To the two people who checked this blog yesterday and the day before, thank you. Oh wait, maybe that was me? Listen, this blog may not be winning any prizes, but my work blog, Brooklynology just won an honorable mention in the Next Archives Best Archives on the Web Awards. That's clearly because my talented young colleagues create most of it. While you are checking out the awards, do take a look at the U. of Kentucky archives Mustaches of the Nineteenth Century blog. Definitely a winner there.
Today, the action contrasts with images of bucolic calm. A dogfight--all noise and no blood. A big brown pitbull put its head down in the Nethermead and did the slow attack-walk towards a Henry, who never backs down. Dog bodies snapped and snarled, the clueless owner wandered up saying "What are you doing?" to her 75lb hunk of jaw and muscle as if it was a naughty kid in a scrape. They stopped as suddenly as they started, and this time it seemed I was more shaken than the dogs, knowing too well what could have been.
In the woods, woodpeckers rattling, and red-winged blackbirds have been shrilling by the pools over a month already.
The first little chap I saw calling with wide open beak was up and about on March 6.
Whenever I look at the view from my balcony I am reminded of another river, the Humber estuary, unromantic despite Andrew Marvell's best efforts, its brown whorls almost always covered by a steely lid of cloud. Growing up in Hull, we would go to the pier late on a Sunday afternoon for an ice cream. My Grandad, a rollup cupped in his hand, would walk along trailing sweetly pungent smoke while Grandma sat in the car watching the New Holland packet come in to dock.
Treading out over wooden decking with the water roiling below, we would look out over the mile wide river mouth towards the low shore of Lincolnshire, as seagulls swooped and bobbed, and barges made their slow procession up to Goole or down to Spurn.
Behind the ice cream kiosk began the series of abandoned docks with cobbled wharves, rusting rings, bollards and weeds, that evoked a feeling of proximity to a lost world, as if the ships and shouting stevedores were still there behind a veil, thriving in a pool of light.
Piling back into the Hillman Minx we would drive home, my Grandad singing all the songs he could think of with the word "sunshine" and scaring us by taking his hands off the wheel to clap.
Why anyone would be surprised that a person who is not conventionally beautiful should have a fine voice and a confident stage presence, is a mystery to me. It should really be no more surprising than the fact that most people who are conventionally good-looking lack both. Those who are devotees of American Idol, among whom I count my dear daughter, should by now be fully convinced of this. The British version of the show, Britain's Got Talent, has come up with an ordinary-looking woman from Glasgow who had the crowd on their feet after the first few bars of her rendition of I Dream a Dream from Les Miserables.
Much as I dislike this program it does serve one good purpose: to reveal the talents of people like Paul Potts and Susan Boyle whose appearance gives no hint of what lies beneath, and who have no access to conventional routes to recognition. So I am more than happy to do my bit to help Susan Boyle go viral.
When all else fails, eat a Crunchie bar. It occurs to me that anyone from the British Isles who finds their way to this blog might actually want to know some survival tips. In Manhattan you have Myers of Keswick for a taste of home. They carry all the things we are supposed to crave like Marmite and pork pies. Those of us who have made a home in Brooklyn can find a few of these items at Java Joe's on 8th Street near 7th Avenue in Park Slope. This specialty coffee and tea shop carries basic supplies such as Digestive Biscuits, Hobnobs, baked beans of the proper kind, that disgusting Marmite in its precious little jars, and candies, including the best candy bar in the entire world, a confection of cinder toffee surrounded by milk chocolate, the Crunchie bar. At Christmas they also have mince pies, Quality Street, Roses chocolates, selection boxes and crackers (not the kind you crunch, but the kind you pull. We know what we mean.) The Irish owner does not seem to mind selling her wares to the English, although on the day I visited she was wary of my request to photograph the interior, suspecting me of being a commercial spy about to steal her business model. So let me take this opportunity to reassure all coffee, tea and spice merchants that I am not about to leave a job with union benefits, that used to be secure but is now somewhat less so, to set up a business serving the twenty UK and Irish exiles living in the Park Slope area. After a frosty reception to my first request the owner relented, but my delicate hand was shaking so badly by that time that the interior pictures didn't come out. I had to leave and take a bite of Crunchie to calm my rattled nerves.
