Over There

Tonight I’m flying off for my “sabbatical” in Britishland, and as I’ve mentioned before, I’ll be Over There until about mid-September.

Because I don’t know what kind of Internet connectivity will be available in Thomas Hardy country, I’ve taken the liberty of plundering my archives of some interesting articles and essays, and will be posting said pieces for the next few days or so until I’ve figured the situation out. Regular blogging will then resume, only consider them as coming from behind enemy lines, so to speak. There will also be pics and such from various places such as Edinburgh, Lord’s and perhaps even from Stamford Bridge, home of Chelsea F.C. (of whom I’ve been a loyal fan since 1972). I’m not going to see my trip through a camera lens — I’m not Japanese, after all — but there will be shots of pubs and other places of interest so you’ll be able to see the locations of my several misadventures. (Evil Kim is stirring…)

Of course, the timing of the posts will generally be askew because of the time difference between the UK and the US. Also because hung over. But there will be at least some golden oldies from previous blogs to fill the void when my brain is full of bitter ale rather than creative juices.

What has amazed me in re-reading my old stuff is how many of these pieces have stood the test of time. There are of course some obvious anachronistic exceptions: for example, Tony “Scum” Blair is no longer PM of Great Britain, thank goodness, nor is Arnold Schwarzenegger governor of Gollyfornia (ditto). But the substance of what I wrote well over a decade ago is still current. The issues haven’t changed, only some minor circumstances and the dramatis personae.

Anyway, here I go. Wish me luck with the boarding process… or watch the news for the ruckus. (“At DFW Airport today, an angry passenger was arrested after inviting a TSA official to perform a sex act on himself…”)

Oh, let’s just have a sing-along:

~~~~~~“The Yanks are coming, the Yanks are coming and we won’t be back until it’s over, Over There.”~~~~~~~~~~

Lousy Views

And another slam on flying, this time from former Queen guitarist Brian May:

“Travelling on planes has for years been something I have had to do, as part of my job,” explains May. “As I fly today with British Airways, I wonder if I am the only person left in the world who likes to relax in a comfortable seat and dreamily turn my head to the window and get lost in the ever-changing wonders of the planet as they drift by? I wonder this because I’m not aware of anyone except me complaining about the new way the seats are configured in BA First Class.”
May wails about the seating changes: “I hate it. It costs an arm and a leg to travel this way and I feel that we no longer get our money’s worth. In the old days you sat right next to the window and the view was wide and spectacular. Now they sit you about three feet from the window and so low down all you can see from your seat is a small patch of sky. It’s boring — frustrating.”

Believe it or not, he has a point. It does cost an arm and a leg to fly First Class (on any airline), and because a First Class ticket is also the most profitable sale an airline can make, it behooves them to look after their best customers — and clearly they aren’t, in this case anyway. And FFS: he’s Brian May of Queen; nobody ever played like he did, nobody ever sounded as good as he does, and nobody ever will unless it’s to copy him. If anyone has earned the right to complain about shitty service, he has.

Let’s not indulge in the Brit Wealth Envy thing and call him a pampered rich pussy, because the plain fact is that May works unbelievably hard. Because he’s one of the most sought-after lead guitarists in rock music, despite his age, recording sessions, concerts  and appearances take place all over the world for him — London one day, New York the next, Melbourne three days later, back to London after that, then on to Tokyo, ad infinitum — which means that he logs well over two hundred thousand miles a year flying from gig to gig. There is no way he could possibly do this in Economy (a.k.a. steerage), and anyone who’s ever flown just a quarter of what he has will not begrudge him his seat in First Class, because without that, and with his sheer volume of work, his job is frankly not doable.

And let’s be honest about this: he’s sixty-nine years old, and 6’2″ tall. He needs a comfortable seat, because after 10,000 miles in the torture device known as an Economy-class seat, he’d have to be carried off the plane straight into a hospital for traction to straighten out his back. Then, after doing his job, he’d have to do Economy all over again two days later? Please.

