much, personally. About my wife and I getting away and having a good time. Its also about opening my eyes to what makes America what it is or at least to make a start in finding out.
I hope you will read my humble writings along the way, it truly is a blessing to know people do and find something in them. Until then... Good Bye Geekranters!
Sunday, 24 June 2018
I am sorry that it has been so long since the last of my epistles graced the glowing screens of the electronic super-highway. I have been distracted, of late, the pressures and stresses of work, relationships and life in general combining to limit the desire I have to continue my blog. I could leave the subject of the distance between each blog post at that. A small, badly constructed sentence, with too many commas, about vague stress and life. That would be to do you a disservice, dear readers, to become, if you will an unreliable narrator, which I never want to be.
All of the existential stress and angst that I deal with has an impact on my writing, on the very reason for this blog. If I'm to talk about the differences between the U.S.A and the U.K., at some point that will affect my mental state.
I must make a confession, at least to myself as much as anyone else. I am an immigrant. A title that has been in the news for much of the past ten years or so. I am not the sort of immigrant who makes headlines on television, with “waves” of me waiting at border posts. I have not fled atrocities in my native country, I have not struggled across rain swelled rivers, raging seas or burning deserts to get to this place. There was no great human bravery in my journey here, other than the basic human bravery that we can all partake in which allows us to step out into the unknown.
I treat this that as "a confession" of sorts because so often I think that I try to ignore and hide from that simple truth. For most of my life, this has not been true of me. For most of my life I lived less than a mile from the hospital that I was born in. I emigrated to the United States when I was 32 years old and until that time I had never before felt what it means to be separated from the society that I came from and, by extension, the society that I now live in.
I can act with bravado, as if my exposure to the culture, literature, products and politics of America prior to my moving here somehow make my adjustments to this life, inconsequential. When I do that, I am invariably acting against what my heart is actually feeling.
Living in a country other than the one that you were born in, can at times be both unbelievably wonderful and impossibly difficult in equal measure. The subconscious cultural shorthand of what we see as our "own people" that we have developed through sheer osmosis, is no longer present.
I am not a child of this culture, no matter how much I may like Hollywood movies and Mcdonalds burgers. That is not to say that America is a culture that is lacking in some way, but simply that it is not the world of my youth and therefore always somewhat alien to me.
I am an immigrant and sometimes that status can be a source of great joy and sometimes of great loneliness. I came here following the call of my heart and the love of my life and it has never failed to be the right decision. Still, as Robert Frost noted "I have taken the road less traveled by, and it has made all the difference."
I write my blog, a lot of the time, to try and speak about the differences between one culture and another. My blogs have, upon occasion have been many things, but most of all, they are about a man miles from the place of his birth trying to make sense of it all. Now it is certainly true that we all experience these feelings in part, if we only ever move to the town next to the one we were born in.
Somehow, however, the distance between all I was and all I am, can make this feeling even more disorientating than it would otherwise.
It can be tempting for all of us to believe that the Internet has made the world so much smaller than it once was. That borders are no longer barriers, barriers to nations that are unimportant now, the preserve of old men who can't move on with the rest of the world. We are a global village, they say. The problems of this world are not mine to solve, or to comment on for that matter, still I would speak on what little I have experienced.
It seems that the closer we get online and in an electronic world that sometimes seems more real than the one that we spend each day living and working in, the further away we get from each other in that physical world.
In the same moment that the Internet has given me a wonderful life here and an equally wonderful wife to live it with and all the technology to keep me in touch with home, it has also failed to make it any easier for me to adjust to this place with all of its complexities and simplicities.
As such the technology both unites and divides. It helps us find our voices but does not bring with it the wisdom and saving actions we need to change the world. We are all experts in our own lunchtimes, we are in community but still separated by culture and expectation.
So I write these words to make some sense of all of these things and sometimes I run from writing them for the same reason. I don't intend to make definitive statements, yet many times I do. I can write as if I am oblivious to the world's tragedies, as if I the only person that matters and I can be broken to tears by an internet video. I am a walking contradiction, after all, just as this whole, crazy, human race is one huge contradiction. We are separate but we are also one.
So I'm thankful that some of you are still reading what I write and I apologise for my absence. I also apologise if I ever say anything that offends.
Next time, I'm sure I'll get back to something humourous and interesting that happened to me recently.
Until then, I hope that this explains some of the feelings many immigrants must feel deep down.
