Thursday, 27 August 2015

Less is Baltimore

T'was a sad moment, but we had to say goodbye to Mat.  "Why does Mat have to go home?" a distressed toddler asked.  I tried to explain things about work and responsibilities but I'm a little under-qualified in that department, so I told him to ask his mother.

The flight was out of Baltimore which is actually our most accessible airport, so we took the opportunity to look around that city.  Mat is a big fan of The Wire, a TV crime drama that doesn't paint the place in the best light.  "Yep, someone was murdered there," he told me repeatedly as I drove around.  It didn't do much for my blood pressure.

Thankfully we weren't murdered and enjoyed a lovely afternoon around Baltimore Inner Harbour, a place that Pete has been obsessing over ever since Hannah bought him a kid's book about Maryland when she first visited.  The reason is a simple one: the dragon boats.  You can hire boats that look like dragons!  Well, pedalos with plastic dragon heads and tails stuck on, but in the eyes of a two-year-old that's Disneyland.  Also, the original star spangled banner was stitched here, flown at Fort McHenry, and the anthem about it composed - amazingly the Brits didn't burn it down.

We finished up with ice cream and then dinner at The Cheesecake Factory for good measure.  We don't want Mat to return to the UK without some serious extra poundage, otherwise what's the point of holidaying in the USA?

Dragon boats!

Safety first (especially around dragons).

Hello sailor.

While Mat and I provided the pedal power, the passengers sat in the back.

Baltimore from the water.

Final snack before the plane, because there's no luggage allowance on your waistline.

Tuesday, 25 August 2015

Long overdue

Mat's an academic, which means he likes books.  Sometimes he even reads one (he got through "Elvis and Me" by Priscilla Presley pretty quickly this holiday) so today I humoured his wish to visit the Library of Congress.  It's the second biggest library in the world, after the British Library, naturally.

I've got so used to West Coast history, which started around 1968, that walking into a 19th Century American building comes as quite a shock.  The library is even more stunning in that every inch is carved, painted, etched or inlaid in a manner that gives the Sistine Chapel a run for its money - all the more surprising given it was built by the army.  Does the army still do stuff like that?

Like most things around here, the British burned the library down in an unfortunate misunderstanding in 1814.  Only one book survived, because it was half-inched by a British Rear Admiral as a trophy.  It was given back in 1940 so no harm done.

To replace the toasted book collection, Thomas Jefferson donated all of his.  Like Mat, he enjoyed owning lots of books too, and given they're in nine different languages he probably had the same reading-to-owning ratio.  Another fire wiped out a good portion of that collection (why are the Americans so careless with their books?) but it's been restored into a fabulous circular display open to browse.  They're still looking for 297 missing volumes, and will pay generously for anyone who has a copy, so check your attic.

The highlight for me was seeing a copy of the Gutenberg Bible, one of only three perfect copies on vellum from the first run.  The gift shop was another good part, where they were selling busts of George Washington, Barrack Obama, and Ronald Reagan for $30 each.  I'm sure I don't need to tell you which one I purchased.

After so much time in the refined and silent(-ish) halls of learning we met up with Hannah, Pete and the Murnanes for dinner at a fabulous Greek restaurant that Mat had been recommended by a colleague.  Three toddlers stood bashing on the inside of the windows until each was placated with a parental smartphone.  Books - so last century.

The three cornerstones of democracy next to each other: the Supreme Court...

...the Capitol building...

...and the library.  The British only burned down two out of the three.

Inside.  See what I mean?  Fancy.

The one book that

Mathew compares his tastes to Thomas Jefferson's, but there are sadly no James Herberts or Jilly Coopers on display.

Good to see Jefferson owned one of my early works.

The main reading room, dedicated to social science.  But you need a library card to get in, and my Frome one didn't grant me access.

This is a gallery dedicated to the academic pursuits.  I don't see many here...

Ah, there we go.

The original Bible.

Quiet in the library please.  Oh, we're not there anymore.  Then go ahead.

Monday, 24 August 2015

By George!

Washington DC is not named after the town in Tyne & Wear but after someone called George Washington who was quite a big cheese around here in the 18th Century.  He had a farm in Virginia that's now a museum so we drove down to take a look.

The place is huge.  There's a lot of complaining these days about presidential candidates having to be super-rich to even consider running, but GW himself was worth a cool $525 million back in the day - only Kennedy, worth around $1b, is more flush in the presidential stakes.  His house reflected this, with six farms, 58,000(!!) acres, a deer park, forests, rivers, and the small matter of 300+ slaves to run it.  But he set them free when he died.

