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Featured Just type Life Narrative

Just type: How I miss Ludlow

How I miss Ludlow.

A brace of pheasants in the feather for less than a fiver – hanging from one of Ludlow’s five local butchers. Each dwelling in a building made by medieval tradesmen.

Cobblestones, of course, usually damp, with overhanging late-medieval timbers just overhead. If you duck and twist to the market square, you can buy the most expensive fruitcake known to man – quenched like a blacksmith’s goods in fine whisky.

Gardens bloom gloriously due to obsessive tinkerers in horticulture. They’re mad as a skip of toads, of course, but I’ll be damned if they can’t design and dig the most stunning tiny plots of land as if practicing to become groundspeople for vast stately homes.

There, at the top, is a square, guarded by a large field gun taken at Sebastopol – something Tennyson would likely swoon to straddle and make boom noises: “Half a league onward – boom!” Behind the cannon’s muzzle sprawls the Norman Ludlow Castle. Pay a pretty few pence (easier to use notes, actually – it’s not a cheap day out, if I recall correctly), and you can stand in the keep of the Lords of the March. From here, Wales was governed, and Mortimer plotted to take over all of England, making the king wear the cuckold’s horns before making a divisive decision that left the four quarters of his body rather unhandily inaccessible to his plans.

It’s hard to see the wool church from the centre, but take a few paces out of town and the cathedral-like St Lawrence’s tells you this place once rolled in cash.

I once carried a Christmas tree on my shoulder from the winter’s market – down the hill on old Corve Street, right the way to the still damp from the floods end of town where we lived. Several passing people asked if I’d forgotten its decorations. One offered to help. I was in high spirits indeed, for this was my home now.

I drank pints of Shropshire-brewed ale while reading books in quiet pubs on chairs where people had been drinking pints of Shropshire-brewed ale since before – well before anything my childhood world contained.

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Featured Life Narrative

I thought I’d be wearing a robe or something.

“So, this just swings over your jacket, and just hook this bit under your… where’s your tie?” The spindly man from Ede and Ravenscroft held some form of heavy, black wool cloth and cordage out to me.

“I’m not wearing one. I don’t own one. Wait, do I need a tie to graduate? I thought I’d be wearing a robe or something?”

“Well, the hood goes over your robe and hooks under your tie.” He reiterated, staring at my throat. He wasn’t offering me alternatives. He didn’t see a way out of this situation without my wearing a tie. Also, I was starting to worry that he was looking for more than a tie under my chin – maybe an artery? He did strike me as the vampire-type. He seemed ready to spring, and had pale, bony hands sticking out of his double-cuffed shirt and three-piece suit. Cold hands in a stifling basement room? And, Ede and Ravenscroft? Definite vampire.

“OK, look I think I saw ties in the college shit they’re selling at the entrance. I’ll be right back.” I didn’t want to draw attention my lack of jacket – the tie problem was enough.

Shit. I thought I had this sorted. If there’s one thing I’d learned over the past three years, it’s that any event in London would be uncomfortably hot, cold, wet, or crowded. Given the season – and past two weeks of watching parks turn into sandlots – I banked on it being hot and crowded. So, two weeks before the date, I made a special trip to Marks and Spencer on the train, and picked up what I considered to be a smart shirt. I didn’t know that a button-down collar on a short-sleeved shirt isn’t something one wears to a graduation. Especially – it seemed – one’s own.

Everyone I ran past was wearing a suit or posh dress. I was starting to reconsider my lifestyle. A five-foot eleven, 18-stone, bearded transvestite would certainly draw attention, but at least they’d be less warm in a thin cotton dress. Maybe off-the shoulder? Definitely better than doing up the top button, and essentially wrapping a thin scarf around their neck.

“Hey, do you know if they sell ties from that stand with all the college shit?” I asked my mate, having run the half-mile from the basement to the entrance. “And, what the fuck is a barbican, anyway?”

“I’ve no idea, but I think there’s only one. This one: The Barbican.” I could hear the capital letters.

“And yes, I think they have ties. Why, did you forget yours? Are you sure you didn’t leave it with your blazer.”