Saturday, 10 February 2018
I'm glad to see that you've made your way once more to my world renowned blog for yet more of my, possibly, slightly deranged, musings of this crazy yet mundane life that I find myself living in these United States. Welcome! I hope that you enjoy reading these words to the same degree that I enjoy writing them.
As I recounted previously in the pages of this journal, this Christmas just past, Mrs Geekrant and I returned to my hometown for the first time since I moved to this breathtaking land. Although I don't necessarily like to admit this kind of truth to myself, such a journey is always going to have a profound impact on the brave sojourner, the footsore traveller pausing on the roadway of his life to look backwards from whence he came.
It is a literary cliché that the “past is prologue”, a mantra that a fiction writer repeats to himself to remind himself that his characters have a history that must be contended with, a truism that the self help guru recites to his faithful followers desperate for some kind of healing. It is, I realise, both of these things and so much more but most of all, a fundamental truth that is often truly inescapable until we acknowledge its existence and its impact on our lives.
Returning home reminded me that all that I am and much that I will become still has its roots, and a fair amount of its branches too, in the smallish town in the North of England where I was born nearly thirty five years ago this year. I am a product of that place, even 4,000 miles distant from it, across one of the largest oceans on the planet, I feel its impact in nearly every moment of my life.
My mother is one of the most well read people I know, at least when it comes to fiction (I can't speak to her mastery of the arena of non fiction literature). She has read all of Dickens, certainly most, if not all, of Jane Austen's works and she complains about how evil she feels Heathcliff is in Emily Bronte's Wuthering Heights. She also once had nearly every single book written by notable late 19th and early 20th century author and all around literary misery, Thomas Hardy.
So you might be wondering why I started this post talking about a journey my wife and I took home over Christmas and have digressed to talk about the books my dear mother has read in her lifetime. There is method in my madness, please, bear with me. You see, all the while I was flying home to the United Kingdom, in fact on our whole holiday/vacation, one phrase kept rising to the surface of my mind, a phrase and a book title... “The Return of the Native” by Thomas Hardy.
Now, it is a well trodden trope in the world of television and movies for a prodigal son to return to the place he came from to write some wrong or free the Western mining town from the iron fist of the mining company's hired goons, but one of the first places I heard this basic story of a man's voyage home was by watching a adaptation of Hardy's “ The Return of the Native”.
It would be a mistake to call this story, a comedy, it would equally be a mistake to call it even slightly uplifting. Hardy dealt in tragedy, most of his stories are about people trying to avoid the inescapable fingers of fate and basically getting nowhere and ruining their life in the process.
The “Native” of the book's title, Clym Yeobright is a successful diamond merchant who returns from Paris to his home on the blasted Egdon Heath, falls in love with a girl who wants nothing to do with the place, nearly blinds himself training to be a schoolmaster, takes up basic labouring out on the heath and ends up losing his wife (who drowns in a weir) and becomes a itinerant preacher wandering said heath. So, as I said, not a comedy, so why could I not escape this phrase?
Looking from the outside in, the explanation for my fixation is obvious to most and in hindsight, is to me as well. Coming home after living so far away, this was my own “Return of the Native”, like Pip in “Great Expectations”, it was my return to life that had once been so familiar but that time and distance had now fundamentally separated me from.
The heart of Hardy's book looks at different attitudes to a place that we have grown up. Some have always longed to leave, while others never had any inclination to do anything but stay in that town for the duration of their natural born days.
So the question becomes, how have I changed? How has this Midwestern land made me anew? We are always moving on but what part of my soul still finds itself drawn to the place it all began?
All this was running through my mind has we drove up from London, charting a course away from that bustling metropolis through the heart of “England's green and pleasant land” towards the northern part of England, in particular, a small area close to where the historical counties of Yorkshire and Lincolnshire meet.
Anyone familiar with my writings will notice that when I talk about my home country I use more than one name for the place I come from. I have talked about the United Kingdom, England, the North of England and Scunthorpe. I realise that this might seem confusing to the casual reader, but if I could beg your indulgence for a brief moment, my friends, I will endeavour to explain.
So, for my British readers, this is the reality of our nation, something we deal with every day growing up, but to my American audience, the U.K.s unique political, geographical and cultural situation is often a very unknown quantity. One that must be explained.
So, to begin with, off the north-western coast of the continent of Europe lies a collection of islands, called the “British Isles”, the ancient Greeks referred to them as “Albion”. The two largest of these islands are called Great Britain (the larger of the two islands) and Ireland (the smaller of the two islands).
