Thursday, March 31, 2005

Billy Elliot

Here it is...the world's first ever review of Billy Elliot the Musical.

That's right...tonight I attended the first ever performance. And, since it's nearly midnight and I'm using this payphone internet terminal, this review will be short and I'll follow it up with a longer one later.

Anyway, despite just a few technical glitches, the musical is phenomenal! Elton John's songs are great. Fans of the movie will not be disappointed.

In short, go see it. You must!

Quote of the day

Ideals are like stars; you will not succeed in touching them with your hands. But like the seafaring man on the desert of waters, you choose them as your guides, and following them you will reach your destiny.

-Carl Schurz, general and politician (1829-1906)

A Visit From America

I’m sure some of you may have noticed, but there has been a rather long gap in my postings as of late. The unofficial reason for this is that just about the only time I get real email (as opposed to email trying to sell me things) is when I haven’t posted in a while and people finally check to see if I’m still alive. You think I’m kidding? I go for months without hearing from one person…two weeks of not posting and she emails to see if I’m still here.

The official reason for not posting, however, is that me mum (‘my mother’) came for a visit. We had a wonderful time visiting places and seeing things. I was a bit concerned, however, the day I helped her put stamps on her postcards. Here’s an actual (*) excerpt from her cards:

Dear _________,

I made it here to England. It’s rainy. The kid makes me walk everywhere – unless we ride the train. Today we rode ten different trains…and it’s only 9:00 in the morning. We’ve seen more palaces and cathedrals that I can count. We’ve eaten nothing but steak and kidney pie. I can’t wait to get back to work so I can rest.

Please rescue me,

*Note: By ‘actual’ I mean, ‘I’m making this all up.’ We did do quite a bit of walking and riding trains, but there was absolutely no eating of steak and kidney pie.


There’s going to be a Harry Potter conference in the UK in July and I’m going!


When I went beachcombing along the Thames, I found several stones with holes through them. Our guide told us that these holes occurred naturally and that these stones were used by people to ward off the evil eye.

After some intensive research (okay, I went to Google and typed in ‘rocks with holes’), I learned that in England, these rocks were called ‘hagstones’ and were indeed used to ward off evil. In some places, hagstones were hung around the necks of horses and other animals to keep away diseases and farmers were known to pass milk through the holes in the stones when they milked their cows. Hagstones were also rubbed on children to ward off death or to help remedy sicknesses. (As a side note, perhaps hagstones will be reintroduced as a cheaper alternative to the National Health System.) To keep away nightmares, hang a hagstone from your bedpost.

Evidently (also a result of my painstaking research), hagstones are also considered sources of power by some pagan groups. There was some mention of using hagstones to amplify spells or something along those lines.

Now I Know I'm Old

I’m old. There’s no denying it anymore. I now know that being old has nothing to do with going bald, turning grey, having arthritis, or needing a hip replacement.

No, you know you’re old when the barber asks if you’d like your eyebrows trimmed.

Why is it that I can’t do anything to make the hair on the top of my head grow, but I can effortlessly cultivate a crop of speedily growing, rogue eyebrows?

Easter Chocolate

Shortly before Easter, a large box of chocolates arrived on the table here at my house. The attached note from our landlords (landladies? landpeople?) wished us a happy holiday. I had one piece on my way up to my room. Try as I might, I couldn’t resist going back down for another piece. This happened several times. The next morning, I awoke with the strangest desire for more chocolate.

When I examined the box more closely, I understood why I kept being drawn to this chocolate. The box was labelled:

Seductive Dark Chocolate


Several days ago (alright, it was Friday, March 18…) the weather here was simply brilliant (in American, that means ‘nice’). Since we have an actual lunch hour (rather than the lunch twenty minutes I had at my other school), I decided to walk around the school grounds after I finished my fish and chips (our usual Friday fare). Since I work at a school, I couldn’t go very far before I ran into some kids. (Who knew this job would involve so many children?)

‘Come see the frogs!’ they said. So, curious, I decided to follow them.

Nearby, under the shade of a tree, was a small pond. Actually, it was smaller than a pond but it was larger than a puddle, but I’ll be generous. Pointing at the small heads emerging from the water, the kids showed me loads of frogs. The pond (puddle, whatever) was full of them. Looking closely, it almost looked like…no, it couldn’t have been…but…

‘They’re having sex!’ I was told.

Ah, yes, so they were. What followed was the oddest lunchtime conversation I had heard in quite a while.

Salisbury and Stonehenge

The first Saturday that my mother was visiting, we took a day trip to Salisbury and Stonehenge. The tour operator London Walks offers a number of Explorer Days in which they take guided trips to nearby places. Given that my last London Walks tour ended with a rescue by the coast guard, I had similar high hopes for this trip.

We met the guide at Waterloo Station where we boarded to train for Salisbury. We had a short, guided tour of Salisbury and the cathedral. (If you’ve read Jude the Obscure, you may be interested to know that, despite the different name, the story actually took place here in Salisbury.) After out tour, we had a lovely lunch at the cathedral café and then went to see an original copy of the Magna Carta (yes, yes, original and copy are opposites…but when the agreement was made between King John and his barons in 1215, several copies of the document were made to send around to different places in the kingdom…this one is one of the four surviving copies).

The weather was wonderful…it was warm and sunny. The flowers were starting to bloom. Birds were singing. In short, it was probably the best weather possible for a trip to the countryside. In addition to the weather, today was the Spring Equinox (from the Latin words ‘equi’ meaning ‘equal,’ ‘nox’ meaning ‘night,’ and ‘spring’ meaning ‘jump about’), the day when you jump about in excitement that from this point on, the days start to get longer.

We had a short coach ride to Stonehenge. Along the way, we passed a number of cottages with thatched roofs as well as a wall with a thatched top. From the bus windows, we saw the remains of the ancient settlement of Sarum (used at various times as a fort by the Romans, the Saxons, and the Danes, and as a picnic spot by the British) and the walls of the weekend home of the musician Sting.

The bus was well hot (in American that would be referred to as ‘sweltering’) and I began to nod off so I missed any of the other historical sights along the way (but since Stonehenge is only about 8 miles from Salisbury, I couldn’t have missed much). When I woke up, I looked out the window and saw Stonehenge on my left.

