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Monday, March 19, 2018

Nevil Shute on Fun at the Seaside

Nevil Shute's 1928 novel So Disdained (published as The Mysterious Aviator in the United States), gives us a view of life in England after World War I. On a rainy night, Moran is driving his Morris automobile down an isolated country road when he spies a solitary figure trudging along. He invites him into his car, and as it is late, takes him back to his cottage rented to him by the local lord of the manor. Moran discovers the man is a fellow Royal Air Force pilot he flew with during WWI. While Moran left flying to act as a business agent for the lord of the manor, this other man, Lenden, has been flying for a living since the war. 

Lenden has had an up-and-down career since WWI, as aviation was in its infancy in that era. At times he's worked as a mail carrier, or did survey missions in other countries. But each time, the venture hit trouble, and what seemed like a sure thing faltered. This forced him to send his wife away to live with her family, and sent him searching for another flying job that offered enough security for him to afford an apartment or a home in which they could comfortably live. But whatever he tried, it only worked well for a time, and soon he had to send her back to her family again, while he...

One of the jobs Lenden enjoyed, but could never make pay, was giving holiday makers short flights. He and his partners, all former RAF pilots, would travel to seaside towns all over England, such as Brighton or Cromer, and charge money for a ten minute flight. As he recounts to Moran, one of Lenden's first ventures started immediately after WWI, in 1919. He and his partners bought an Avro seaplane and used it to take tourists for a quick ten minute flight. The flight itself wasn't the problem, it was getting on- and offshore. The process of landing on the water, getting ashore, loading and unloading passengers, just too too much time to make the venture profitable. 

Having spent a week in and around Cromer last year, I can understand some of the trouble Lenden might encounter. One of the town's claims to fame is a Life Boat Museum. The building is packed with photos, memorabilia, and even an old ship. There visitors learn how their local version of a Coast Guard has saved the lives of countless unfortunates who got into trouble at sea. 

Inside the Cromer Lifeboat Museum

On our first day in Cromer, we found a bench by the sea and sat down to eat our lunch. Even though it was sunny, we needed a jacket to ward off the cool breeze. I had to set my can of soda between my legs, or it would blow over. I had to cradle my arm around what little food I had on my lap, and place our backpacks and other items nearby, to keep the wind from blowing away our food. Still, an unexpected gust of wind was liable to blow away a small item of food, or send my napkins fluttering off.

Even though it was a summer month, when tourists could pack the town on a weekend, it was always windy there. Wooden walls act as dividers lining the beach, to combat beach erosion from strong tides. Tractors lined the beach, awaiting the need to tow a boat over the hard shingle, to either launch it into the water, or reclaim the vessel from the breaking surf. 

It's hard to imagine navigating a small seaplane on and off such a windswept beach. It's even harder to imagine a small seaplane parked on the beach. I imagine, unless it was tied down securely, it would blow over or away. Given the construction methods and materials of such small planes one hundred years ago, storm winds might well have ripped apart the best secured airplanes.

Then again, given modern safety restrictions, and society's readiness to serve a lawsuit against anyone for any perceived wrong, I wonder if such seaside tourist flights could even be offered today. If they were, I wonder if they'd be any more profitable than Lenden's.

Dragon Dave

Wednesday, March 14, 2018

The Rise of Buck Rogers and Norman Clegg

Holmfirth, England 2012

I've resisted updating the statistics on My Ten Most Popular Posts page. It's always nice to be able to look back, and see how things have changed. But it's been six months since I updated them last, and I thought the list should reflect current reader interest. 

On the side of stability, the top six posts remain unchanged in position. This means they all remain relevant, despite having been written four to six years ago. The two posts on author Steven Brust were early favorites, but garnered most of their interest around the time they were written. Other posts have since assailed their once indomitable positions. Perhaps interest in them will renew at some point, for Steven Brust continues to write novels in his popular Vlad Taltos series. Additionally, it's good to see he's stretching by writing original books, and collaborating with other writers. 

