Sunday, July 25, 2010

An Old School tie...

As readers of these rambling columns know I am a great reader of travel literature during the summer and autumn seasons, and that I have been frustrated of late. A few days ago I listed my favorite literary adventurers, but all have disappointed me. Chatwin and Thesiger are dead, so it is unlikely that they will be publishing future titles, let alone journeying down an unreported Somali river. Thubron has gone silent. Theroux has not traveled much of late and is publishing short stories and collections of his adventures. Bill Bryson has become all-too-serious, and clearly deeply rooted in his adopted Yorkshire, and as for that scoundrel Thornburgh… let’s just say that I’m long awaiting the sequel to Never Look Back, and wondering if it will ever come. So what am I reading this mid-summer?

A chance conversation with another writer and reader brought up the name Jonathan Raban. Nodding politely I thought, “I’ve never heard of this guy.” And of course that is a perfect example of my ignorance in this field, and later that day I went to Amazon Dot Com and ordered two of his works.

After three chapters into Old Glory: A Voyage Down the Mississippi, I am intrigued by many things. Yes it’s a great read and will sustain me for many days, but more than that. Something about his vocabulary, musings and world view addressed me in a very personal way. I had to know more about this stranger who seemed to share many of my views and interpretations as a “Brit” in the USA.

Imagine my surprise when I discovered that Jonathan Raban was not only the son of an Anglican priest (which I am) but also went to the King’s School, Worcester, (which I did.) He now lives in Seattle with his daughter, and I am about to write him a wonderful letter of greeting and invitation!

Monday, July 19, 2010


This fleeting weekend of summer marked the fifth anniversary of the death of a great man. Those readers outside of the United States may be forgiven for not knowing who Bill Westmorland was. And as for those readers inside the United States who do not know who he was? You have only yourselves to blame, or possibly your revisionist schoolteachers.

This weekend was also almost the eighth anniversary of my meeting with General William Childs Westmoreland. It was hardly a formal cocktail party! Six of us: Sandi and me (Kate playing somewhere), Helen, the local rector, the General and his delightful wife Kitsy. Gathered in a woodsy house in Cashiers, North Carolina. A Sunday evening also, and I had not been to church and expected the rector to poke fun at me, but it didn’t happen. That evening was simply a gentle gathering of neighbors.

It has to be said that Bill was, by then, in an advanced stage of Alzheimer’s syndrome, and although I had been warned about this in advance of his arrival, it did not help my disappointment on meeting him. He was every inch the soldier, upright, shoulders squared, chin up with cobalt (with a touch of steel) eyes. And yet he told me three times in the first few minutes that he had lectured in every state in the Union (which he had). But couldn’t remember where. Neither could he remember the Vietnam war, and his significant leadership.

Then came the most wonderful moment. I asked him, “Sir. May I fix you a drink?” He nodded and replied, “I’ll have a scotch and soda.” At that moment Kitsy intervened and said, ”Honey? I think you’d prefer a glass of red wine.” Which I duly poured and handed to him. And the WW2 Commander of the 82nd Airborne, and the Vietnam supremo's eyes (and maybe mind) came to life, flashed, then winked at me and said, “God damn it!”

Saturday, July 10, 2010

Of mountains and minnows...

“Oh my God! Smell that air!”

And we both said that, my travel companion and me, as we got out of the car in Lowe’s parking lot, East Stroudsburg, Pennsylvania. It was not so much a smell than a difference, a raw freshness that only comes with foreign mountain air. And for those of us who are conditioned to breathing in and out the saltiness of the Atlantic Ocean it is quite an intoxicating change.

Maggie and I were on our way to the International Sports Training Camp, way up in the Pocono Mountains, to collect our daughters from a week long camp. By pure chance, and that is a good word to describe driving on or off Long Island, we crossed Manhattan and the George Washington Bridge without any delays, and drove through New Jersey and the Delaware Water Gap (more about that in a later column) with speed. We were early, and so faced with the task of killing time in an area that is not actually full of time-killing diversions. Hence Lowe’s, and a supermarket named Giant, where we bought snacks for the journey home.

It was clearly too early to wait in line at the camp gate (and the smiling and polite Australian staff member pointed this out. (“No worries, mate!”) Clearly we had a quite unique opportunity to drive and explore the neighborhood. And that was when the interesting part of our journey of collection began.