It was there. Just outside the window. In the middle of nowhere.

Okay, maybe it wasn’t in the middle of nowhere (since there was a road passing by) but pretty close (if the road weren’t there, there would only be farmland for miles). In a stunning burst of good judgment, Stonehenge is probably the least commercialised historical site in England. Yes, there’s an admission booth, a small refreshment stand and a surprisingly tasteful gift shop, but these are all tucked beneath a low rise in the land. Anywhere else and this place would be surrounded by tourist shops and businesses all trying to make a profit off of the attraction. (I can see it now…shops selling Stonehenge breakfast cereal with marshmallow stones, Max the Crazy Druid’s Used Cars, the Ancient Stone Pawn Shop, that kind of thing.)

The approach to the stones themselves is by a walkway underneath the road. You can’t go right up to the stones (unless you go during the Summer Solstice) but you can get pretty close. We learned that some of the work there can be accurately dated due to ancient trash being found near the site (which is a further justification of the mess in my closet…I’m preserving artefacts for the future, honest).

Some facts about Stonehenge:
Stonehenge was built over a 1,500-year period, starting 5,000 years ago.
Around 3000 BC, an outer circular bank and ditch were constructed.
The inner circle of stones, erected 1000 years later, is made of granite stones called bluestones. The bluestones, some weighing as much as 4 tones each came from a place in Wales, 250 miles away from Stonehenge.
The outer circle of stones, the sarsen trilithons (sarsens are the type of sandstone, trilithons are the two upright stones with the top lintel), was added in about 1500 BC. The sarsens came from a location about 20 miles away and are estimated to weigh about 50 tons.

There are plenty of other facts I could give you (most of these came from my Lonely Planet guidebook) but the point is, regardless of the purpose of Stonehenge, this was no minor undertaking. Try finding a company to move a 50-ton rock for you. Now, imagine you had quarry that rock totally by hand and then move it 20 miles. Oh yeah…you also have no roads. Or wheels. (That’s what our guide said…the wheel hadn’t been invented yet. True or not, it’s still an amazing undertaking.)

Then, after you’ve managed to move the rock, you have to turn it upright and bury it halfway in the dirt. And, after you’ve done this twice, you have this third rock you have to lift up and place atop the first two. Continue this four more times. Now you have a nice horseshoe shape. All that’s left is to make an outside circle of thirty uprights with matching lintels.

And you thought YOUR boss was unreasonable.

In the fields surrounding Stonehenge are huge mounds of earth. Our guide told us that these are ancient burial mounds. Once you know what to look for, you begin to notice these everywhere.

So, what’s it for? They do know that on the summer solstice, the sun rises directly over the heel stone and the paths of the sun and moon intersect, two things that would not happen if Stonehenge were located at the peak of the hill, just a bit to the southwest of it’s location. They do know that Stonehenge, Sarum, and the Salisbury cathedral are all located on a straight line. They do know that there is evidence of a human sacrifice having taken place at Stonehenge. What they don’t know is why.

Maybe this is why: In medieval times, people undertook to build huge cathedrals that required massive amounts of money, effort, and time. There are reasons why cathedrals are oriented how they are (east to west, in a cross shape, and so forth). Substantial sums of money were spent to make these buildings as beautiful as possible. Even with the modern tools of the day, building these structures took generations. So why did people do it? There are a variety of reasons, certainly, but primarily, these were places of worship, places where people sacrificed resources, effort, and time to honour and worship God

Isn’t it reasonable to believe that even 5,000 years ago, people believed in some sort of gods? Isn’t it reasonable to believe that even 5,000 years ago, people sacrificed resources, effort, and time to honour and worship those gods? Certainly there are reasons for the orientation and there is significance to the various aspects of Stonehenge, just as with cathedrals and other places of worship today. But the point is, throughout time, people have given (and continue to give) the best that they have to worship that which they consider holy.

It makes me wonder what other amazing structures were once out there. Or might still be out there awaiting discovery.


Ok, so I know that sometimes my grammar isn’t the goodest…um…best. I realize that occasionally my sentence structure is convoluted and odd. I understand that perhaps I could do something to clear things up.

What isn’t too helpful is this grammar checker built into Microsoft Word. Take this sentence from the Salisbury and Stonehenge post:

Anywhere else and this place would be surrounded by tourist shops and businesses all trying to make a profit off of the attraction.

Huh. Yeah. Perhaps it’s not great. An English teacher (like maybe one of you reading this now…) might not like it. But compare it to what Microsoft Word wanted me to change it to:

Tourist shops and businesses all trying to make a profit off of the attraction would surround anywhere else and this place.

Wow! That’s SO MUCH BETTER! Why didn’t I try that in the first place? Or, I suppose I should say, ‘In the first, why didn’t I try that place?

The Post Office

While my mother was here, she wanted to send a few postcards. Not having enough extra 43p stamps in my room, I figured we’d just pop over to the nearest branch of the Post Office and get a few. I mean, how difficult could that be?

Silly me. After queuing up, we made it to the window. ‘We need some postcard stamps to send these to America,’ I told the clerk. I was a bit worried when she pulled out the 40p stamps.

‘Are you sure those are the right ones?’ I asked. She assured me they were.

‘Those are the right ones to mail POSTCARDS to AMERICA?’ I said, being sure to emphasize postcards and America. She assured me they were.

‘Then I wonder why they always sold me 43p stamps when I sent POSTCARDS to AMERICA?’ I speculated not so subtly. She assured me again that the 40p stamps were the correct ones.

‘Thank you,’ we said as we purchased the stamps.

‘Don’t stick them on anything yet,’ I told Mum. ‘Let me do some checking first.’

The next day at school, I check stamp prices with the Royal Mail website. Sure enough, since America is a Zone One country, it costs 43p to send a postcard there. ‘I knew it! I told her so!’ I said aloud, earning me more of those odd looks I seem to get so often from the other people at school.

So, now all we needed were some 3p stamps. I figured we’d just pop over to the nearest branch of the Post Office and get a few. I mean, how difficult could that be?

Silly me. After queuing up, we made it to the window. ‘How much does it cost to send a postcard to America,’ I asked the clerk.

