Friday, November 18, 2011

Sympathy for the devil

One of the great challenges facing a Welsh nationalist is identifying ways in which the Welsh have been horribly treated by the English. This is an all-important feature of any movement to sever ties with the crown. We Americans did it; the Irish did it; any number of African nations did it; the Scottish are doing it now. For some reason, a people can't just simply walk away, they must walk away mad.

This element is especially important in Wales where there is, in fact, no good reason at all for separation. I've mentioned before that if Wales were to cut ties today, it would celebrate tonight and wake up tomorrow with a terrible hangover and the sick reality of being considerably worse off. Roughly 28 percent of Welsh jobs are in the public sector. Cut ties with the British government and it's inevitable that quite a few of those jobs would go. Unless business taxes were lowered (somewhat unlikely if we assume separation would be driven by the socialist Plaid Cymru), it's possible a number of private sector jobs would go as well. 

Wales' transportation infrastructure is stuck somewhere in the 1970s, with too few dilapidated trains running too few places and just a two-lane road serving as the only viable north-south route -- a road that, at one point, narrows to a single lane because it crosses a medieval bridge. Meanwhile Wales' digital infrastructure is laughable, with fewer people receiving broadband here than anywhere else in the United Kingdom.

Wales would find itself several decades behind the rest of the developed world with not enough resources, natural or intellectual, to give it a realistic chance of ever catching up within any of our lifetimes. The Welsh nationalist response, of course, is to blame England for the dismal state of things. But who do the disadvantaged peoples of England blame? Infrastructure is poor but it is not poor as a slight to the Welsh. In trying to find that vital "They Did This To Us" argument, pointing to lack of economic development isn't acceptable because they've done the same to themselves. If you and I are eating from the same bowl of cold, tasteless porridge you can accuse me of a number of things but malice toward you isn't honestly one of them.

Admittedly, any nationalist argument is inherently un-winnable, or un-loseable, depending on which side you're arguing. Because it is so emotionally driven. It is wrapped up in what the person feels more than what is. And as an ex-girlfriend once screamed at me in an argument: emotions are never wrong. Emotions are not tied to logic; they just are. An outside observer, or, indeed, a whole fleet of outside observers, may struggle to connect what they perceive to be reality to your emotional response to said reality, but that does not make your emotion wrong. There is no right and wrong with emotion. If you feel deeply hurt and betrayed by someone baking your favourite cake and giving it to you on a sunny day, it is not wrong for you to feel so. Confusing to the cake baker, perhaps, but not wrong.

So, if a Welsh nationalist wants to feel that Wales' lack of infrastructure and economic output can be blamed on English people actively detesting the Welsh, there may not be a great deal of evidence to support this line of thinking outside his or her own head, but he or she is not wrong in an emotional sense.

That said, emotion seeks vindication. When we feel something we want to feel it to be right. My friend Jim, who worked with me at television stations in both Reno and San Diego, used to say of the angry people who called to complain about our perceived bias one way or the other, that they did not want to discuss things, they simply wanted you to echo their opinion so they felt less crazy. Very few of us are happy to simply be right. We can't just accept that we see the sky to be blue, we need this confirmed and affirmed by other people.

So when the Welsh nationalist fails to win you over with arguments of being economically neglected by the English (who were economically neglecting themselves), he or she will try a different tact. In Wales there are a lack of atrocities like the Highland clearances or the myriad Bloody Sundays of 1887, 1920, 1921 and 1972, so it can be a little bit of a challenge for the Welsh "nat," but diligence is a long-standing Welsh virtue and eventually he or she will come up with something. If the nationalist is particularly well-versed he or she will sight acts of union in 1536 and 1543, which put Wales on equal legal footing with England but also prohibited a Welsh-only speaker, i.e. one that did not speak English, from holding public office (a).

Indeed, just about any They Did This To Us argument is going to hinge on the Welsh language. And, as such, it will almost certainly include Brad y Llyfrau Gleision ("Treachery of the Blue Books," a series of academic reports in the 1840s that, in part, blamed the Welsh language and religious nonconformism for Wales' inadequate schools) and the most iconic symbol of that line of thinking: the Welsh Not.

The Welsh Not was a small piece of wood with the words "Welsh Not" or, simply, "WN" inscribed that a child would have to wear around his or her neck if caught speaking Welsh in school. It was effectively a dunce cap for Welsh speakers. At the end of the day, the child would often receive a beating. It's worth noting that the authors of the much reviled Llyfrau Gleision didn't endorse the practice, feeling it was arbitrary and unnecessary, and, according to John Davies' History of Wales, it was not a particularly widespread practice.

The practice had disappeared by the early 1900s, but, yes, it did happen. The Welsh Not was brought up in one of my classes the other day by a man who had allowed himself to get quite angry and I've found myself thinking about it ever since. I wonder whether it's terribly fair to get so upset about the thing.

Victorian attitudes toward the discipline of children is notorious. I sometimes wonder just how accurate is such a portrayal but you simply can't have a story about a kid growing up in Victorian times without including at least one stick-wielding authority figure. I can believe it, though. Long after the Victorians were dead, their buildings crumbling, teachers in my childhood schools were still wielding paddles. As far as I'm aware, none of us kids in Texas in the 1980s ever got a spanking for speaking Welsh. That's probably just because none of us spoke Welsh.

The kids suffering a block of wood around the neck and an afternoon lashing more than a century earlier were, I think, suffering more because of the philosophy of the time than because of what they were actually doing. The cruelty of Victorian thinking was there as much for the English-only speaker as the speaker of Welsh. If a child wasn't being disciplined for speaking Welsh it might have been for getting maths tables wrong or speaking before being spoken to or nodding his head to the rhythm of a teacher's voice (I was once sent to detention for that last one). The disciplinary actions weren't inherently anti-Welsh but just overall unkind.

Within that, I think it's important to remember how different the past is to the present. It is possibly unfair, but at the very least misleading to apply modern thinking to situations of roughly 150 years ago. When the Victorian (primarily English) establishment looked at the Welsh they found a people who were, on the whole, disadvantaged. Additionally, the Victorian establishment felt their own ways of thinking and acting to be superior above all. To help the Welsh, then, one obviously needed to instruct them in the ways of the Victorian establishment. First and foremost, this meant speaking English.

We are very quick to attack this arrogance but I think it's firstly important to accept that it was a different time, they were operating by different rules. And secondly, it is good to ask whether this line of thinking is really so distant. Go back to the top of this blog post, where I lament Wales' inadequate access to technology. I am certain a number of Welsh nationalists would agree with me that computer literacy and access to technology is incredibly important. But what makes us right? We see it as right.

We would applaud initiatives to extend broadband to rural areas. All the politicians would wear out their arms patting each other on the back. We would put little ribbons on education centres and stand around having our picture taken cutting these ribbons. We would unveil plaques to show for all time how proud we are of ourselves. And I cannot think of how such a thing could be wrong. But what if, 150 years from now, they looked back at us in disgust? What right did we have destroying cultures and families and communities with internet access?

The example I used in my class was of the Arab Spring. In my heart of hearts I see nothing wrong with the spread of democracy in the Arab world. I applaud it. I get teary-eyed over it. I feel inspired by it. If I had any money, I would contribute to see it continue. But why do I think this way? Is it really good? Or do I simply say it is good because it is what I have and I feel I am superior? What will they say 150 years down the line? Will they look back in bitterness at those who drove democratic movements? When some American comes along to teach Berber in the Libya of the future will he find himself wondering whether the actions of the Benghazi establishment so many years before really were as awful as some of those around him claim?

I think it is fair to assume that in many cases the Victorian establishment felt they were doing the right thing by discouraging Welsh. I am sure some of them felt a great sense of altruism and righteousness. We can accuse them of being misguided, shortsighted and arrogant but I'm not sure it's fair to accuse them of malice, of being anti-Welsh. I'm not sure the Welsh can claim (overall) to have been horribly treated simply for being Welsh. I'm not sure the Welsh Not was as terrible a thing as a Welsh nationalist would have you believe.

(a) The acts were finally repealed in the mid-1990s. I wonder, though, if a person would actually be hired today if he or she spoke Welsh but no English. 

Saturday, October 8, 2011

Especially at this time of year

Oh, Minnesota. Sometimes I miss you so much I feel my heart is going to stop.

Friday, September 9, 2011

I remember

Khalid al-Midhar was dead even before I woke up that morning. Not that I knew who he was, or knew anyone who did know who he was. The only connection is that he and I were both registered as students at Mesa College, in San Diego, California. Though, by all accounts, he never attended a class there.

On the morning of 11 September 2001, I fell out of bed just before 6 a.m., showered, dressed and jumped into my car to head to a 7 a.m. philosophy of logic class at Mesa. It was a typical beautiful San Diego morning: the sun shining so brightly it bounced off my rearview mirrors and into my eyes as I drove west through the sparse early-morning traffic on Friars Road. With a Starbucks white chocolate mocha in my car's cup holder and a cranberry orange muffin in my lap, I started to learn what Khalid, his room-mate Nawaf al-Hazmi, and 17 others, had done.

I have never been a fan of morning radio. I don't understand why people would want to listen to incessant talking at that time of morning. Surely you would want to rock -- get your heart pumping in anticipation to take on another day -- rather than listen to yet another cookie-cutter wax-voiced DJ tell yet another cookie-cutter dumb-girl DJ what he thinks about that show you don't watch that was on last night. Apparently I am in the minority; such programmes are inescapable on both sides of the Atlantic. Generally I choose not to listen at all but the only CDs in the car that morning were all from a Barry Manilow box set. My ex-wife loved Barry Manilow, and not in an ironic way. Add that to the list of reasons things eventually fell apart.