The Pocono Mountains, geologically part of the Allegheny Plateau, rise to over 2500 feet in eastern Pennsylvania. In the early 20th century they became popular as a recreation center. Quakers founded summer camps (without pubs. Damn!) in the 1920s, which would grow into resorts, and hikers, hunters and fisher-folk followed. Despite boasting the Delaware State Forest, six designated natural areas, one national park, seven state parks and seventeen state game lands, the Poconos have, once again, been economically down at heel. Even the official Bureau website admits this, but is optimistic.

A wind of change … that is putting the Poconos back on the map.

The authoritative-sounding Pocono Mountains Visitors Bureau (Website: The Poconos in Pennsylvania have so much to offer to the adventurous soul) may paint a picture of great outdoor recreational opportunities, and I am sure that they are, and that I would enjoy the white water kayaking and fly-fishing, but the stark truth of the matter is that outside of the visitors’ playgrounds this area is desperately poor.

That became very apparent the moment we left the camp gate and meandered along a shadowy road for a few miles, in search of the gas station and general store where “you can get some refreshment, mate!” In among the dense forest were small houses, most in dire need of much more than a lick of the paintbrush. Some were solidly built; others had visible damage with windowpanes missing and hardwood board roughly nailed in their places. There was even an old railroad carriage, now on cinder blocks, where “All Aboard!” now meant “come home” to some individual or family. All breathed out neglect and poverty, and shared the same garden decorations: Rusting cars and coils of wire fence, broken bird houses (even the mountain chickadees shared human failure) and piles of wood. Not fire logs but old doors, window frames, pieces of furniture. And here and there a boat, not on a trailer or even blocks, but lying there at an odd angle, marooned as if a great biblical flood had seen fit to dump it there. It was the boats, sadly never to float again, that saddened me the most.

After two miles, and a right turn (“on the way back we must remember to turn left here at the Methodist Church sign”) we found the gas station. Craving a small amount of caffeine we both looked at the state of the coffee station, then at each other, and decided otherwise. It was as if the coffee had been first brewed at 6.00 that morning, and the pots and surfaces cleaned last Tuesday.

This grimy place was clearly a social center for many (but not the only attraction, as a sign up the road invited us to “DANCING GIRLS!!” Maggie did not stop.) In the busy parking lot was something I have never seen before on my travels. A vending machine selling minnows! Live bait! All the angler had to do was pay a few dollars and, clunk, a container of wriggling bait would drop into the tray. Then off to the lake, rod in hand! Brilliant and fascinating and I will return to these mountains for sport, fishing and paddling – but not the dancing girls.

Friday, July 9, 2010

Canvas Ships and Planes

His card read Ian Marshall: Fellow American Society of Marine Artists. But he was anything but American. He was British, yet self-effacingly so. An almost shy, impeccably mannered man in his early seventies who has the gift of portraying in watercolor and oil a variety of historical ships, often in their most memorable or even saddest moments such as last sailings. And not only ships but giant seaplanes – flying boats of all ages, designs and pedigree. Theirs was a short age, but he captures its glory in atmospheric detail. His vocation seems to be one of preserving not only visual memories, but also the stories behind those fleeting times: The age of steamships and the demise of the “huge, frightfully expensive but great fun” aircraft – ushering in bland modernity, affordability, and Equal Flights For All.

Ian Marshall is from the County of Fife, bonny Scotland, but so well traveled. He qualified as an architect at the University of Cape Town, South Africa, and then went on to study at the University of Pennsylvania. He has worked all over the world, but primarily in Africa. Most recently he was offered his skills to the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization, and even the World Bank. His paintings are, not to exaggerate, all over the western sea-going world. And no, I had not heard of Ian before today. (But then I am somewhat of a dunce in this field.)

I had the undeserved honor of meeting Ian, and his wonderful wife Jean, at Art Hampton, a tented affair in Sayers Park, Bridgehampton. A friend engineered this, thinking I would love to meet someone who shared a passion for ships, and in particular historical ships. British in the main, pardon the pun, but actually hulls of all nations. There among concentric circles, plates glued to canvas, muscular penises, Dutch masters’ original faces transplanted into… well, I’m not exactly sure, Warhol wannabees, rusted balls (“you can surely feel the tantric pain,”) a twelve foot tall surfboard skeg which, I was reliably informed, will swivel with the wind, and a Picasso. Really? At a mere $250,000 I have my doubts. I must return tomorrow and investigate.