“My what?”

“Never mind.” He eyed my bare forearms. “Yes, ties – College ties, I think. Over that way – run. Are all Yanks like you?”

“Oh hell no. But, remind me to tell you about trailer parks in the desert and why we don’t wear fucking ties and wool coats in the summer. Also, isn’t your country supposed to be grey and rainy? It’s like 90 degrees in here!”

“No, it’s 30. And, run.” He pointed toward the foyer.

The exchange with the man – also besuited – selling college shit was essentially more of the same back-and-forth about ties, jackets, and telling glances at my now-sweat-beaded, bare forearms.

“We have several ties. You can have the colours, or the arms, or…”

I grabbed a nice blue one with shields on, and balked at the price tag.

“Er, I don’t suppose there’s a student discount… no? OK, I’ll take it.”

Tying and jogging is a skill I discovered on my way back to the basement. I presented myself again to the gentleman’s tailor to the Duke of Edinburgh, or Prince of Wales, or whatever. “I have a tie.”

“Quite.”

He waited while I donned a robe, and hooked the cord around my throat. He struggled not to use it as a garrotte.

“Right, don’t forget your hat. And remember, you’re not to wear it indoors.”

“OK. Wait, are we going outside?” I asked, hoping I could at least catch a breeze.

“No. This is an indoor graduation ceremony.”

“OK, I’ll just leave the hat then.”

“Your hat is required. Just don’t wear it.”

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Featured Life Like Narrative

Memory is a long-exposure photo

Memory is a long-exposure photo. Things that move the least hold the best focus.

Picture a room from your childhood home. Parts of it are so clear, you almost feel you could turn a corner and be there. Your fingers feel the texture of those curtains, and you notice the definite smell of sun-heated windowsills – something you didn’t realise you could remember, and had never thought to recall.

But, then look closer at the picture. What colour is that sofa? Wait, it’s blue – no: beige. That bit of artwork? It’s over there, and it’s a cheesy print in a brass frame. No, that’s in the other room, and what I see is a family-portrait (also cheesy, mind) collage.

But that table, you can picture every scratch, even though the books in the shelf behind it are grey blur. The telly is in the same place, but changes sizes as you squint – getting a bit thinner, with more – than fewer – black boxes beneath it, blinking green and orange leds at different rates.

Your pets seem to be all ages at once. That old dog’s greying snout shares the space of a younger, athletic one, and the puppy with floppy ears before it. But his eyes are clear, and you could reach out now and stroke just behind his ear.

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Featured Life Narrative

Cally Road’s king and I

Thing is, despite the many people, none gave me a second look. And, I’d never looked more guilty of breaking and entering in my life.

“Ah, Zak!” I could hear the k in the way he said my name.
“I forgot to put a microwave in your flat. You want one, yes?”

“Actually, that’d be perfect.”

“OK. Walk with me. We go to my place where I keep such things, and you take whatever you want.”

So, we walked down the road, an ill-matched pair if ever there were one.

My Cypriot landlord was a small man, but he craned his neck up at no one. He occupied a greater space on the pavement than I did – and I overtopped him by a head, and let’s just say I couldn’t hide from anything by standing behind him width-wise, either.

He stopped and picked up a rather beautiful, fruiting chilli plant from its stand in front of the Turkish grocers’ shop.

“You like these spicy things?”

“I do, yeah. Where I grew up, Mexican food is probably the most common thing we eat. The spicier, the better.”

“We use these much in my food from Cyprus, too. I love hot. Hot food, hot weather, hot everything.”

So far, I was enjoying his enthusiasm. He continued to gush over his botanical wisdom. His words always flowed effortlessly – and with little pause. So, I had to rethink his last bit for a few paces.

“Sorry, I missed that. Chilies?”

“Yes, chilies, tomatoes, potatoes, and chocolate – so many things we eat – the things we love to eat! They are a gift. From space. Outer space.”

He waved upwards.

Yes, I had heard him right.

“Er, space? I think they’re from Mexico, aren’t they?”