So, I found myself skipping across the radio dial. I let the radio scan three circuits, each time allocating 101.5 to be the start/stop point, hoping the "morning zoo" of Dave, Shelly and Chainsaw would shut up for a bit and simply play some Blackfoot. "Train, Train," by Blackfoot, is one of the all-time best songs to gear yourself up to go to school/work/rob a bank. No such luck, however. Dave, Shelly and Chainsaw were obsessed with something they were watching on TV in the studio.

Few things are less interesting than listening to a group of people watch television, especially when that group are too engrossed to properly explain what they are seeing. As best I could figure out, a plane had crashed into a building in New York City. Their inadequate powers of description did nothing to contradict the vision I had of a single-engine Cessna smacking against a skyscraper, breaking a few windows and -- at the very worst -- possibly killing four people. That sort of thing had happened from time to time in San Diego. No one had run into a building, admittedly, but plenty of tragically inexperienced pilots had managed to put their planes into the side of a mountain. And I could not see why it was drawing so much of Dave, Shelly and Chainsaw's attention.

In those days I was an active member of the Global Media Conspiracy, working at one of the local television stations. You may have guessed this, but within the newsroom mind there exists a kind of equation for tragic events: a ÷ b = c. Where a is the number of people dead, b is the distance of the event from the news market and c is the event's level of newsworthiness. By this equation, a maximum of four people being killed in a novelty accident roughly 4,000 miles away does not warrant taking time from local traffic and weather, talk of that bitchy one on "The Bachelor," or the possibility of rocking out to Blackfoot. Dave, Shelly and Chainsaw were wasting my time. And I was starting to eye the Barry Manilow box set when I heard them all gasp.

"Oh, fuck," said one of the male presenters.

As I say, I was a member of the Global Media Conspiracy in those days. I knew full well the implications of profanity on the airwaves. I had seen coworkers instantly fired, their careers ended, because they had used tamer words on air. My ears perked up and I devilishly prepared to listen to the torrent of mea culpa that was almost certain to follow. They would all awkwardly apologise, possibly go to commercial, and maybe when the show eventually came back it would be one presenter short. But that didn't happen.

"Oh, God," Shelly said. "That building just fell down. Oh, God. Oh, my God."

In the background I heard others using profanity. Someone screamed. And I realised something was happening.

This was only ten years ago, so it's hard to remember there were no smart phones, no Twitter, no Facebook, etc. -- nothing to spread information quite so instantly as we have today. Even blogs had not yet hit the mainstream. I worked on my television station's website and it was still occasionally a challenge to convince management such a technology was more than a fad. Instant information was hard to come by. So, when I arrived at my class at Mesa College I still only knew something was happening, but I had no idea what. Searching the AM and FM radio stations en route had provided little additional knowledge.

In the classroom, a handful of other people had heard of the something that had happened but were equally in the dark. One guy had thought to tune a pocket radio to Howard Stern, reasoning that since this event was taking place "back east" Stern would surely comment on it -- but not realising Stern's show was on time delay. Whatever Stern was saying at that moment would not be broadcast in the West Coast for three more hours.

The course instructor eventually arrived, confirmed he was aware something was happening and announced that in light of that something our class was cancelled.

"Before I let you go, however," he said. "I think it's appropriate, this being a course on logic and reason, that we remember not to rush to judgment about who is responsible for whatever this is. And when we find out who is responsible, it's even more important to remember not to stereotype, not to group an entire race or religion or culture into a box just because of the actions of a minority. OK, go home and be with your families. I'm not sure when classes will resume."


I called my news manager as soon I got back to the apartment.

"Want me to come in now?"

I was scheduled to come into work that afternoon, but when something happens a part of the journalist's soul aches to be in the newsroom. There is a need to be there, to be acting, to be doing something. It is a kind of coping mechanism, I think. For me it always was, at least. It was my way of firing into the air, I suppose.

When Custer's men were being slaughtered at Little Bighorn many of them simply fired randomly into the air, the innate frantic desire to act overpowering the rational ability to pick a target. They couldn't really think of what to do but knew they had to do something, so they shot wildly and screamed at nothing in particular.

A journalist knows he can do nothing about the people in burning and collapsing buildings, but he still feels the need to scream and to shoot into the air, so he talks and talks or writes and writes until the shock of the thing starts to wear off. My news manager told me to wait to come in.

"You're definitely going to be here late," she said. "You should try to get some sleep."

I would not sleep for another 36 hours. I managed 45 minutes of lying on the couch, watching Peter Jennings try to make sense of it all, before I decided to go in early. I went straight to work churning out story after story -- this event cancelled, that Navy ship on stand-by, this official claiming such and such, that official warning so and so, these people raising money, those people collecting blankets. It went on and on. And the whole world felt confused. Over and over I wrote stories from all corners of the San Diego viewing area for which the underlying theme was: "What the hell is happening?"

People brought in pizza, then Mexican food, then breakfast, then pizza again. Occasionally I would get up, go to the toilet and walk slow back to my desk, but for the most part I just worked -- pushing the assignment desk and reporters to give me anything, so I could write it and publish it and feel like I was doing something. So I could keep firing into the air.

Early in the evening of 12 September 2001, one of the guys from the assignment desk came up to me with a box of Krispy Kremes.

"Hey, man," he said. "You're wearing the same clothes as yesterday. Did you go home?"


"Have a donut, man. Take a second. People are starting to burn out."

He sat and talked to me about nothing. I can't remember the conversation now. In the back of my head I realised he had made it his job to distract people in the newsroom for the sake of their sanity. I think there must have been long pauses in the conversation, points where I'd say, "Yeah," and trail off into silence. On my desk a television ran the ABC satellite feed, and suddenly there were the Coldstream Guard outside Buckingham Palace. The Queen had directed them to play the Star Spangled Banner. And they did so brilliantly. Staccato. Defiant. Unapologetic.

And it got me. It still gets me.

Because here's the thing about being an American: the rest of the world loves to see you fail. Yes, sometimes American arrogance seems to deserve the karmic repayment of failure. But as an American you can't help but notice the glee other nationalities take in seeing that failure, urging it on at times, baying for it. Each American deals with this in his or her own way. Some Americans try to turn from the rest of the world, some of us try to accept the criticism with a grain of salt. It is not so horrible, but it can be annoying. And amid the immediate blur of 9/11 I felt that around the world people were probably tutting judgmentally and impishly declaring we had brought this on ourselves.

But here was the British monarchy, the institution we had rebelled against to form our very beginning, rushing forward to show unwavering support. Still amid the confusion, Britain seemed to be saying: "We don't know what's going on, but we know we are beside you."

It got me. It still gets me. That display of support is one of the reasons I love Britain so fiercely to this day. And it was the reason I fell apart crying on that early evening the day after the attacks. I cried so hard my lungs shook. I have only once in my life cried harder.


I got an email from Radio Cymru the other day asking if I'd be interested in coming on air to discuss the 10-year anniversary of 9/11. As one of only a few Welsh-speaking Americans I frequently get the call to comment on whatever big news item is taking place at the moment. Over the years I've provided Yanqui analysis of presidential campaigns, political dealings, tornadoes, financial woes and the significance of Thanksgiving dinner. I had suspected I might get a call about the 10-year anniversary, as well.

In the email, a producer posited a few of the questions that have and will be asked ad nauseam in connection to 9/11: Are there any lessons to learn? Could this all have been avoided had the West behaved better?

Those are the producer's words: "pe bai'r Gorllewin wedi ymddwyn yn well" -- if the West were to have behaved better. To me this smacks of the sentiment that America had it coming, that somehow 9/11 was deserved. I didn't respond to the email for a full day because I found it difficult to avoid abusive language. Once I calmed, I said I would be happy to discuss the 10-year anniversary but that phrasing of that particular question was exceedingly poor. How exactly was the United States supposed to have "behaved better?" What is "better" in the eyes of the Islamic extremist who seeks only the total eradication of Western culture? When your critic wants you dead it's impossible to find common ground.

As we look back 10 years, I think it is foolish, revisionist and naïve to suggest the United States, or any of the myriad other countries attacked by al-Qaida, somehow were responsible for the tragedies directed at them. The people who died in 9/11 were simply living their lives. I'm willing to bet, based on the law of averages, that some of those people were dickheads. But none of them deserved to die. None of them had it coming to be struck down by a group of extremist zealots who felt they had a right to kill in Allah's name. And none of them could have or should have "behaved better" to avoid being killed.

The United States could perhaps have prevented 9/11 from happening had various security services not been so keen on being proprietary with information. But there is nothing, save not existing, it could have ever done to spare itself being the target of extremist Islamist ire. The extremists are crazy; there is no negotiability in their standpoint; they are wrong.

The assertion that America has no culpability in the causes of 9/11 may sound like arrogant patriotism to some people from the Soggy Nations. In Britain, one seemingly must assume at least a portion of guilt for every bad thing in order to be properly cultured. I don't buy that in this case. And although I am unrepentantly pro-American (strangely more so since moving to the UK), I don't think that makes me a blind patriot.

This 11 September, as they do every year, a number of my friends back home will commemorate the day by posting to their Facebook/Twitter/whatever messages like, "I haven't forgotten," or "I still remember," or some equally inane statement of the same sentiment. This is ridiculous. It is simply a declaration of memory. I haven't forgotten 9/11, but additionally I haven't forgotten the birthday cake Jenn made for me in March. I haven't forgotten my high school locker combination. I haven't forgotten what I had for lunch yesterday. There are any number of things my memory is capable of recalling. But that isn't a declaration of patriotism, it's a taunt of Alzheimer's sufferers.