Of course the DM journalists have a go at him because they’re a bunch of Bolshie peasants whose total experience in commercial flying is Ryanair to Magaluf once a year at a cost of £45 (compared to May’s ticket price of about £15,000).

The hell with them. I’m on May’s side as much for that as for the fact that I bloody hate the airline companies. All of them. Bastards. [10,000-word rant deleted]

Feel free to add your own airline horror stories in Comments.

 

Thoughts From The Road

Been back a couple days from my road trip, and now that I’ve washed the dust off, a couple of salient observations have suggested themselves to me.

I hate, absolutely loathe interstate highway travel.

My trip was to Colorado, and I took the familiar route of US 380 west, US 287 north, and after a brief trip along I-40 west, US 87 north, and I-25 north to my eventual destination, Denver.

I was actually looking forward to the part of the trip from Raton NM to Pueblo because unlike most other interstates, that section of I-25 passes through some extraordinary scenery. Sadly, I spent a lot of time looking at said scenery because a rock fall had covered the northbound side of the highway and we were reduced to crawling along at walking pace in a single lane along the southbound road. Once clear of the construction area, I thought my problems were over, except that from Pueblo all the way to my destination, the traffic was the same density as rush-hour on the various Dallas interstates, i.e. parking-lot speed.

So coming back, I turned off at Castle Rock and after a short drive east, found my old friend US 287.

Unfortunately, US 287 outside northwest Texas is terrible: a two-lane road with only occasional (and too-short) overtaking lanes, and which was almost as bad as an interstate in terms of stressful driving. All the way through southern Colorado and the Oklahoma Panhandle was white-knuckle driving, which was only bearable because I had set myself no time deadlines for my return, and could spend long stretches behind 18-wheeler trucks without ever feeling the need to overtake them. And then I crossed the border into Texas.

I love US 287 in Texas.

If I could wave a magic wand, I would abolish all interstate highways and make them all like US 287 in Texas. Here’s why.

It’s a four-lane divided highway. This means that while the speed limit is 75mph, you have to be aware of the road and traffic because there are “turnarounds” from the left lane (with an added left-turn lane so traffic is not obstructed), and frequent intersections — even driveways — so once again, ya gotta pay attention.

Best of all, though, are the frequent signs which say “Left lane may only be used for overtaking”. And the Texas state troopers enforce this little rule with gusto, you betcha, which means that people (even truckers) actually drive like Germans, and only use the left lane for overtaking. After the horrorshow of a two-lane road and the earlier interstate highways, travel was not only easy but enjoyable. (A simple indicator of this is the fact that for hours, I had a spoken conversation with myself about various topics, in French — which means that I was completely relaxed.)

Another good thing about US 287 in Texas is that until you get closer to the DFW area, you don’t bypass the many little towns, you go through them. You know that you are approaching a town because there are speed-limit change warnings posted as the limit drops from 75 to 60 to 50 to 40 and finally to 35 within the city limits, and follow the reverse order once you leave town. Why is this a Good Thing? Because what happens is that you slow down figuratively as well as literally, and stopping for gas, food, or even just to stretch your legs is not the same ordeal as when hurtling along an interstate. Here’s one such town:

Dare I say this also gives one a chance to try local eateries such as K-Bob’s, instead of the same chain crap along interstates? (Yes, I did; an excellent steak, perfect baked potato and wonderful cole slaw, all for $12. I left an $8 tip for Sandy, which made her day.)

When I first arrived in the United States, I drove along many roads like these (usually with my friend Trevor), and trips like this made me fall hopelessly, helplessly in love with America. This last trip? It happened all over again, only more so.

I cannot express how good a thing this whole approach is when you’re driving long distances, and no doubt it added to the fact that I arrived home completely relaxed and at ease, and not with the frazzled thank-God-that’s-over! nerves of a typical road trip on interstate highways.