The United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, to give it its full name is technically the Union of three separate kingdoms, the Kingdom of England, the Kingdom of Scotland and the Kingdom of Ireland and also contains one principal principality, Wales. After many years of struggle, most of Ireland gained independence from the British Crown and so, in purely geographical terms the UK makes up the entirety of the island of Great Britain and the top six counties of the island of Ireland (known as Northern Ireland).
So when I talk about the UK, I'm actually talking about four separate countries in one: England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. Over centuries the English crown unified the two other kingdoms and subjugated the tribes of the Welsh, who ironically were the original “Britons”. I was born in England, which literally means “Land of the Angles”, named after the Germanic tribe, who with the Jutes and Saxons, chased the Britons out and into Wales.
Then finally, within England itself, a social, economic and slightly cultural difference can be see between the North and South of the country.
The South, and in particular the South East, the area around London, has always been the seat of government, a hub of activity and influence. A land of art and culture. The great river port city of London has stood, since Roman times, when it was known as Londinium, as one of the most influential cities in the world. The home to the mother of Parliaments, the beating heart of the financial world. There are banks in London older than the United States itself. It is proud of itself and its history and definitely had and, some would say, still has a haughty attitude in regards to the rest of the country, which it has always viewed as provincial and uncouth.
The North of England, on the other hand, has always stood as the tough, unyielding side of the country. This is a land of rebellions and social upheaval, of tough warriors and hard working industrial labourers and craftsman. This is where the Industrial Revolution had its birth. The place where Stephenson built the Rocket, textile mills appeared as if out of nowhere and the blast furnaces reached into the sky. It is, in fact, this revolution that led to the great opening up of the American interior through railroads and industrial development.
The people of the North are tough, hard working, pragmatic with a welcoming spirit and a low tolerance level for affected airs and graces. If you ever feel your ego is getting the better of you, come to the North, you won't leave with it destroyed, but you'll know your place in this world. They also think Southerners are wimps who drink fizzy beer and talk with silly accents.
As we drove onward, the signs appeared on the motorway simply for “The North” as if the people of London were saying, “turn back now, its your last chance, stay here where people are normal!”, we ignored them, heading directly in that direction towards the town of Scunthorpe.
Scunthorpe is my birthplace and my only real home for the first thirty two years of my life. It lies around ten miles south of the River Humber, a great river on the east coast of England that is really nothing more than a giant estuary feeding into the North Sea. It also lies only three miles east of the River Trent, one of the Humber's tributaries. Most of the town was built on top of a hill range than runs further in Lincolnshire and are the only hills for miles around. Beneath the town, the flood plain stretches away as far as the eye can see and until it was drained by Dutch experts, was boggy fen-land whose ways were unknown to all but the hardy people who lived there.
This is the land, John Wesley, the founder of Methodism, was born into, in fact he and I were born only fifteen miles away from each other... two hundred and eighty years apart but, what can I say, I still feel a certain kinship.
As we drove into the area, I felt instantly a sense of belonging, the land might not be as flat as the land in Illinois say and it is all of a lesser scale than America, but it was as if the land itself spoke to me, through the farmland, the villages that have stood there for nearly a thousand years, it called my name. As I looked on the drainage ditches and the long brownish coloured Trent, snaking its way through the flat land I knew that I was nearly home.
Then, upon the crest of the hills, I saw it, the town of my birth, Scunthorpe. I'd been down this road more times that I can count, seen the town far off in the distance at the end of so many journeys home, but it never meant as much as it did on that day. Scunthorpe, my hometown.
Scunthorpe isn't an old town, while there are parts of it that have been extant since medieval times and its name is actually Viking in origin, most of its existence is modern in nature and can be traced to the discovery of Iron Ore in the area and its manufacture into steel. There are many steel cities in the world but this is the “Steeltown”.
A microsm of the Industrial Revolution, it grew out of nowhere. In 1850, five villages stood where the town now stands, of which Scunthorpe was only one, within the space of thirty years, steel and iron manufacture built a town and it didn't stop growing for years afterwards. Now over 70,000 people call the Steeltown home.
In the early 1980s, when I was born, the steel industry had definitely started to slow down but not long before that time thirty thousand people had worked on the works. This is a town built by the Industrial Revolution and the needs of the modern world. This is the town this native returns to.