“Well yes, Mexico and Guatemala and those places. But that’s where they are from here. The best things we eat were brought down from out there. You know they have those big temples, yes? Pyramids in the jungle! Who would build such big things in the middle of there, eh? Those people, long time ago, they build those things to let aliens land. And, they gave them such things as these.”

He brandished the potted shrub with a gesture very much like a barrister’s closing statement. “I have provided indisputable counsel, and my case rests” the chilli plant waving said.

We had to walk back a bit, so he could return the chilli. He continued to tell me how we’ve lost so much we could have had from our benevolent, interplanetary friends. Wondrous technologies, limitless medicine. They once never died from cancer in Central America, apparently.

So, onward we walked. One of us a bantam kingpin, the other a baffled, outsized student. We came to a corner flat, and many keys emerged from my landlord’s pocket. I still wonder how he managed to stuff a grapefruit-sized clutch of keys into perfectly-tailored clothing.

“Here we are. Microwaves are there, near the cookers. I keep many things here. Take, and I’ll lock up.”

So, I selected a still shrink-wrapped box from the flat-hoard of white goods. The place held more stock than a decent high-street home ware shop. He struggled with the door for a bit, while I looked on – head turned at a weird angle. He pulled at a robust chain for a while, then dropped it and kicked it back inside. He rattled the door for a bit, finally pulling it to, and waved me off, back to my subterranean flat with my very own, brand-new microwave.

I stopped to buy some chilies from the Turkish grocer, who was only mildly amused that I conducted the transaction from beneath a heavy box. But, I couldn’t resist. And, you never know: I might make contact with an offering of extra-terrestrial produce.

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Featured Life Narrative Perspective

Remember your baptism!

I'm the beardy one“Remember your baptism!” Droplets splatter my face, and a strong scent of rosemary fills the air as the grinning bishop flicks water at us.

This was not part of the confirmation service I was expecting. Members of the Ely Cathedral congregation were urged with a splash to recall their original commitment to Christ. It’s a tricky task for most, being asked to bring to mind a service in which they took part as infants. To make it easier, we were reminded of the promises made by our godparents.

Thing is, I haven’t got any godparents. And, I can remember my baptism with clarity:

“Zachariah, I now baptise you in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Buried…”

The rest was washed out by the inrush of chilly water, and the sensation of being submerged backwards by a big, kind-hearted man who’s grin was remarkably like that of the rosemary-brandishing bishop. But I knew the rest of the words by heart:

“… in likeness of His death. Raised again to walk in the newness of life.”

As I re-lived my baptism, I was taking part in a service of confirmation, alongside two friends with whom I’ve shared several months of lessons. My plans to be confirmed as an Anglican have been a conversation-starter:

photo of a carved, wooden cross“Wait, weren’t you confirmed already?”

Well, sort of. I was raised in the Baptist tradition of Christianity, but the teaching of both are remarkably similar. The Church of England teaches that confirmation is an adult decision to commit your life to Christ. The Baptists say the same, but with more water, and tie confirmation and baptism together into one almighty dunking.

I see my recent confirmation as a reaffirmation of my decision to follow Christ. My baptism means no less to me, though I was only eight. Being anointed with oil in a cathedral is a chapter from my story with the church as I am now – at very nearly 30.


Written for the news magazine of All Saints Church, Cottenham. Reposted with kind permission.
Top image credit: © 2014, Monique Ingalls, all rights reserved. Used with kind permission
Image of wooden cross: © 2014, Zach Beauvais, some rights reserved: CC BY-SA

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Blog Featured Life Narrative Perspective

Cycling: I cannot know your context

photo of the hills fit for cycling
The perfect place for cycling

It is cold.

I have just decided to carry on, trying to ignore the tightness in my chest, and the retching tickle at the back of my throat that says one thing: “Cough!”

My ears are already tingling.

“We are the Hellequin,” I pick up the dialogue from a new audiobook. It had faded as I climbed the first hill on my cycle route, which gets steeper toward the top in reality and imagination; and I began to question whether I can make it. I have been trying to count the number of times I had climbed this hill, and I picture the road at the top to prove that I had indeed been up here on two wheels before.