As my Loyal Readers know, at the end of the month I’m off to Britishland for an extended sabbatical which will deposit me back in the United States only in early January. As soon as winter is over, probably in April, I’m going to take another road trip, this time from Plano to Bar Harbor, Maine* and back (along a different route). I will only use the interstate highway to get me clear of Texas and Arkansas to my first stop in Memphis (because boring, done it many times). Thereafter there will be no interstate highways in the plan except for unavoidable things like mountain passes, and even then, I’ll try to find an alternate route. Five days up, five days driving along the Maine coast, five days back. Maybe more, I don’t care.

William Least Heat-Moon once wrote a book, Blue Highways, about this kind of travel. Well, from now on, all my highways will be blue — because I intend to fall in love with America all over again, and again, and again.


*Why Bar Harbor? Why not?

 

Road Music

As a general rule, I don’t listen to music in the car, other than perhaps Dallas-Fort Worth’s classical music station WRR (101.1 FM) if I’m caught in a traffic jam.

On long trips, however, and especially driving through the bleak nothingness  that is northwest Texas, some sterner stuff is needed. Here’s what I brought along for this particular trip:

  • Steely Dan: Citizen Steely Dan
  • Procol Harum: Prodigal Stranger, Shine On Brightly
  • Lindisfarne: Magic In The Air
  • Kate Bush: The Kick Inside
  • Chicago: Greatest Hits Vol I and II
  • Genesis: Duke, …And Then There Were Three
  • Level 42: Running In The Family, World Machine
  • Joe Walsh: Look What I Did (greatest hits)
  • Wishbone Ash: Time Was (greatest hits)
  • Earl Klugh: Heartstring, Living Inside Your Love
  • Strawbs: Bursting At The Seams
  • Peter Skellern: Sentimentally Yours, Cheek To Cheek

…and some classical stuff that nobody’s interested in: Schumann, Rachmaninoff, Saint-Saëns, Chopin, the usual stuff.

Yeah, it’s a strange assortment. I like variety in my music. And yes, they’re all CDs. I see no reason to buy online music when I already have most of what I like to listen to.

 

Disquiet

As I begin my preparations for my British sabbatical, a couple of things have started to concern me about my impending globe-trotting — and remember, I haven’t flown domestically or internationally for about ten years.

A recent New York Times article [no link, fuck ’em] has pointed out that the root causes of the current woes being experienced by hapless revenue providers (fare-paying passengers, to you and me) lie in two areas: the shift in airline management’s emphasis from passenger comfort / treatment to fiscal measures such as pre-tax profits; and the fact that since 9/11, airline staff can treat passengers like nuisances (at best) or as “security risks” (at worst) without too much repercussion.

The airlines, of course, are bleating that all this is being driven by their soaring costs (despite the massive drop in fuel prices), and that in order to maintain any kind of decent profit margins, they have to “unbundle” features like free baggage, seating choice and comfortable seating and turn said features into revenue lines. Thus, when I went online to pre-book an aisle- or window seat for my trip to Britishland, I was hit with a $15 fee, each way. My checked bag (actually a small trunk — I’m going to be Over There for three seasons and some hunting withal) will also occasion an “oversized bag” fee, despite it being within the size / dimensions criteria posted on their website because, as the reservations clerk informed me, “It’s rigid” (i.e. it can’t be squashed flatter like normal bags and suitcases, something you may want to consider in the future when packing those bottles of wine).

By the way: talking to an actual person as opposed to doing everything electronically also triggers a fee.

Of course, because I’m flying in steerage (okay, “economy”) it means that I’m lower than shark shit shadow on the airline’s list of Necessary Evils, so there may well be a “Get off the plane, asshole!” moment in my future.

I do have a frequent-flier account with this particular airline, and have logged hundreds of flights with them in the past, so one might think that I can escape “Involuntary De-planing” (such a nice euphemism for GTFO, isn’t it?) — but sadly, all those flights took place in the distant past, which means that I’ll probably fall victim to the “But what have you done for us lately?” policy. (And if you think there’s no such policy, please direct me to the place where you bought your unicorn.)