For the purveyors of these functioning memory claims I think the assertion is that America somehow changed as a result of 9/11 and they remain resolved to uphold that change. I suppose this is similar to the attitude conveyed in Johnny Mathis' "Secret of Christmas:" It's not the things you do at Christmas, but the Christmas things you do all year through. But what, exactly, are these people remembering? I would argue their memories are, in fact, a bit fuzzy. Because in fundamental terms the United States did not change. We have different technologies, we are paying attention to different surgically enhanced celebrities and we are simultaneously lamenting and upholding different politicians, but at its core America has not changed. It remains the brash, friendly, right-of-centre, wonderful, ridiculous country it has long, long been.

Eliminating political specifics, technological advances and pop culture, the United States is the same place it was a decade ago. So, what was the effect of 9/11? Nothing. All those people died and, essentially, nothing happened as a result.

That sounds cruel but, to me, it is a good thing. It shows the resiliency of the human spirit and also draws a huge, blood-stained line under the biggest lesson of 9/11: Terrorism Does Not Work. As a means of change it is woefully ineffective. It accomplishes nothing toward the terrorist's stated aims.

The attacks of 11 September broke my heart but they didn't change me. On this ten-year anniversary I may go to Starbucks, I may rock out to Blackfoot, I may cry. But I will still be American. Unapologetically so.

Saturday, August 20, 2011


I'm in Minnesota, sitting on my parents' deck and listening to cicadas sing. And as happens each time I come back to visit, I am asking myself why I left.

"Well there is that matter of you getting a college degree. Or two," noted my best friend, Eric.

True. And I need only turn on any of the myriad 24-hour shouting channels, formerly known as news networks, to be reminded of other reasons for going. Yesterday, driving to Eric's, I found myself stuck on the freeway behind a truck with the words, "AMERICA: LOVE IT OR LEAVE IT," emblazoned across the back. I said a quiet thank you for the fact I have the option.

But still some part of my mind swoons with visions of returning, living in the Saint Paul neighbourhood I loved so much. They're getting a light rail line soon; I used to say that was the only thing missing. In the beauty of Minnesota my mind spins with visions of what my life would be like were I to return.

Conveniently, those visions assume me to be in a far higher pay scale than I am now. They magically erase my financial woes. Often they assume some sort of ridiculous shift in personality or taste ("Oh, if I lived in America again, I'd go see Kenny Chesney in concert").

As much as one part of me aches to move back to the United States, another part fights to remind me why I left.

I dislike this dichotomy, this inability to be happy in whatever skin I'm in. But, at least, for the moment I have ready access to lots of really good ice cream.

Thursday, August 4, 2011

A letter home: 4 August 2011

My dearest Emma,

I didn't get much sleep last night. At some point I found myself staring at the ceiling unable to move from the terrible weight of realisation I have no connection to Cardiff but Jenn. I suppose it wasn't so much realisation I was experiencing, but the sudden ache of feeling what I already knew. I have no friends in Cardiff; that's been a lament for quite a while now. On my phone there are no numbers of people I could phone up if I wanted to go out for a pint, no people I could text to come to a barbecue. Last night that loneliness managed to reach up from the floor and jab me in the ribs. I don't belong here, Emma.

Not yet, at least. Jenn's friends have been good at welcoming me, and friendships -- especially those formed beyond the age of 21 -- simply seem to take a long time to develop where I'm concerned. I suppose you know that better than most, Emma; I struggle so much to find confidantes I have to create them. It is possible that with time I will be welcomed into Jenn's group of friends to the extent I no longer identify them as "Jenn's group of friends." It is possible that with time, as I extend myself beyond the Welsh-language world that rejected me, I will develop contacts that will become acquaintances that will become friends. But last night some vaporous agent whispered into my ear: "What if that doesn't happen?"

It's likely, Emma, this was brought on by thoughts of an impending visit to Minnesota. The distance between myself and my old friends seems to have increased over the past half decade. I feel further away. I feel forgettable. All my friends are parents now; that's the sort of thing that turns a person's focus hyper-local. They have to concentrate on the immediate and unending task of nurturing a tiny living thing. Most energies must be spent on worrying about things within arm's reach: food, shelter, etc. Then those friends get to go to work for a bajillion hours a day (does anyone in America still work a 40-hour week?). In the tiny moments they can relax, my old friends do so in the company of people who are actually there, and, more often than not, people who are living the same kinds of lives.

The times when I cross those friends' minds must be minimal, Emma. Once a month, maybe? Perhaps I'm being optimistic in that. What is there to make someone think of me? I am far away, to be seen once a year, at best. I am far less exciting or rewarding than Thanksgiving, Emma, and how many times have you thought of that holiday in the last month? If turkey and parades and football have no place in your thoughts, what chance have I? I don't think the old powerful bonds will ever be broken, but I do feel them loosening. How could they not?

Meanwhile, I find myself thinking of old friends constantly. Here in this place where I have no friends, the old ones mean more to me than I can stand. At times I am overwhelmed, Emma. And last night that thing jabbing me in the ribs kept asking: "What if it is always like this? You are sure to stay in Cardiff a while; what if the welcome you hope for never comes? And what if the welcome back 'home' slow, slow, slow wears away?"

All these are incongruous thoughts, perhaps. Things have been going pretty well in the month since I last wrote you, Emma. My parents came out to visit, I took part in my masters graduation ceremony, the weather hasn't been 100-percent summery but I am, at least, able to walk about the flat without socks. In a fortnight I will be on a plane to see my old Minnesota friends. I'll wade in Nine Mile Creek and drink cheap beer and laugh in my high-pitch manic yelp. I'll drive slow along Summit Avenue with the windows down and eat barbecue and listen to country music on the radio.

I suppose, Emma, the thing that makes me sad is knowing how temporary all these things will be. They will be an exception to my day-to-day life, rather than a simple continuation. I'm going to get to see my friends and after that first 30-45 minutes of stutter-start conversation we will get lost in the anything and the everything of life and we'll come up with in-jokes for the evening and have running gags and talk and talk and talk.

But then I'll give them a hug and say goodbye, with no idea of when I'll see them again.

"OK, well, I'll see you at Christmas. I hope. Though, last time I said I would visit during Christmas it turned out to be a lie, as was the same promise a year before."

And I think, Emma, I am also sad because I can't even entertain the fantasy of moving back. As much as I miss that old life I would miss the one I have now even more. My saying I have no connection to Cardiff but Jenn is misleading. It glances over the importance of Jenn. It's like saying I have no money but for a 20-storey golden castle full of diamond furniture and dollar-stuffed pillows. Jenn is awesome.

Unfortunately, Jenn won't be on this trip. Finances prohibit. A flight from Cardiff to Minneapolis costs roughly 34¢ per mile, which maybe sounds reasonable until you consider the need to travel 3,897 miles. So, some of the melancholy swimming in my brain today comes from knowing she won't be there with me. As we grow closer and closer, I am eager for her to see the places and meet the people who define me.

But maybe Jenn has had enough of that sort of thing for the time being. Just Sunday my parents left after a two-week visit. Two weeks, Emma. A fortnight. Fourteen days. That is a long time to have one's parents about -- especially when they are staying in one's single-bedroom flat. Four of us in a one-bedroom flat for two weeks. I am surprised Jenn has not broken up with me as a result.

In other news, Emma, I am doing a whole lot of nothing at the moment. The course I was teaching in July finished up about a week ago, leaving me with roughly a month of nothing time until I start teaching again in September. Hence the trip to Minnesota. I am telling myself I will also use this time to refocus on writing. Four days into my summer holiday, and telling myself things has yet to lead to my actually doing them. I don't know what's wrong with me, Emma. I don't understand why I stopped writing. I also don't understand why I'm not more upset about it. I fear some part of me has given up.

Once I get back from Minnesota I'll have a mountain of paperwork to climb and then be teaching four or possibly five Welsh courses throughout the South Wales area, depending on whether I was too late in staking claim to a course in Caldicot. In addition to that far-flung potential location I'll be teaching in Ebbw Vale and Caerleon. Have Welsh will travel. I am looking forward to it in a strange way. I am looking forward to routines and steady income. Some part of me enjoys the drives. Which is good because no site is less than 22 miles away. If you know of any good podcasts that teach Spanish, let me know; I'm going to be spending a lot of time in the car.

I am also looking forward to the autumn, Emma. I always do. It is my favourite time of year. I think all my years in education have imbued autumn with a feeling of expectation, a sense of hope. Each academic year would start with dreams of getting things right, big plans and thoughts of friends to be made and things to be done. Autumn is a time of the new. I am looking forward to walks through technicolor forest with Jenn, fresh challenges, writing inspiration and, of course, "Strictly Come Dancing."

Which reminds me, I need to go to the BBC website and apply for tickets to see the programme live. Tickets are free but issued via a raffle. I applied for the same raffle last year and the year before without luck, but, hey, perhaps third time lucky, Emma.

I hope you are well. Please send nude photos.

I remain your faithful friend,

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

A letter home: 13 July 2011

My dearest Emma,

I sat for a long time today trying to think of where you might be right now. Since you're a figment of my imagination, you tend to move around a lot. I suppose you would be in Santa Fe these days or -- more likely -- at a tidy ranch somewhere in the great, strange beauty of West Texas. You are often in the places my heart wants to be, Emma. And I suppose that as my life in Britain develops a greater sense of permanence, as the dust settles, some part of my soul aches to be out in the vast hot expanses.

