Hemlock's Diary
23 August-5 September, 2009
Mon, 24 Aug
Even at Washington Dulles Airport an hour before the flight, you can see them – men, women and kids, waiting for the flight in their soccer shirts, stuffing their faces with crunchy, greasy snacks from shiny plastic packets.  Seven hours later, their arrival back in their home country is delayed by the usual 6.30am congestion over Heathrow.  This is followed by half an hour waiting on the ground for a gate at brand-new, spacious Terminal 5.  Eventually, we get a remote stand on the apron and wait for buses to the building.  What is it like at mid-afternoon when there isn’t a recession?

By end-morning, I am out West in Stonegallows Hall, where my mother is closing windows and lighting fires to keep the usual August rain and chill out.  What is it like when it isn’t summer?  What will it be like when the Gulf Stream shifts a thousand miles to the south?

The ever-alert press have chosen today of all days to notice with customary outrage a longstanding tradition that ties this part of the world with the Hemlocks’ Appalachian seat – the gentlemanly art of
shooting up road signs.  Not that our clan has time for such things.  As in the US, the painstaking search for good breeding stock has yielded results in the form of cute children.  Cute, but not perfect.  To quote my brother today, “Yeah, we’ve got a bit of a problem with Cressida.”  What could the matter be with the two-year-old?  Bed-wetting?  Tantrums?  Pulling legs off spiders for fun? 

“She doesn’t like watching television.”

This is apparently a major headache – the only alternative is to lace her milk with gin.  But have they thought about turning a crisis into an opportunity? 

Homesickness wells up within me as I read the latest news from Hong Kong about a couple reacting to the death of their son studying in the UK by
suing for loss of earnings – namely the money the budding genius would loyally have sent them in their retirement after becoming a multi-millionaire.  All you have to do, it seems, is leave your kid in the hands of someone grossly irresponsible and then walk off laughing with zillions in damages after the offspring’s inevitable tragic demise.

Tonight, interestingly, I have been asked to baby-sit.

Tue, 25 Aug
Wed, 26 Aug
Thurs, 27 Aug
The mild, wet winter that the British amusingly refer to as ‘summer’ continues.  There is nothing for it but to make the trek out to the Bakelite Museum – an old farm building housing a huge collection of artefacts made from the early hard, brittle, usually brown, form of plastic.   It is a nostalgia-fest for anyone brought up in penny-pinching families that clung to Edwardian-era household hand-me-downs long after the rest of the world had adopted space-age PVC gizmos.  Toasters, false teeth, toys, egg cups, TVs, huge radios answering to the name ‘wireless’, hair driers, a coffin, tie-presses, lamp-shades and a thousand other objects are piled on  creaky floorboards, stacked to the ceiling or crammed away in drawers you have to open and rummage around in.  On their own, most of the items are mundane, if not unappealing to behold.  Taken together, they are fascinating and verging on bizarre.
There is no curator to peer at visitors.  You pay admission by dropping money in an open box.  You are welcome to pick things up and play around with them.  No civil servants took part in planning the place.  No tax-payers’ money is involved in running it.  It is not part of a Government vision to turn the surrounding locality into a hub of some sort, but the individual effort of an eccentric recluse.  In short, there will be nothing remotely as interesting as this in the multi-billion-dollar West Kowloon Cultural Mega-Zone Themed World-Class Tourist Hub District.  But then, Hong Kong has warm weather, which may seem over-rated/-steamy/-clammy at times but which, after a week in the UK, is rapidly becoming far more preferable to even the most interesting museums.
Sat, 29 Aug
“The good news,” says the TV weatherman about climatic conditions tomorrow here in the world’s biggest market for fat, bald men’s sportswear, “is that it won’t be completely wet all day.”  He doesn’t add that it is still August, and therefore all unsightly citizens must wear shorts regardless of the temperature.  It would be like saying, “You must smear big chunks of butter, margarine or a supposedly healthy hybrid all over bread at every opportunity,” or “shake salt all over your food before you have so much as tasted it.”