Catching a Glimpse of Norman Clegg and Jean And Lionel's House in "As Time Goes By" remain popular, due in no small part to how the characters became alive to us in their TV series. It makes sense that we would want to know where they lived, look around the neighborhood, and for a brief moment at least, inhabit their world. Likewise, James Herriot Trivia II informs us not only about the life and places where the popular veterinarian lived and worked, and how significant members of the cast and crew brought his stories and characters to life. It's always nice to learn of similarities between Herriot's world, and the director and actors' lives.

The sole hold out from the comics' genre is Pride And Prejudice And Pictures, which suggests that, while Stan Lee and his Marvel-ous characters will continue to entertain people, the immortal Jane Austen contributed more to literature than hundreds of superhero stories ever could. I'm not sure if I agree with this conclusion. It must be argued that, since I set up my blog on Valiant Comic's character X-O Manowar, I've written no new comics-related posts, so I'm not exactly driving superhero readers to The Dragon's Cache. Still, it's worth noting that many of the classic superhero writers were inspired in their youth by classic literature written by authors like Charles Dickens, Arthur Conan Doyle, and of course, Jane Austen. 

A Harrod's Bell & Jingle Shells, along with The Sacred Retreat: Part 1, were two reflections on life that found an unexpectedly wide audience. Along with the posts on Stan Lee and She-Hulk (or, more accurately, Spider-Man), they've been superseded by 2017 posts on Buck Rogers and Norman Clegg. Perhaps this is because all of us see a little of ourselves in the two kind-hearted heroes. 

In their own way, Buck Rogers and Norman Clegg represent the Everyman. (Or, if you prefer, Every Person). I may lack the training and experience to be a NASA astronaut, but I can imagine how much of a fish-out-of-water I would be if I were suddenly transported five hundred years into the future. Likewise, if I were transported to a secluded rural village, I can imagine wanting to retain my independence, while at the same time recognizing the importance of forging strong friendships. I can imagine wanting to protect Earth against dangers only I, with my unique twenty-first century insights, could see. Likewise, I can imagine wanting to spend as much time as I could amid strolling around the countryside, and soaking in the beauty of England's largely undeveloped Peak District. 

Concern and sacrifice for others. The need for independence. Striving for friends, and for what we feel is right (even when beset by strong-willed women). A love for the world around us, even if we feel it has lost its way. That's the power of Buck Rogers and Norman Clegg.

Dragon Dave

P.S. For those of you who may never have read them, or would like one last look at my formerly popular posts, here they are. Perhaps you can spur them on to new heights of popularity...

  She-Hulk's Favorite Superhero
  A Harrods' Bell & Jingle Shells  
  The Sacred Retreat: Part 1
  Everyone Wants to See Stan Lee  

Wednesday, March 7, 2018

2017 In Review Part 2

Last week, I listed all the novels I read in 2017 on the right. Here's the final post on those I felt compelled to tell you about.

Jeffrey Archer's house:
 the Old Vicarage, Grantchester 2017

Shall We Tell The President by Jeffrey Archer
A taut political thriller set in Washington DC, written by a former politician who worked at the highest levels of British government. I found it interesting how he knows so much about the workings of the American government and its law enforcement agencies. I visited the author's house in Cambridge last year. 

St. Edmundsbury Cathedral 2017

In Mary's Reign by Emma Orczy
A romance involving renowned Protestant-hater Mary I, the daughter of Henry VIII, a young man at court, and two women who look startlingly similar. I visited Bury St. Edmunds this year. It was a rainy day, so we had little time to explore the town. So we spent it largely inside the cathedral. Had I read the novel before I visited the town, I might have ventured out to nearby St. Mary's Church, where she was buried.

Paddington Helps Out by Michael Bond
The answer, in case you are wondering, is No. One can never get enough of Paddington Bear.

Five Hundred Years After by Steven Brust
I'm most familiar with Brust's stories about Vlad, the former assassin and underworld figure, who is on the run from his fantasy-world equivalent of organized crime. He drops lots of hints about how his world came to be, with it's mix of witchcraft and sorcery. This one leads up to a pivotal event in the world's history, and involves the ancestors of Vlad and his friends (and perhaps a few of his longer lived friends). 

