Monday, April 27, 2009

“The world is there, the world is not awaiting our interpretations but unresisting when we compose them and it may be that the mere semblance of the world’s acquiescence to our metaphor-making leads us deeper and deeper into illusion. Joyce Carol Oates

AN AMERICAN IN…UM…LEICESTER: Or I used to love jet lag, but I was so much younger then.

“This year, of course, entertaining our crowd (for my husband’s birthday) at our usual multi-star Michelin hotspots would simply not do…We ultimately picked the cozier restaurant—even though it ended up costing us more, so eager was the more chic outfit to host the party. Why spend the extra bucks? Because our chosen place is distinctly low-profile and rarely mentioned in the press.”

No, those are not my words, although we did just recently celebrate The Mister’s fiftieth birthday. The quote above comes from the wife of the CEO of one of the biggest TARP recipients, of late deprived of ostentatious opulence. On my fiftieth—which still appears closer in the rear view memory mirror although it is many, many miles down the road—The Mister and I hiked into the Grand Canyon for a very nearly overwhelming experience in the land of the Havasupi Nation, which bears retelling someday.

For The Mister’s fiftieth we flew out of Newark International airport on the last day of March and found our sleepy, fool hearty selves in the Midlands in England on the first morning of April. And just like the newly frugal rich, we didn’t use the company plane; though we saw no sign of even a lone paparazzo staked out at the arrivals terminal at Birmingham International airport; just the early morning welcome on the smiling face of our friend Jazz. She bravely navigated the rush hour motorway back to Montague Road in Leicester before heading off to her office.

The Contessa, whose comfortable house on Montague Road she so generously made available to us for the next five nights was about to head back to the airport. She was on her way to one of the 70 islands of the Orkney archipelago to the north of the mainland of Scotland in search of family history. Both of her parents are Celtic; neither side landowners, and she supposes they were probably warring tribal robbers from the English Scottish border region. The cast of characters on my maternal side lists French Canadian fur thieves, so there’s a romantic link to our friendship. But before she left we three enjoyed a much-anticipated breakfast at The Jones Café on Queens Road within steps of The Contessa’s front door; veggie for me and The Mister. Over a traditional English breakfast, though free of meat—Quorn bangers (yay, no pigs), beans, potatoes, mushrooms, and tomatoes—she handed us the keys to her house and garden and left us in charge of her chatty gray cat, dubbed Pusskin.

After breakfast, The Mister and I curled into the only nap (or kip as they say) that we would manage in a hectic, non-stop week. We were looking forward to catching up with friends before they left for the Easter holidays, a birthday party for The Mister, and four of his gigs in addition to a live interview on BBC Radio Leicester—all in a week. The first gig was only hours away. 

We met for an early dinner with friends at a Spanish-style restaurant we visit when we are in Leicester. It’s called Barceloneta and it’s on Queens Road. Tapas selections are larger and more liberally portioned with patatas bravas and croquetas than I can recall being served in Spain years ago or even at the splendid tapas bars in New York. On our very first visit the waiter at Barceloneta had blanched as I ticked off numerous offerings on the menu visualizing the little canapés we enjoy with our wine or sherry at tapas bars in Manhattan. He finally routed his British reserve and suggested to this American that I had overdone it and we choose heedfully now. Garlic mushrooms always a favorite. We ordered three plates among us. 

Our lively party, well sated and buzzed with sangria, headed off to the open mic at The Donkey on Welford Road. Phoebe and B.L. Zeebüb were off to Scotland the next day so we were lucky to catch up with them. I had one of those delightfully convoluted, rabbit-hole conversations with B.L. that only make intangible sense in the sangria and jet lag context. Siggy and Jazz, joined by their 18-year-old daughter who is a dynamite sax player were our nearly constant companions in Leicester. Siggy serves The Mister well as not only a good friend and fellow musician, but is also a super-charged cheerleading manager for him in Leicester.

It’s always a new experience for me, listening to the songs that The Mister and I write and he performs publicly. For most of my life I had been a painter. When a completed canvas was transported outside my studio to a gallery show or eventually hung in another’s home I was often, well, disappointed. Certainly not by the appearance of the painting itself, but rather by a sense of attachment I’d had to it while creating it in the studio, which seemed to have disappeared when it had gone. I could see it and appreciate it but it never evolved once the pigment was dry and I let it go quite easily. Not so with the songs. As long as we work on a new one and as many times as I hear them coming from the back room of our apartment in Manhattan when The Mister is rehearsing it never fails to surprise me when I hear the song played out in public. And it is always a pleasant surprise. It’s as if the song, unlike the painting, has an organic life of its own. I often catch myself humming our tunes. You can’t hum a painting. Hearing the newest songs like “Living In a Mike Leigh World” and “Feral Woman” played out live can’t be beat. Hearing our song, “Greenhill Road” played for the very people who inspired it—Jazz and Siggy—well, it’s just icing on the cake, or rather to the point, the foamy head on a pint of Guinness where a clever bartender scrawls a cloverleaf.

The interview at BBC Radio Leicester on Thursday afternoon went off quite well, I thought. The show opened with a recorded version of “Mike Leigh World.” The Mister was in fine voice and sang “Greenhill Road” live. Jazz, clearly touched, watched from the other side of the glass. Chris Baxter, or “The Baxterman” as he is known, is an easygoing presenter and he drew us right in. It wasn’t supposed to be “us” as I declined at first and said I only wanted to take photographs—silently. But Chris had me at a mic before I knew what hit me. Slightly startled, I remember prattling on inanely about life in New York, being a native New Yorker, treading dangerously on the side of nobody knows New York like a native. And no, it wasn’t all “Sex & the City.” The Mister was much more literate in telling of his growing up in Leicester, reminiscing about his dad—an accomplished piano player in his own right—taking him down to London for guitar lessons with the venerable Joe Pass. A day after we returned to New York, we happened to be on the Lower East Side for a bit of theater. It's historically where immigrants settled and remnants of the old Jewish life peer from behind the urban middle class that own the streets now. As we made our jet-lagged way through those streets crowded with entitled, cigarette smoking tourists and hipsters, chock-a-block with their trendy watering holes, I remarked to The Mister: "Er, maybe it is all Sex and the City."