Now there’s talk among the Big Four airlines of charging passengers for carry-on bags, something Spirit Airlines (motto: “We Invented Cheap ‘N Nasty Travel”) — are already doing.

It seems that the only way one can even begin to escape being treated like a dog turd on a tablecloth is to buy more expensive tickets (a.k.a. “added profit for not much more service”) in Business- or First Class.

Great Caesar’s bleeding haemorrhoids… what a lovely prospect.

Please note too that I haven’t mentioned which of these bastard airlines I’ll be using to get to England, because I bet that somewhere in their oh-so-tight budget is a line for “Snooping on passengers’ social media in case they say ugly things about us”. Motherfuckers.

And yes: I haven’t even started talking about having to deal with the TS fucking A, yet.

I need to stop now before I get angry.

Surrendering To Criminals

So here’s something to get you in a cheerful mood before the long weekend:

Police warn it is no longer safe to walk and talk on your mobile as scooter gangs pocket £2,000 an hour from drive-by phone snatches

As officers battle an epidemic of moped muggings, police are now warning the public not to stand on a curb or street corner with their phone in their hand or risk having it torn from their grasp by thugs who can sell on a single handset for £100.
Up to 50,000 offences a year are being committed by thieves on scooters and mopeds in the capital, while some teenage thieves are being arrested up to 80 times but not sent to jail.

Well, that last sentence is yer problem right there, innit? You stupid idiots. Especially when you have a situation such as seen in the pic below:

Somebody explain to me how this doesn’t constitute armed robbery, and why this little thug and his buddy do not qualify for at least ten years in jail? (Somebody from Britain, I mean. My US Readers are baying like a pack of hounds at this travesty.)

But it gets better.

Over the last 12 months a total of 15,100 mopeds and motorbikes were stolen in London compared to 10,704 the previous year.
Gangs of mainly teenage boys can steal scooters by simply breaking their steering locks.
Detectives are targeting at least 500 known offenders behind the spree.
Yesterday Superintendent Payne compared the desirability of mopeds to thieves as the ubiquitous Ford Cortina in the 1980s, saying: ‘This is the Ford Cortina of the 21st century, they are easy to steal and when we spoke to the manufacturer they said they can fix the problem but it’s going to be three or four years away. They are in the Ford Cortina bracket, you do not need any skill to ride them, you don’t even have to change gear.
‘The theft is all done on a stolen bike. Thieves can steal these bikes in less than 60 seconds, it’s really quick. [They] take hold of the handlebars and break the steering wheel lock by pulling it, it’s like a lump of metal. Most bikes are then stolen by just walking it round the corner and they either sell it on or use it to commit crime.’
The warning come after a spate of muggings in central London, with riders using weapons such as machetes and hammers to intimidate and injure their victims as they try and snatch their mobile phones.

I would probably end up in jail after intervening in one of these little romps.

How, you ask? Imagine having just nicked some fool’s phone out of his hand, and you’re driving off on your stolen moped feeling proud of yourself, when some old geezer (that would be me) steps into the street in front of you and smashes his thick wooden cane* across your face, causing you and your thieving buddy to crash and spill into the road like a broken bag of vegetables. Then said geezer runs over to you while you’re lying there stunned, and starts to put the boot into your ribs, and when he’s done with you, tries to rip your little hammer-wielding friend’s head off his body by pulling his helmet violently around in a full circle. And then things start to get seriously violent.

It’s probably a Good Thing that I’m spending only a little time in London, because otherwise I’d be spending a lot of time in London, if you get my drift. Because while these little shits are obviously part of a “catch and release” program, I have no doubt that I would qualify for a very stiff sentence.

Can’t be endangering the lives of violent criminals, after all. That’s against the law.


*Yes, I walk with a cane when I’m Over There, because my gouty toes start to ache after I’ve walked more than half a mile on city sidewalks, and I need the support.