The War in the Air by H.G. Wells
A bicycle repairman helps extricate a man and a woman from a downed air balloon on a windswept beach. Then the air balloon takes off again, and whisks him off to Germany. The army finds him, along with plans for a proposed airplane. He is brought on board a zeppelin, and transported across the ocean to the United States, where the fleet of German zeppelins devastate New York. A strangely prophetic novel, written three decades before World War II.

Big Ben 2011

The Clockwise Man by Justin Richards
While I'm a Doctor Who fan, I've never really liked the TV versions of the Ninth Doctor and his companion Rose. But I liked their characterization in this book, as they investigate attacks on people in early twentieth century London. The story featured displaced European aristocrats, who had to flee to England for their lives, much like Baroness Emma Orczy. And the climax occurs inside Big Ben, an English landmark I'd very much like to tour, but probably would never be allowed inside. 

The White Company by Arthur Conan Doyle
Unlike his Sherlock Holmes adventures, this is a 14th Century historical novel based partly in Minstead, England. It's really a series of misadventures featuring a young man who grows up believing he will become a monk, but falls in love with a noblewoman, becomes a squire, and eventually a knight and a landowner. As it happens, Minstead sits roughly halfway between Brighton (which I visited in 2013), and Lyme Regis (which I visited in 2015). Arthur Conan Doyle must have liked the town, as he was buried there.

E. F. Benson's House in London 2013

The English Way of Death by Gareth Roberts
An adventure in 1930s England, featuring the 4th Doctor and favorite companions Romana and K-9. There's some interesting nods to the Mapp and Lucia series by E. F. Benson. It takes place near the Victoria and Albert museum, where E. F. Benson lived, and also out on an English beach, where a strange brick bathing hut serves as an entry portal to another dimension. 

Winnie The Pooh by A.A. Milne
A fond look back at childhood stories, and a reminder that an important and beloved novel can be whimsical and lighthearted.

New York 2140 by Kim Stanley Robinson
Global warming has left many of the world's coastal cities underwater. Large swathes of New York City now stand in the intertidal zone. Skyscrapers have been fortified to withstand the conditions, and life goes on as usual, with intrigues, big business, and disasters. Homeless people live in boats on the water, scavenging to get by. Others who can't afford housing stay in tents atop the skyscrapers. The novel features a woman who travels around the world in a blimp, transplanting endangered animals to  regions where climate shift will allow them to survive. Another thread involves a search for buried treasure from a ship that sank off the coast during America's Revolutionary War. There are references aplenty to Herman Melville, including a lost story or novel which might also be recovered. But mostly it's a story about the centuries-old history of the city, and a thoughtful vision of its potential future.

A Mississippi River Boat in England?
Horning 2017

The Confidence Man by Herman Melville
The Canterbury Tales on a Mississippi River Boat. The theme is how much are you willing to trust, and believe in, your neighbor. Will you choose to believe in a good cause, based only upon a stranger's word? This is a tiresome read, and most of the time I was plodding through it. I don't recommend it. Nonetheless, it is one that challenged my outlook regarding the "good causes" people ask me to help, whether they be legally organized charities, or the scruffy, unwashed person on the street.

A Son of the People by Emma Orczy
A Hungarian Lord of the Manor tries to build a modern mill, using principles he's read about in England. But the local serfs are fearful that his advancements will leave them out of work, and they rebel by setting fire to the fields. While the rich lord is foreword-thinking, he's stupid about money, and ends up owing everything to a greedy Jewish moneylender. A peasant, who has worked hard and invested wisely, comes to his aid, and asks for his daughter's hand in return. This semi-autobiographical novel makes for an interesting study of life at the time in Europe, the interaction of the classes, racism, and the inevitable march of technological progress.

I'd be honored if any of my (eventual) published novels were to prove as noteworthy as the above listed titles.