‘Forty-two pence,’ she said, picking up a sheet of light green 42p stamps.

‘Are you sure those are the right ones?’ I asked. She assured me they were.

‘Those are the right ones to mail POSTCARDS to AMERICA?’ I said, being sure to emphasize postcards and America. She assured me again that the 42p stamps were the correct ones but decided to check with the clerk next to her.

‘Yes, 42p,’ was the answer.

‘Then I wonder why they always sold me 43p stamps when I sent POSTCARDS to AMERICA? You know, the BRIGHT GREEN ones….’ I speculated not so subtly.

After a not-so-quick huddle with a postage leaflet, they decided that the price to send a postcard to America was in fact 43p.

Having established the correct price, all that was left was to explain that we didn’t need any 43p stamps but instead needed some 3p stamps to go with the 40p stamps we already had. I mean, how difficult could that be?

Silly me. It seems that there are 1p stamps, 2p stamps, and a whole variety of stamps between the values of 40p and 43 p, but no 3p stamps. Given the difficulty establishing the correct stamp price, you can probably imagine the difficulty obtaining the correct number of 1p and 2p stamps.

Given the difficulty in obtaining the correct stamp price, you can probably imagine the difficulty that my mum and I were having trying not to laugh out loud at the whole thing.

The Tower of London

Last week, my mum and I went to the Tower of London. Yes, it’s in London, but it’s far more than just a tower. Throughout its history, the Tower has been a fortress, a palace, a prison, a mint, an execution site, a menagerie, an arsenal, and the home of the Crown Jewels. Even today, the Tower is officially known as ‘Her Majesty’s Palace and Fortress, The Tower of London.’

The first part of the Tower was begun in 1066. Acute readers will recognize this year as the beginning of the reign of William the Conqueror following the defeat of the Normans over the Saxons (the Battle of Hastings and all that - from what I remember from high school English class, this is why we speak English now instead of French, but who knows). In 1078, the first stone was laid in what would become the White Tower. Still the centrepiece of the area, the White Tower today houses displays of arms and armour. In particular, there is also an oddly disturbing suit of armour that belonged to Henry VIII.

We started our day at the Tower by taking a Beefeater Tour. Despite what I thought, we didn’t get to see a collection of Beefeaters Past and Present. Instead, this was a tour of the Tower lead by a Beefeater. So, in spite of my disappointment, we had an enjoyable tour that gave us a bit if the history of the tower (including who imprisoned whom when and who killed whom where) and ended up in the Chapel Royal of St. Peter ad Vincula.

Then, we queued up to see the Crown Jewels. What can I say? Even though jewellery doesn’t hold a great deal of fascination for me, this is some good stuff. Or, perhaps I should say it was bling-blinging. Word.

We also stopped at the Fusilier’s Museum where we learned that fusiliers (ground soldiers who got their name from the type of weapon they once used) must carry 80 pounds of equipment when they are deployed. The posted list of equipment included something called a ‘house-wife.’ I can’t help but think that the pack would have been lighter if they let the wife walk on her own. I’m just saying…

The Tower of London is also home to the ravens. Legend holds that if the ravens ever leave the Tower of London, the Tower and the city will fall. So, to guard against any premature raven departure, the wings of the ravens have all been clipped, leaving these birds to hop around the grounds. I did notice beefeaters stationed at the gates just in case the ravens decided to walk away.

Perhaps you’ve read the poem about these birds. There’s the famous line where someone asks the birds when they will leave the Tower of London. The answer?

‘Nevermore,’ quoth the raven.

Oh please…like I could have just ignored an opening like that?

Kensington Palace

Last Friday, me mum and I nipped over to Kensington Palace for a short visit. If you’ve ever wanted to see a display of royal dresses, you simply must go to Kensington Palace. Otherwise…well, anyway.

Your visit to Kensington Palace begins with an introduction to court dress: what it is, why it was important, and how it was made. Then, visitors see a selection of dresses worn by Queen Elizabeth II. Following this, you make your way through the apartments of Princess Margaret and Lord Snowden. Since Princess Margaret died a few years ago, there’s not too much in the apartments.

Next, visitors see sixteen dresses worn by Princess Diana (she was still married when she wore most of the dresses…after the divorce she became Diana, Princess of Wales). After the dresses, you then pass into another set of royal apartments, this time, those used by earlier kings and queens, including King William and Queen Mary (I believe their respective numbers are III and II, but I may be wrong). Also included is the bedroom in which Princess Victoria was awoken and informed that she was now Queen Victoria. Lastly, in proper commercial form, visitors exit through the gift shop.

So, the basic overview of the Kensington Palace tour is Dresses, Apartments, Dresses, Apartments, Dresses in Apartments, Gift Shop. There was, however, a sword or two thrown in for good measure.

St. Albans

One interesting thing about travelling in England is that it is much easier to travel north and south than to travel east and west. So, even though St. Albans and Stevenage are both north of London, the easiest way to get there was to take the train south to London, walk across the street to a different train station and then head north.

St. Albans was first settled by the Romans in AD 43 as the town of Verularium and has been going strong ever since. Whether for its remarkable blend of Tudor and Georgian architecture, its fascinating Roman museum, or its charming cathedral, visitors to this city will certainly find when they are looking for. Perhaps, however, the first place to find what you are looking for is the St. Albans market. First established more than 1000 years ago, the market is an eclectic mix of necessary equipment and charming kitsch. (And this ends my brief attempt to write a brief guide book description of the St. Albans.)

Upon arriving in St. Albans, we headed to the market. Actually, we were heading to the Tourist Information Centre, but we had to wade through the market first. The market stretches for several blocks and has just about anything you could want to buy, including fruits and vegetables, custom-made curtains, faux-fur pillows, and those rubber wrist bands that are so popular nowadays.

After lunch in a local pub, we headed towards the cathedral. Unfortunately, we headed the wrong way and ended up at another church instead. After turning the correct way, we stopped at the St. Albans Museum. Since we were expecting a small jumble of things pulled from Mrs. Figg’s attic a few weeks before, we were pleasantly surprised to see a well-researched, well-displayed presentation of history from the earliest Roman occupants up through the inhabitants of today.