My nose is already running.

Today, the hill is steeper in imagination, and my breath is shorter than normal. It’s the first day in a week I have been well enough to do any exercise, thanks to a seasonal cold.

HEY!

A loud noise: a car’s horn

FAT!…

cough

STRAIGHT!

cough

SHIT!

cough

A light colour flies past my right hand—the bonnet of a car within a foot of my front wheel.

STRAIGHT

cough

A laughing face and a waving fist.

… straight.

cough

I hear the horn again, and realise it’s a Ford Ka: full of lads’ faces and Adidas jackets. Then I’m in paroxysms as I kind of start to work out that it’s bloody amazing I haven’t fallen off. I stop pedalling, ditch the bike and cough until I retch for a bit.

I can’t decide whether I’d shouted the word straight aloud, or if it was just the only thought in my head. I’m pretty sure I cried: “Shit!”

So, here I am: snot and shakes at the side of the road, and I’m wondering if I should walk my bike back, or just leave the bastard there.

It’s fine.

The bike’s fine.

I’m fine.

I’m not coughing, but I’m angry. I’m furious. Now I do shout, unquestioningly, a word I can’t type.

Do you have any idea what you just did, you Ka-ful of little shits?

Have you got any thought in the direction of just how dangerous this was, or what it means to me as I am right now?

Sure, I’ve got a cold, and I’m coughing like a man drowning in porridge. Sure, I’m on the side of the road dripping snot and cold sweat, and I’m angry that the only word I could discern from your barrage was: fat.

No.

They couldn’t know. They couldn’t guess, and I doubt they thought much before pulling that incomprehensibly dangerous stunt.

They couldn’t have known that cycling is desperately important to me, mainly because of that spat-out word: fat. They couldn’t know the feeling I get from sputtering to the top of that first of several hills, how freeing it is for me. They couldn’t have a bastard clue that I can only cycle thanks to the 4 discs destroyed in my spine. I cannot walk like I want to, I cannot play sport, I cannot jog or easily lift weights.

They couldn’t know I’m terrified of cycling.

They couldn’t know that last year, cycling took 2 days out of my memory forever. They can’t know that I’m scared whenever I get on the bloody bike. Yet, I love the feeling of doing something physical, and get to feel somewhat normal—even powerful as I pedal my gigantic carcass up steep, Dale hills.

Cycling took six weeks out of the most important and inspiring work I’ve been able to do, and kept me from supporting my colleagues at a time when every hour counted; and I regret that now that our startup has fallen-over and my friends are no longer colleagues. Cycling gave me a stammer, when my job is to communicate, and I can’t help but love getting back up on 2 wheels when the only way to balance is to go faster.

That stupid moment will be forgotten already. A quick laugh, maybe a hint of regret in one of their memories. Maybe not.

No, they can’t know my context, and I can’t stay as angry as I am.

They didn’t know, and that somehow helps.

You can’t know someone’s back story when you do something to them, and they couldn’t possibly know that balancing on two wheels is one of the most important things in my life right now.

No, I have to finish the route.

So I do, and I feel free again.

If anything, I feel freer of phlegm.

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Featured Life Narrative Perspective

Some lessons learned from injury

Sunlight-in-shade“You’ve had an accident on your bike,” a familiar voice gave me something I knew.

“You’re in the hospital,” and the familiarity fled with being awake.

A few more dreams, and I slowly recognised myself lying in bed, surrounded by scrubs and unfortunate people.

I pushed myself upright, and oddly felt the mattress move beyond my arm’s length, and the man opposite me moved from the floor to the ceiling. So, I stayed half-way up for a while, wondering which plane I was on, and where I was supposed to be comfortable. My shoulder suddenly stopped supporting me. I landed face-first in the bed, and the pain in my collar pushed its way into my understanding.

“Bloody hell” didn’t quite make it past my throat, partly thanks to the pillow surrounding my face.

So I fell asleep again, it seems, because my memory kept blinking.