Admittedly, I have never lived in West Texas, Emma, and the times I have visited that part of my home state could probably be counted on one hand: a few trips out to San Angelo to visit my great-aunt Johnnie, and that time two years ago when I drove to Paint Rock and cried like a maniac because of, well, convolutional reasons I don't really feel like going into at the moment.

Ambiguous past experiences aside, however, those West Texas plains hold good memories. I remember sitting in the air-conditioned cool of a hotel in Big Spring one night, eating Popeye's chicken and watching a dust storm turn the horizon dirty orange-brown, thinking: "This is about as far away from Britain as a person could get."

Think of the mental shift required for a person born and raised of the cozy, cold wet of Britain to sit in a situation like that and feel total normalcy, Emma.

My mind turns images of West Texas into a catch-all for thoughts of America. My new home in Penarth more closely reflects the catch-all mental images I have long had of Britain. I will never experience total normalcy in either place, of course. And the great ache of life is there will always be some part of me longing to be in both. As I settle into one, the other calls.

Last time I wrote to you, Jenn and I were pushing toward a kind of normalcy supported by IKEA chests of drawers and shelving units; I had recently moved in. More and more it is feeling like home. I am reading more and making lazy forays into writing again. I feel I can trust in the existence of tomorrow and so am willing to think about what to do with it. I am stabilising.

And though my deep cynicism fights against admitting such things, I will confess to you, Emma: I am happy. Yes, some part of me rebels with yearning for lonesome wide-open space, and sometimes that little creature in my head still kicks at the walls, but in the bulk of my moments I am wrapped in a kind of content the equal to which I cannot remember. I can't stand the inherent naivety of statements like, "I've never been happier," nor the doom such assertions usually portend. But, well, my "Swiss-cheese memory," as Sara used to call it, struggles to identify a single period in my past when all things seemed to fit together so well.

Look at the above paragraph, Emma: this is what age does to us. I am speaking of love diplomatically, trying to temper its potential sting with carefully worded statements. As if having things go wrong would somehow hurt less because I had thought to labyrinth my feelings in multisyllabic parlance.

Ah, hell, I'll just say it: Jenn is awesome. And, yes, I know that one person's forever can be another person's summer, but great googly moogly Jenn is awesome. And I love her.

And that's really where I'm at these days, Emma: I have an awesome life and am struggling to cope. I find it difficult to come to grips with the fortuitousness of my own situation. Boo-hoo. And I think some part of me feels angry that the only thing to do with all the sadness of the not-so-distant past is to just let it go.

Twelfth of July marked five years of my living in Wales, Emma. I spent most of that day thinking back to 12 July 2006 and all the space in between. I regret most of that time, though I don't suppose I'd change it. It's a bit like going through terribly painful surgery, I suppose. Would you do that again? Hell no. Do you wish to go back and have it all be undone? No, I don't want that either. It happened, I lived through it and now -- though not necessarily because of it -- I am happy. After spending all day trying to come up with some sort of profound summary of that half decade I managed this:

1) I feel betrayed.
2) The experience is past tense.
3) I can't shake the feeling of being upset over all the time wasted.

Sixteen years ago, Emma, I was driving up to Minnesota with my girlfriend of the time and somehow managed to make a colossal navigational error, which saw me head to Topeka, Kansas, instead of Kansas City. Look at a map, Emma; they are hundreds of miles apart. My girlfriend was fast asleep when I made this mistake. She woke up as we neared Topeka, then spent the three hours it took to correct the error yelling at me.

I will let you in on a secret, Emma -- something I have never told anyone else: I drove to Topeka on purpose that day, because I liked the sound of the name. Topeka. There's something pleasing to the ear. I don't know whether there is anything nice in Topeka; I only saw it from the interstate.

The chastisement received for "making a wrong turn" was severe enough I chose not to tell my girlfriend the truth. Even after she and I broke up, and she would still recant this tale to others over the years, I was content to be seen as stupid rather than credulously inquisitive. I think perhaps some part of me sees that as my debt to her for time wasted -- those three hours she will never get back.

When I look at my experiences in the Welsh language, Emma, I feel that sense of immense time wasted and I want, childishly, to be repaid in some way. I feel owed full-time employment or friendship or... I don't know what. Something more than a deep-hollow feeling of regret.

But, at least it's over. It is past-tense. It is not happening now. And there are other adventures ahead.

My parents are coming over for a two-week visit this Sunday. In a fit of stupidity, Jenn and I offered to let them stay with us. In our one-bedroom flat. The more I think about it, Emma, the less I like it. I have not seen my parents in a year, so I will be happy to have them around but having them be inescapable for a fortnight seems like an error in judgement.

I'm sure it won't be too bad. And there will be immediate repayment of whatever inconvenience is accrued. A few weeks after my parents head home I'll be following them to Minnesota, where I'll hopefully get a chance to catch up with all those friends I've spent the past year missing. Several of my friends have had children since I saw them last. We are getting old, Emma.

Perhaps I will see you when I'm out there. You and I are always moving, Emma -- and you so often in the places my heart wants to be -- but maybe we can intersect, if only briefly. Meet me in Topeka.

I remain your faithful friend,

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Actual letter sent to the debt collectors attempting to destroy my life


Congratulations on frightening my mother by sending a sheriff's deputy to harass her with papers intended for me. That was awesome. My brother and I used to love to get a rise out of Mom with stuff like that.

In terms of getting in touch with me, I suppose the aim was achieved; I personally would have thought it more efficient to contact me via the address Discover Card should have from a letter I sent them nigh a year ago. But you are the professional debt collectors, so who am I to argue?

In that letter to Discover Card I explained I am presently living in Britain and that my financial situation is dire. As I'm sure many of the other people you've sent sheriff's deputies after will have also told you, jobs are difficult to come across at the moment. That is true internationally. Despite possessing a masters degree in the burgeoning field of Welsh-language creative writing, I have been unemployed for roughly a year and a half. In a country with free health care I am just barely able to survive but have thus far been unsuccessful in attempts to secure a salary that would allow me the massive payment requested by Discover Card.

I had asked if there was any way to resolve the situation, if any agreement could be made; their response was to ignore me and put you to the task of using law enforcement officers as message boys. My intent now is to file for bankruptcy as soon as possible. I have contacted an attorney to begin the process.

I am quite happy to receive any correspondence you may wish to send, at my address here in Britain (you will see it above, in the right-hand corner). I have not provided a phone number because even receiving a phone call costs money in this country. Additionally, and honestly, I have no desire to listen to people speak rudely to me about things I cannot make happen. I cannot make it rain; I cannot fly; I cannot make money magically appear in my bank account.

Please keep in mind that because of the roughly 5,000 miles between you and me, items sent via post may take a bit longer than you would normally expect. I assure you, however, that all correspondence will be dealt with in the same courteous and respectful manner you have thus far shown to me.

I wish you the very best. Keep living the dream.

Yours most sincerely,
Chris Cope

Sunday, June 12, 2011

A letter home: 12 June 2011

My dearest Emma,

It's been a while. Last time I wrote, I did so from the corporate safety of a Starbucks, having spent the day at the glorious synagogue of savings that is IKEA. A visit to IKEA, of course, is part of the rites of passage in modern life -- birth, puberty, moving house and marriage are all marked with visits to IKEA. That cheap, self-assemble coffins are not available for purchase is clearly a sign of laziness in IKEA's research and development department. They are resting on their laurels, Emma. There should be a DÖD coffin, available in white, beech effect or silver.

Back in January, that IKEA visit was to commemorate a move to the village of Radyr, just within the northern border of Cardiff city limits. I think I told you, Emma, that at night I could hear the Taff River running some 100 yards to the south of the house on its journey toward the sea.

Just south of Radyr's unvaried collection of new-build homes, the Taff slows enough for rowing clubs to practice, then runs shallow past Llandaff Cathedral -- where I would often roam in those days when my heart ached so miserably and my house was so cold. Onward, the river slips past a university, beneath a roaring thoroughfare and then beyond another university into the solace of city park. On weekdays, men stand waist deep in the river and lure trout from their rocky hiding places. In summer, lovers wade in and kiss; children scream and jump from footbridges. The river curves and then widens as it reaches the city centre, carrying rugby fans' discarded plastic pint glasses to Cardiff Central Station and past the perpetually "up and coming" neighbourhoods of Riverside and Grangetown. Eventually its mouth grows wide and it spills out into Cardiff Bay.

A Victorian village sits atop the cliffs of a promontory at the bay's southwestern edge; you can see the tower of a church peeking out above trees. That church is St. Augustine's, the village is Penarth. And Penarth -- located just outside the southern border of Cardiff city limits -- is the reason I have again been spending quite a lot of time in IKEA.

Well, actually, Jenn is the reason. Jenn lives in Penarth. And now, so do I.

This is the part, Emma, where you stop reading for a second and think: "Wait. Who's Jenn?"

It has, indeed, been a long time since I last wrote. I've mentioned Jenn in previous letters, but not by name. For a long while I think some part of me feared that if I wrote her name some magic spell would be broken, that all the fun and happiness would crumble under the weight of reality. I suppose some part of me still fears that. Some part of me fears that Me and Jenn is like that moment in a dream when you realise you are in a dream, and for a tiny fragment of a second you manage to stay in that fantastic place before your eyes flutter open. I don't want to open my eyes yet, Emma.

Some part of me is not yet comfortable expressing to others my feelings for Jenn. But I will tell you she is a beautiful, joyful, brown-eyed girl from Devon. I delight in waking up to her each morning. I am mad for her. We've known each other for nigh eight months; somewhere along the way we found ourselves waking up to each other far more often than not, and Jenn decided it was time for me to move in.