Before the radio interview we killed time, cornered by an effusively chatty guide who prattled on about the Craddock crowd, I think, memorialized in the Church of St Martin. Built atop Roman foundations, the rather smallish cathedral is situated across cobblestone streets from Radio Leicester and adjacent to the well-haunted Guild Hall, which is a beautiful Grade I listed timber-framed building, with the earliest part dating from c1390. Afterwards we wandered into the city center with Jazz, picked up tickets for a dance performance at The Curve—currently Leicester’s most talked about bit of architecture—and grabbed a bite at Café Roma on Rutland Street, one of Jazz’s lunchtime haunts.

Delicious home cooked Pasta Puttanesca for an early dinner back on Greenhill Road and then off to another gig at the Donkey. Gaz Birtels runs the monthly Song Club, a lively evening of singer songwriters for which he slotted in The Mister on short notice. (“Hey Gaz. Get that webcam up and running again so The Mister and I have a life back here in Manhattan!”) I should say here that this trip was initially planned as a surprise for The Mister’s birthday. His idea of pizza and wine at our favorite haunt uptown didn’t seem to me to be celebratory enough, though it is really good coal-fired, brick-oven pizza. Unbeknownst to The Mister I set about contacting the players who would be needed to make this trip a reality: his boss at the day job didn’t hesitate and immediately gave him the necessary time off. Siggy and Jazz were well up for a party in their house but when Siggy suggested gigs while in Leicester I knew I had to blow my cover and reveal all to the Mister. “I can’t tell you what we are doing for your birthday, but bring your guitar. And pack a tuner, capos, extra strings and plectrums, and…er…the flight case. Oh and don’t forget your passport.”

And it was a kind of surprise when mates of his he had not seen in yonks had heard the radio interview and showed up at The Donkey: Phil Croxford, Allen Jones, Romeo Challenger. Bendy Alex hadn’t remembered meeting me (when I was blonde, sporting a short, punky haircut and much younger) until I reminded him that he had framed a portrait of The Mister I had done for his parents. He remembered that. Many more familiar faces appeared. The Howard Road gang turned out. Our mellow trumpet-playing friend “Uncle” Stanley greeted us with an expansive grin; calling me his American friend—his only American friend. His son Drew was there, a saxophonist extraordinaire who now tours with The Specials, recently re-formed. We had the pleasure of seeing Drew last year back home at Otto’s Shrunken Head, a hole-in-the-wall dive on East 14th Street, where his ska band, El Pussycat, brought the house down and showed New York musos how it’s done. He would appear with The Specials on the Jools Holland Show the following evening in London. Among our friends it was as if there had been no time between the last time, a couple of years ago. Characters in the audience, like the vociferous woman with the enchanting sobriquet of “Liverpool Annie” added to the colorful palette. John Butler from Diesel Park West—the band that very nearly made it—was there. I suspect his presence was more down to making sure that The Mister, who would be opening for him and Rick Wilson at The Musician the following night, wasn’t a complete wanker onstage. The Mister did not disappoint and jet lag notwithstanding, he rocked.

Jazz had decided to take a few days off from work to hang with us and wisely directed us to Bradgate Park the next morning, a Friday. We opted for the very lovely (and for this American, authentic) Jade Tearooms across the road from the park’s entrance. The menu promised a wealth of delicious choices, and possibly one of the best omelets I have had. I’m not a cake eater but the scones oozing with Devonshire cream never left my line of sight until one had arrived before me.

Tea cups with a handle are held by placing one’s fingers to the front and back of the handle with one’s pinkie up again allows balance. Pinkie up does mean straight up in the air, but slightly tilted. It is not an affectation, but a graceful way to avoid spills. Never loop your fingers through the handle, nor grasp the vessel bowl with the palm of your hand.

I’m afraid my big American paw fails tea etiquette, so I opted for a large cup of coffee; that and the fact that only coffee serves to reconstitute my American brain after a late night.

Bradgate Park holds a special place in our hearts; in mine it’s more recently held. But The Mister has fond childhood memories of family outings. It was a place his mum championed and after her first visit to Central Park she crowed confidently: “Just wait until you see our Bradgate Park.” And she was right. Only fifteen minutes from the center of Leicester, it trumps our park with a river running through it—the Lin. It’s an open ruggedly rocky heath covered with bracken, affording spectacular views. We once sighted the elusive white deer! Fabulously weird trees—Jazz called them Monkey Trees—tower over the path into the park. The ruins of the birthplace of Lady Jane Grey crown a rise in the distance. A killer plant called Deadly Nightshade is allowed to grow among the ruins for “historical purposes.” Not much fun being a Queen, I suspect, even if for only nine days.

Stopped on the path by the comical sight of a youthful gang of deer considering how to navigate over a stone wall, we noticed a parade of stags streaming down a steep hill in the protected area the little ones were aiming for. We watched transfixed as these majestic beasts hurtled down the slope, unhindered by the weight and extravagance of their impressive antlers, first stopping to dip shoulder-high into the river before making their way to a herd of females. Getting ready for a little  snogging action, perhaps? Sure, maybe when tourists weren’t gawping at them.

It was time to get back. We crossed paths with a friend of The Mister’s we had just seen at the gig the night before. Allen Jones, accompanied by his missus, was pushing their grandchildren in a double stroller taking in the sunshine. Allen and “Uncle” Stanley had been in a very popular 70’s band called Mint. The Mister reflected that he recalled last seeing Allen’s children when they were the size of the grandkids in the stroller! We both can’t help but be reminded of our last trip to Bradgate Park with The Mister’s parents, when his father was already confined to a wheelchair and before the ones left behind forgot how to love. Bittersweet, it was.