Here is wet and grey. I see the drips through newly-cleaned windows. There--Yorkshire--is quite likely also wet and grey.
There is plenty here to make me feel at home. Days like this remind me of long Sunday afternoons in Hull. I see myself rounding the footpath that ran between the row of red brick council houses and the row of cherry trees along the grass verge. I see myself, in fact, in front of Miss Crackles' house with its unkempt patch of lawn and grimy windows. Our windows shone, cleaned with newspaper and vinegar by my mother on a wooden stepladder. Miss Crackles' windows had neither seen a sheet of the Daily Mail nor any rag in many a year. And if I was quite unlucky, I would run into Miss Crackles herself, who lived alone and liked to buttonhole me in the years after I left and came home regularly to visit, to tell me at length of her academic successes in the field of Botany. Feeling her too close, I would take a step backwards, and she would follow, until we slowly advanced toward the edge of the street. Miss Crackles, who used to be head of the Biology department at my old school, was an authority on the flora of the East Riding, and whatever her shortcomings as a housekeeper, she was no slouch when it came to grasses. It was Miss Crackles who prevented the City Council from bulldozing all the hawthorns along the bank behind our houses, saving the homes of thousands of birds as well as the pink-tinged clouds of mayflowers that appeared every spring. In the days when I knew her, Miss Crackles drove first a Morris Minor then a Ford, which she carefully garaged at the end of the block until arthritis began to trouble her. It was said that in her younger days she had ridden a motorcycle to school. A misfit in a neighborhood of working class families, Miss Crackles ploughed her own furrow. She had a brother, we heard, but no other family. When she was awarded an MBE and went to Buckingham Palace to receive it, we heard from a neighbor who helped her prepare that she took out her pearls and her twenty-year old tweed suit and found them good enough for the occasion. And possibly they were. My admiration of her independence was equaled only by my dread of ever resembling her--a woman alone in a shabby house, an object of bemused gossip among the housewives, a stooped and knotted figure with a strange name, stepping too close to the only person she would talk to that day. And yet of course her real life held riches we knew nothing of.
There is a Proustian irony in the realization that a figure we view with pity has connections, accomplishments and sources of contentment in a different world than our own. We neighbors who saw only her comings and goings knew little of the passionate interest at the center of her life and her wide network of friends. I discovered recently that Miss Crackles died just a few months after my mother in 2007, at the age of 89.
My whippet Henry will be seven in July. Today at the end of our walk Simone started her little play bow ritual, asking Henry to chase her, and soon off they both went at about 30 miles an hour over the grass. Simone sails over the ground in huge playful leaps, while Henry, altogether a more serious fellow, waits until she passes close by and then puts on a burst of speed while she zigs and zags out of his way. At least ten pounds heavier than his sister, Henry is usually left flat footed. Today he revved up to overtake and stop her in her tracks, but at the end of the chase he stood in the middle of the field licking his leg. I thought maybe a graze on the other side of the knee had broken open. Then he walked up to me, and I saw a huge swelling from the knee down. He can put weight on it and is a stoical chap, but it looks like a bad soft tissue injury, so we are off to the vet this morning.
The dog I had as a child, a border collie mix named Paddy, probably went to the vet about twice in his life, and lived to be eighteen. Now with my two hounds I have sometimes joked that I should simply do a monthly transfer of my salary into the vet's account. Times have changed, and whippets being incredible athletes, also are more prone to athletic injuries than my solid old herding dog. My daughter currently says she wants to be a veterinarian, so while I am aware that the career plans of a thirteen-year-old are subject to change, that she may live in Alaska while I am in Yorkshire and so forth, it is pleasant to dream for a moment of the income from these inevitable contretemps going to support my own family.
Paddy's next door neighbor dog was a corgi, another herder. The pair of them used to herd each other endlessly up and down the garden until they wore a path and my Dad, who liked his garden, planted thorny roses to discourage them.
Now with no garden I often feel I am reaping the karmic reward for not having taken Paddy for nearly enough walks. Four and five times a day I am up and down the four flights of stairs with them, rounding this block and that one for some small variety, or treading our well-worn path through the park.