Now, he headed towards the cathedral. Really. And this time, we got there. I had always thought that cathedrals had drab stone walls but evidently they were painted with colourful pictures. The St. Albans cathedral still has paintings and colourful decorations. It also has a remarkable stone screen that has been restored to its original state. We stayed for Evensong sung by the cathedral’s choir, including this hymn.

After Evensong, we walked a bit more and saw the remains of the Roman walls. (I feel like I should write a bit more about that, but…well…it was a wall…with a hole in it…a really old wall…with a really old hole…but maybe the hole isn’t that old…but the wall is.)

Abbey Road

A while back (I could find the correct date, but that would require me getting out of my chair), a group called the Beatles recorded an album at a studio.

Okay, that was bad, even by my standards.

In 1929, The Gramophone Company bought a house on Abbey Road in London and turned it into a custom-built recording studio. Over the years, some of the biggest names in music recorded albums there: Glen Miller and his orchestra, Ella Fitzgerald, the Spice Girls. But what put the studios on the map was a group called the Beatles. In 1969, they released their last album together and they called it, simply, Abbey Road. The album’s cover had a photo of the members of the band crossing the street in front of the studio. Following the release of that record, the studios officially renamed themselves from EMI Studios to Abbey Road Studios and became one of the best-known streets in the world.

People from all over the globe travel to the zebra crossing at Abbey Road to restage the Beatles’ famous photo. In fact, the day I visited, I ran into a group of my former students on a school trip from Roanoke, Virginia. They showed me the photo they had taken.

The Abbey Road Studios have continued recording CDs for groups but have also recorded scores for many big-name movies, including the Lord of the Rings films, the Return of the Jedi, and the Harry Potter movies.

Now, for the first time ever, the Abbey Road Studios have opened their doors to visitors as a part of a film festival which is showing many of the films scored in those very studios. I purchased a ticket to Monday afternoon’s screening of Brazil. I hadn’t heard anything about the film, but I was going to be in London anyway…when will I learn that this is not always the best way to plan an outing?

Part of the ticket price, and, for most people, probably the main reason for attending, was the privilege of seeing Studio Two where the Beatles recorded their albums. The walls were lined with various items, including pianos, an organ, and microphones used in recording the albums. There were also some photos, a video, and the obligatory gift stand. The screening of the films was in Studio One, a large room with space for an entire orchestra or chorus. I’ve been to recording studios before, but it was a nice experience to be able to stand in the room where so many famous songs were recorded.

So, the movie. Well, as I said, most people probably paid to see the inside of the studios rather than to see the movie. As I also said, I hadn’t heard anything about the film. It started off well but seemed to stray from the point which was…well…I’m not sure. And I guess that was the problem.

This is fun - it's a live Abbey Road webcam!

Museum Days

Tuesday, I headed to the British Museum. The first thing I saw was a small collection of stones. I walked into the small exhibit room and the attendant motioned me over to the small stand in front of her. On the stand was a black rock. As she put my hand on the rock, she told me what it was: a stone tool from the Olduvai Gorge in Tanzania. She encouraged me to pick up the stone. It fit well in my hand. She told me it was 1.8 million years old. She moved my fingers across the stone’s sharp edges and had me imagine what that stone might have been used for: cleaning skins, cutting meat, shaping wood? In my hand I was holding the oldest human tool ever found. And it fit perfectly.

That alone would have been enough but I decided I should see some more. After all, the British Museum has a huge collection of artefacts. In fact, I had no idea just how huge the collection was. The Rosetta Stone, Greek and Roman pottery and sculpture, Asian artefacts, African masks and clothing, Native American tools, Mexican articles…it was impossible to see everything.

A few things in particular caught my eye…

The Reading Room – Part of the Museum’s library is housed in this immense, domed room.

Horsemen of apocalypse – these four large papier-mâché sculptures hang from the ceiling as part of the exhibit on ways cultures handle death.

Ganesh – tucked away in a corner of a stairway is a sculpture of the elephant-headed Indian god Ganesh, honoured for removing barriers and is therefore venerated by travellers.

An Aztec picture folio – In the Aztec section, I saw what looked like a comic book. In reality, it was a 14th century picture account of 800 years of history.

A monkey head – Far from being just a monkey head, this sculpture was inlaid with a mosaic of tiny turquoise pieces.

African cloth armour – In the African section, one display had colourful cotton quilted armour for a man and his horse.

After visiting the British Museum, I went to the Transport Museum. Located on the Covent Garden Piazza, this museum follows the history of London’s public transport from horse-drawn carriages and horse-drawn trams to double-decker busses and the Underground. It’s great for kids because there are vehicles to climb on, exhibits to touch, and things to try out.

Monday, March 28, 2005

I'm Still Here!

Yes, I'm still here. Sorry about the long delay in posting. My mum has been visiting and we've been having some great adventures! In the next few days, I'll try to post some details!

Monday, March 14, 2005

A Short List

Favourite Train Station Sandwich – the Upper Crust Bacon/Brie/Cranberry/Basil baguette. The good things: it’s very tasty, it’s easy to carry, and King’s Cross Station has three Upper Crust shops. The bad thing: it’s not available in the morning, only (as far as I know) in the evening.

Favourite Two-Block Stretch of London – Chinatown. The good things: There are interesting markets full of things I’ve never even heard of before. At night, it’s well lit, bustling with people, and just seems so alive. The bad things: I haven’t yet quite figured out how to order things here…I’m afraid I’ll end up with one of those squiddy-looking things hanging in the windows.

Favourite England Souvenirs – these little frog statues dressed as British police officers and Horse Guards. The good things: They are small (about 2 inches tall), inexpensive (less than 50p each), and not found in absolutely every shop you enter (I’ve only seen them in one shop). The bad things: They only come in two varieties.


This weekend, I headed into London to go beachcombing. That’s right. Beachcombing in London. As it turns out, it’s pretty easy to do. You just wait for the tide to go out (which happens twice each day) and then you go mucking through the mud picking up things.

