Wednesday, 13 September 2017

It was twenty years ago today

The Britain into which Hannah and I were born was a different country.  Margaret Thatcher was yet to win the Cold War.  A Mars bar could be yours for eight-and-a-half pence.  It was only a decade since we'd won the World Cup rather than, you know, 50 years.  And arranged marriages were the norm.

I can remember the day, aged twelve, that my mother brought me a picture of Hannah - a crude chalk drawing on an old school slate.

"She's so beautiful!" I declared, distracted from my homework translating ancient Greek.

"Indeed," agreed my mother.  "She is of reasonable breeding and should provide us with an heir.  You are to be married within the month."

"But what if I don't love her!" I cried.

"Love?" exclaimed my mother.  "Love?  What's love got to do with it?  Her parents have offered a sizable dowry, which will allow us to clear your sister's gambling debts and restore the Davies family to its rightful position in society."

We met on September 13th 1997, our wedding day, and naturally Hannah fell instantly in love with me.  Since then our marriage has been based on communication and respect - she tells me what to do and I respect her authority.

Has it really been twenty years?  It has passed in the blink of an eye, and soon we're going to have to line Pete up for marriage.  Several families have expressed interest, although it's so hard to find one that matches our social class.  Perhaps we'll do the royal thing and let him marry a cousin, thereby cementing the dynasty and concentrating the wealth rather than diluting it.

Either way, all I can hope is that my son's life will be as happy as his parents'.

Mere children (they also hadn't invented colour photography back then).

Sunday, 10 September 2017

I don't like to talk about my charity work

It's at times of crisis that those with the requisite skills stand up to be counted.  Unfortunately I have none of the requisite skills.  I can make a cup of tea - the perfect response to a British crisis but not held in such high regard elsewhere.  Nonetheless, I pulled on a Chevron T-shirt and joined Hannah and her colleagues at the largest hurricane shelter here in Houston, the NRG Center.

The disaster response in Houston has been huge, with many places turning volunteers and donations away due to supply exceeding demand, but the larger shelters still require round-the-clock help.  We walked into the volunteer registration area with a medical technician called Lisa who had driven down from Dallas for the weekend.  "Wow, someone with useful skills," Hannah told her.  "Everyone has useful skills," Lisa replied, kindly and incorrectly.

The oil industry - Shell, Exxon and Chevron - has taken over the dispensary, where anyone inside or outside the shelter can come and pick up donated items, to replace what they lost in the flood.  We were led there by one of many radio-wielding ushers.  I have to say, the level of organisation is impeccable, with medical, social, food, and most other services you care to mention on hand for everyone displaced.  It doesn't begin to make up for the misery of sleeping on cots with hundreds of others in massive halls, but the scale and quality of aid is remarkable.  Maybe lessons have been learned since Katrina, maybe (cynically) Houston just has a bigger economic footprint than New Orleans.  Either way, hopefully the people organising here are on hand to deal with Irma.  Then Jose.

We were quickly in the dispensary hall, countless tables of donated clothes and supplies laid out before us, and suddenly my calling became clear.  It's not that I spend all my time in thrift stores, but I do spend a lot of my time there.  My nose for a quality item is well calibrated and here I was, tasked with several hours of sniffing them out, at high speed and accuracy, for other people!  Was it destiny?

There was a row of desks set up for people to register their needs, and then the lists were passed back to "runners" (such as myself) to fulfill in blue Ikea shopping bags.  Full bags were then handed out at the collection desk, where people could sort through to make sure they were happy.  I wouldn't claim to be the best runner (although I was) but I certainly located some gems, and my eye for fashion - especially in men's underwear - was complimented on more than one occasion.  If you needed boxers, I was your man.  It was actually quite tricky not to fill a bag for myself and run, but I endeavoured to keep my personal thrifting purely professional.

After a few hours, crowds of police turned up and began hanging around the doors, and whispers went around that someone famous was arriving.  "I hope it's Trump or Beyonce," I confided in a fellow runner.  "Nah, it's probably Jackson," she replied.  "Micheal Jackson!" I exclaimed.  "I knew he'd faked his own death and has been hanging out with Elvis this whole time!!"  "Erm...Janet Jackson.  She's on tour," my colleague stated before shuffling carefully away.  In the end it turned out to be a Hollywood actor called Kevin Hart and a basketball player called Chris Paul.  I didn't recognise them and, to be fair, they didn't recognise me either.  (Beyonce was somewhere else).

Shortly after that my shift was over.  Hannah and I wandered out past some halls that were previously occupied but were now being cleared of their vacated cots as people returned home.  We drove back to our unharmed home having spent a tiny amount of time making a tiny difference, but hopefully with so many volunteers working together human power can overcome the devastation that Harvey left.  Given the usual political **** that follows these disasters, it's the only thing that ever can.

The shelter (from The Houston Chronicle - you're not allowed to take your own photos inside).

The dispensary (from The Sacramento Bee).

And this is Kevin Hart, in what is possibly Pete's favourite movie.  He was very jealous.

Tuesday, 5 September 2017

Home and dry

We're back in Houston and, thankfully, the house and the neighbourhood seem to have come through Hurricane Harvey with few ill effects.  Our next-door neighbours lost their car that was parked at the airport while they were stuck in Chicago, but our only hardship was having to fly Spirit Airlines when Southwest cancelled our original flights.

Driving back from Bush International it's remarkable how normal everything looks after seeing all those images and videos of flooding.  Of course, that only means that the major damage happened elsewhere, mainly to the south-west and east.  Most of the shops are reasonably well stocked but out of meat and beer - in the same way that Brits in a crisis make a cup of tea, Texans like to barbecue.