No matter whether me admit to ourselves, we are caught up in the DNA of the places we came from, no matter how much we may love or hate our hometown, it still made us the people we are today. We all try to craft out another home for ourselves, a niche out of the wilderness of life, somewhere to hide away from the world. Like our ancestors we seek to create a new life for ourselves.
Still, our past lives, good or bad, echo through the corridors of our heart and lead us where they may. Our lives are a story and every story has a beginning, my story begins in an industrial town in the North of England called Scunthorpe and I can never quite leave it behind. I will always love it and in some ways it will always be home.
Join me next time...
Wednesday, 7 February 2018
Welcome to another edition of my ever popular blog. Over the last few editions, it feels like I am getting into a rhythm with my writing and I hope that you are enjoying the more regular appearance of my literary offerings. You, dear readers, drive me on to continue telling my tales and I hope that they are never found to be lacking in interest or excitement.
As you may remember from my last post, Christmas Eve found Mrs Geekrant and I flying across the Atlantic, a day later than planned. It goes without saying that we would much rather have been already in the house of my parents, but sometimes the fickleness of fate and the mechanical requirements of the jumbo jet, do not listen to the desires of ordinary folks such as you or I.
So that was where we found ourselves after all of our adventures in the Windy City. On a plane, in the last possible seats we could get, a plane headed not to Manchester, as we had originally aimed for, but a plane inbound to Heathrow, London's busy hub of international exchange.
Mrs Geekrant worried about how my father would deal with our rearranged flight, as he would now have to pick us up, as he had offered to do not from an airport two hours distance across the Pennines from my hometown, but from the nation's capital. A much busier and longer journey. One that would require my father to venture from the safe haven of the North of England into the urbanised, and in many Northerners opinion, overrated, mass of the south east of England.
Now to many Americans, a journey that takes only an hour longer in driving time, would seem to be a feat knowing no great hardship. My wife's worry would seemingly unfounded and just the natural desire of a daughter in law not to put her father in law out. My American readers should, however, take note that as the United Kingdom is a much smaller nation than the United States and is in many places much more built up and urbanised, with much narrower roads and more frequent traffic jams, the journeys people undertake are often of a much shorter length.
It is one of the ways, in fact, that I see that my thinking has been affected by time here in the United States. I now see a journey of three or four hours as no great feat, whereas when I was growing up in the land of my birth it would be seen as a serious journey, requiring preparation and planning.
Luckily my father has always seemed to quite enjoy driving and as Heathrow isn't really in London proper, he saw it as merely a longer drive, not something to fret over. Still, it would have been easier if it had been the shorter journey to Manchester and also, as it happens, a prettier one.
It was raining when we landed, flying into a grey and chill London morning, all mists and drizzle. This, of course, is not unusual for the United Kingdom at this time of year. However somehow it seems antithetical to all the cultural images of Christmas that have been cultivated in our lives. Even in the UK, out of all the Christmas cards that I have seen, I have yet to see one where the picture is of a grey windswept landscape, yet many times that is what the United Kingdom experiences.
My father was waiting for us, and he was a welcome sight after all the drama and anxiety that had gone before. He stood there, looking just the same as he always had, only perhaps a little older. A tangible sign that we had completed the first and longest step of our journey and would soon be in the house of my parents and the quiet streets of my hometown.
Sometimes, even in the middle of all my writing upon the subject, I forget just how different one country feels from the other. I wager that if I moved away to France or Germany or some exotic clime in the far east indies and then returned home, I would expect a difference, if for no other reason than the fact that the language would be different. Also the speech, the faiths and the food. The United Kingdom and the United States are strange in a different way, in that, at first glance, they seem so similar. Sometimes, looking from a distance, one might be fooled into thinking they are the same culturally speaking.
If one thought that, then one would be wrong. Returning home, I felt, unbidden, the same sensation as when I first visited the United States. A sense of disorientation almost, as if all the parts of the place you live were picked up and moved 4,000 miles away from where it started and put back down in the incorrect order. So much of this feeling is, of course, subconscious in nature. A sign that looks the same as one on a street at home but not quite, a road marking that doesn't fit somehow. Landscape flashing past the window is so familiar and yet somehow so strange. How unusual a sensation it is to feel like a foreigner in your own land.
We started out from Heathrow, with Mrs Geekrant and I feeling the first echoes of jet-lag, and headed due north towards my home town, Scunthorpe and the promise of a freshly made bed. Unsurprisingly, although the rain had let up slightly, the grey skies still remained as we drove down the surprisingly empty motorways of the country that will always hold a significant part of my heart.