As we were still on the run, those few quiet moments in nature’s abundance served us well. But there was a birthday cake yet to be found—at Marks & Spencer—which surprised me because I’d once heard the Mister rattle superlatives about the underwear. Cake, too? Who knew! The Mister had to rehearse and because a late night pursuit of fish and chips the night before was woefully unsuccessful, we indulged in the biggest, greasiest nest of fish and chips from Grimsby Fisheries before heading our bloated selves off to The Musician.

The Mister was opening for John Butler and Rick Wilson and the venue had a good crowd who, apart from our friendly support group, were there to see Leicester’s hometown music heroes from Diesel Park West and got a great performance from The Mister in the bargain. I had seen DPW some years ago at a downtown club in Manhattan and was hooked. As a duo John and Rick still reign and Butler’s lyrics are stronger than a lot of the singer songwriters I have heard since. It was also nice to reconnect with Rick’s gorgeous wife, Karen. Mr. Lovepenney showed up with his new/old love Sue. Her importance in his life had been kept under wraps for some time, even from an old friend like The Mister and we were well pleased to finally meet the reason for his seemingly sudden shift from muted disheartenment to blazing happiness.

Back on Montague Road, after a solid performance by The Mister—on his birthday, no less—and much imbibed mingling with friends at the Musician’s bar, we dropped off the guitar and made a dash to the local pub at the top of the Contessa’s road. It wasn’t midnight yet but the Clarendon—fondly known as the Clary—had already called last orders and we suddenly knew we weren’t in New York anymore. Still addled by the time difference, we went back ‘home’ and indulged in something the Contessa had gifted us with, cracked open a bottle of the red and stroked the grey Pusskin who lets herself in through one of those ubiquitous cat flaps carved into the back doors of feline-friendly Leicester homes. A cat flap in the door of a New York City apartment would bring more surprises than we could handle, possibly none of them actually cats. We hunkered down to channel surf the telly until the wee hours. Further confounding our tenuous grip on time, we came across the comedy program, Live At the Apollo headlined by our very own brand of bizarreness, American comedian Joan Rivers, which we had already seen back in New York. Didn’t stop us from howling with laughter.

Like the song says, “Morning comes before I’m ready….”* We were up and at it again on Saturday. There was shopping to be done for the party. My weakness for a turn through Sainsbury’s was not to be indulged for lack of time and proximity and so we took off for Morrison’s with Siggy at the wheel while Jazz tended to preparations closer to Greenhill Road. A reminder that there was a branch of Sainsbury’s under construction right near the Jones Café on Queens Road comforted me. I don’t know what it is about a good supermarket—and many in the U.K. fall into that category. I love, love, love it. Five minutes in a department store, even an upscale one, especially an upscale store, surrounded by all those things, and I’m anxious and glistening with beads of sweat, openly searching for the nearest exit. Never mind that it’s state-of-the-art shopping in John Lewis, surrounded by their trademark bone white china, Jamie Oliver’s collection or Emma Bridgewater’s polka dots. Doesn’t matter that it’s Royal Doulton or royal anything. Love it? Not so much.

But aisles and aisles of fresh produce, the promise of a good meal made at home, the international food sections, bottled beers with names like Spit Fire, Bishops Finger and the “legendary” Tangle Foot, and those great English cheeses (yay for Red Leicester, which is generally unavailable to me) energize me into…well…a happy person.

Here, I have to say that the half-mile-round-trip walk between Montague Road and Greenhill Road a few times every day was the semblance of normalcy that I needed. Everything else had fallen away from the moment we arrived, having lost a day somewhere en route. Our inner clocks were wildly off kilter. The pace we set for ourselves back home in order to write and produce songs is rather more ordered. I happily cook nearly every night and revel in the meditative nature of daily marketing. I make periodic journeys downtown for the dharma gatherings at Shambhala, or meet with the CEDP book club and prison letter-writing group uptown. Long hours are spent at the laptop writing. Books are read voraciously. I begin my day with a run in Central Park around the reservoir and then often set out of an afternoon for some solitary lost walking in the north end of the park, unless I can persuade The Mister to join me on his days off. On the run constantly in Leicester I found it difficult to order my thoughts or get to my journal and relied more heavily on my faithful old camera that would unknowingly be replaced by a newer sexier model when we got home. But the daily walks between Greenhill Road and the Contessa’s house served us well, especially after I persuaded The Mister to alter our route and trundle across a different road each time.

The clack of the doorknocker on Greenhill Road announced the arrival of guests and this continued until the front room was a jolly mélange of friends and well wishers. Mr. Porthole—one of the Mister’s oldest friends—had come up from Brighton. Later The Mister would catch me sneaking a cigarette with him in the front garden. Lady Di was there from Winchester with her shyly handsome teenage son Antony. I missed seeing her older daughter Rosie, who was celebrating another friend’s birthday in London—someone presumably much closer to her eighteen years. Professor Mercy from Cambridge appeared and I watched as Lady Di passed her copy of my novel on to him, which she’d read and critiqued in every incarnation to the bitter end. “Feels like a doctoral thesis,” he intoned and spirited it away.