Saturday’s beachcombing was part of one of the London Walks tour offerings. Our tour guide is a staff archaeologist from the British Museum who met us at 11:00 at the Turnham Green tube station and walked us down to the banks of the Thames. Along the way, he pointed out a number of sights and explained how that part of London has changed over the past several hundred years. We spent about 90 minutes wandering the banks looking for shards of pottery. I found a number of things, including a piece of Delftware wall tile from the 18th century, some pieces of medieval roofing tiles, and some Victorian pottery. I also found a number of rocks with holes in them. Evidently, the holes occur naturally, but I haven’t yet figured out how. I do know that the ancients (ok, maybe not ancient, but more than a few years ago) believed that such stones warded off the evil eye. I pocketed a few just in case.

It was actually quite a nice day. Even though the mud was quite deep in places, there were rocks to walk on and some dry spots. As we collected our archaeological treasures, groups of rowers from nearby schools passed by on their training cruises. (Just a note: That last sentence was rife with errors. I’m sure there are proper terms for the rowers in their rowing apparatus but, alas, I do not know them.)

Even though the walk was supposed to end about 1:00, we kept finding things and out guide kept identifying them for us. When we were ready to head back, it turned out that part of the banks upon which we were wandering happen to turn into an island when the tide rises. And sure enough, the tide had begun to rise, leaving us stranded on a small island in the middle of the Thames River. Unfortunately, even though the island upon which we were standing was somewhat higher than the surrounding riverbank, it wasn’t high enough to stay out of the water for long.

So, seventeen of us were stuck on an ever-shrinking island in the middle of the Thames as the tide continued to come in. Our guide called the coast guards who came out and rescued us. On the short cruise back to the dock, we looked back to find that out island was not totally submerged.

Okay, before you begin to think that I’ve fallen in with the wrong crowd and I have begun stranding myself in the middle of the mighty Thames in order to attract attention and get a free boat ride, we really were quite safe all along. We noticed that we were cut off from the rest of the world really rather early in the rising tide cycle. If we really, really wanted to walk around London for the rest of the day with sopping wet shoes we could have walked the ten feet to the other bank. Barring that, we could have walked to a much higher part of the small island, a part that doesn’t submerge. If need be, we could have climbed the trees and waved for help.

As it was, our group was rescued before we were submerged. The whole mood was one of excitement rather than dread. In fact, there was no panic among our group, only some of us taking pictures of the entire thing. The three lifeboat guys (again, I’m sure there’s a proper term) asked us to email them the pictures. It seems that they had never had to rescue a group of seventeen people before and they would like to post some pictures on their website (

After my adventure, I needed some lunch (it was fast approaching 2:00). Having a small headache, carrying a backpack loaded with the refuse of centuries past, desiring to sit, and needing a drink with which to take my Advil, I opted for the simple evils of McDonalds.

Later, I did some walking about near Seven Dials, a roundabout in London where seven roads meet. It’s actually a small roundabout and the roads aren’t very busy. There is a large monument there, one dedicated by Queen Beatrix of the Netherlands, and some interesting shops. I also visited some of the bookstores near Cambridge Circus.

I had dinner at the Sasa Thai Buffet Home Made Thai Chinese Vegetarian restaurant on Greek Street in London. I know this for certain because as I was peering through the window, a man came out and handed me a flyer.

After a bit more walking about, I decided to head back to Stevenage and scrub off my pottery.

British Television

Ah, the telly. Here in England there are a variety of choices for television. There is the plain over-the-air kind, there’s cable, and there are several satellite providers.

But before you can make the choice of providers, you have to pay your TV Licensing Fee.


If you have a television, you have to pay the fee, which runs about £11 per month per television. There are some arrangements for places having lots of televisions as well as concessions for older people, but for the most part, everyone has to pay the fee. The penalty for not paying the license fee can run to £1000. The license fees are then passed to the BBC to fund their operations.

But, the main point of this is to give a few small observations on the English regular broadcast television.

First, the television channels make sense, mostly. Channel one (yes, there’s a channel one here) is BBC 1. Channel two is BBC 2. Channel three is ITV1 (I’ll admit that this name is an exception to the names making sense). Channel four is named Channel Four (really). Finally, channel five is called, simply, Five.

That’s it. Certainly if you have cable or satellite, you get more choices. But for over-the-air broadcasts, this is it. Simple (with the exception of ITV1), easy, understandable.

Also, since BBC1 and BBC2 are funded by the Television License Fees and are operated by the government, there are no commercials.

In the U.S., most television programs stick to starting on the hour or half-hour. (Yes, I know that NBC sometimes plays around with their timings for some prime-time shows, but I did say ‘most.’) I remember when I was a kid, Ted Turner’s new television network, TBS, caused a big stir by scheduling everything to begin five minutes later than all the other networks: 8:05, 9:35, 11:05…you get the idea. In England, some shows start on the hour or half-hour, others don’t.

A quick look down the start times for BBC1 for today gives me this:

6:00, 9:30, 10:00, 11:00, 11:45, 12:30, 1:00, 1:30, 1:40, 2:05, 2:35, 3:20, 3:25, 3:40, 4:00, 4:05, 4:30, 5:00, 5:25, 5:35, 6:00, 6:30, 7:00, 10:00, 10:35, and 3:05.

(Ok, to be honest, the times are written like this: 6.00, 9.30, 10.00, and so on. There is no colon in between the hour and minutes, just a period…which is not called a period but a full stop…but I really don’t know what it’s called in this situation.)

As long as there are only five channels, I can probably adjust.

Jamie's School Dinners

Each Wednesday for the past three weeks, I have been watching a show on the telly called Jamie’s School Dinners.

First, some background... Jamie Oliver is a young chef (he’s in his twenties, which I supposed makes him ‘young’) from England. In addition to having written cookbooks and owning a popular restaurant here, he is also on a television show (which can be seen on the Feed network in the United States) called ‘The Naked Chef’ (don’t worry…he’s not naked…I think it refers to the food, but I haven’t figured that out yet).

Anyway, his current quest is to reform the state of British school dinners (Americans would call them school lunches). With many school dinner budgets being less than 40 pence per student per meal, and with many British kids being finicky, a great number of school caterers (more on this in a minute) turn to easy-to-prepare, pre-packaged food products.