And in the middle of all of this extraordinary scene stood this quiet and wonderful historian who, when approached, would gently describe memories of Kenya, Simonstown, India, Portsmouth, and navies, harbors (and clubs) unknown to most Americans. And do so, like his painting, with graphic detail. As if he had been there, as he had been for so many of his subjects, although (he politely reminded me) not the earlier ones!

I left Ian and Jean with gratitude, and a promise to return, and even getting an invitation to visit them at their Maine home. I hoped that I didn’t take up too much of his time, but did note that even in between our conversations few people dropped by. And then I painfully remembered that this was the Hamptons. And I looked at the visitors to that art tent.

They seemed like rusted balls and muscular penis people to me. And that says it all.

Friday, July 2, 2010

Turning Summer's Pages

They are for every summer. Those books which are perfect for the late afternoon, sitting on the deck with a pitcher of tea, or the beach or hammock. And for me those books are the works of travel writers. Not now the winter books, the murder mysteries or intrigues. No longer the latest works of the theology of Christmas and Holy Week. And biographies and their auto-cousins are left on the shelf. No – in summer, as I remain where I am, I want to travel, at least in mind.

Most years I find a new author or a new series of travel, but so far this year have failed. Actually my search (like my writing) has been lazier, so unless I really get motivated this next week I will turn to the shelves of books that surely are crying out to be re-read. There sit my favorites: Bryson, Chatwin, Thornburgh, Sara Wheeler, Thubron, Thesiger to name a few. All well thumbed, and as many were bought second hand, falling apart in places. A time to reacquaint myself with lands that range from Chile to Arabia, Siberia to La Sud Ouest.

I’ve actually looked at the first few pages of Paul Theroux’s The Kingdom by the Sea: A Journey around Great Britain. Published in 1983 it’s a bit late to review it now, but his bleak descriptions fill me with horror. In that year I was abandoning my successful corporate career and about to enter the hallowed portals of Salisbury & Wells Theological College, taking an overnight pay cut of ninety-five percent. I was moving out of a comfortable apartment in Cardiff into a student’s existence. It was all a bit of an adventure back then, and my eyes were focused elsewhere. So was it really that grim in Britain a mere twenty seven years ago? There seemed to be hope in the air, and Pope John Paul II had recently kissed British soil. Do I not remember, or was I cosseted from the realities of ordinary life by my career and vocation? I must read the remainder of Theroux’s work and give it some thought. Back soon.

Thursday, July 1, 2010

A Change of Gear?

From where I’m sitting, and in what I’m thinking, there is a tangible change of lifestyle at this time of the year. One that will last some eight weeks, maybe more, until September announces, “back to …” whatever it may be. Simply put, summer is here, and there is no louder trumpet call than the Independence Day celebrations this coming weekend. Already the crowds are on the roads and sidewalks, and most of us who live here year round give up all hope of our favorite restaurant tables for the rest of the season. The weather is warm (and dry, compared to the wet disaster that was last June) and there is an air of enjoyment wherever one breathes.

There is a false projection, made by so many of the clergy on the East End of Long Island, that as pastors we are especially busy in the summer months. It’s easy to see why some believe this. Church attendance surges at the end of June, and remains buoyant until the autumn. Parishes have delicious picnics and fun barbeques; the charity fundraisers are (hopefully) blessed with good weather, and there is a wealth of social entertainment and hospitality to enjoy. But let’s not kid ourselves. The pastoral needs are generally low, compared to those of a long winter. The liturgical pressures are actually much less than those of the cycle that begins in Advent and ends on Trinity Sunday. Generally speaking the people are happy – because it’s summer and because it’s a time of sport, leisure and various activities that are crammed into a short but energetic season. And they are happy because they are in a place where they want to be – a place of which countless others dream.

So if we are especially busy as priests, rabbis and ministers it is because we are drawn into the recreation of our flock. That can be exhausting, never dull – and always great fun. We’ll rest in September!