Dragon Dave

Wednesday, February 28, 2018

2017 In Review Part 1

Last year I read some wonderful stories by some amazing authors. You can peruse the entire list off to the right. I'll touch on a few of the more meaningful journeys in this post.

The Highlanders by Gerry Davis
The novelization of a 1960s Doctor Who TV serial. It takes place in an era when the English fought the Scottish for who would be king of the United Kingdom. It's where the 2nd Doctor meets Jamie, a Scottish Highlander who is fighting the English Redcoats. As an American, it's a reminder of the time when the British and the colonies didn't agree who should rule part of Britain. The story aired on TV during the 1960s, when the British were in the process of disbanding their empire. It seems equally relevant today, given Britain's desire to abandon the European Union via Brexit, and with Scotland recently voting over whether or not to leave the U.K.

King Soloman's Mines by H. Rider Haggard
The Bible records the lavish extent to which Soloman built the Jewish temple. Other verses say that he built equally lavish temples for the gods of other lands, such as those his foreign wives worshipped. While Soloman is revered for building the first Jewish temple, the money he spent on it, and the labor he demanded of his people, led to the breakup of the Jewish kingdom. The novel's hero Allan Quartermain has become a cult hero, the subject of books, movies, and comics. Haggard wrote more novels about him, but this was his first: the search for the fabled diamond mines in Africa that Soloman used to fund his lavish building program. What I found most interesting are 1) how he kills so many animals for sport (or, in the case of elephants, for their ivory), and 2) how he convinces thousands of people to go to war in order to save the life of himself and his friends.

Cambridge 2017

Case Histories by Kate Atkinson
I discovered detective Jackson Brody via the TV adaptations. Atkinson's novel is very different from the TV versions. For one thing it's set in Cambridge, as opposed to the TV version, which is set in Scotland. Another interesting features involves the highly sexualized nature of Atkinson's story. There's nudists bathing in the River Cam, a woman who sells her soul (and body) to find her place in society, and another woman who decides to become a lesbian. The main plot involves the identity of a dead girl, with the culprit being a child molester. Even more startling is Jackson's fear that his young daughter will be corrupted by an increasingly sexualized society. This was a polished, literary work, as much a novel of character as a mystery. Agatha Christie it is not.

Lovejoy & Lady Jane Felsham punting on the River Cam

The Judas Pair by Jonathan Gash
The first Lovejoy novel set in the English county of East Anglia, which itself is made up of the smaller counties of Norfolk, Suffolk, and Essex. (This makes East Anglia a super county to live in, I guess. Ask Jonathan Gash--he lives there). The Lovejoy of the novels is very different from the TV version. He isn't afraid to use violence to get what he wants. He's also less averse to stealing, if he deems the situation warrants it. Yet the book focuses even more on antiques, and the peculiarities there of, than the TV show. The Judas Pair is a set of flintlock dueling pistols, and the novel covers the complexities of the guns in far greater detail. The story, likewise, is far more complex and layered. I'm not sure Lovejoy of the books could ever be called the James Bond of antiques, but it would be interesting to compare Gash's novels with Fleming's. Intriguingly, the TV version also has Lovejoy visiting Cambridge, and punting on the River Cam, which doesn't take place in the novel.

The beach in Aldeburgh, a popular seaside destination.
Suffolk 2017

In the Days of the Comet by H. G. Wells
Europe is poised on the brink of war. The coast of the English county of Suffolk is being bought up by property developers. English industry is run entirely by corporations and property developers. Then a comet passes through Earth's atmosphere without destroying the planet. The exchange of gases change how people regard their place in the world, and sets them on a path to treat others in a more equitable fashion. While the story is clearly idealistic and utopian, it does suggest that Wells foresaw the labor union movement. 

Buck Rogers in the 25th Century by Addison E. Steele
Did I really read this novel last year? Hm. Can't remember anything about it. Sorry.

Hospital Station by James White
An entertaining novel about a Human medical doctor on a space station. He treats more aliens than humans, and each has biological, gravity, and atmospheric requirements that make coexistence difficult. A very entertaining precursor to S.L. Viehl's recent Stardoc series.