Eventually, I came round more like a morning’s awakening in the dark, and again felt unfamiliar. I kept trying to patch together what was happening, and couldn’t remember anything leading me to here. I remember feeling hungry towards the end of the day, then the blinking of pastel colours, unpleasant smells, and suddenly the sound of someone screaming: “Scratch my bum! Fuck you! Scratch my bum!”

Towards the morning, I started to understand where I was. The familiarity I first experienced came from my wife, who had been by my side all night. I also noticed the number of people around me in medical clothes: nurses, staff, and who I assumed to be doctors. It was comforting that so many people about would look after me. I was able to put a rather disturbed face to the voice asking for his bum to be scratched, too.

I also began to work out which bits hurt more than others, and start to patch together what happened. I was completely deaf in one ear, but fortunately my wife sat on the other side of my bed and helped me understand why I was there. I kept asking her simple questions:

“Where was I? Did I hit anything? When was that?”

Weeks later as I write this down, I am still missing any memory of the reason for waking up in hospital. I remember working from home on something rather exciting, and feeling enthused about the things I’ve been pulling together at work for the past few months. Then, the blinking started and settled slowly into being in hospital. I’ve lost 12 hours. My wife filled in the details for me, and we’ve managed to piece together the rather underwhelming story of what lead me to pastel-coloured blinking, and a lot of pain.

After work, I took our dog for a run alongside my bike up and down the street just outside our house. This had been a bit of a treat for the past couple months for both of us. I enjoy him relishing the speed and bursts of energy as he effortlessly lopes along the wheels having more fun than the boring pace of two legs. Recently, we had taken him round a reservoir and ran him for 8 miles. He loves it. I got him a lead that attaches to the handlebars so he can’t wander into traffic. That evening, this seems to have been a mistake, because he must have paused suddenly, or bolted into a familiar patch, pulling the handlebars to a sudden stop while I kept going.

Some neighbours found me face-down on the road, creating a rather splendid puddle of blood. They knocked on my door and my wife called an ambulance, which sped her and me to the hospital. I was assessed as an emergency, scanned and kept in the resuscitation area while they made sure I wasn’t immediately likely to create a bigger mess. They kept asking me questions, but I kept repeating myself, and demonstrating my inability to think clearly. I was conscious the whole time, but cannot remember a single blink of it.

The next few weeks were occupied with many trips to and from hospitals, and I picked my way through a few important lessons. I learned how good my wife is at looking after people who mostly cause her trouble. She came with me in the ambulance, through the critical area and past weeks of me mostly sleeping and failing to do much housework. She seemed unruffled by my being basically bed-bound, and helped me to smile (even when my face stopped working). She helped me make sense of medical discussions, often using examples she knows from dogs, cats and other mainly quadrupeds. The first lesson—alongside not cycling with a dog tied to your handlebars—was to marry an incredibly gifted and kind person. If they happen to be a vet, that’s an added bonus.

Fortunately, I was also looked after in the form of my colleagues and friends as they supported me. I was sent dozens of messages from the online world of twitter, facebook and my inboxes. My boss informed me in no uncertain terms that he wanted me to go back to bed instead of trying to work, despite my rather bad timing of being ill during the public launch of our project.

Unfortunately another lessons was not pleasant. The comfort I had received from the scrubs and medical uniforms as I woke, wore thin. After coming round to my limited senses, I ended up asking half a dozen people if my collar bone was broken. It was hurting a lot, and I could not lift it properly at all. It seemed obvious to me that it was broken: I could feel the bones moving where there should have only been one, and the big bulge over the most painful bit was a beacon.

Each time I asked, I watched as they read my chart and assured me it wasn’t, that I just had a concussion and nothing broken.

“Keep it moving, so it doesn’t become stiff.”

I cannot remember a single doctor or nurse looking at my shoulder, just my notes.

I sadly learned not to trust the advice that comes first if it seems wrong. Eight days after the accident, my reluctance to move the arm (in case it went stiff) became clear as a consultant took a few minutes to look at my shoulder and nod to himself: “That’s almost certainly a fracture. It looks painful.” The X-Rays he took did not need much explanation, but made me wince. I was told to keep it still.