My watch has been stopping overnight around one hour after I have taken it off and left it on the bedside table, and – at the risk of sounding like a husky-eating 1900’s Antarctic explorer – I am tempted to blame the night chill.  All I know is that the battery perks up happily once the normally trusty chronometer is strapped to my glowing wrist in the morning, and this never happens in Hong Kong.  The only other rational explanation is that the timepiece is stubbornly trying to re-set itself to Big Lychee Time, seven hours ahead of Greenwich Mean, as some sort of protest against being dragged halfway across the world.  Which gives new meaning to the word ‘rational’.

Fortunately, there is a newspaper here called
The Guardian, and I have found that if you shred its copious supplements on global warming and burn them, they heat up the room admirably.
Wed, 2 Sep
An afternoon’s journey through the past brings us to Huish Episcopi, Westernzoyland and numerous other settlements far more modest than they sound.  It would be nice to say that time has passed these places by, and the local cider-addled inbreds plod daily through the cow manure just like their forefathers for centuries before them.  But this isn’t entirely true.  Artificial inseminators of cattle invite you to visit their websites, village youths succumb to sordid-sounding derivatives of amphetamine and cocaine, and local officials impose cruel and unusual speed limits – enforced by cameras disguised as dung heaps – on unwary motorists to raise revenue.
One thing that has not changed over the decades is the presence in every hamlet of a pair of old folk dressed like extras in Brief Encounter standing near the main road, muttering suspiciously to each other as you drive past.   They have been there for as long as I can remember, and my hunch is that they are an aged version of the Midwich Cuckoos – aliens from another world sent among us.  The movie version will be called They Turned Up One Day Complaining A Lot And We Were Too Polite to Say Anything

Perhaps they are investigating the natives’ attachment to crisps – the greasy, tooth-rotting, sodium-packed potato chips that Brits of all ages were stuffing unthinkingly into their faces at Dulles Airport last week.  The average resident in this region of the UK eats 31.5 pounds of these crunchy snacks per year, mostly in flavours advertised as roast chicken, cheese and onion, and beef and tomato, but actually tasting of no naturally occurring organic substance known on this planet.  We can never know what it is like to be able to see the various extra colours that bees can detect, but we can get a glimpse of the experience by placing these different varieties of crisp on our tongues and trying to place them in our regular order of olfactory dimensions.  Perhaps these extraterrestrial infiltrators, clumsily disguised as elderly humans who mysteriously never age, represent a life form that recognizes these aromas.  Then again, you never see them eating the things.
Fri, 4 Sep
Today’s forecast calls for a shower.  It will last around seven minutes and will be very light – indeed, barely a drizzle. 

This is, of course, the outlook in the bathroom (it’s worse outdoors).  There are several theories as to why water only dribbles out of British showerheads.  One is that it has something to do with World War II – bomb damage to the entire nation’s water supply or some sort of mechanism used to enforce water rationing.  Another is that it goes back to Queen Victoria, who reportedly said “Women don’t do that sort of thing,” when the principle was explained to her.  Or it could just be a deeply held belief dating from Anglo-Saxon times that lying in a tub of tepid, soapy scum is character-building. 

Or maybe it’s a ‘less-is-more’ thing, like homeopathic medicine – the less water comes out, the cleaner you get.

Whatever the explanation, it exasperates visitors.  The locals, however, take it entirely for granted.  “Oh!” they exclaim when the concept of H
2O gushing out of the system gets through to them, “you mean a Power Shower!”  No, I mean a Shower That Works.  They grasp the concept, but it all seems suspiciously luxurious.  We didn’t stand up to Adolf Hitler for all those years just so we could have proper showers.

TO WIDESPREAD amazement across three counties, the clouds part, and a mysterious heavenly orb radiating light and heat appears just long enough for a sprint up a hill called Burrow Mump – ‘Burrow’ meaning ‘hill’ and ‘Mump’ meaning ‘hill’.  With a ruined church on the top, it is a small-scale version of Glastonbury, only with no tourists, hippies, Ley-line nuts or anyone else save the odd inquisitive bull.  The view from the top is vaguely impressive by the standards of flat green expanses of farmland.  Londoners like to buy houses here.  They think they are cheap.  What they don’t know is that the whole place is below sea level.

The final, long-awaited arrival of the sun and patches of blue sky can mean only one thing – I have a flight to catch.