The Howard Road gang stopped in on their way to a more exotic, less landlocked holiday on the island of Mauritius. Presumably they were aware that the Dodo had long since left the building. Jazz’s lovely friend Chris was with her daughter who commented prettily on my Doc Marten’s. I looked around at all the young daughters in the room and marveled at their beauty—to a one. “Uncle” Stanley and Maggie followed the crowd bemusedly. Or maybe they were watching me freely indulge in the red and snapping photos of everyone in sight. Mr. Lovepenney and his paramour arrived later and restarted the engines, so to speak. (Sorry about the paramour reference Sue, just dying to use the word in a sentence!) The birthday cake was a wedding cake in disguise. Put off by the sugary confections on offer at M&S and quite sure a Teletubby mug on a cake wouldn’t do, Jazz and I decided on the white-iced fruitcake, which I augmented with candles in the design of a peace symbol. At one dozen candles to a box we thought it wasteful to buy an extra box figuring (wrongly) that no one would notice there were only 48 candles ablaze. A delightful, sharp-eyed, purple-haired sprite from next door challenged that notion. Cheeky girl.

It was much easier to (quietly amidst the chaos) celebrate Lady Di’s upcoming birthday with a single candle on a birthday cupcake. If not for the magic of photography then this momentous occasion might have gone unrecorded.

Saved from the traditional celebratory late-night evil shot of tequila merely by knocking over my full glass, I managed to wake at first light. We had stayed overnight on Greenhill Road and I prompted The Mister to a walk through the Sunday morning quiet back to Montague Road. Inexplicably, I decided that my new favorite word was “arse” and everything was “my arse this” and “my arse that” and the only other sound besides the early morning bird chorus was The Mister laughing. 

Still feeling pretty chirpy I looked forward to coffee in the Contessa’s back garden. Barefoot and armed with the Sunday Observer I trotted across the dewy velvet lawn to the trellised bench at the bottom of the garden. The Contessa’s house is a terraced house on a street of nearly look-alike houses. It’s probably about 120 years old and, as she told me, therefore built for Victorian working class families. Nowadays it is home to the Contessa and her beloved Pusskin but then it housed whole families, maybe even as many as eight in residence. “Incidentally,” she told me later, “my house in Leicester is almost identical to the one my father grew up in Belfast. Must be some subconscious memory guiding me here!” Subconscious memory: what a gift when we discover where it’s taken us. 

Soon, too soon, it was time to put the paper down, shoo Pusskin off my lap, get the walking shoes on again and head off for a place called Rutland Waters; another brilliant suggestion on Jazz’s part. Grabbing a fistful of still savory samosas left over from the party we piled into the car, adjusted our sunglasses (yay, sun!) with Siggy at the wheel. 

I marvel constantly in Leicester at how quickly one can be in the countryside. In the fenced-in verdant fields flanking the road, lambs were in abundance; springing for all they were worth on their new legs only recently folded in mama’s belly. We were off to look for Ospreys! 

The brochure tells you that the reservoir was built in the 1970s to supply water to the East Midlands and originally named Empingham reservoir. It lies near Oakham in the county of Rutland—the smallest county in England. Rutland Water, as it is known presently, is now Rutland's most popular tourist attraction, the largest man-made lake in Western Europe; an area of 3100 acres offering activities for all ages. That’s the upside.

What actually happened was that the area was purposely flooded. It was an area where there once stood a village with shops, a church and houses, and presumably people who had gardens to putter in, teapots to warm, and who were happy in their homes.

But, back to the birds. Before heading off in search of Osprey Jazz and I stood for a few moments in a blind near the main entrance to the bird sanctuary while Siggy and The Mister debated the merits of the bicycles at the post. Cheered at first by the diminutive finches at the feeders, Jazz and I were distracted by the big brown rat scuttling under the woodpile. This one was a long way from the gritty New York underground variety and probably unaware of how blessed it was.

I noticed, right off the bat, that the use of cell phones was not prohibited. They were employed freely much to my disenchantment, though I did not recall hearing them in use in the blinds, only out in the open. The myriad of ring tones and attendant conversations having to be voiced over the more soothing susurrus of nature made me think about the bird walking tours I have joined in Central Park. I pale in comparison to real bird watchers. Pale in their zeal, in their knowledge, in their equipment. But I do know that a ringing cell phone under a nesting Screech Owl would have been the equivalent of firing an AK-47. New York City bird watchers are a serious bunch. When I am in nature I love listening to bird song. I don’t necessarily have to know the bird’s identity, though I am thrilled when I do. It’s like a foreign language I am happy to listen to, and more melodic when the words are not actually understood.

Jazz got us to the blind where we were most likely going to spot an Osprey. Serious camera equipment protruded from the breasts of bird watchers. The guide installed there was getting radio updates on the Osprey’s whereabouts. They had been nesting here only since 1999. The first Osprey chick to fledge in central England for 150 years was hatched in 2001. It was pointed out to me where the artificial nesting poles stood and I craned for a look at the nest at the top but saw nothing. I concentrated more on the body of water and what lie beneath. It had a rather desolate feel to it, scraggly treetops poking from the surface, like desiccated hands waving for help.

Osprey-deprived, but not for long. We were off to visit friends of Siggy and Jazz who live in a stately renovated farmhouse in nearby Exton. 

One of the pleasures, I think, that is so specific to the English countryside is the rush to an outdoor tea when the weather is kind and we were served generously with freshly brewed tea and home-baked cake at a picnic table under the open-air garden shed at Phil and Janet’s home. Later we walked through the expansive fields surrounding their house to the place where Phil and Janet had discovered that an Osprey had built a nest on a pole very near their home. And indeed, there was an Osprey head poking from the nest. But even aided by binoculars, from my vantage it looked like the eraser on the end of a pencil. Still, it was exciting. The sudden rumble from the underbrush and the explosion of white-tailed deer that had been startled by our homeward bound conversation was very exciting indeed. As Phil told us some of the feudal history of the area I mused silently, “If I was one of those serfs I’d be thinking Lord Shithead could jolly well wait until I was good and ready to sow those rutted fields. Lordship my arse.”

