Friday, 30 July 2010




HEARSES and CURSES



My father was vain about his hearses. When he first opened his own funeral home he couldn’t afford a new hearse, so he bought a used Henney Packard combination hearse and ambulance.


Not this one, but similar

In those days the funeral home also operated as the emergency service, such as it was. If you needed to go to the hospital you phoned your funeral home of choice, one of three in our little town. While our living citizens finally moved past segregation, our dead did not; an African American undertaker owned one of the three, which left my father with a single rival. Curses flowed between the two - the upstart new boy in town, and the ancient undertaker who had an easy time of it until our arrival.

My father’s ambulance was equipped with a tank of oxygen and a first-aid kit and that was about it. Your swift ride to the hospital was free and a short one, probably down Main Street, around the town square and up the hill. Citizens soon stretched the meaning of emergency to be defined as a ride to the doctor’s office, the dentist, the pharmacy, even a trip to the ophthalmologist was not too much trouble. However, if, for ten or twenty years, my father taxied you to your appointments, loaned you a truckload of chairs for your fish fry and your daughter’s wedding, and you then didn’t return the favor by ensuring that your family knew that your single, final desire was to have him undertake the details of your demise, then oh good god. In his smooth Southern drawl, “That sonofabitch.” For weeks.

The day he pulled up in his shiny new Cadillac hearse, our town’s first white funereal vehicle, we admired it for his sake. I saw it from my bedroom window, which was right above the embalming room - and whose isn't - and ran out to meet the great white. My father hopped out and stood with his chest puffed out a bit, his hands jingled change in his pocket and he smiled with a general air of satisfaction. Nods of approval all around and then I requested a test ride around town. Off we went. I secretly nicknamed her Grace. She was a high performer.


The first time I saw a horse drawn hearse in a procession was the day Tony Blair resigned. Oh the exquisite irony. As I walked along the busy Finchley Road, traffic crept behind the carriage and by habit I stood still until it passed. Once an undertaker’s daughter…

I thought of my father and how much he would have appreciated the send off. Four beautiful black Friesians pulled the wooden carriage, the coffin visible through the etched glass. My pulse quickened. I’ve seen every type of coffin and casket imaginable, still, the sight threatens. One of the horses majestically turned its plumed head. Carriage lanterns flanked the coachman and flower rails full of streaming flowers rolled past. I don’t know if he was ever aware of the history of coffin transportation, but if so, I know he never witnessed anything like this.

“Well I’ll be goddamned.” That’s what he would have said.



Japanese


Cuban

On Skis

Wednesday, 21 July 2010


Bourbon, Bar-B-Que and the Bell Witch


John Bell, Jr.

OH GAWD it’s been hot in London. I was in our local grocery store gabbing with a neighbor, blocking the produce aisle, as you do, and we talked and talked and oh, so much fodder upon which to catch up, chat and gossip. But not really, we were just trying to prolong the luxury of air conditioning.

I find it useless to explain the lack of air conditioning in London to those across the pond, or at least those who have never experienced a European summer. “You don’t have central air? Why, just stick an air conditioner in your damn window!”

I moved on to the frozen food section, not that I needed any, and thought about witches, bourbon and barb-b-que, the ingredients of a Southern summer. Cooling off. Sustenance. Mischief.

On the border of Kentucky and Tennessee in Adams, a little enclave in Robertson County, therein lies the setting of the legendary Bell Witch.


Robertson County sits in the bottomland of the Red River.

This is tobacco country where Robertson County is the dark-fired tobacco capital of the world. In late summer the smell of fresh cut tobacco fills the thick, hot air as it hangs to dry in tobacco barns.



As teenagers, with a designated driver, and shamefully, sometimes not, we fuelled up on the only thing a decent Kentucky native would drink late on a Sunday night, the sweet and fiery liquid that is Kentucky bourbon.





I swear we'd find bourbon in our shampoo if they could think of an angle.


Chocolate Bourbon Balls

We went ghost hunting after midnight. Driving through the Bell farm back roads where no streetlights shone the way, our headlights beamed through coal black darkness. With flashlights, we studied the tombstones of the John Bell family, plantation owners and slaveholders, who were haunted by Kate, the witch.


We ran around screaming at the slightest provocation, like a screeching owl, or a tap on the shoulder. Our footsteps covered the same ground upon which General Andrew Jackson and his men had stopped for an overnight visit with John Bell.

The soldiers were terrified with the witch’s antics and begged to leave. It was noted that Jackson dropped to the ground laughing and said "By the eternal, boys, I never saw so much fun in all my life. This beats fighting the British."

1894


Bell House 1909

We stumbled upon the cave on the Bell farm. A bat flew out of the mouth of the cave and one of our crew wet her pants in sheer terror.