Still, despite my love of this land, the grey outlook of a British winter has never totally agreed with me. In American culture, Bing Crosby longed for a White Christmas, Elvis had a Blue Christmas “without youuuuuuu!” And you could argue that the Grinch really made Christmas, Green, in the end. The one thing that no American has ever sung about is a “Grey Christmas”. In the end, no American has any experience that can really compare to the completely un-festive feeling, weather-wise, of a British Christmas.
As I look back over my upbringing, I must admit that I can't really complain about any aspect of our family Christmases or any part of our basic existence in the North of England. My parents might not have been the richest people in town and they did have four children to feed and clothe, but I never felt like we missed out on anything and we always had plenty for Christmas and as for Christmas dinner...! (My mother is much more skilled in that area than she would ever admit and the food is always wonderful!)We did pretty well, all things considered.
Having said all that, as I alluded to earlier, there is one thing that always disappointed me about Christmases in the UK. That would be the weather, in particular the heavens, the miserable greyness of the climate, the dull monotony of the skies. Anyone can see the affect this has on the British psyche if they look at the difference in contempory Christmas songs in the two countries.
So when Americans choose to write songs about Christmas weather, its all about snow, the festive feeling of snuggling down with a loved one in front of a log fire, the atmosphere of a cold that brings a subtle beauty with it. Nat King Cole sings about “folks dressed up like Eskimos”, Mariah Carey cavorts around in a Santa inspired snow suit and even the Californian dwelling Beach Boys bring a hint of snow and ice to the Golden State in “Little Saint Nick”.
On the other hand it doesn't really snow anymore in Britain in the winter, unless you're on some high peak in Scotland and you've run out of Kendal Mint Cake and Mountain Rescue's out looking for you because the similarities between the Cairngorms and the Himalayas are easy to see to any British person and your tauntaun will freeze before you reach the first marker... (sorry, that last part was Star Wars not something that might happen in the Wilds of Scotland.) I digress, of course, but the simple fact is we have no snow at Christmas, which given the British preoccupation with complaining about the weather seeps into our Christmas tunes.
So Greg Lake sings about a “veil of tears for the virgin birth”, Slade only ask if you're hoping the “snow will start to fall” and when realising it won't, move straight on to the question of Santa's sobriety on Christmas Eve, Band Aid rubs our faces in it by saying that “there won't be snow in Africa this Christmaaaaasssss!!!”. They're right, of course, but when I was a child I just wanted to know why there was no snow in Scunthorpppppeeeee!
American Christmas songs and Christmas culture in general, tell tales of a perfect yuletide moment, as if all the bad things in the world pass away in the midst of a Hallmark moment. Its not even a particularly Christian moment, as this is so much a celebration of a commercialised, secular moment, where all hatred is put away and everyone dreams of skating on the Ice Rink outside Rockefeller Centre. Peace and Goodwill to all men embodied in a festive sweater and an Andy Williams Christmas Special.
British Christmas culture is based at least in some ways upon the simple realisation that nobody has written a festive ditty called “Let it Rain” yet, (at least not outside of an evangelical Church revival service) and the truth that we're pretty certain they'll never be a song called “dirty, grey and miserable, wonderland”. We're realists after all.
Okay, so I maybe exaggerating the cultural differences somewhat. In some ways, however, I understand that this is what coming home means, it means a return to a place that you once knew so well. So well that you knew all of its ways on a subconscious level and then realising that the cultural responses are no longer automatic to you. The place you were born feels foreign and alien, not that the country you have moved to feels any better, any less alien, but is somewhat disconcerting when you feel these feelings about the place you're from.
It could be argued that there is something naturally optimistic and idealistic in the American psyche, life here is referred to as the American dream, after all. This is the land that a whole continent emigrated to and explored to find a new meaning to what it meant to live. It is generations of expectation in geographical form. It is, therefore, a place equally utopia and dystopia, dream and nightmare (for some) depending on the person, whatever else it may be though it is always hopeful.
On the flipside, the British are no less hope filled, however its certainly true that the native Brit is a realist rather than an idealist. Its not that we, as a race, are wary of dreams but we tend to use practicality to guide us rather than whimsy. Simply stated, There's no point writing about snow if rain's falling outside, no matter how much you love “Elf'. Deal with what's in front of you first and remember that idealism doesn't always put food on the table.