Sleepy from a day of inhaling country air and the kind of hunger that walking in nature brings needed an excellent resolution. So, we headed back to Leicester, collected the sax-playing daughter, and made our way to an Indian restaurant highly recommend by her parents. Poppadoms on Welford Road revealed a capacious ‘Restaurants-R-Us’ interior, which belied the very good quality of the food. And nothing better goes with excellent curries than to wash it all down with a tall, chilled bottle (or two) of Kingfisher beer. The teenager (fully old enough) rounded out her meal with a shot of Southern Comfort. Brought back fond memories, that did.

Undeterred by copious amounts of spicy vindaloos and kormas, chutneys, paratha, and rounds of beer, we said good night to the Greenhill Road crew at their door and raced back to Montague road. This time we were determined to make it to the Clary before last call. And we did.

The Contessa was expected Monday evening and we would spend the remainder of the holiday at the Greenhill Road sanctuary. Before setting off for Market Harborough in Leicestershire, we unpacked into our room at the top. I have an idea for a story that would be placed in a village, or on the outskirts of one like Hallaton. Siggy, once again commanding the role of intrepid driver, knows the area well and we headed for Hallaton. Patiently, he stopped when I wanted a shot of the countryside or some recognizable building for authenticity. I especially wanted place names on signposts like Slawston, Medbourne, Blaston. 

Hallaton is a picturesque manicured village of thatched cottages and curvy roads. Doorways are bowered with flowering vines. Nameplates are affixed: Rose Cottage, Ivy Cottage or simply The Cottage, which was formerly Angel Inn. We walked around the eerily deserted village. It was a workday after all and unlike earlier residents there was probably a much higher ratio of computer techs and bankers to actual farmers. We were stopped by the sound of a guitar being hammered, coming from an upstairs window of a sweet rose-brick house on the bend, a little mushroom cap-shaped tree in the front garden. Turned out to be the home of Siggy’s friends and the guitar hammerer, their son, came down to chat for a moment.

I was mesmerized by dark splotches in the still bare trees that turns out are rookeries. The big black birds—rooks—create havoc when they are nesting and drop twigs into the villagers’ chimneys. Alfred Hitchcock came to mind (how could he not?) under the unnerving squawking of the things in the treetops across the road and I deflected my over-stimulated imagination from a frightening scenario.

Hungry now and disappointed that both pubs in this idyllic village were shut we headed off in search of a late lunch. We stopped to ask about our chances of finding a pub still serving. What fun to discover a poster in the window of the village post office announcing an upcoming gig of Siggy’s band Midlive Crises.

A charming 2-storied white birdhouse with a red-shingled roof, tenanted by equally white pigeons greeted us in the car park of the Neville Arms. I am always on the alert for signs from the Universe, and as my unpublished novel is titled: A Birdhouse In Brooklyn, I took this as a sign. The Neville Arms is just what I had in mind of rural England. In the village of Medbourne and so authentic it was rebuilt in 1863. It was originally an old stable yard and inn and reachable from the car park by a pack horse bridge across a placid, algae-patched ford. One enters through an impressive studded oak door to an interior with oak beamed ceilings and a stone fireplace, with a gentle diffused light coming from the leaded windows. A peek into a separate rear dining area revealed a modern upscale setting that would suit a discerning Manhattanite’s taste, even one as wealthy as our “struggling” TARP wife. But I wondered, why here?

I tucked into a welcome plate of perfectly cooked fish and chips served with mushy peas. Grimsby Fisheries couldn’t hold a fishhook to this version. Chatting up the barmaid/server, Siggy asked her about the upcoming bottle kicking. Seemed this would be the pub to catch the spillover of a hungry and thirsty crowd who followed this wacky annual event in the countryside on Easter Monday. The Mister and I were lucky to experience it two years ago. It involves beer and hare pie and a rivalry between Hallaton and the neighboring village of Medbourne that goes back to, oh, Pagan times; halted only once, from what I’ve read, by a scare of foot and mouth disease in 2001. Quite an impressive event all started over a bit of looted beer. Feuds die hard in the countryside. The barmaid was looking forward to the celebration, cheerily declaring it would be “…all hands to the pump.

I was still mulling a story idea and, as well, knew that my sister-in-law had relocated to their new house, which I recalled was somewhere in the surrounding area. She never gave us the address, preferring it seems to break her brother’s heart after their mum died and well, just leave it at that. I recalled bits of conversation before that injustice and as Siggy coasted along country roads we kept a sharp eye. Sure enough, their car and truck were spotted in a driveway. The garage door was open to her husband’s workshop. There was the house, a nondescript bungalow, behind a low, crumbling moss-covered stone wall, the rear of the house overlooking the huge expanse of open fields that his sister had coveted and would finally get; but at a shameful cost. I popped out and snapped a few photos while The Mister and Siggy waited out of sight. The house is called “Brookside.” More apt might be “Breakside.”

Perhaps sensing what an emotional impact this would have on his friend, Siggy headed straight for the small market town of nearby Uppingham. The charm of its shops, hidden courtyards, the impressive Falcon Hotel, and the school—a real boarding school—where Stephen Fry was once a pupil were a welcome distraction. Later I discovered that Boris Karloff had also been a student there. We had a wide array of antique shops to peruse and popped into a couple. Siggy seems to know everybody. A friendly shop owner told us that a few weeks before there were busloads and busloads of American tourists buying up everything in sight. I silently thanked the Universe for this close call. There were still plenty of gimcracks to be had as far as I could tell. I came away with a definitely overpriced (even though I got a “deal”) packet of randy postcards from the 50’s. I wished I had not left the little pitcher behind that had inscribed on it: “He that buys flesh buys bones.”

Any plans for an early evening were happily quashed with a phone call from “Uncle” Stanley.