I struggle to think of how to phrase this in a way that isn't maladroit, Emma, but I think of my short time in Radyr as rehab for the soul. The name Radyr derives from an old Welsh phrase meaning "the chantry," where souls were prayed for. You might remember my telling you that many hundred years ago Radyr was nothing more than a plot of land reserved for a cave-dwelling hermit whose days were spent praying for salvation of wealthy peoples now long-forgotten. At night, I would lie in bed listening to an owl call and imagine the spirit of that hermit was still out there, praying for recovery from the long dark bitterness that gripped me.

I don't know I can really say everything is better now, Emma, but I know rehab is temporary. I was never supposed to stay in Radyr; I am ready to move on. I am ready to try to write again, to read again, to be more the person I want to be rather than the bundle of cliché I had become.

So, now I am a resident of Penarth. Even before I officially moved in, Jenn had bought a desk so I would have a place to write. This is a place for me to live, to feel at home. And already I do, Emma. Already I feel more connected to this village than any other part of Wales. Much of that is due to the presence of Jenn, obviously, but Penarth is lovely in its own right.

Literally translated, Penarth means "bear's head" in Welsh, but there's some suspicion (due to the fact that no part of Penarth necessarily resembles an ursine skull) that the name has been misheard over the years and it was originally called "Pen y Garth," which means "top of the promontory." Most people, though, prefer the bear-related translation. Who wouldn't? As your grandfather used to say, Emma: "One should incorporate bears when- and wherever possible."

Penarth often reminds me of why I wanted to move to Britain. Much of the village was built toward the end of Queen Victoria's reign and the architecture possesses that sense of promise and God-willed purpose -- arrogant ambition -- that seems to have been lost in both Britain and America by now. Any attempt at ornate stonework in the modern age would be met with cries of government waste. Intellectuals no longer wave flags. Narrower still and narrower shall thy bounds be set.

But the old architecture remains, lending grandeur to pasty shops, pubs, restaurants, coffee houses and scaled-down versions of major supermarket chains. In content, Penarth is hardly distinguishable from dozens upon dozens of other British towns, but it is far prettier in its sameness.

And its sameness is within easy walk of our flat. This is British/European experience that many Americans romanticise: able to do the day-to-day things sans automobile. The life of my old Peugeot is being extended thanks to lack of use. And within the sameness there are unique things to love: Jaflon is my new favourite restaurant; on Saturday Jenn and I found a cafe that serves amazing waffles.

I am happy here. I worry at times I am too much so. It has been such a long time since I've written anything of worth. I seem to have lost grip of whatever it is that has always pushed me to write. I worry I have fallen into the trap of telling my own story rather than living it; claiming to be a writer rather than actually writing.

Too often I am happy to simply wander my new village rather than isolate myself at a desk. I am happier to explore my little world than create new ones in my head. That is OK. For now. But inside me, churning in my soul, I can feel a building panic and anger at myself for not working.

If I am not working I am, at least, earning a bit of money. I teach a number of Welsh classes through the week. This bores me so much, Emma, that I will tell you no more of it. James Joyce was not an English teacher, Ernest Hemingway was not a staff writer, and I am not a Welsh teacher.

But refusing to tell you about teaching Welsh leaves me with little upon which to expound. I go to work; I wander Penarth; occasionally Jenn and I do silly things. I am usually happy, sometimes dizzy with worry and sometimes overwhelmed with homesickness.

Six months after sending my visa application I am still trapped in a kind of bureaucratic vortex, Emma, so still not able to leave this island of rain. With summer here I find myself aching to see my friends, to sit up with them in the warm Minnesota summer night drinking beer and hearing their stories. I feel I am being made hollow by the homesickness, like when bread is let to sit too long before baking. The excess of time causes gaps to form and when one cuts into the baked bread one finds emptiness. Each day those feelings are exacerbated by the absence of a visa; it is another day when I cannot plan to go home, another day when I cannot build a concrete picture of when I'll next get to hug old friends.

So life, Emma, is what life always is and what it always will be: a state of flux. As I settle into a new place my heart aches not to lose connection to the old places. I am, for the most part, happy with my life, though unhappy I have lost the knack to capture it in words. Each moment is new, though, Emma.

I miss you.

I remain your faithful friend,

Friday, April 29, 2011

Inside The Royal Wedding

Originally published on

LONDON -- According to some estimates, almost one-third of the world's population will have watched all or some of the royal wedding today. Amongst the most hard-core of those watchers were the 600,000 people who filled local parks to watch on giant television screens, and lined the wedding procession route. Here's a report from inside that crowd.

06:30 - Sunrise has been rather cold and gray but that seems to have had no effect on the jubilant mood of the crowd. Many hundreds have been here through the night, camping out along the procession route. Setting up a tent and spending the night on a London street may seem a bit extreme, but campers were rewarded last night by a surprise visit from Prince William and his brother, Prince Harry.

07:30 - There are some nervous eyes looking toward the sky as the occasional drop of rain finds its way to a reveller's forehead or nose. It feels unfortunate considering the incredibly good weather London has been experiencing over the past week. But a BBC weather forecaster has just promised the crowd a break in the clouds just in time for the wedding ceremony. A cold wind is keeping people moving around, or perhaps that's just excitement. Outbursts of singing are becoming increasingly common.

08:30 - Already the parks and procession route are filling up. Meanwhile the first of the wedding guests are beginning to stream into Westminster Abbey. For those of us watching on the enormous television screen in Hyde Park, it is a case of trying to spot someone famous. Others are working on developing their own fame; news media from around the world are everywhere. If you've ever wanted to be filmed wearing a silly hat, this is your best hope.

09:30 - It is a party atmosphere, reminiscent of Britain's famous rock festivals, but with the attendees being far better behaved. Britain's police forces -- some 6,000 officers are on the streets -- are to be commended for their friendliness and goodwill in dealing with the hundreds of thousands out for the day.

10:30 - Our plan to move from Hyde Park to Green Park, along the wedding procession route, has failed miserably. Green Park, St. James Park and Trafalgar Square have all been closed. These massive public areas are full to capacity. Hyde Park is still taking people in. The throng of people now watching the giant TV screens extends at least 1/4 a mile.

11:30 - The wedding is under way. Each time the camera shows Kate the crowd goes wild. Many women are dressed in bridal gowns, men dressed in tuxedoes and top hats. Union Jack flags are seemingly requisite.

12:30 - The wedding is done. Will and Kate are man and wife. We have sung "God Save the Queen" no less than six times. Other patriotic songs can be heard among the crowds, as well as the sound of cans of alcoholic beverages being opened. It is time to party. People in Hyde Park are either attempting to disperse or -- more wisely -- settling into picnics.

13:30 - The family appear on the balcony of Buckingham Palace, drawing wild cheers from all watching. The quick kisses between Prince William and Princess Catherine (we have been informed that "Kate" is no longer acceptable) are met with flag waving and screaming. The flyover by a WWII bomber is a particular treat. A woman nearby screamed, "I love Britain," and had to sit down.

14:00 - It has become a full-on party in Hyde Park. More than 120,000 are singing along and dancing to a live band. The sun has come out and it's a good bet this scene is repeating itself in parks, street parties and houses all across the country. For one day, one moment, this country -- so uncomfortable usually with displays of national pride -- is taking a little pleasure in itself. The monarchy is safe. God save the queen, and the prince and future princess who will one day follow her. For now, however, there is a conga line forming...

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Royal Wedding Inescapable In Britain

Originally published on

LONDON -- Ask a typical Briton his or her opinion of the impending royal wedding and you will get a well-rehearsed eye roll or quick huff of breath.

The media coverage drenching the most-talked-about wedding in a generation has long since saturated this country. People have had enough. The event is inescapable.

Still, in the month before the wedding, in this country that usually shies away from displays of patriotism, the Union Jack has increasingly been found everywhere and on everything. Pubs and bars advertise drink specials, encouraging patrons to watch the event on big-screen televisions. Prince William's and Kate Middleton's images are found on every imaginable surface, be it tea mugs or toilet lids.

The image of Kate, particularly, is requisite in the daily newspapers. One could more easily imagine a tabloid choosing to eschew words rather than a picture of the princess-to-be.
There is no ducking the wedding. At least not for those still in the country. Thanks to a trifecta of public holidays landing on or near the wedding, an estimated 2 million Britons will be abroad when William and Kate take their vows. But even they will find it difficult to escape worldwide interest in the event.

London, of course, is built for this sort of thing. Few places in the world are better equipped to handle such a large public gathering. But even in London terms, this is a massive event; roughly one-third of the world's population is expected to watch all or some of the wedding, by some estimates. Organizers are taking it very seriously. Police have already warned that disruptions will not be tolerated. Those hoping to demonstrate republican or anti-royal sentiment will not be allowed near the procession nor its audience.

Outside Westminster Abbey, where the wedding will take place, huge stands have been erected for the world's press. One stand immediately outside the cathedral is built to hold several hundred people. Elsewhere, inside and out, dozens of cameras have been stationed to capture every conceivable angle of the ceremony.

In London's Hyde Park and Trafalgar Square, both near the route of the wedding procession, huge television screens have been erected for the thousands upon thousands of well-wishers expected to turn out in hopes of seeing the happy couple as they pass by. Meanwhile, both national and local government websites are awash with detailed information on the what, where and when of the event, with festivities set to begin officially at 7 a.m. local time.

Helpfully, the UK's public services website, Directgov, offers this advice: "Visitors are advised to dress for the weather but to get in the wedding mood and wear a hat."

A fancy hat may not be enough for some people. A number of visitors have said they are planning to arrive dressed in their very best -- many promising tuxedos and elaborate gowns. Others may look a little less presentable on the day, but with good reason: several hundred people plan to camp out along the procession route the night before, to ensure their prime view of the happy couple.