(About the school caterers: In my experience in Virginia, school cafeterias are often run by the school systems themselves. Here in England, this task sometimes seems to be contracted out to private companies called caterers. Make no mistake, however, despite being called caterers there are no trays of canapés or tuxedoed waiters moving about. Instead, there are dinner ladies of the finest sort.)

The first three of the four programs have shown Jamie’s attempts to bring decent, healthy food into schools while not going over budget and without having students protest on the school grounds (which unfortunately happened at the beginning of episode three). After eventual successes at two schools, Jamie has convinced the Greenwich school council to allow him to take over the running of school kitchens for all of the schools in the council (and to give you an idea of size, this means about 20,000 students). Episode three ended with shots of night one at Jamie’s Dinner Lady Boot Camp – a three-day training camp run by Jamie and the army (seriously) to train these dinner ladies to cook rather than simply reheat.


I was reading The Times newspaper the other day. Below the letters to the editor, each writer’s address is listed. Most people have very exciting-sounding places in their addresses:

Stone House
Serle Court
Lincoln’s Inn
Brampton Lodge
11 Blueberry Downs
New Bailey Chambers, Corn Exchange
2 Hargill Court

And then there’s my address:

416 Grace Way

I mean, wouldn’t this sound so much more interesting if I could say I lived at Harrowgate House or Westbridge Lodge? Perhaps if I said to send my mail to Bishopsmith Court or Fannington Downs? Or even if I lived in a place named Fitzhough-on-Avon or Beddingtonsmithwell-upon-Tyne?

Thursday, March 10, 2005

Spain Pictures - Part 1

I've posted some pictures from Spain. They're at the usual place: So far, the only pictures posted are from Tarragona and Reus. Salou and Barcelona pictures are coming soon!

Wednesday, March 09, 2005

Two Songs

"When a Knight"

When a knight won his spurs in the stories of old
he was gentle and brave he was gallant and bold
with a shield on his arm and a lance in his hand
for God and for valour he rode through the land.

No charger have I, and no sword by my side
yet still to adventure and battle I ride
though back into storyland giants have fled
and the knights are no more and the dragons are dead.

Let faith be my shield and let joy be my steed
gainst the dragons of anger the ogres of greed
and let me set free with the sword of my youth
from the castle of darkness the power of the truth.

"Deep Peace"

Deep peace of the wave to you
Of the flowing water
Deep peace of the air to you
Ever breathing still bringing peace

Deep peace of the stars to you
Of the shining heavens
Deep peace of the earth to you
Ever sleeping still bringing peace

Both songs are far from new. The first is an old English folksong and the second is a Celtic prayer. Incidently, they have also both been recorded by Libera. The first is from the newest CD, Free, and the second is from their CD Luminosa and is called 'Attendite.'

Today's Quote

It is our choices...that show what we truly are, far more than our abilities.

J. K. Rowling,
Harry Potter and The Chamber of Secrets, 1999

More Harry Potter quotes.

From the Staff Room...

Ok, I'll admit that I started it. I was talking about how my job, at times, seems less to teach children than to civilize them. Then, one teacher (also from overseas, but from a Commonwealth country, not from America) said this:

"It's interesting that after hundred of years of going out and 'civilizing' the colonies, England is now having teachers from those colonies come in to civilize their own students."

(And in my more cynical moments, I've been known to point out that you can tell how far a monarchy has declined when people who once ruled half the world can't even schedule a wedding.)

Tuesday, March 08, 2005


No, we don't have snow today. However, until last Saturday, we had about fourteen consecutive days of snow.

All that sounds impressive, but it was mainly flurries that melted as it fell.

My earlier theory on rain...

Earlier I mentioned that it's guaranteed to rain on Thursdays since I have outside duty at school. Well, last Thursday was the first Thursday that it hasn't rained. Not only that, but I found a brand new board rubber (eraser) lying on the ground. When I brought it inside to use, I mentioned to my year 7 students that I found it outside.

'But Sir,' one of them said, 'you don't know where it's been!'

Nice to know they're looking out for me.

Saturday, March 05, 2005


I finally figured out how many nowimpisseds it takes to make one snow day: eight. Graycie's right. Yesterday at 7:15, while my housemate and I were waiting for our ride to work, it started snowing. We initially thought it would only be an ohcrud worth. But, at 7:20 the ground was covered, making the total accumulation just over one ohcrap. By the time we got to school about five minute later, we were well on our way to a thisreallysucks. Using a complicated formula involving the rate of snowfall and the acceleration or snowballs towards the school building, I calculated that we were night on our way towards a nowimpissed. After struggling mightily to keep my year 11 students in the classroom, at 9:00 the administration figured that we had finally reached the critical itsaboutflippintime amount of snowfall. By 9:15, all the students were let out to go home. By 9:30 the snow had stopped.

So I went to London.


After being released from school in the early hours of the morning due to the terrible amounts of snowfall (the snow was so deep you could still see the top of the grass), I decided to head in to London. I had a ticket to a concert that night anyway so I figured I'd go in early and be touristy.

When I got to the train station, all northern-bound trains were stopped in Stevenage due to broken overhead wires further north as a result of the snow. Before they would sell me a train ticket south, the asked me if my trip was necessary. Let's see...there's terrible, horrible weather forecast...they are stopping northbound trains...who knows what might happen...of course my trip is necessary!

So I went to London.

I wandered around Covent Garden for a while and then walked towards Trafalgar Square. I walked through the London 2012 Olympic Bid Propaganda Building there (I don't think that is it's real name, but it fits) and then on to some other sights. I took the 2:30 Eccentric London walk. We saw Princess Anne whiz by in her car. We saw a crooked building. We saw the house where Benjamin Franklin lived while he was in London. We also had rain, snow, sleet, and blinding sunshine during out two-hour walk.

After the walk, I headed further south for the concert. I was met at the train station by Basil and Janet, the charming couple I met last Sunday. After sandwiches, tea, and cake, we headed to the concert.

The concert was held in a large church near their house. Before the concert, we were told by the director that many of the venues for the choir's upcoming tour of Southeast Asia were already sold-out...including one 3000-seat venue. Also, the choir's newest CD was just released in Southeast Asia and was already at number one on the classical charts there.

It was great to see the performance as part of such a relatively small group, particularly since the group was almost all parents and church members rather than just yelling, screaming fans.