This fright night stuff makes one ravenous, onward then to raid a parent’s refrigerator, which reliably contained some sort of leftover bar-b-que. Bar-b-que in the South is the actual food, not the act of grilling. “Let’s go eat some bar-b-que.”

Kentucky barb-b-que restaurants don’t want you to forget where you are: Old South Bar-b-que, Good Ole Boys and Old Hickory, to name a few. And for the nostalgically romantic there’s Moonlite Bar-b-Que, Shady Rest and Good Old Days. My personal favorite sauce:


I think it was the display of the “real lump wood charcoal” and HP Barbecue Sauce at the hot end of Waitrose that woke me from this dream of summer Southern nights.


Monday, 5 July 2010

SPENT SOME TIME IN THE CLINK

It looked promising, nestled in a corner of one of my favorite London areas. I approached The Clink Museum from London Bridge way and passed through Borough Market and its big bad self, although less big and less bad now. After years of discussions and delays a railway bridge is being built above the renovated Victorian glass roof and when it is finished no one is quite sure what will have survived. The capital’s oldest market dates back to 1014.


I steered away from the food and drink with some difficulty and headed to Clink Street. On the cobblestones I ran into a young man dressed in Victorian costume, but not a very good one - shabby and inauthentic, poor fellow. His horror makeup was more clownish than Hammer and he appeared to be bored rigid. A second non-scary creature took my money, mumbled instructions to “listen to everything and read everything”. All righty then.

A groaning waxwork man hangs in a cage at the entrance to welcome visitors to the basement level. Don’t be concerned; it’s not at all gruesome.


The museum tries to recreate the conditions of the notorious prison. The exhibition features a handful of prison life tableaux, and dwells on the torture and grim conditions within. One theory goes that the name of the prison comes from the 'clinking' of the prisoners' chains, though a more likely explanation is that the word comes from the term for rivets or nails used to fasten the restraints.

The floors are scattered with sawdust, the piped-in stories heard somewhere near the wax statutes are less than evocative; the loop repeats too quickly and there’s a bit of bad acting. I read that this small museum is arranged into a series of cells, but frankly, I didn’t get it.

I was on my own and remained the only person in the museum for the entire visit. I expected to cringe a bit, maybe pick up an eerie vibe, but at no time did I feel a prison-like atmosphere, even in the company of a whipping post, torture chair, foot crusher, and other torture implements. Signs urge one to have a go with the ball and chain, or why not pop a scolds bridal on your head?


I picked up a chastity belt made of iron. Applause for any woman who walked Bankside in wilting heat or bitter cold with that thing under her skirts. It was curious to see a sign next to the beheading block that encouraged one to place their head upon it for a photo op.

The biggest challenge in the Clink is that it’s so very dark, made so by black painted walls and poor lighting. I struggled to read many of the display boards, which held huge paragraphs of text.

In this little black dungeon’s defense, it would be impossible to recreate the conditions of the Clink. If they had succeeded, there would be no visitors.

The history is as intense as you’ll ever find. The origin of the Clink can be traced back to Saxon times and was owned by a succession of powerful Bishops of Winchester who resided on the South Bank of the Thames. In 860 a Synod ordered that there must be a place to keep bad monks and friars. The Clink was attached to Winchester Palace, the home of the bishop, where at that time it would have been only one cell in a priests’ college.

From the 12th century the Clink housed prostitutes and their customers. The Southwark area of London was home to the red-light district where brothels, usually whitewashed, were called "stews" because of their origins as steambath houses. The bishop licensed brothels and regulated their opening hours. Joining the ‘whoores’ were thieves, rogues, vagabonds, drunkards and fiddlers. Yes, fiddlers.

By the 13th century, torture and horrendous mistreatment of prisoners began, thanks in part to the knights and soldiers returned from the First Crusade where they picked up a few nasty torture tips.

Outside the Clink, the prison whores, bared to the waist and with shaven heads, were whipped at the bloodstained whipping post. The Ducking Stool was used for punishment of scolds, ale-sellers and bread-sellers, who sold bad or underweight goods.

By the time Shakespeare moved into the area with The Globe around the corner, the entire cast of one of the other theatres was “thrust into the Clink for acting obscenely.”

Remember those Puritans who were imprisoned for their religious beliefs? Several of the men who were to become the Pilgrim Fathers spent years in the Clink before their voyage on the Mayflower.

So unless one walked through a display of fettered humans amongst stink and squalor, blood, death and illness, corrupt jail keepers and extortionists, there’s not much chance of hearing, smelling or seeing an authentic medieval prison. Understood.

The ruins of Winchester Palace stand oddly alone across the cobblestones from the Clink. All that is left is the west gable of the Great Hall and its gorgeous Rose Window.


You can’t miss the Clink or the Rose Window. They make up the middle of a triangle between Starbucks, Pret A Manger and Gourmet Burger Kitchen. Maybe we should be grateful there’s a museum there at all…