As we drove up the M1 and towards the steeltown of my youth, I came to an epiphany, a moment of realisation, that I fit neither nation totally anymore. I am as much a realist as these grey skies taught me to be and I have felt a cold wind rolling off the North Sea and I know that in life, to borrow a phrase from George R.R. Martin, “Winter is Coming”.
I have also though, looked upon azure blue skies at the places where the prairies begin and seen them go on forever and I am affected by the dreams that lie beyond those horizons.
I am, in my heart, somehow, a citizen of both nations, I am affected by both traditions, my cultural mindset straddling the ancient Atlantic. I am now at home as much in the Mid-West of the USA as the North of England and each land tugs at my heart. I am a student of Mark Twain and Dickens both now, in equal measure. Still though, after all that is acknowledged, British Christmas music is definitely more fun...
Till next time
Monday, 29 January 2018
Welcome once more, to this record of my crazy life on these transatlantic shores. I'm continually blessed that so many of you choose to join me in my quest to understand the differences, this new life has bought me. So I knew I must continue my writings in record time, for I feel it would be unfair to leave you caught in narrative limbo waiting for the resolution of my own epic tale of airport bound purgatory.
As you may remember from last time, December 23rd 2017 found us, Mrs Geekrant and I, caught by the mercurial fickleness of mechanical difficulties, in the halls of O'Hare International Airport, Chicago, Illinois. We had just found out that our flight had been canceled and would not now leave until 7 o'clock the next morning, Christmas Eve.
Right then, my homeland somehow seemed more distant than it ever had until that moment. Still, I have always thought that, one must make the best of the circumstances that we are handed in the meandering walk that is life. If I didn't think that, I'm not sure I would have ever made it to the U.S., let alone have made it back home again. One thing that does help in circumstances like these, is the lengths that airlines will go to to make arrangements for hotels and meals. Also finding shuttles traveling to aforementioned hotels and meals.
So it turns out that there was an upside to our tale of aeronautical woe, we were blessed with a stay in a four star hotel, the Hyatt Regency O'Hare, for free. Now, it has to be said, no hotel stay can really ever totally compare to sleeping in the house you grew up in. Neither can it assuage completely the anxiety that a canceled flight can bring to the travel-worn voyager. It really can't but it can come very, very, close.
In all these months since I moved here, I have realised that one thing my northern English upbringing and Mrs Geekrant's Minnesotan childhood have in common is we were both were taught to assess a life situation relatively pragmatically and learn what a lost cause looks like. So while other airline passengers herded around the gate, trying desperately to get seats on another airline leaving that night, we took our meal vouchers and left in search of the shuttle. In our wake, it was as if the anxiety and annoyance in people reached such a crescendo that it was if the atmosphere around the gate seemed to be filled with chaos, hanging like a cloud.
So, as a result of the silent riot building back at the gate, when we reached the shuttle it was fairly empty. We made the five minute journey to the hotel, through still, quiet streets that seemed to have decided that even the busy traffic of the Windy City could take a break for the Christmas season. Looking out into those silence drenched roadways, I tried to lessen the anxiety that threatened to overwhelm me with the powerlessness of the situation that we found ourselves in, conjuring out of the quiet concrete and tarmac, some kind of urban peace, as we reached our place of refuge for the night.
It may have occurred to you, dear readers, from the stories that I told in my last post, that growing up, I had little experience of hotels. Raising four children in a small town in the north of England, my parents never really had the money to afford a stay in hotel. My mother would spend forever, it seemed, planning our summer holiday, trying to decide the right place to stay. Making the most of what little money they did have. Country cottages and static caravans on holiday camps were generally our forte. Holidays abroad were definitely well beyond our reach for much of my childhood.
Not that I ever minded, I have seen most of the different areas of the United Kingdom and all the beauty it has to offer. I have seen Jane Austen's grave in Winchester Cathedral, walked through medieval market streets, trod in the footprints of the saints on the Holy Island of Lindisfarne. I have felt the wind chasing in off the Atlantic, breaking on the cliffs of Cornwall and sat on a heather strewn hillside in Scotland. I have heard the stories of a thousand years of history and the beauty that is unique to Britain. Considering where I would end up living, it seems somehow ironic that I didn't leave British shores for the first time, until a few months after my sixteenth birthday.
So it has to be said that staying at a fancy hotel like the Hyatt Regency, was never really something I ever expected to be doing in my life. It was a lovely hotel, but also somehow, a creepy one.