We missed the monthly gig of the Leicester Big Band this time but as luck would have it we were invited to a rehearsal that night. My father passed on a love of Big Band and enduringly romantic songs to me. The Mister’s father was an accomplished piano player who favored that musical era. So off we went, leaving a very tired Jazz behind. Was it vicarious jet lag? We certainly had enough to go around. Twisty fate landed us in Wigston at the Royal British Legion club, a place we’d passed as many times as we used to visit my sister-in-law in their former house, a semi-detached bungalow on Embarton Close. “Uncle” Stanley greeted us and warned us not to disturb the bingo players. Led by Roger Parsons, every band member hails from Leicestershire. Apart from “Uncle” Stanley playing trumpet, Ricky Wilson switches musical gears and leaving the rock and roll for the night, strums a jazzy, swingy guitar in the band. The featured vocalists—Morgan Perkins and Karen Jamieson—between them do a fine job of covering songs made memorable by Sinatra, Fitzgerald, Dean Martin, and Rosemary Clooney.

Siggy, The Mister, and I nearly had the rehearsal to ourselves. No sea of grey heads this time, temperately nodding to the fully danceable band while the Big, LOUD, American in the audience swings her husband around to “The Story of Love.” Frankly, by this time, the Big LOUD American was too bushed to beat the band. I was perfectly content to sit quietly and take in songs like “On the Street Where You live,” “Fly Me To the Moon,” and a delightful duet of “How Do You Like Your Eggs In the Morning?” (I like mine with a kiss…)

It’s clear from the start that this band just does it for love. So, there is only mild disappointment among the brass section pensioners to find out the guy expected to deliver the exotic ‘pastries’ had gone to Devon for the weekend and wound up eating it all.

I think by this point in the trip I was practically hallucinating from lack of a really, really sound sleep and really, really needed some alcohol-free downtime. We did manage a late afternoon “walking and talking” the day before. This is when we are starting a new song with an idea that had been kicking around in our heads and we grab the recorder and just walk and talk the song into form. A good tuck in with a book would not have gone amiss either, or a languid listen to BBC Radio 4. Our friends seemed not too interested in Radio 4 and preferred driving to American southern R&B and watching imported sitcoms like “The Gilmore Girls.” (Full disclosure: I loved that series, even the last, tired season.) At home we listen to Radio 4 over the Internet at dinner and sometimes before we turn in. The Shipping News is airwave Valium. The return of the News Quiz has cheered us considerably. We can watch almost any of the British television shows via the Internet and do. Episodic programs about carping among the gardeners, the cooks, and the resident family of Nicolsen’s behind the scenes at Sissinghurst Castle are addictive. 

The penultimate day of our trip—a Tuesday—started with breakfast at The Jones Café as it was on our way to a good walk across Victoria Park to the City Centre of Leicester. The Mister got some new shirts at Pilot and I added to the collection of fridge magnets growing like colorful acne across the face of the kitchen cabinet at home. I was able to replace the souvenir Leicester tea towel, which his mum had given me years ago and now was hardly less worn than the scrap of linen it is claimed shrouded Jesus. These aren’t the souvenirs that get stored away until they get thrown away. I had happily packed up all the tea towels left behind in mum’s house after she died; the used ones as well as those we had given her. They were still unwrapped in kitchen drawers—good linen dishtowels from the gift shop at The Metropolitan Museum in New York just up the road from us—never used and perhaps too precious to her. Sure his sister got the monetary bulk of the estate, such as it was, but she’ll never feel the love of an old tea towel.

Trawling around Leicester it’s not difficult to see it is another city that has been discarding bits of its old soul and is not quite comfortable in newer, dressier, designer shoes. Not that the residents aren’t drawn to the humongous and starkly modern Highcross Shopping Center (re: Mall) and a four-story glassy emporium to merchandising called John Lewis. Shuttered shops on the High Street clutch the pavement like wallflowers that will no longer be asked to dance. And possibly I romanticize the loss to health and safety issues of the 2-story indoor Silver Arcade dating from 1899 and its quirky little shops because I still have the funky cap with the silk tassle I bought there years ago. A newer building my Leicester friends absolutely hate, I found cute and quirky. They call it the blue building with its patchwork of primary colors, which I quite like for a tall building. But I completely understand. People who live there react differently than we outsiders do. There are buildings in my city that I gawp sneeringly at now, especially down on the lower east side but that’s the nature of a city like mine. It doesn’t yet seem to be the nature of a city like Leicester but things change and things have changed a lot since we have been returning over the years. I am aware of the fact that if I ideate a memory of a place then I lock myself out of the ability to accept and revel in the changes. After all, New York City is all about change. But we don’t have those peculiar ornate archaic buildings, some of which are older than my country. Confronted by the odious chain of Subway shops now on the Queens Road and I react as if MacDonald’s had been stapled to the rim of the Grand Canyon. Oh, wait. It has been.

But how marvelous and darkly mysterious to be wandering the pedestrian malls on Gallowtree Gate and wondering, not unimaginatively, about the origins of the place name. The coarse shouts from the vendors at Leicester Market speak from the pages of Dickens or a PBS mini-series at least. The market is over 700 years old and it is Europe’s biggest covered market. I regret every visit there when I don’t come away with fresh produce destined for a home cooked meal that the sellers advertise barking out a rough sing song across the stalls. I must content myself with the purchase of hats, which I will bring back home and wear with pleasure.

One thing there seems to be in Leicester is an absence of tourists. As far as that goes it might actually be better to live in Leicester because you could safely count on not being disquieted by hordes of tourists—the likes of which are in my city now, global recession be damned! An anticipated quiet walk in the north end of Central Park on our return finds me surrounded by inconsiderately large groups of French and Italians and it’s only April. There’s a line to the restroom in the north end of the park. Beer bottles and bags of trash left behind at the reservoir fence are a disappointing start to the day.

As if one radio interview wasn’t enough for The Mister, a lovely young Asian woman gripping a microphone approached us in The Lanes. She was conducting a survey for Radio Leicester. Could we tell her what we thought a “quango” is? I begged off the question, burdened by American ignorance. Basically, it is a ‘shadow government’. The Mister answered correctly and was made to repeat it for her until she got a good sound bite.

