Monthly Archives: March 2013

The State Archives

I spent yesterday in Lansing, with mixed success. Firstly, we caught the state archivists flat-footed, with an antiquated indexing system and archive databases that don’t interface and are impossible even for them to navigate. I’ve had to leave it with them to get in touch with me on Monday. One archivist seemed disinterested; fortunately another had the good grace to be professionally embarrassed and I am hoping the files turn up next week. I resisted my strong Russell instinct to imagine every archivist in the building to be a total idiot… a genetic trait which requires the suppression of fulmination and the urge to go back there and find the damn things myself.

It’s a frustrating setback but hopefully only temporary.

The time not spent in the archives was instead put to good use. I was given a tour of key sites in town; travelling in some style in a red Pontiac. It made a change from the Nissan Versa (grey), which I keep trying to get into on the no steering wheel side #embarrassing

Determined not to give up on the documentary evidence side of the research, I returned to the state library to look at newspaper microfiche reels. I have discovered that these give me motion sickness at the moment (as well as elevators) and are to be avoided, for now. I did manage to gain some information that can be used for contextual detail later on. I was in the library so close to closing time that I ended up locked out in a second floor open air quadrangle, trapped like a myopic Rapunzel by my own curiosity. After a bit of rushing around trying doors (locked), I finally attracted someone’s attention who let me in, so I could then exit in the usual manner. Which I did, feeling a bit of a twit and still giddy from turning the microfiche.

This is the view from the quad. One, I might add, I had taken earlier, before I thought I might be sleeping there.


A night in Kalamazoo

I was so keen to get into some beer (notwithstanding the lack of a bottle opener – will I never learn – it’s one of my life’s necessities), that I improvised with some nail clippers.

5 minutes and 1 skinned knuckle and a set of busted clippers later, I was in. Fried chicken with ale and some sushi with merlot to be healthy. The Guvnor will be well pleased with me…


I fixed the nail clippers. They live to fight another day. Another day, another bottle. Call me Hunter S Thompson…

On the Road & on the Radio


I saw two dogs in Chicago. This was the second. The first was a black lab. I’ve only seen this photo on my phone but I liked the reflections of the windows on the street. And the fire hydrant. Why don’t we have those in the UK?

Anyway, I was liking Chicago a lot until I had to drive out of it: being honked at by a monster ice road trucker was the low point… Mind you I was going too slow.

I was temporarily horrified to find myself in Gary, Indiana; my cursory glance at the map hadn’t factored in that Illinois doesn’t segue directly into Michigan. All I can say about that is when Dame Helen Mirren described Essex, she obviously hadn’t been to Indiana.

Driving into Michigan on interstate 94 settled the nerves. In this neck of the woods the speed limit is largely observed and there are less trucks to get sandwiched between. I am a bit puzzled and alarmed by a sign on my offside wing mirror. It says, ‘careful, objects are closer than they appear’. Go figure…

The radio calmed me at my most angsty; singing along tunelessly helps. I had proper American stuff, nearly perfect for a road trip. We had Journey, John Mellencamp, Simon & Garfunkel, The Monkees and The Doors. The British held their musical end up with T Rex and the Eurythmics. I made do with ‘Dreamweaver’ as today’s theme tune, but perfection would have been Roxy Music’s ‘There’s a band playing on the radio…’ as I rattled the Nissan Versa (grey as Grandpa would say) over the interstate slow lane potholes.

Big Plane, Little Plane

I left home just before 7 a.m. yesterday morning and finally arrived in Chicago last night at around 9.00 p.m. local time. I had acquired a deaf right ear and a banging migraine behind the right eye along the way but after 19 hours travelling I am here so all is good. Now it’s 7.30 here and I have left my dorm mates (a French girl, a German girl and an unknown) snoring gently in the hottest bedroom in the known universe which seems to smell of stale alcohol this morning… For once, not mine.

I had to take two planes yesterday. A giant one for the transatlantic leg to Ottowa, where I was right in the middle of the middle section, next to a man from the Village People on my right who shared his white wine with me and a Canadian lady on my left, who (selfishly I thought!) did not. The second plane was a little one, very narrow. It only sits two and then one either side of the aisle. I was in the single seat but despite feeling a bit concerned, the pilot was chatty and gave us prior information about bumpiness, which I decided helps. In the event, it was not too bad at all, and I can recommend a phobia hypnotherapist in Southend-On-Sea, should anyone need one. I can also report that Chicago O’Hare airport is a piece of work. We came into land on a northern runway – planes of a similar (small) size were just queuing up behind us with one landing every minute or two. At one point I thought a jumbo was headed right for us as we made our descent over Lake Michigan, but they have their own runway, fortunately. The airport is massive and hugely busy. Still it’s nice; it smells of popcorn and they have some art projects showcased with local kids. Seems like they certainly know how to do an airport here in Illinois. I could have taken loads of photos yesterday once airport side, but as I could hardly stand up, or see straight I didn’t 🙂 Because of my taking a connecting flight in Ottowa, I was able to clear US customs and immigration there, a nice quiet Canadian airport surrounded by piles of dirty snow. US immigration always put me on my mettle, they seem so cross. Anyway, despite my feeling they might put me right back on a plane to the UK, they have let me in, but not before a lot of questions, fingerprinting and a photograph.