The shuttle dropped us off outside the doors of the hotel at around 8'oclock that evening. The night air was frigid and ripe with the promise of snow. In the reflected light of the streetlamps, the hotel stood still and silent, like some modern day fortress, a safe haven in the icy depths of the night.
In the moment that we walked into the hotel's lobby, I realised that there was a reason the airline was able to find us hotel rooms for the night. It turns out that a hotel for businessmen, five minutes from the airport, on the eve of Christmas Eve, is deader than a consumer electronics store in an Amish village. It also happens to feel like a set from some paranoid sci-fi film from the mid-1970s.
The lobby was huge, with a central area that had four elevators with glowing lights underneath them, only a few hotel staff could be seen behind the desk. Strange looking sculptures hung from ceilings or protruded from the ground like other-worldly plants. Brutalistic concrete clad the walls, accentuated by wooden paneling and mezzanine floor after mezzanine floor rose to the ceiling, each level planted with seemingly fake greenery (although my wife assured me it was real).
It may have been my upbringing, the friday nights spent with my father watching old sci-fi films or action blockbusters in the early hours of the morning, but in that moment, I felt like had stepped into Logan's Run, or was about to see just where Soylent Green was made. This perhaps was where the alien invasion was to begin, where all the conspiracy theories had started. It should also be noted that similar to Michael York in Logan's Run, my life-clock felt a little low, the stress and anxiety of the delay had taken their toll. So maybe I could be forgiven for an overactive imagination... oh who am I trying to fool, I don't need an excuse to see science fiction in... pretty much anything.
Somehow though, all of the delay, the canceled flight, the distance, made me think all the more of home, the home I grew up in. It seems that stepping out into this world and leaving all that we have known brings us into a new appreciation of where we came from. Our memories become transformed in the alchemy of experience and time and become something more than when we made them.
Memory, I'm learning, only becomes of benefit to us when we step out and try to tell a story that lies beyond what we have known. The day we are willing to let memory inform us, guide us and no longer trap us. Every day, it seems this life and the one I knew get further away physically and temporally from each other and yet come ever closer in the peculiar corridors of the inner workings of our hearts.
All that to say, in that moment, I remembered watching 70s sci fi films with my father and my mother complaining about the implausibility of plot and heading to bed while we watched on into the night. It brought me home, in that moment of weakness and powerlessness, and made me realise how no trouble truly lasts forever and home is still waiting for me. Both here, on Earth, in the U.K and the U.S. and one day, in the home we never leave, beyond this life.
I couldn't sleep that night, we had had a nice meal downstairs in the hotel bar/restaurant, all dim mood lighting with neon bar signs, but I still couldn't sleep. Maybe it was too many movie moments running through my mind or simply the knowledge that I mentioned in my last blog, that breakdowns, accidents and mishaps always happen in the early stages of a journey or on the way home. Whatever the reason, I awoke suddenly at 3'oclock in the morning, which was, in hindsight, a very good thing. My phone blinked with a message from my mother, Our flight had been canceled ... again.
It has to be said that at this point I had had enough and Mrs Geekrant also had. This was definitely a good thing. My wife is one of the most patient people on this Earth and comes with the birthright of being “Minnesota nice”, which means she can express exasperation with someone and still make them feel like they've had a wonderful day. Maybe it comes from her job as a coffee shop manager, who knows. However when she saw the message and found out that a rescheduled flight wouldn't leave Chicago until Christmas Day, she decided that enough was enough.
Logan might have ran in the movie but we ran that night, or early morning, as it now was. In our tiredness and stress it all happened in a blur. We were down in the lobby in a flash, headed out onto the shuttle by three thirty in the morning, into the airport lickety split, where my wife charmed a British Airways flight, leaving that evening, out of the airline representative. We headed back to the hotel, slept some more and made our way back to the airport for our new flight.
It may seem that I am rushing to the end of this part of the story but by this time, everything was passing in a waking dream and I have little desire to recount the same things in reverse. We had nothing left, and although the new flight we were on flew into Heathrow not our usual airport in Manchester, all we cared about right then was the fact that we were well on the way to my homeland. They were some of the last seats on the flight and we lost the upgrade we had purchased on the previous flight, we were cramped, suffering from sleep deprivation, full on worn out but we had bested this stage of the journey and we were flying into the rising sun and a new day.
Until next time, which will hopefully find me talking finally about my actual visit home.