It was time to make ready for dinner at The Jones. A hardy group of us would meet there after first having imbibed in that bottle of champagne Mr. Porthole had gifted The Mister at his birthday party.

More champagne cocktails at The Jones and then bottles of wine were drunk in short order. In my addled brain I imagined I could successfully employ the English art of the wind up. I thought I was actually beginning to get it, having had many run ins with English people who, with years of practice no doubt, practiced it on me. I never understood it and often had to reset my nose when I let it be pushed out of joint. The conversation, such as it was, wrested from coherence by rich food and plentiful drink, veered topically and one minute we were talking about Amy Winehouse, Paula Yates and the Daily Mail. Later, reflecting on the photographs from that night I realize I should have paid attention to The Mister’s warning eyeball-rolling when the subject got around to The Queen. He was clearly, yet silently, begging me: Not. The. Queen. (Note to self: “Your days as a Wind Up Merchant are so ooohva!”)

I have to say that I just don’t understand how when the subject of monarchy is brought up in even the most sober times it seems to strike a nerve, political predilections notwithstanding. The Mister’s family—leaning quite far from the left get practically apoplectic. Faces go red. People get shouty. Questioning the very nature of nursing a free loading monarchy in this day and age is met with, “You don’t understand. You’re American. The whole country’s tourism industry would fall apart.” I reminded my sister-in-law that France had a revolution and tourism didn’t suffer; that perhaps tourism could safely rely on good cheese and I much prefer English cheese. Add to that the spectacular countryside, history, and an exciting cornucopia of ethnicity. Though ethnicity is also a sore point to the monarch-loving, right wing. I am unhappy with the crushing advance of universal blandness, but still not fearful of other cultures. New York City draws tourists with its tall buildings and from the looks of it Leicester is getting more and more tall buildings for those rubber necked visitors who insist on looking up and never directly into the eyes of people around them.

But intelligent, cosmopolitan, and generously lefty friends at The Jones surrounded me and I was the stormy petrel in the flock, devoid of lambent wit. Bette Davis, as she did in All About Eve, would have intoned: “Fasten your seat belts, it’s going to be a bumpy night.” I somehow stumbled into a minefield and one minute I was winding up about the Queen and the next moment it turned into what was described to me as an all out assault on the English, every single one of them; friends, family, possibly even pets. I was insulting everybody and tempers flared and suddenly there was a shouty mess around me and it was demanded of me: “What have you done? What have you ever done?” I can’t say: “Do us a favor and lighten up,” because it’s stuck in my American throat and whatever I had done I had certainly deserved ‘her Majesty’s pleasure.’

Well, obviously my country is in a mess and had been under eight long years of Bush. (I contend it’s been longer than that, but that’s another argument that would include Bill Clinton and beyond. He has a high standing still, god knows why). I can’t even claim I did anything by actively campaigning for Obama. My choice of candidate, Dennis Kucinich, was railroaded off the scene and this time did not get on the ballot. I went into the polling place holding my nose; I voted on The Working Families Party ticket (headed by Obama/Biden) in an effort to get a real two-party system of government.

But reflecting on the evening’s debauch, it made me think about, well, what have I done? I realize I don’t actually think about what I do, I just do it. I’m a big believer in taking non-violent protest to the streets. It’s pretty much what The Mister and I did often and as soon as less than a month after 9/11 we were on the bus to Washington D.C. and we have gone on very nearly every protest in the capitol and at home in New York since. In the beginning it was scary as hell, and I mean really scary. We were a small bunch in those days. We’re talking about nervous anxious people, nervous hungry well-armed SWAT teams who would just as soon eat a protesting American, and we went, and we protested. I think if the record-breaking numbers who came out for, say, the New York Marathon, had come out in those first couple of weeks after the attacks the things we were protesting like the immediate loss of civil liberties, the heinous Patriot Act, a vile and unjustified war on a people would not have happened. At least not without a struggle. And the few times I could not get on the bus I spent the week before a protest stapling placards to poles and stuffing envelopes at the offices of United For Peace and Justice and The International Action Committee. The focus of protests has evolved and now I head down to Wall Street or Times Square.

Coming from the point of view of someone like me who really doesn’t believe that there is any facet of our government and its politicians that isn’t bought, (maybe apart from Kucinich and probably if one dug deep enough there would be something there too) it just made me think that my actions have sort of been a response to things. Losing my job and actively hoping to thwart self-indulged depression I signed up as a volunteer tutor in East Harlem and worked with a sweet African American girl for four years until her father decided it was time she attended the Muslim school. Discouraged by my country’s obsession with killing people and the horrendous state of our prisons, I gravitated to The Campaign To End the Death Penalty. I participate in the letter-writing, petition signing calls for many causes.

A blogger posted this recently in response to the media coverage of the recent right-wing driven Tea Party protest here: “How many of you were willing to stand up publicly and to declare that the fucking bush emperor was naked? People who DID stand up, and you can count them in the HUNDREDS nationwide, are the ONLY people I trust anymore in this joke of a nation.” Back home, looking for photos of the protests on the Internet I saw no massive numbers of police, no Robocop riot gear that threatened activists at the anti war rallies we had been part of.

I realized then that apart from a friend in Barcelona with whom I discuss politics and current events at some length, I rarely talk about weightier issues with friends in Leicester. We see each other so infrequently and e-mails are cheerily short, at best. I expect Americans will suffer the consequences of our government for years to come. The global economic collapse is pretty difficult to sweep under the rug. A recent article in The Telegraph headlined: “Wine sales in the U.K. plummet in recession.” You can definitely not blame that on this American. Making new friends at this age may be harder but that doesn’t mean I still can’t antagonize the old ones.