This lesson was repetitious, and I cannot list every study-session I had on the topic. I must admit I am still depressed about the treatment I received in hospital. Some of the stories were painful at the time, and funny now; but I am trying to work out the final thesis of the lesson. So I will tell one more story here.

After a few days of being home, I went to bed saying: “My face feels very odd. Half of it feels tired and the other half tingly.”

The next morning, half my face was paralysed, calling for another trip to the hospital. Actually, it called for 4 trips to hospital over the next two weeks. Eventually, I saw a specialist. He was optimistic, though, and I think he half-read from my face that I was shocked by his diagnosis:

“Well, you’ve done an impressive job by breaking the hardest bone in the body!”

He explained that I’d fractured my skull, through my ear canal and pinched the facial nerve. I’d known for a while that my eardrum had ruptured, but this seemed to be the cause. He was reassuring, though, and said that he could see some small movement in my face, and that he did not believe the nerve had been killed but was just impinged, and that my course of action was to let my body put itself back together.

That was my main occupation for around five weeks. Though I did have my shoulder put back together with some screws and a plate, which made it a lot more comfortable. Over the whole time, I was astounded at how tired I was, and a lesson I’ve picked up is that a body needs rest to recover. It was a shocking lesson. It was shocking because it’s obvious, but I’d never known just how much rest my body demanded of me. More weeks later, and I still struggle to stay awake for a whole day, and run into fatigue sometimes quite suddenly.

I now seem to be mostly mended, with only a few niggles remaining. My face is only slightly lopsided now, making my giving a talk to a conference last week a lot more fun than it would have been otherwise. I can now hear about half-way through my right ear too. My arm is supposed to be in a sling for another two weeks, meaning I’ve put my most useful arm out of serious action for a total of around 8 weeks! But I can type and make coffee, so it’s not unsurmountable.

Looking back through this post, I’m struck by how much this has been full of experience alongside a series of painful instances. Before a few weeks ago, I had never broken a bone—so took up an introductory offer and went for 2. I had never had surgery of any sort, and have learned not to be too nervous of general anaesthesia. I also learned not to stand up after surgery too soon. I am hoping that as I get back up to speed with work and life that I don’t become depressed, though the fatigue is beginning to become annoying.

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Featured Life Narrative Perspective

Reflections on Royalty

The internet is full of information of dubious quality, and I have recently spent quite a bit of time trawling a particular subsection of this by trying to trace family information. I have found many lists of names, and I appear to be lucky that my maternal side seems to have been recorded doing things (been born, married, and buried in the main) for quite a long while. There is a frisson of expectation when climbing the family tree, hoping to find an interesting branch or two and praying not to find any thorns or rotten fruit. Certainly the most interesting character I have found so far was a bloke named Richard, and his story is one that stirs up something confusing to me.

Richard Peyton Bailey

You see, Richard Bailey – my seventh or so great grandfather – was born in Lancashire around 1740. One story says he was a carpenter, and he made the long voyage across the Atlantic as a young man to seek his fortune in Virginia. Nothing I have seen even hints at the motivation for this travel, but several of his family made the journey as well: his father and possibly even grandfather made the same journey. For whatever reason, he settled in a place that I remember visiting as a child, a part of the world which would later become West Virginia. He and his family were pioneers of Western Virginia, long before the time that would split the West from the rest of Virginia.

He seemed to have lived a vivid and dangerous life. He defended his family and friends from Indian attacks, and built a structure called “the fort” that seemed to have been a long-lasting local landmark. His family settled and set-up and set about creating the kind of America that I learned about in my school lessons in US history. His was an archetype of American life: so much so, it almost feels that but for a twist of fate, we could all have learned about Richard Peyton Bailey instead of Daniel Boone. When we sang “Land where my fathers died…” it never struck me at the time just how many of my fathers had done their perishing in America.

It was another story that was most exciting. A single line from a document stored on a genealogical site:

“He served in the Virginia Militia as a spy during the Revolutionary War between 1776 and 1783.”