The train from O’Hare is interesting. They tell you off for something you might do after every station stop. No eating, gambling, littering, putting luggage on seats and plenty of other mini travelling crimes that as I had never thought of before, I seem to have now forgotten. Anyway, I can feel that this is gently rambling, so I will end it here. I feel like I am still moving – this happens to me after a long trip and I am sure it will settle in a day or so. The deaf ear I can do without. It makes me seem like even more of an old dear than I already do in this hostel filled with youngsters.

Sorry, for any typos, I feel like I am typing on the poop deck in a gale, so re-reading is out of the question. Also, no pictures as I am doing this on a hostel computer. Same language, separated by a different keyboard. Keep getting a \ instead of a

Next challenge: driving.

Some parting thoughts (my own and others)

My own thoughts are not much. The purpose of the trip is to find out more about someone else’s life, long-since lived but still resonating with more than a few of us, fortunately.

As I consider my ream of printed paper needed for hotels, hostels, car hire and so on, I realise that when she travelled to America from her own home, she would have needed to pack too and buy a ticket. Beyond that, there would only be needed a fistful of dollars and one’s wits. Probably not even a passport.

I wonder how she would have felt: excited, nervous, full of trepidation or hope. Perhaps all of that and more. Those are the things I shall be thinking of tomorrow. Travelling alone is an interesting business, so I was grateful when Finky Wink sent me this poem today. It says it all, really.

Go placidly amid the noise and haste, and remember what peace there may be in silence.

As far as possible, without surrender, be on good terms with all persons. Speak your truth quietly and clearly; and listen to others, even to the dull and the ignorant, they too have their story. Avoid loud and aggressive persons, they are vexations to the spirit.

If you compare yourself with others, you may become vain and bitter; for always there will be greater and lesser persons than yourself. Enjoy your achievements as well as your plans. Keep interested in your own career, however humble; it is a real possession in the changing fortunes of time.

Exercise caution in your business affairs, for the world is full of trickery. But let this not blind you to what virtue there is; many persons strive for high ideals, and everywhere life is full of heroism. Be yourself. Especially, do not feign affection. Neither be cynical about love, for in the face of all aridity and disenchantment it is perennial as the grass.

Take kindly to the counsel of the years, gracefully surrendering the things of youth. Nurture strength of spirit to shield you in sudden misfortune. But do not distress yourself with imaginings. Many fears are born of fatigue and loneliness.

Beyond a wholesome discipline, be gentle with yourself. You are a child of the universe, no less than the trees and the stars; you have a right to be here. And whether or not it is clear to you, no doubt the universe is unfolding as it should.

Therefore be at peace with God, whatever you conceive Him to be, and whatever your labors and aspirations, in the noisy confusion of life, keep peace in your soul.

With all its sham, drudgery and broken dreams, it is still a beautiful world.

Be cheerful. Strive to be happy.

Max Ehrmann c.1920

Travel Necessities in the New Millennium or Traveller as Cash Cow with a Degree in Business Admin

I haven’t travelled overseas much since I had the children. There’s been one trip to Jamaica, one to Turkey, one to Spain and a couple to France in the last decade. I haven’t been Stateside since a three day trip to Philadelphia and New York in November 1999. How things have changed. Gone are the days of travelling light it seems, now everything is made work for the traveller. Trying not to take on the organisational stress is a piece of work in itself. I am not sure I am managing it entirely well either.

I have dealt with travel disasters in the past, and survived, so the evidence is that these things work out alright in the end, but still… Best not to mention the Turkish rabid cat, the lost passport in the Dominican Republic, the broken accelerator cable in same, the Irish train from West coast to Dublin not to mention the weird hostel for the night before the truckers’ ferry to Wales, the personalised passenger call when still on the loo, the valium, the Witches of Salem and the Fast Moving Door, the whale watching trip where all passengers nearly ended up overboard, the diving in the Med where I had a panic attack in full scuba gear and a mile off the coast, the luggage that went astray from Sardinia, the messed up passport for my daughter and the last minute flight from East Midlands airport, which I note is now snowed in… I could go on, but it would frighten the horses.

At this point all I can do is remember to breathe and the words of Julian of Norwich (a woman) who wrote

All shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of thing shall be well

Julian stays put with a cat and a hazelnut…

If only I could get away with a cat and a hazelnut for my trip. Here’s all the stuff you need to get and do these days if you want to go to America, if you have the nerve:

Insurance (and don’t forget to declare the pre-existing conditions that you don’t ever have treatment for but that they will use as an excuse not to pay out if the worst should happen. I am specifically thinking of the poor man called Nic, who died of cancer, for whom Friends Life wouldn’t pay out on his life insurance to his young family because he had previously had hiccups. Seriously. Also thinking of my neighbour who had to cancel a trip due to a near fatal illness and then had to wait four months for the insurance to ‘decide whether his claim was successful’ or not.)