After that, I headed back to Stevenage where all the snow was long gone.

Wednesday, March 02, 2005

What I Bought in Spain

In an earlier post, I mentioned a few things I bought in Spain: there was the hyper-exhaustive list of groceries, the numerous postcards, and the small model of the Temple de la Sagrada Familia.

One purchase, however, is simply wonderful beyond words. It was inexpensive, ever-so-handy, most useful, and quite warm. Unfortunately, I have no idea with it’s called.

So let me see if I can describe it.

You know a scarf, right? How it goes around your neck and keeps it warm? This isn’t a scarf, but it goes around your neck and keeps it warm.

I suppose it would be called a neck-muffler. It’s a wide circle of material that goes over your head and settles loosely around your neck. Thus, it keeps your neck warm but you don’t have that annoying problem of the scarf unwinding and the loose ends flapping about and ultimately blowing off and landing in the gutter a block back behind you while you’re trying to walk to the bus stop carrying both your school bag and two sacks of groceries. Not that that’s ever happened to me. Recently.

But anyway…this wonderful neck-muffler is loose enough not to be annoying (it’s not tight and constricting), but it comes with drawstrings to tighten the top and bottom just a bit to keep out the drafts. It’s also wide enough to pull up to cover your nose and mouth if the wind is especially bad. For you all keeping track at home, it’s made of a soft royal blue fleece (that may actually be just a tad too thin) and it cost the terribly reasonably sum of €3. That’s less than £3 (probably about $5 or so…my brain starts to glaze over at all the currency conversions). Suffice to say, it was a very good purchase.

I don’t believe I’ve ever seen them for sale anywhere else. And I didn’t see them around in many stores in Spain (just once at a market and once at a small store in Salou) but I did see a number of people wearing them.

So here’s my prediction: this could be the next big thing. Maybe I should invest in a sewing machine and some fleece…

My Sunday

This past Sunday, I went into London to the morning service at a church in Norbury.

First, a bit of background. For several years, I have been a fan of a particular church choir from England. They regularly appear on the BBC and they have recorded several CDs. Most of the time, however, they are the sanctuary choir at this particular church. Last summer, when I was in England chaperoning a youth choir from Virginia, we stayed with host families one night. I happened to stay the night with the family of a producer from the BBC – the same producer who works very closely with the choir. So, for some time I have wanted to make it in to London so hear the choir sing at the morning service.

Getting to the Norbury part of London, however, requires more than just a hop on the train. From Stevenage, it requires you to take the train to Kings Cross or Finsbury Park. There, you take the Victoria tube line to Victoria Station. Then, you take the Southern line to Norbury. Lastly, you exit the Norbury station, try to orient yourself on the map you printed from the internet, keeping in mind that signs with street names are not too common in England.

Luckily, all of the train connections worked out. I managed to figure out which way to turn upon leaving the train station. I soon ended up in front of the church. Early. (Nearly an hour early, actually. But with the unfamiliar trains and a dodgy map, I didn’t want to risk it.) While checking the schedule of services on the board outside (not that I had much else to do at that time of the morning), a parent dropping off her child asked if there was anything she could do to help me. She made sure I knew what time the service started and urged me to go inside soon rather than waiting in the cold.

When I went in, a very nice older couple greeted me. They made sure that I had a hymnal and an order of service, and that I found a seat. I sat down and was able to listen as the choir rehearsed for the service. Soon, the parent I spoke with earlier greeted me again and told me she was glad I had come in where it was warmer. She also invited me to hear the choir at Evensong that night.

After the service, I met the priest and then the older couple I met before the service invited me to coffee in the hall. On the way, they made sure that I was introduced to the choir director, a rather well-known figure in British church music. Over coffee, the older couple invited me to lunch with them.

I spent a very delightful afternoon getting to know new people, eating wonderful food, and watching the rugby game. Later, we returned to church for Evensong.

So, on Sunday, I attended my first Church of England service, I was able to hear the choir I have listened to for several years, and I met some new friends. All in all, it was a very well-spent day.

A note about this post: I am being deliberately vague on the names involved here. The choir has had some problems in the past with unwanted attention from some areas. I have been very fortunate to be welcomed so warmly, to be invited to an upcoming concert, and to have been given a copy of their in-house magazine that is not available to the general public. I would hate to publicize any information that the choir would rather not have the entire world know. I’m not worried about anyone I know reading this blog, but I don’t want any Internet search engines to index the specific information. What I will say is this: if you would like more specific information (and I know you), let me know. I’d be happy to tell you more.

British Hobbies

Somewhere before, I posted a brief sentence or two about a plan to visit each tube stop along each line of the London Underground and be photographed at each. Evidently, this obsessive desire to see all of something related to transportation is a very British thing.

Take trainspotting, for example. In this hobby, people go to rail yards and write down the numbers of the trains they see. There are also some subspecialties in trainspotting: some people focus on engines rather than the cars, others freight trains rather than passenger trains…you get the idea.

“What?!” you ask. “You mean to tell me that otherwise sane individuals spend their free time watching train and writing the numbers down into little notebooks. And that’s it?”

Well, yes.

But that’s not all. There’s also planespotting. It’s like trainspotting, but with planes. Some people even organize trips to other countries to watch the planes land and take off there. Just recently, there was a show on the telly about a real group of British planespotters who, about four years ago, were arrested in Greece and charged with spying because they were writing the planes’ numbers into their notebooks.

And, since I know that this question was at the tip of your tongue, there’s also busspotting. (I’m not sure if that’s how you spell it…not surprisingly, the spellcheck doesn’t recognize it. But, following the pattern of trainspotting and planespotting, it’s natural to end up with busspotting. Still, that ‘ss’ part really bothers me.)

There are also people who travel around to each and every football (soccer) stadium and watch matches there. But that’s just plain weird.

So, how far off would it be to go TubeStationSpotting? I mean really? I’m in England. Odd hobbies seem to be appreciated here. And the tube stations are inside. It’s not like I have to go hang out at the airport. I’m not sure if that counts as spotting, though, since I would be actually visiting them and not just spotting them. But that’s really a minor detail.

Plus, if I get arrested for spying, they might make a TV movie out if the whole thing.