Britain's residents may still insist upon rolling their eyes at talk of the royal wedding, but quite clearly the country is wedding mad. There is talk of rain in the forecast, but it is unlikely to keep onlookers away -- even those who claim not to be interested.

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Will And Kate's Unlikely Island Home

Originally published on

BEAUMARIS, Wales -- Far away from the heaving, cheering crowds and pageantry of Prince William and Kate Middleton's wedding day is the tiny windswept island of Anglesey (pronounced: "Angle Sea"), in northwest Wales. For a while, at least, the couple will call the island home while William completes his current tour of duty.

He is stationed at Royal Air Force base Valley, on the island's western coast, serving as a search and rescue pilot. He has already taken part in a number of rescues both on sea and in nearby mountainous terrain. His presence on the island has not gone unnoticed, and that notoriety is only set to increase as he and Kate step further into the limelight via their royal duties.

There is a certain irony in the couple that will most likely be Britain's future king and queen calling Anglesey home. The island has always taken pride in being just that little bit different from the rest of the British archipelago. Almost 2,000 years ago, it was one of the last strongholds against Roman invaders. According to legend, the Romans killed all the men and cut the women's tongues out to keep them from telling children of their ancestry.

Today, it is one of the furnaces of Welsh-language culture. Despite the majority of Welsh speakers living in the southern areas of Wales, the bulk of the language's authors and poets come from Anglesey and the immediately surrounding areas of north Wales.

Being a Welsh speaker often goes hand in hand with being a Welsh separatist. Roughly 70 percent of Anglesey's population are Welsh speakers. The island's representative in Wales' government is Ieuan Wyn Jones, head of Plaid Cymru -- a political party whose members have long sought to break from the United Kingdom and make Wales an independent country.

Owain Môn was born and raised on Anglesey and is so fiercely proud of his roots that he uses the old Welsh tradition of adopting one's region as a surname. His name more or less translates to: "Owain of Anglesey." He is, perhaps unsurprisingly, not particularly interested in the royal wedding. And he questions any benefit the presence of William and Kate might bring.

"Let's say that it's good for Anglesey financially," says Owain. "To what end? A couple extra Yank tourists show up; so what? How long will that last? It's hardly building a sustainable future, is it? And the people they might bring, what good are they? They don't come to see what's actually here. They don't respect my culture."

Owain's viewpoint is relatively common in the region, but it is a viewpoint most prefer to keep to themselves. People of Anglesey have a tradition of showing a certain tolerance toward things they disagree with. A visitor might not even be aware of locals' complacent dislike of William and Kate. That would be especially true if he or she spoke to someone in the tourist trade.

"It can't hurt, can it? If people want to come here in hopes of spotting [William and Kate], they're very welcome," says John Rigby, landlord of the Sailor's Return pub.

Nodding toward a shop across the road that has bedecked its storefront with Union Jack banners, he notes that business owners in his village have seen the wedding as an opportunity.

"We've got some bunting up already," he says. "I suspect there will be more [decoration] on the day."

The couple's direct effect on tourism, however, may be difficult to gauge. Several ferries a day run from Anglesey to Ireland, making Anglesey already-well-traveled territory. Indeed, in the days immediately before the royal wedding it was an escape route for many of those not interested in celebrating.

Thanks to the official holiday days resulting from the royal wedding and May Day, upward of 2 million Britons are expected to be abroad when William and Kate take their vows. Among them are John and Debbie Shields, from England's Midlands region.

"We're going over to Ireland to stay with her sister. We'll be there the whole time, thank God," says John. "I have no interest in the wedding. I will be sitting in the back garden enjoying a pint, thank you."

Debbie is less cynical, saying she plans to watch the wedding on television.

"It's a bit of fun, isn't it?" she says. "And it's historic. I'm interested to see what everyone is wearing."

The couple travel frequently to Ireland, usually spending a night on Anglesey before catching a morning ferry. Asked whether they think the presence of William and Kate will have an effect, they are unsure.

"I would hope they wouldn't bring too many more people," says Debbie. "It's already quite bad in the summers."

"I'm not sure William and Kate will mean that much," says John. "With the good weather we've been having, that blinking Gadhafi could buy a summer home here and people would still come."

Monday, April 4, 2011

Life In Britain: A Little Mist Must Fall

Originally published on

LONDON - Contrary to popular belief, it does not always rain here. In fact, by American standards it hardly rains at all. The great heavy storms that drench the Midwest and at times pelt the U.S. coasts are rare in Britain. The last time I heard thunder here was in summer 2006.

In Britain, it mists. Sometimes the mist is fine, like the sprays at Disney World that cool beleaguered tourists. Sometimes the mist is heavy, like jets at a car wash. The months stretching from October to March are almost nothing but mist. Miserable, soul-destroying, bone-chilling, ceaseless mist only occasionally broken up by snow.

It is perfect weather for sitting inside, and often true to the stereotype, many Britons find refuge in pubs. The definition of what exactly constitutes a pub is loose. In some cases, pubs resemble American sports bars; others are more like old churches. But there is always drink, and there is always talk.

The British are exceptionally good talkers. It is a product of their centuries spent in public houses, using the combined body heat of others to stave off the effects of perpetual cold mist. Stuck for months on end in these confined spaces, the British have honed the art of discussing anything and everything at length.

The discussions are not always based in fact. Sweeping generalizations, wives' tales, third-hand wisdom and weak summaries of things overheard are common. A night spent in the pub could easily lead to a week of fact-checking if anyone bothered to do it. But again, the company is good.

In the spring and summer, the mist clears, sometimes giving way to real rain. But sometimes there is sun, and those are the times Britons live for. When the sun shines on the British archipelago, it does so in a way that one never experiences in America. The sky feels closer. The grass grows greener. Pub conversations spill out into beer gardens. The lawns of city parks become a quilt of picnics. All that mist makes the sun shine brighter, and suddenly, Britain becomes the most wonderful place in the world.

Britain is full of contradictions. It is an idiosyncratic little island that once ruled the world, where one facet of life coexists with its opposite.

The British, for example, are in love with bureaucracy and order -- everything in this country requires three forms and a passport photo. Yet they delight in ridiculing their authority figures.

On television, blows to the skull, whether by foot or chair or headbutt, are edited out of professional wrestling. Not proper. But there are multiple free channels featuring nothing but topless women encouraging you to call them.

Britons complain endlessly about the outdated and inefficient ways in which they approach almost every task, but they'll complain loudest when someone suggests making a change.

They drive on the left but walk on the right. McDonald's franchises can be found next to the ruins of Roman fortresses.

For an American living in Britain, it can be dizzying. British culture has so many things in common with the United States that some Americans refer to this corner of Europe as "the 51st state." Pub legend has it that former Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher once did the same.

But Britain is not America. They do things differently here; it is a different place. Sometimes the variances are hard to grasp, like a mist, but they are there, and they are often what makes living here worthwhile.

Thursday, March 31, 2011

God Save The Queen, For Now

Originally published on

LONDON -- Officially, Queen Elizabeth II is in charge of this little island. In the British system of government, the monarch is the highest executive authority, in the way that the president is the highest executive authority of the United States.

But in practice, the modern British monarch has only the power of a bully pulpit. For the most part, Elizabeth II is a face to put on the money, a name to put on official documents, a nice lady to welcome foreign dignitaries.

How the queen's subjects feel about her often depends on their interpretation of the monarch's role: God-appointed power, or charming titular head of state?

The chasm between what the monarchy is today and what the monarchy was in the past lends itself to confusion even among regular Britons. Despite the royal family's omnipresence in the tabloids, everyday citizens tend not to know much about the monarchy's place and role in modern society. Ask a person about the royal family, and you'll more than likely receive an emotional response or grandiose fabrication about their eating swans or being in charge of elite assassination squads.

"When I was younger, I used to be a hard-core left winger. I adopted every 'anti' position that I could find," confesses university lecturer Dyfrig Jones. "Over time I've worked my way back to the political center, but if there is one thing that takes me back to my youth, it's the royal family."

Jones bases his contempt of the royal family on ideological grounds. Their presence, he said, shows respect to an outdated and unfair way of looking at the world.

"How deeply is servitude ingrained into our national psyche that we would give up a second of our time to think about the lives of these leeches that draw huge personal wealth from the taxes that we pay?" he asks.

The issue of tax money is one that comes up frequently in arguments about the monarchy. The royal household is allocated £7.9 million ($12.7 million) a year by the government to help cover the salaries and pensions of its more than 300 members of staff. Add in costs of police protection and so on, and the annual cost of a queen runs a little more. In the 2009-10 financial year, the monarchy cost the British public £38.2 million (roughly $61.4 million).

But some would argue that is value for money. In the same financial year, it is estimated that Elizabeth II brought in more than £100 million ($160 million) to the British public purse. That figure takes into account charity work, official functions and the land and property cared for as part of the Crown Estate. The amount of international tourism money brought in by the royal family is harder to measure, but it is generally accepted to be a factor in many people's decision to visit the country.

The Crown Estate is a collection of land and property, ancient buildings and art, owned and maintained by the royal family. These items are generally open to the public to view and visit. Business consultant Siân Dafydd said this portfolio is a reason she's content to see the royal family as a part of modern Britain.

"I wouldn't trust the government right now to have kept these works of art and architecture and heritage in the current climate," she says, referring to a recent furor over government plans to sell off sections of national forest.

"[The government] would have sold them off to the odd millionaire who'd have shut the doors or made hotels. As guardians of this property and land, I've no objections to the royals."