So we shall see.  During the day the city is very quiet, and then rush hour is conversely completely crazy as several major roads remain shut.  It's going to take a long time to return to normal, whatever the new normal turns out to be.  And in the meantime we keep an eye on Hurricane Irma.

Time to start...?

Saturday, 2 September 2017

East to West

Our time in the mother country is coming to an end and we're about to head back to see how much damage Harvey has done to Houston.  Our neighbours (who were temporarily stranded in Chicago) say that no flooding happened in our area.  We shall see soon enough.  Trump came to the city today so I'm sure he's sorted everything now.

We've been packing our final days with all the family and friends we haven't previously seen, and plenty we've seen several times.  We took in a classic West Country village show and a slap-up lunch in London, as well as more beach going, more lunches, dinners, etc.  The weather has been idyllic by English standards and - of course - when compared to the weather back in Texas.

Thank you to everyone who's hosted us during our long sojourn on this side of the Atlantic, and for lots of others who have traveled to say hello.  The invitation to Houston is always open...but maybe avoid the hurricane season.

And the winner of Frome's most beautiful couple...couldn't be here today.

Everywhere in Somerset is like this.

Edmund, Greta, Pete.

Two of the great West Country families - the Hollands and the Davieses.

And the usual chaos of a joint picnic.

Does it have a cold?  No, it's just a little horse!

Two things made in England in 1933.

A somewhat alarming JCB demonstration.

Don't try it, Pete.

Classic agricultural show.

Is that legal Aunty Em?

In Paddington station they show you the flights out of Heathrow!  Look, there's Houston!!  Oh...

Pete and Meg out and about in London!

At the National Maritime Museum.

Aye aye.

The place has some extremely amazing things, including this engraved cannonball from the Battle of Trafalgar.

Meg takes the helm in the ship simulator!  We ran aground.

Looking down on London from the Royal Observatory.

Together, and yet so far apart.  Standing each side of the Greenwich Meridian.

Saturday, 26 August 2017

Voluntary evacuation

A massive tropical storm is heading straight for us!  Or it would be if we weren't in England.  I'm not sure I feel more powerless in the face of nature from 4000 miles away, or whether I'm just relieved I won't be home when the huge tree in our neighbour's back garden flattens our flooded house.  Still, we'll find out whether our home - or, indeed, Houston itself - is there when we return in a week.

Meanwhile we've been enjoying the more mellow natural wonders of Britain, including quite a lot of sunshine!  Our nephews and nieces took us paddle-boarding around Weymouth, and while they wore wetsuits (this is still an English summer) some actual swimming and ice cream eating did occur.

There was no crime reported in Bedfordshire during our entire stay.

Back in Somerset Hannah partook in some wassailing, where trees are beaten/shot/sung at to remove evil.  It's a West Country thing.  Sadly, she wasn't very successful at dislodging some very tenacious spirits.

Down to Weymouth, and a trip to the beach involving five children, two cars, paddleboards, an inflatable unicorn...

All worth it when we got there.

Oliver: once a baby, now a teenager.

Hannah somehow gets Jacob to give her a personal tour of Weymouth harbour.

Grandma, who cannot be away from her Grandson for more than 36 hours without severe withdrawal setting in, came to join us.

Katharine made a brew - she's done this before.

A snapshot of the chaos.

Danger to marine traffic.


How do you feed this lot?  With fish and chips!

Next day, and more feeding.

A spectacular work of nature.

Two spectacular works of nature.

Chips off the old block.

Swimming in the shallow end of the gene pool.

I took my nephew for a strenuous hike along Chesil Beach to show that his old uncle still had the constitution and tenacity of a 15-yr-old.  When it immediately became clear I no longer have the constitution and tenacity of a 15-yr-old I convinced him to find the nearest coffee shop.

Pete takes his Grandad for a few quid after our return to Blandford.

Saturday, 19 August 2017

Family reunion

Hannah has arrived!  Thank goodness.  I can now take a break from all that park-going, book-reading, nursery-rhyme-singing, etc. that parents have to do...whenever they can't delegate such responsibilities to grandparents or aunts.

Hannah claims to have missed us terribly although her descriptions of massages, lunches out with friends, and the exit row seat she got on the flight tell a different story.  Her brother John even drove down to Heathrow to pick her up!  That's love.

Now we're together in Biggleswade and enjoying the wonderful British summer, when sometimes it doesn't rain for a whole morning!  Pete and his cousin Isobel are almost identical in age, and everything else.  Most of the time they tell us they're Batman and Batdog, and yesterday they got married.  So cute and socially progressive!  Maybe.

The family's asking more and more questions about whether John and Hannah are actually identical twins.

A practical demonstration of moments of force, or \mu _{n}=\int r^{n}\,\rho (r)\,dr as those of us with a theology degree say.

Pete has learned well from his Dad that if you make simple tasks look more difficult it adds a certain element of epicness.

Sam, Isobel and Pete: related by blood, excitable silliness, and an ability to eat their bodyweight at each meal.

...and a love of spying on the neighbours.

...and an obsession with touch screens.

...and a taste for babyccinos.

Hannah is called into service immediately.

More epic climbing.

John got some indoor fireworks for our entertainment ("they're safe - they're from China!")  Isobel knows her father, hence the worried expression.

What could possibly go wrong?

Disaster averted, and time for the obligatory family bath photos.  It all got a bit crowded when John, Laura, Hannah and I jumped in too...