Travel money in many different forms (credit card, travel money card, cash) because your own bank will charge you through the nose for each overseas transaction

Ringing your bank to tell them you are going abroad and someone hasn’t stolen your card, so that they can charge you the through the nose for every overseas transaction (worth repeating, that)

An ESTA for entry to the United States (don’t know what it looks like because you don’t get one, just a reference number)

An International Driver’s Permit (in my case, one with the valid from date starting in 800 years time)

Your e-ticket (which by the way you still have to print out, thus creating more work for you and less for the airline/travel agent)

Your car rental voucher

Your hotel vouchers


Driver’s Licence

Arranging with your mobile phone provider coverage to go abroad, so that they too can charge you through the nose for wanting to communicate with people whilst overseas… The very nerve.

Plug adapters, because a universal plug would just be, well, too convenient for us all

Addresses running into double figures based on where you need to go on any given day, and at what time, on your itinerary

Your daughters’ email addresses so you don’t have to invoke the punitive call charge (£1.50 a minute) to call home

And don’t ring me either because it’s £1.00 per minute for me to answer the phone…

Have I forgotten anything?

Well have I?!

Jeremy Bentham’s Head

It’s a bit late for a blog, but I can’t let this fact go unremarked. At University College London, the philosopher Jeremy Bentham (the founder of the all-pervasive and perniciously applied utilitarianism school of philosophy – greatest good for the most people) is preserved in perpetuity. He is stuffed, basically, and screwed to a chair. Not so bad, except for the fact that his head is made of wax, because in the original embalming process they completely messed up it up.

So, until 1975 his scary mummified head sat on the floor of the display case, between his feet. Then some students stole it and demanded a ransom for its release. Thereafter the head was kept separately, under lock and key. The blog cannot entertain pictures of a philosopher’s head, so this particular post must go unadorned.

Seems a tad egotistical to me.


There are lots of people, who may or may not check into this blog from time to time, who have been massively encouraging and supportive of my latest project that involves transatlantic flight and I just want all of you to know that you are much appreciated, perhaps more than I let on. I have been sent books, and other contraband, lent a rucksack, been given pep talks and other deeply sensible practical advice, all of which helps me out, means a lot and sustains me.

Today, I just wanted to share this beautiful and unique trip log that that I have been given by the lovely Reform in her bookbinding persona. I don’t quite trust the tinternet technology at times, so this is going to be really helpful, along with all the other kindnesses I feel I don’t quite deserve but am blessed to receive. Thank you all, truly.




Dirty Boots and Sunshine

Every time I look down at my feet lately I see muddy, sandy or otherwise besmirched boots.

Other people’s footwear doesn’t seem to have the same problem; maybe they have the sense to stick to the pavement…

In the words of Stevie Wonder, I Blame It On The Sun, the sun that didn’t shine, from one of the Top Ten albums ever: Talking Book.

The Budget Review

Could you imagine? How boring would that be, and pointless. They grind you down these buggers that’s for sure. Yesterday, a columnist from The Times remarked on Twitter that to refer to David Cameron as ‘Dave’ and George Osborne as ‘Gideon’ (our beloved PM and Chancellor sidekick) is to ‘not help our case’. The blog is guilty as charged and I wondered why I do it. I also wondered what would help the case of those of us diametrically opposed to so much of what the government stands for and came up with: pretty much nothing. We are stuck with them now it seems whilst we, as my friend judiciously observed yesterday, squabble amongst ourselves.

The country’s biggest Welfare Reform ever looms and whilst there was clearly a need for change, the lack of incisive detail worries many of us who work with people who will be affected. There is also a hideous undercurrent to the agenda, manifested by those who will be most affected by the changes: lone parents with children. It seems that the millionaires that rule the country, will not stand for the feckless poor procreating with abandon. It’s nearly Victorian in ideology. Meanwhile I hear people say things that they most certainly wouldn’t have voiced a few years ago. Everyone is looking for someone to look down on, someone to blame.

This government seems to have shown equality the door. Only this morning Gideon was harping on about wanting to help those who wanted to get on. God forbid that those of us lucky enough to get on should support the indolent, less fortunate souls. And I have a problem with the Conservative definition of ‘getting on’. It means material wealth and paying taxes doesn’t it – unless of course you are a global corporation… By that definition of wanting to ‘get on’ I suppose we can exclude such luminaries as Gandhi, Mother Theresa and Jesus Christ Almighty too. Not holding down a full time job in the rat run? Worthless! What about people who want to ‘get on’ but for reasons of accident of birth, or poor access to education are trapped in poverty and a generational cycle of no hope? Cannon fodder I suppose. Expendable, dispensable, to blame. It really does make me sick. I might call the architects of the chaos Dave and Gideon, but believe me, when I think about them and what they are doing to society for more than 30 seconds I really want to call them a lot, lot worse.

Image from the excellent cartoon blog by Gary Barker here