Little did I know before the trip, but George Washington worked for the British Army long before all that unfortunate Revolutionary War stuff.  He helped marshal troops when our own General Braddock was shot in a sneaky French ambush, but we weren't grateful enough to give him a commission.  So he and his upstart colonist friends decided to kick the Brits out.

A few years later he became president, remaining the only non-party-affiliated one in history (Donald Trump will be the second), and the only one to be elected unanimously.  He sorted out a lot of things - closely following the British model, for irony's sake - and after two terms declined the chance to keep going, thus curtailing the ambitions of any lifelong dictators in these parts.  You have to get your kids, brother, or wife elected to pull that particular trick.

Washington returned to the Mt Vernon estate, which isn't too shabby a retirement home with its 22-bed mansion and views down to the Potomac.  He farmed and received visitors there until he died in 1799.  In 1858 the Mount Vernon Ladies' Association saved the place from ruin and have been running it ever since.  Today you can wander around Washington's restored study, visit either of the two outdoor privies, and listen to costumed volunteers tell you about 18th Century life, which sounds nice, if you weren't a slave.

I'm sure there are some historical liberties taken - we were guests in his house, after all - but Washington does seem like a thoroughly decent chap.  He voluntarily gave up all his military might as Commander in Chief after surprisingly beating the Brits, despite many calling for him to be crowned first king of America.  He seems to have been an excellent farmer, and even built a distillery that's still producing whisky today.  Can't be much wrong with the man.  I wonder what he'd make of the 43 that followed him...

Just a modest home.

Washington didn't get to sign the so-called Declaration of Independence, but it was delivered to him up the coast where he was garrisoned and it was read to his cheering troops.

I could retire here.

The houses are made of wood carved to look like stone!  Clever, and cheaper.

Gardening can be quite a pleasure if you have slaves to do it for you.

Of course.  A later Treaty of Paris didn't work out quite so well for us.

So you're not allowed to let the US flag touch the floor, but you can smash the British flag into pieces in a museum.  I'm writing to the Queen about this.

"The most famous dentures in history".

On the muddy banks of the Potomac.

Politicians like sheep.

Child of the corn.

A 16-sided barn that Washington invented.

Genuine 18th Century cow.  Well, maybe not, but they did have some authentic hogs.

Once and future president.

Friday, 21 August 2015

Putting the culture into agriculture

I've always enjoyed a good country fair, probably because I once came second in the handwriting competition at Frome Cheese Show.  Ever since I've liked wandering around the animal pens, over-priced food stalls and local organisation tents in any number of British muddy fields.

Of course, in America everything is bigger, and so it proved with our local Montgomery County Agricultural Fair.  There was pig racing, there were 50+ food stands, there were horse trials, goat judging, arts and crafts, giant vegetables, a kids' zone, an entire fairground, Christian bikers...and we saw it all.

Actually we mostly saw tractors.  Like any healthy boy his age, Pete was obsessed with sitting on every John Deere and Kubota he could find, especially the giant lawn mowers, which is odd given that we don't have a lawn.  The highlight was a combine harvester that had been converted into a massive slide - you climbed into the cab and then slid out the back, like a newly-threshed ear of corn.

Needless to say, after so much intensive farm work Pete fell asleep and Mat and I perused the culinary delights.  Unfortunately you reach an age when deep fried Twinkies aren't a treat, they're a sentence.  We settled for a light snack of cinnamon sugar-roasted cashews and headed back to the safety of suburbia.

"...I shall not want..." because I have a food truck serving me pizza, nachos, and deep fried cheese.

Pony club.

They spelt our name wrong but we know we're champions.

This is the real champion.

Goat showing.

This is what they're playing for.

Pete and the pigs.


Mat and a rabbit.

Until Thanksgiving, that is.


Tiny the pig, a waif at 900lbs.

Racing pigs need Jesus too.

Where do you want these apples?

A combine.

And a lawn mower.

Instead of a sand pit they had a soy bean pit!  Clever, although I was finding soy beans between Pete's toes for the rest of the day.

The vegetable grand champion, and it's easy to see why.

An unimpressed bird of prey.

Mat and Barb the Christian biker (from Canterbury, of all places - she moved here in 1966).

The good stuff.

If you don't need it before, you will after.

It's amazing who you meet at an agricultural show.