Ensuring that the public stays objection-free is thought to be one of the primary concerns for the royal family. With no real power over the country, the monarchy's future rests in the hands of the public mood. To that end, Prince William and Catherine Middleton have been a tremendous boost.

But in this country that is so famously resistant to change, the monarchy also has a place simply because it has always had a place. And many Britons carry a fondness toward the monarchy because it is something that helps them stand out in the world.

"It's one of the things that make Britain a little bit different. What is wrong with being old-fashioned?" said Anne, a waitress in Cardiff. "I enjoy having the queen on my money, reminding me that Britain used to be considered, and still can be, great."

Monday, March 28, 2011

An Idiot's History Of The British Monarchy

Originally published on

LONDON -- In the simplest of terms, Elizabeth Windsor is better known to the world as Queen Elizabeth II because some guy got shot in the eye with an arrow. Don't worry, she had nothing to do with that particularly gruesome act. It happened almost 900 years before she was born.

The unfortunate recipient of that arrow was a man named Harold, who was once king of much of the area now known as England. In 1066 AD, a French bloke known to his friends as William the Bastard came across the channel, crushed Harold's army and picked up the far more appealing title of William the Conqueror. And that's more or less where Britain's monarchy begins, making it one of the oldest royal institutions in Europe.

That said, the line connecting William the Conqueror to modern-day Prince William of Wales is anything but straight. In fact, things were pretty blurry right at the start, with a number of people claiming the title of sovereign. And none were able to claim to be in charge of the entire island of Britain.

The first real attempt at such a thing was made by Edward I (1272-1307): the bad guy in the film "Braveheart." He managed to conquer the notoriously contentious Welsh but spent so much money doing so he was then unable to defeat Mel Gibson. Or, well, something like that.

Roughly 200 years later, the old issue of who was actually in charge boiled over to the extent that a fight broke out. That fight, known as the War of the Roses, lasted for roughly 30 years (1455-1485) and ended when Henry VIII's dad got married.

Henry VIII is easily one of the most famous kings, not only in the history of Britain but in the history of the world. During his 38-year reign (1509-1547), he went from being young, sexy and talented to being old, fat and scary. He was the Elvis of his day, but with far more torture and killing. All his foibles aside, however, Henry VIII's reign helped England, and by extension, Britain, start to develop its own unique personality.

That personality was further developed and expanded by his daughter, Elizabeth I (1558-1603). The guy who took over after her, James I (1603-1625) strengthened the concept of Britain even further by being the first king of both Scotland and England: the first sovereign of a United Kingdom.

In the following centuries, although the kings and queens of Britain could now claim reign over wider and wider areas -- famously, the sun never set on the British Empire of Queen Victoria (1837-1901) -- their actual power gradually ebbed away. By the time George VI (1936-1952) was thrust into the job, the primary role of monarch was to serve as a national figurehead. As we know from the move "The King's Speech," one of the biggest challenges George VI faced was putting words together. A monarch was now expected to be a role model, someone for Britons to look up to and aspire to be like. Thankfully, George VI had Captain Barbossa on his side. Or, well, something like that.

Since 1952, Queen Elizabeth II has admirably fulfilled the nuanced responsibilities of her role. What Britain is and what it means to be British are ideas that have shifted dramatically during Elizabeth's reign. She and the royal household famously suffered a public relations embarrassment in the wake of Princess Diana's death in 1997, but she has since adapted and is now seen by many as a sort of national grandmother.

Questions abound for what sort of reign Prince Charles will experience. His sons, William and Harry, are far better at dealing with constant media and public attention than he is. Whether Charles has the savvy and patience to excel as a modern monarch remains to be seen.

The role of monarch has changed immensely since the days of William the Conqueror, but perhaps one facet of the job is still the same. In that battle in which Harold took an arrow to the eye, William's men almost lost the day because they thought their leader, too, had been killed. Things only turned in William's favor when he threw off his helmet to reveal he was still in the fight. The role of monarch, then, has always been to be lead -- whether it be with sword or with words.

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Wills And Kate: A Very Public Love Story

Story originally published on

LONDON -- Few moments in Prince William of Wales' life have not been recorded for posterity. Where he went to school, how he dresses, what he eats, where he goes, who he associates with, what he says and even the amount of hair on his head are a matter of public record -- noted, dissected and discussed endlessly in the tabloid newspapers of the country he will most likely reign.

It has always been this way. His birth, on June 21, 1982, was international front-page news. When his parents -- Prince Charles and Princess Diana -- divorced, it was fodder for stand-up comics all around the world. When he was 15 years old, his mother famously died in a car crash. Books were written about the event, films and television programs made. For William, the deep tragedy of losing one's mother became a historical event.

Considering this media glare, it is perhaps surprising William has maintained a sense of "normalcy." To most in Britain, it appears that William, more often than not, manages to behave in daily life as other Britons would -- visiting the local pub and even doing his own shopping.

Or, maybe William acts as Britons would like to think they would. Following his mother and father's lead, he is deeply involved in charitable organizations. He and his roguish younger brother, Harry, use their inescapable fame to draw attention to and support for a long list of good causes. William alone is patron to some 21 charities and organizations, many focusing on children's issues and support for military men and women.

By contrast, Catherine Elizabeth Middleton was born and raised in relative obscurity. The eldest of three children, the 29-year-old was brought up in an upper middle class home in the county of Berkshire, in southeast England. She was a popular and talented student, and captain of her school's field hockey team.

She and William first met in 2001 at University of St. Andrew's, in Scotland, where the two studied art history. Kate became a confidante of William and is credited with encouraging him to continue his studies despite doing poorly in his first year. That closeness, however, resulted in her almost instantly becoming a household name.

Naturally beautiful and charming, and now linked to the son of one of the most famous figures in royal family history, Kate found herself at the center of media frenzy. Thanks to an agreement made between the royal family and members of the press, media attention was toned down slightly during the couple's university years. But upon their graduation in 2005, tabloid speculation instantly turned to talk of when the two would marry.

Over the past years there have been a number of false alarms. In 2006, rumors of an impending royal wedding were so fevered that department store chain Woolworths commissioned a line of souvenirs to be made.

Media scrutiny became so intense that in April 2007 the couple split temporarily. Both William and his father, Prince Charles, appealed for press restraint, drawing allusions to the paparazzi scrums that are often named as a contributing factor in Princess Diana's death. Within a few months, however, William and Kate were back together, though coy about their exact status as a couple.

On Nov. 16, 2010, the couple announced they were engaged. The news was met by all-day coverage from the BBC. Within the week, half-hour television specials had been produced to air during prime time. Shortly afterward, Prime Minister David Cameron announced that William and Kate's wedding, to take place April 29, 2011, will be a national public holiday in the United Kingdom.

Since the wedding announcement, souvenirs ranging from the ridiculously expensive (such as a $700 porcelain figurine) to the outrageously tacky (royal wedding condoms, for example) have flooded main street stores and Internet shops. Tens of thousands of people are expected to turn up in London to cheer the couple on the day, and thousands more are planning street parties throughout the country. Worldwide, millions upon millions are expected to watch live coverage. One tabloid has gone so far as to suggest that 1 billion people will be glued to their TV sets.

In the meantime, William and Kate have already begun settling into their royal duties. The two have appeared together at a number of official functions and overall crowd response has been incredibly positive. Wills and Kate, as they are simply known, are a hit. As Queen Elizabeth II nears the 60th year of her reign she can take comfort that interest in the royal family is unlikely to wane any time soon.

Thursday, March 10, 2011

Britons Have Complex View Of Americans

Original story can be found at

LONDON -- Britons and Americans have never been too far apart. Not long after the American Revolution, in re-establishing diplomatic ties with our former colonial master, John Adams spoke of the "the old good nature and the old good humor between our peoples."

More than two centuries later, citizens of this tiny island refer to the "special relationship," a term generally attributed to Winston Churchill. The special relationship is that wholly unique and somewhat inexplicable bond shared by British and American peoples.

It is the reason you will find far more Britons who have visited Orlando than those who have been to Belgium. The special relationship is the reason President Barack Obama is referred to simply as "President Obama" in the news, whereas geographical explanation is always necessary for German Chancellor Angela Merkel. The special relationship is the reason many Britons will unwittingly use the pronoun "we" when discussing American foreign policy.

"Well, you're one of us, aren't you," states Jeff Williams, a retired mechanic from Swansea.

Williams is a fan of American football and will stay awake into the wee hours to watch NFL games, the next day rattling off play-by-play to friends in his local pub, the Beaufort Arms. He claims to be a die-hard Eagles fan, though confesses to have never been to Philadelphia.

"Or, perhaps we're one of you," he says, examining his pint. "No. You're one of us. We were here first. You just take our ideas and make them loud."

The incredible closeness shared by Britons and Americans is perhaps at the heart of any misunderstanding between the two cultures. Britons see a people so similar to themselves that they get confused upon learning of our different experiences.

"I owned guns as a kid. I never thought it was strange growing up," says Benjamin Angwin, a Texas native currently living in London. "But here, people are shocked when I tell them."

British popular culture is awash with American influence: our music fills the charts; our films and television shows are among the most watched. Britons are intelligent enough to know that fictional representations of American life are just that -- fictional -- but those slight variances in the personal experiences of Americans they meet make us difficult to comprehend. Britons struggle to know where to draw the line between fiction and reality.

"I don't think I have a negative image of Americans, I think I just have a warped one," says Jennifer Champion, an office worker from Devon. "My image of Americans before I knew any was the shiny America I see on television and in films. It doesn't seem real."

This surreality of perception mixed with geographic reality -- the fact that it takes a lot of time and money to visit the United States -- can sometimes work against Americans. In lieu of actual Americans to interact with, Britons often form their opinions based on stereotypes.