And we don’t have a queen.

We woke to our last full day in Leicester with a mixture of sadness to be leaving friends we do not see enough of; others we had not gotten to see at all—long chatty phone calls to Brighton only served to make the distance even greater—and the not totally unexpected relief to be getting back to normal, whatever that is in New York. There was still a full day ahead that included a dance performance and much later The Mister would be doing a gig at a little pub across from the railway station called The Hind. 

We were back at The Jones for breakfast (I know, I know, get a life…) but this time we met up with The Mister’s Aunt Edna and Uncle John. The only times I recalled meeting them in the past was at the sad event of funerals. Edna is The Mister’s mum’s sister. Her husband John is retired now but he has always been a Sunday painter. I mean no disrespect for that description because, although he’s kept at the painting for many years and is quite accomplished, it is a self-described hobby for him. Curiously, he seemed really pleased that he felt he now had someone—me—to pass along his art materials to. We lingered over breakfast in family catch-up mode and many cousins were brought up whose names I was hearing for the first time but which seemed to delight The Mister. I think, considering the insupportable situation his sister created after the deaths of their parents, that The Mister needed to know he did still have a family back in Leicester. Seemingly pressed as we were for time we had no intention of turning down an invitation to stop back home with them. Edna and John’s warmth extended to their cute little up and down house, out past Abbey Park and in sight of the Space Center. John’s studio, though small was impressive, especially the flood of light through a generous-sized window. It challenged the notion of his painting as a hobby. Undoubtedly it is his passion and I ached a little from the memory scent of turps and oil paint. In the driveway sat the caravan of dreams, looking so neat and tidy, just like our song says. They drove us back into town and smiling, waved us off. But it was not like waving good-bye. It was a big, reconnecting hello from family.

At Radio Leicester we picked up a copy of the earlier radio interview. Thwarted by a herd of youngsters heading for the entrance, we skipped a visit to the Guild Hall. One more stop in Leicester Market because it was the day the “Hat Man” would be there and then we were off to Sheehan’s on London Road. This family-run shop could be the epicenter for Leicester change. Every time we go back it’s expanded and now the store had relocated a few doors down from the original site that The Mister recalls fondly as a young bass player. And it’s bigger. And better. The Mister and Noel (looking very successful indeed) chatted up for a bit and we headed back to Greenhill Road where dinner would be served.

Having finally dispensed with the last of the delicious party left-overs: Siggy’s signature vegetarian chili dish and my well-received guacamole, we headed along with the Contessa and Jazz’s friend Kay to The Curve. Kay helped add to my growing repertoire of arse-based phrases: Can’t be arsed. Rat arsed. Arse over tit and arseholed. What ‘ave you got the arse about? Gads, I love the language here. There is a veritable treasure trove of expressions for penis alone!

A dance production was on and we were looking forward to seeing “Hey Joe” a series of dances based on the songs of Jimi Hendrix. Leaving the less kind critique to more cold-hearted critics I will only say we were disappointed. And that the Contessa had to resort to pinching me so that I tempered verbal cracks about the lead-footed dance troupe. Adding to the topsy-turvy feel of the entire trip, The Mister and I would see a downtown performance of Macbeth as soon as we returned home, which was quite good. A marvelous African American actor took the lead role and delivered an intensely lean performance. The stage setting spare and the costumes, though equally spare, were imaginative within low-budget constructs. The jet lag kicked in big time halfway through the production though. I felt a bit like I was on an acid trip (from what I recall of those days) and when Macbeth’s severed head bounced across the stage floor (it was theater in the round, no elevated stage) we nearly jumped out of our skin. Not a roly-poly dancer to be found.

The Curve is a marvelous feat of architecture orchestrated by Rafael Viñoly and stunning to behold. Though we didn’t see it, the website informs: “…that when the steel walls separating the stage and the foyer are lifted, the stage will be visible from street level.” The money and the creative efforts seem to have gone into the exterior leaving the interior pretty crappy—lots of cinder block and uninviting spaces. There was nothing in the way of ornamental detailing, apart from the overuse of Helvetica on the signage; no warmth around the café areas. The Contessa likened the restrooms to those one would use at a roadside rest stop. But it still has to evolve, I guess. From what our friends were describing of the brilliant theater performances they had already seen, our little bunch of poise-challenged dancers onstage was an anomaly.

It was off to The Hind! Paula, a lovely hippy dippy sunflower girl and fellow Leo, runs the open mic. The usual cast of characters showed up to cheer The Mister and after he’d done a fine set he invited Siggy to the stage and they blasted through a rousing cover of Steve Earle’s “I ain’t never satisfied.” Before we called it a night the owner of the pub gave us a backstairs tour of the cellar where punk bands once moshed about in the tiny, dank interior, presumably around the casks of beer. We said our melancholy good-byes and I tried mentally imprinting “Uncle” Stanley’s grin in my brain. There was a bit of last minute, late night packing to do yet. Sleep would have to wait until we could be lulled back into it in the chaos of New York.

Pre-dawn darkness and a heavy downpour (the first in our week of unrelenting sunshine) greeted us when we woke. Siggy rallied and drove through it to the airport in Birmingham. The check-in clerk at the departures counter told us that the skies were weeping because we were leaving. A rather less poetic scenario greeted us at Newark International. “What have you done? What have you ever done?” came roaring back at me as we passed through customs and for the first time ever, The Mister was finger printed and he was made to have an iris scan. And I watched dumbly.

Back home there’s a play by Alan Ayckborne on Radio 4 as I write. We watch “Live at the Apollo.” A Scottish comedian with an accent thick as haggis describes a state funeral for Margaret Thatcher as a few hundred Scots with shovels. I howl. We’re watching the 80’s comedy/drama “Auf Wiedersehen Pet” for the nth time. What can I say? It’s comfort food.