If this is true, Richard Peyton Bailey, my great grandfather fought in The American war in the very regiment commanded by a certain George Washington, Godfather of all American symbol-folk and the fellow on quarters and dollar bills.

There is no way of knowing whether Richard was a man who fought for a cause or a creed. He could have been a mercenary, or a conscript (though I have some doubts that a commander would trust a draftee as a spy). I cannot ask him whether he believed in a land of freedom (from monarchy) and bravery (in the face of tyranny), or whether he approved of using Boston Harbour as a teapot. But his life is symbol enough. He was to leave the old country of England, and build a wildly independent life with his own two carpenter’s hands. He would defend it by all means, even against the forces of the land of his birth. He would leave his family an inheritance of freedom.

But I’m not a Republican

For me, Lancashire is now a couple hours up the M6. It is the county of my wife’s family, and I’ve spent time visiting her relatives less than 20 miles from where my 7th 8th and 9th great grandfathers-Bailey were born, Christened and sometimes married. My wife was born there.

I shall be publishing this piece on a day that I wonder how Richard would have celebrated: a British Royal Wedding. I imagine him issuing me a rebuke in a heavy Lancastrian accent, refusing to lift his glass with me in toast. He is far removed from me in time, but his symbolic life is at the heart of a mindset opposed to Monarchy. That is part of my heritage: leaving kingdoms to join a republic, build a new life, and to defend it.

But I’m not a Republican. At least, I have no particular aversion to the British form of monarchy. I am instinctively drawn to its sense of stability, and its wholly different symbolic tradition. I do not find the idea of living under an autocratic regime appealing, of course. And I have no doubt that it was the powerful grinding away of the royal office over centuries that we are left with the polished and relatively non-offensive institution of the current monarchy. There is, however, something stable in the idea that the head of state has been raised and trained to office from childhood. In a time of short-term professional politics, the heritage and context of political and symbolic positions being woven into family encourages me.

This, then, leaves me in a bit of a bind. I am drawn to the stability and heritage of British royalty but I am equally repelled by its seemingly mindless adoration from arch-conservatives and the cultural baggage that comes with it. The benign symbols to which I am drawn become something hideous in the publications of the nationalists and bigots. They become something, in the unlikely hands of the American “Tea Party”, that is altogether reprehensible.

I also think about this event in more human terms. There are strong elements of the intrusive, the voyeuristic, and imperfect catharsis in the ubiquitous Royal coverage. Everything is recorded, broadcast and consumed. From my relatively sequestered channel of social media, I have read about the dress, the carriage, the cost, the Queen and the bride’s family. The papers publish every detail, and their commentaries are full of criticism on grounds of cost, taste, politics, and seemingly whim. From people minutely dissecting every possible aspect of what otherwise should be a celebration of a day.

It is a wedding, and I was not invited. What right have I to see and comment and titter and snarl.

As disturbing as the adoration of bigots may be, and as much as any may have a political stance against monarchy, or a justifiable complaint, you demean yourself by being… by being simply rude.

To be Upstanding

photo of champagne glass

So, today will not be watching the Royal Wedding. Partly this is due to my not having a TV, but mostly because I would feel like I were gatecrashing an event to which I was not invited. On balance, however, and in light of the official and public nature of the occasion, I will be lifting my glass and throwing a party. I shall wish my best to the new Duke and Duchess of Cambridge. I shall pray for their wisdom, and for their future reign. I shall pray that they make it safely through the mindless criticism of the rude reformer and the unwanted baggage from the unwanted fanatics. I shall bear in mind my own inheritance of equality and think on the past reigns of less welcome monarchs, and hope for the balance of stability they might, in their official role, bring to the world.

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Coffee Featured Narrative

Guest Post: What is Specialty Coffee?

Guest post by Stephen Leighton from Has Bean coffee about specialty coffee

Has Bean SteveSo who am I? My name is Stephen Leighton and I’m the owner and head roaster at Has Bean Coffee based in Stafford. Has Bean is an online retailer, roasting and selling fine specialty coffees from all around the world direct to home consumers. So, before I go into the main part of why Zach has kindly let me guest post here, here are some basic:

What is specialty coffee?