"I see them as a people of extremes: the clever ones are really clever; the stupid ones are really stupid," Champion explains. "The fat ones are really fat; the thin ones are really thin. I find it hard to imagine a middle."

A perception of extremism is a common theme in British attitudes toward Americans. They worry about the American religious right, and express frustration over the lack of liberalism in American governance. They are concerned by what they feel is a flippant attitude toward environmental issues and the rest of the world.

Perhaps, though, the criticism again rises from the incredible closeness shared by the two peoples. In finding fault with their partners in the special relationship, perhaps Britons are also finding fault within themselves.

"There are, of course, things I don't like: fat kids, political extremists and a vast chasm between rich and poor. But when I look at Britain, I see the same thing," Champion says. "The difference is Americans will stand up and say, 'I love America.' The British will avoid eye contact, afraid of being criticized for loving something that isn't perfect. Americans will say, 'Yeah, we aren't perfect but we are free,' and ride off into the sunset on a horse, or something American like that."

Tuesday, February 1, 2011

A letter home: 1 February 2011

My dearest Emma,

I am writing to you from a Starbucks. Within my line of sight is a massive superstore, a chain restaurant and the remains of a Roman fort -- the latter being the only thing to clue you in to the fact I am in Britain. My exact British location is a tiny southern corner of Cardiff that estate agents like to call "The Bay." My self-locating phone says I am in Butetown. Most Cardiff residents, however, would probably refer to it as: "Down by there near the IKEA, like."

And it was that great temple of cheap modernity that drew me to this part of town today. Walking through its maze of oddly named products -- "Hüffpôtegan" "Yökïlhü" -- I found myself wondering what we all did before IKEA. Then I remembered: I slept on the floor and made bookshelves out of cinderblocks and planks of wood. Have you noticed, Emma, that the popularity of IKEA in both the United States and Britain has corresponded to a rise in right-wing politics? Perhaps IKEA, with its Borg-like blue cube buildings spread across the globe, is somehow the harbinger of fascism.

But its products are so reasonably priced, Emma. Sieg heil to savings!

Generally, if one finds oneself at IKEA it is because he or she has recently moved house, or scored the big £15 scratch-card windfall. In my case it was the former; last Sunday, as the sun was setting, I locked up my old house, said goodbye to my neighbours and drove away with tears in my eyes. The tears were not for the house, itself possessing all the personality of an unsuccessful Burnsville mayoral candidate, but for what the house once meant -- the dreams, hopes and expectations now gone.

Walking through it one last time, ensuring nothing had been left, my mind flashed back to that first day I saw the beige carpet and cream walls of 3 Kirton Close: 12 July 2006. Rachel and I had flown 11 hours from Minneapolis-St. Paul to London Gatwick, rented a car and driven several more hours to Wales' capital city. Discomfort and excitement had kept me from sleeping on the plane; we arrived Cardiff in a state of exhausted delirium, myself driving on an auto-pilot state rendered from the hours upon hours I had previously spent staring at the city via Google Maps. Our new country. Our new city. Our new home. Our new life. Our future. Our place to belong.

That new life, too, was christened by a visit to IKEA. Our first meal in Britain was at the cafeteria there; I had fish and chips. I insisted upon buying a dozen tea mugs that day because I was certain our house would become a kind of social centre. I envisioned people always popping by for a cuppa, barbecues and big meals -- the house warm with talking and laughter. I envisioned Rachel and I finding roots, building a family.

I left all those tea mugs in the cupboard last Sunday. Many of them had never been used. That house had become a mausoleum. It was a decaying memorial to What Was Supposed To Have Been.

Have you ever seen pictures of Michigan Central Station, Emma? It's the grand and imposing train station built in Detroit in 1913 in that bold, fearless style of architecture that punches you in the chest with pride and purpose. Do an internet image search for Michigan Central Station now, though, and you will see pictures of an abandoned building in a kind of decay that seems impossible for America. There are no wars to blame, no violent uprisings; it is simply neglect. Absence on such a scale that it induces a person to shake with weeping -- absence to create anger and searing bitterness.

That old house had become the Michigan Central Station of my soul, Emma. After Rachel left, I touched nothing for almost a year. When she showed up this past summer to collect things while I was visiting the States, she found her bible exactly where she had last set it. Even after that, things were simply hidden away rather than dealt with. In preparing to leave the house I had to venture into the attic, where I was confronted by our wedding album. Just touching it hurt. I opened it up and caught a glimpse of just one photo -- me scrawny and grinning stupid, she so beautiful in the desert sun -- and fell down crying. I cried for at least 20 minutes before I even thought to move.

In 1913, Michigan Central Station must have been a reason in and of itself to take the train. Now it is a reason to never set foot in Detroit.

In Britain during the Middle Ages, Emma, those who could afford to do so would occasionally set aside a plot of land, known as a chantry, to help sustain a priest who would then be tasked with the job of praying for that person's soul. A chantry is an attempt at redemption, an attempt to make things right, an attempt to rise above the misery.

The old Welsh word for chantry is "adur." The Welsh for "the chantry," then, would be "yr adur." And that, of course, becomes Radur, the name of the village where I now live -- also spelled Radyr. Roughly 150 metres and 1,500 years from my new home, a hermit named Tylyway lived in a cave and spent his days praying for the soul of a person long forgotten. The caves are now places for teenagers to smoke cigarettes and make out; the land that sustained Tylyway is populated by brand new town homes.

Predictably, that collection of town homes has been given an utterly misleading name by the company erecting the uninspiringly similar brick buildings: Lychgate Gardens. We have a large green that looks a bit like an alien landing field, Emma, but I have seen no gardens.

For roughly a century, the area where Lychgate Gardens now stands was one of the busiest rail junctions in Britain. Trains pouring down from the valleys with coal and tin and iron ore and copper and whatever else they could rip out of the mountains would be held up there before being dispatched to one of South Wales' various ports. Most of the tracks have since been removed but for the City and Rhondda-Merthyr rail lines. Still more than 200 trains a day pass through Radyr station, about a 10-minute walk from my house.

When I first moved to Cardiff, the area was brownfield. Almost nothing grew in the place that would become Lychgate Gardens. A family of the most depressing mud-caked horses you have ever seen would pick at whatever grass they could find. It is unlikely the land sustained them enough that they were ever inclined to pray for a person's soul. If unimaginative new houses must be built, Emma, I suppose it is best for them to be built in such places. Trees weren't torn down to build the home I now live in. Mud was shifted.

And just because a place is unimaginative now, perhaps that doesn't reflect future opinions of it. Those grand homes that line Merrion Square in Dublin were once seen as unimaginative blocks to throw people in. Oscar Wilde was raised in one and detested it. Now the cost of those homes is so extreme I cannot actually imagine what it would be like to live there; I can't fathom having the means to do so. Perhaps, then, 150 years on people will speak in breathy, excited tones about the life I am now living.

Whether one can in the present romanticise the life I am now living depends on perspective. On the negative side, I am a divorced, unemployed man who has been forced financially into renting a room in someone else's house. On the positive side, I am a single artist who is sharing a home with two younger women -- one who used to be a gymnast and the other a competitive ballroom dancer. I am either to be pitied or envied.

Let's go with envied, Emma. Because I haven't even told you about the burlesque performer.

Admittedly, this is not exactly where I would place myself. But life in the chantry is not so terribly terrible. Radyr has not one pub, but there are eight trains an hour to city centre and the journey only takes 10 minutes. The house is actually quite nice, despite my natural aversion to a new build. That aversion comes from the fact so many new houses are slapped together and look like they could not weather the 150 years or so it will take for them to have character. But this one seems sturdy enough. And since the house is not mine, it's unlikely I'll live here long enough to be affected either way.

Up the hill lies a small alpaca farm. Literally a stone's throw away runs the River Taff. On quiet evenings I can hear the river rushing past and an owl somewhere in the trees. On those rare nights in Britain when one can see the sky, light pollution is minimal enough I can see Orion from my bedroom window. I can see a castle from my living room. And, as mentioned already, I live with two women.

I'd like to stress that point, Emma. Two women. There is no point in my life at which you could have said to me, "Chris, as you near 35 years of age you will be living in a big house with two women," and I would have seen that negatively. Whether 7, 17, or 27 years old, I would always have identified that as success.

Helen, who owns the house, used to trampoline for Wales. With her living on the top floor of our three-storey house, some part of me oh-so-slightly wishes we would have a fire just for the sake of seeing her leap out the window when the fire brigade arrives. The firemen would be out there, poised with the blanket to catch her and I'd be shouting: "Put a spotlight on her! This is your moment, Helen! Triple flip! Triple flip!"

My other housemate, Lydia, is from Poland. I sang her a few verses of "Lydia the Tattooed Lady" and she was unimpressed. Probably because she is from Poland. The only other Polish woman I am aware of is "Strictly Come Dancing" star Ola Jordan, who also has a rather straightforward nature that doesn't lend itself to humouring stupid Americans singing ditties from the 1930s. And like Ola, Lydia was a competitive ballroom dancer for a time. Lydia gave it up when her competition partner developed an affection for folk dancing.

"This is not real dancing," she explained. "It is jumping up and down. It is sort of thing you do after being stuck in cave, wearing silly clothes and bells and like this."

And that is my life, Emma. I am living the premise of a sitcom. I can only hope that at some point this results in walk-on appearances of celebrities in my kitchen and occasionally having to pause when entering a room to allow for the applause to die down.

I hope you are well. Say hello to everyone back home. Please send nude photos.

I remain your faithful friend,