Friday, September 22, 2006

Watch it!

The UK has the distinction of having the thickest concentration of CCTVs of any country on earth. This is because it has (a) a thriving yob culture, with graffiti and vandalism and (b) because whoever's installing all these cameras seems to be able to get away with it. Rarely do you hear an outcry about invasion of privacy--it's all accepted as part of the 21st century landscape.

The first thirty years of my childhood were spent in England. I would not wish to return to live there, but it has left its share of memories--most connected with people long dead. Whoever said, "You can never go back" was right on; you can replay the reel only in your head. For this reason I sometimes get a little impatient with expats hankering for their native land, the simple reason being that it's not there any more.

All those CCTVs do have a function: some are accessible as webcams offering a mini-tour of my old haunts. From time to time I'll access a corner of the street where I lived as a child. The corner store and the red mailbox have gone, and traffic lights have sprouted up to control the burgeoning flow of cars. Today a lone pedestrian climbs the hill, unaware, of course, that he's being idly followed from across the Atlantic. You don't see many pedestrians these days--everyone's in cars.

I love Google's satellite feature, too. Zooming in on my home town, I'm uneasy at what's been demolished to wedge more and more little houses in. The big old 18th-century house my godfather lived in, with its rambling gardens, wide lawns, and flowerbeds that tipsy revellers would drive over after Christmas parties (that was another era) has vanished. I can still recall the thrill of learning to ride a bicycle on the grass there, of wobbling along and finally mastering it. Now there are seventeen little townhouses where it used to be, all with paved parking spaces; there are no lawns. It reminds me of Dr. Zhivago, where the hero returns after the Russian revolution to find his house occupied by another four families.

Ain't technology great?

If you want to cruise the webcams of the British Isles, a good place to start is the BBC:

Tuesday, September 19, 2006

Wait a minute...

Does anyone else find it ironic that a quoted opinion (whether valid or not) that the Prophet Mohammed (PBUH) advocated promulgating Islam by violence should arouse a storm of disagreement-- in the form of violence and death threats?

So much hostility perpetrated by so many religions, except--notably--Buddhism, to its eternal credit.

This isn't at all about religion--like N.Ireland, it's all about young men and territory. How many more people have to die before we brake sharply at the edge of the abyss?

Monday, September 18, 2006

Travelling hopefully

The Slow Food movement seems to be gaining ground; hard on the heels of this success I should like to propose a new Slow Travel movement.

Let's face it--air travel has become an endurance test. Way back, when I was a girl of, oh, maybe twelve or so, the family travelled to the Channel Islands. These are geographically (and architecturally) part of France and lie amid some of the trickiest navigation in the Channel, off the coast of Normandy. They were occupied by the Germans in WWII; possession of radios was streng verboten, and the Brits used to dismantle them and secrete them in teapots.

But I digress. Back then the plane was a seven-seater made of what my Dad liked to call "canvas and dope". Air travel was an Event. Passengers strolled out onto the apron and climbed aboard. No security, no waiting, nothing but politeness all round. Very amateur, looking back on it. At the destination--Alderney--we'd have to circle a time or two while an anxious herdsman ran, frantically waving, after the cows, to get them off the grass airstrip. (Yes, they were Guernsey cows.)

Look where we are now: arrive two hours ahead for domestic flights; show all kinds of ID, get grilled about your bags; remove all the little items that make a trip pleasant, find the security lineup that's moving the fastest, line up in the chicane like a herd of cattle in an abattoir, take off your shoes, run your bags through the scanner, find a food shop to get a meal to take on board, walk 2 km to the gate. Not that I'm not grateful for all the precautions, and quite see the necessity for them...but do you see what I'm getting at? There comes a point where the trip itself, especially for a vacation, for heaven's sake, becomes a deterrent.

Enter slow travel. I've just returned from a rail trip across Canada--Cornwall, Ontario, to Vancouver in style, stopping off in Jasper, just because not to stop in Jasper would have been a crime. I tell you, this is the way of the future; there's time to look around and take in all that incredible scenery; an opportunity to meet and talk to other people you wouldn't normally take the time to get to know; lavish meals served on real china with real knives and forks (no chance of pronging the engineer to death here) at a table with a damask cloth, by cheerful homegrown staff who live in cities along the route. In short, an adventure of a most agreeable kind.

So if you can swing it, consider a slow trip sometime. It'll transform you from a tourist to a traveller.