And isn’t that what any self-respecting TubeStationSpotter really after?

You know: Fame, fortune, a pile of pictures taken next to tube stop signs, a starring role in a movie.

British Hobbies - Part 2

Just in case you think I’m wrong about the whole odd British hobby thing, may I point you towards Tony Hawks? No, not the skateboarder - that’s Tony Hawk. I’m referring to the writer and comedian who has written three books – one about hiking around the perimeter of Ireland with a mini-fridge, one about his quest to beat each member of the Moldovan soccer team at tennis, and one about his attempt (and eventual success) to have a top-twenty hit on the Albanian music charts.

Then there was the British guy (his name escapes me at the moment) who placed ads saying, simply, ‘Join Me,’ and ended up starting his own cult.

And of course there’s cricket.

Need I say more?

Why in the world did they do THAT?

Ever wonder why the American dime is so much smaller than the rest of the coins, despite being worth more than a penny and a nickel?

But it gets better.

A quick survey of my pocket change reveals the fact that an English 2 pence coin is simply huge. Larger than the 1p, 5p (which are simply tiny), 10p, 20p (which is smaller than the 10p), and £1 coins, it is nearly the same size as the 50p coin. Why? Wouldn’t it be easier to do it another way?

If course, this also leads to the question of 2p coins in general. Why? I mean really. I would much rather carry two 1p coins than a 2p coin. Well, that’s not totally true. I generally just dump my 1p, 2p, and 5p coins into a jug on my desk.

But, rather than simply ask all these questions and not answer any of them, I’ll answer that last one.

Why do we have 2p coins?

Because when the students in your form ask for a coin to use to play tabletop football, it’s much cheaper for them to lose my 2p coin rather than my 10p coin.


We’ve had some snow recently. And, based on that, I think I have come up with some new units of measurement to use. Measuring snow in inches or centimetres (or feet and meters if you live in Canada) is not too useful for teachers. So, in proper Imperial measurement style, here are the new units of snowfall measurement.

Ohcrud = the amount of snow it takes to just flurry about and perhaps lightly dust the grass.

One ohcrud of snow looks impressive but it doesn’t ever stick to the ground. Proper usage: ‘Ohcrud. It’s snowing just enough to disrupt my lesson and get everyone’s hopes up about a snow day.’

Four ohcruds = one ohcrap

One ohcrap is the amount of snow it takes to cover the pavement. At first glance, an ohcrap looks impressive since it sticks to the ground. Upon further inspection, however, an ohcrap is not enough snow to seriously foul up transportation. Proper usage: ‘Ohcrap…why didn’t it snow anymore than that This isn’t nearly enough for a snow day?’

Six ohcraps = one thisreallysucks

One thisreallysucks is the amount of snow it takes to properly cover the pavement and accumulate to a somewhat decent level. It is enough snow to brush off cars. Incidentally, it is also enough snow to mash together to throw across one average-sized English secondary school classroom. Proper usage: ‘Thisreallysucks. There’s snow all over my classroom. Why can’t we have a snow day?’

Four thisreallysucks = one nowimpissed

One nowimpissed is the amount of snow it takes to cover the pavement and the grass, to accumulate, to be wadded into balls and hurled at teachers, to be tracked across carpets and floors, and to properly slog through when you walk outside. Also, one nowimpissed is the amount of snow that falls enough to cause other teachers not to be able to make it to work, resulting in my covering a French class. Proper usage: ‘Nowimpissed…can’t they just call school off already?’

The final measure of snowfall is the itsaboutflippintime. One itsaboutflippintime is the amount of snow it takes to close school for the day. Proper usage: ‘Itsaboutflippin time we had a snow day. I’m going back to bed.’

Unfortunately, it is unknown how many nowimpisseds equal one itsaboutflippintime.

So, to sum up…

Four ohcruds = one ohcrap
Six ohcraps = one thisreallysucks
Four thisreallysucks = one nowimpissed

Therefore, it takes 96 ohcruds to equal one nowimpissed.

The world may never know how many nowimpisseds equal one itsaboutflippintime. But that’s okay. We don’t know how many cups are in a quart either.

The Moon

Forget such rubbish as werewolves and the tides. Let me tell you what the full moon really influences.

Student behaviour.

Don’t believe me? Ask a teacher.

I never used to believe all that about the full moon influencing crazy people. Then I became a teacher. Student behaviour gets markedly worse on the day of the full moon. I’ve gotten so attuned to it that I can determine the phase of the moon just by seeing my classes. And I’m not just talking about some vague general idea of the moon’s phase. I’m talking about pegging the exact day of the full moon. (And that was after being away from a moon-phase chart for months and living in a cloudy, overcast country for several weeks.)


Seriously, any researcher who is looking to make a contribution to education needs to pass on the differentiation and inclusion and assessment for learning. The real money is going to go to the person who writes this paper: ‘An Explanation of the Lunar-Student Behaviour Phase Phenomenon.’

British Diseases

Ok, I’m getting just a tad worried. I’m sitting here watching a report on the BBC news about plans on dealing with a potential bird flu pandemic sometime in the future here in England. It seems that the British government is stockpiling Tamiflu to pass out to its critical employees (critical as in ‘important,’ not critical as in ‘those who make lots of criticisms’), just in case. Isn’t this the same country that had to deal with Mad Cow disease a few years ago? And a Hoof-and-Mouth epidemic a while back?

Let’s see…Mad Cow…Hoof-and-Mouth…Bird Flu…and nobody reminded me of this a few months ago?

The Royal Wedding

Yes, I suppose it’s time for me to weigh in with my 2 pence on this topic. Here goes:

Goodness…if the Queen isn’t going, there’s an available seat for me.

Actually, that’s just the flippant side of me. I suppose the Queen isn’t going because she figures she already went to her son’s royal wedding.

Perhaps I’ll start a pool…everyone puts in £1 and guesses the date when Charles and Parliament come to their senses and skip Charles altogether and just pass the throne to William. The person who guesses the closest wins the whole pot.

If you think I’m being rash, ask Australia. They’re not too pleased with the idea of Charles being their king. The BBC is showing shots of Charles’ visit to Australia…and the crowds are very noticeably absent.