Specialty coffee—simply—is coffee that is grown for the specialist market. It differs from coffees grown for the commodity, mass-produced market in price and quality. Specialty coffee is bought by conscientious importers and roasters who care about the sustainability (of course this is a broad brush and there are some unscrupulous buyers) of the product they are buying. If a fair price isn’t paid then it ceases to exist.

Fair Trade is fair enough isn’t it?

Fair Trade in the commodity market is indeed fair—much fairer than the prices they would normally get. It also imposes guidelines for growers to have social programs to look after the people that work for them and the environment. But in the specialty sector of the market, Fair Trade has no place as prices paid to farmers are much greater than the Fair Trade price. In a very sustainable way, good products fetch higher prices that can be fed down the line.

What about the social responsibility for non-Fair Trade coffee?

Well, you tend to find that good people sell good coffee: its just the way it tends to go. Good farms need good people to pick because quality in selection is vital. These people demand good conditions and good wage; and they themselves are rare commodity.

But to make sure of this there is nothing like going to visit the farms.

This post is about one of these visits and the coffee that came from it. This is no hard sell—we don’t even have any of this coffee yet—but an insight into what it takes to find coffee and what relationships go into this.

BackMachacarmarca in 2008 I was invited to go and be a judge for a program called the Cup of Excellence that was being held in Bolivia. This was my second time in Bolivia judging this competition (the previous being back in 2006) and one of many jury’s I have participated in. Bolivia is one of the best-kept secrets in the coffee world: small farms great altitude make for a fantastic climate. Unfortunately, coffee buyers are put off by the unstable economy and political situations along with the issues of coca and illicit drugs that are legally allowed to be grown in Bolivia.

At the end of the competition, we had cupped many coffees over and over again and one, for me, really stood out. But until you get home from the competition, you really don’t get to find out which farms are which. Before we left, we went to an event where the farmers could meet the jury members and ask them questions. I remember this particular time, it was being held in what could only be called a greenhouse, and it was sweltering. Being of fair skin and not being good with the sun, many breaks for me were taken to creep outside to a breeze. On one occasion, I got talking to one of the farmers who spoke great English. It was his first time competing and he didn’t know where he had finished, but was just proud to have made it to the international jury. We chatted and swapped business cards and went on our way.

When I arrived home, I dived into my emails and there was one from this chap just saying he was pleased to meet me and that he hoped I had travelled safely home. Intrigued by this contact, I got my cupping scores out and was able to match my scores to the coffees we had cupped. I found that not only had Mario’s coffee made it to the finals, but it was the one coffee that had stood out head and shoulders for me in the cuppings.

Excited by this, I waited in anticipation for the auction of this coffee—hoping we would be able to secure it. With a lot of jostling and a really high bid, we were able to fight off the competition and secure the lot.

Negotiations ensued, and we have taken all of the coffee from the farm ever since! We also found out that we are the only people ever to buy the coffee. In the past they had never been able to find a route for their fabulous coffee to market.

Has Bean WatchingBut I had never been to the farm, so this year I decided it was time to do so. So I made a marathon journey of 36 hours from home in the UK to La Paz, then another 3 hour car journey to the farm.

I spent the whole week picking with the pickers eating with the family, living on the farm, in the community. I kept a diary of my time there at the links at the bottom of this post, so I wont repeat whats already been written, but it was amazing! The local community heard I liked football so arranged for us to play a game of farm workers and me against the community. Afterwards we spent the evening chatting and drinking beers watching the sun go down. Truly magical.

We also recorded a special video for our weekly videocast we do called “In My Mug” which you can see below (link here if it doesn’t load for you):

http://blip.tv/play/hK86ge2WdQA%2Em4v

So when we get asked: “Do you do Fair Trade coffee?” we push out our chest and say “No! We can do better than that.”

This article © 2010 Stephen Leighton; all rights reserved. Images via flickr licensed as stated and used here with the author‘s kind permission.