The Trouble with Tribbles by David Gerrold
The author tells how he sold his first story to television, from his original story proposal, to his pitch session, to story development, and finally to the filmed version of the beloved Star Trek episode. It covers his interaction with the Star Trek cast and production staff, from Leonard Nimoy to Gene Roddenberry. It's an inspiring book, when you consider that Gerrold sent the production team his story idea as an unpublished author. Through Star Trek, he went on to have a successful career in TV and as a literary author.  

In Farleigh Field by Rhys Bowen
A murder takes place during World War II in an English Manor. Something fans of "Downton Abbey" might enjoy.

Annie of Albert Mews by Dee Williams
This novel also takes place in WW2, in an area of London called Rotherhithe. Annie grows up in a conservative, nonreligious household. Her friend is less moral, becomes a nightclub singer, and inevitably pays the consequences for her actions. Annie's first love dies in the war. She joins the Salvation Army, much to her parents' chagrin. She is almost raped, she nearly dies amid the bombing, and eventually is evacuated to the countryside. An involving historical novel of how life changed in Britain during WW2. (Some Sherlock Holmes adventures take place in Rotherhithe. I'd be interested in visited the area some day).

The god Amun protects the Egyptian King Tarharqa.
The British Museum 2013.

The Gates of Kamt by Emma Orczy
Explorers discover a lost civilization of ancient Egyptians, untouched by the modern world. A fun romp by the author of the Scarlet Pimpernel series, written in the style of H. Rider Haggard.

More About Paddington by Michael Bond
One can't get enough of Paddington Bear, right?

Given an abundance of time, I'd write more about all the books I read last year, not just the ones I noted. I'll finish this list of last year's most notable books in my next post.

Dragon Dave

Monday, February 12, 2018

American Indians, Jewish Leaders, and Giant Sloths

Some places you visit, you wonder at the history of the land, and how it came to be that way. This is especially true at Joshua Tree National Park in California, USA. 

The rocks seem to be jumbled all together, with larger ones atop smaller ones. It's as if God played Jenga with boulders. Maybe he did. Or maybe these strange formations came about through the process of erosion. Imagine the wind and the rain eating away at the land over millions of years. 

Wait! That can't be true. The Earth is only four thousand years old, right? So it's got to be God making artistic creations with rocks. Yep. That's the explanation.

We know all good things come from God. But how many of us knew Jenga was 4,000 years old?

The scientists will tell you that giant sloths roamed this land ten thousand years ago or more. They ate the needles, fronds, and seeds of the Joshua trees. When they roamed around, they dropped their little droppings all over, which helped the propagation of the trees. 

Personally, I think the idea of the giant sloths are cool, even if animals are extinct. But obviously, the so-called giant sloth skeletons we see in museums are little more than fanciful creations. The animals are no more than a myth created by scientists. Remember, the Bible says our world is only 4,000 years old. 

Most likely the Joshua trees were always there since the creation of the world. Either that, or the American Indians who lived here hundreds of years ago planted the trees. After all, they had a practical use for them. They used the fronds and needles to weave baskets and other household items. 

American Indians versus giant sloths. I mean, really: what are you going to believe in?

I'm not a Mormon, so I may be wrong about this, but my understanding is they see themselves as one of the lost Jewish tribes. Or the inheritors of the promises God made to Abraham, all those years ago. Either way, when Mormon pioneers rolled across this land in their covered wagons hundreds of years ago, they saw these strange trees raising their arms to heaven. The sight made them think of Joshua, the ancient Jewish leader, who unlike Moses, actually led his people into the Promised Land. 

Personally, I'm not sure I'd want to settle here, and try to make a go at life in the desert. It hardly seems to be flowing with milk and honey. But everyone is different, and gets inspired by different things. For example, some people get inspired by these jumbled-up piles of boulders and want to climb them. Some people see these weird trees and imagine Biblical figures, or mythical giant sloths. 

I'm not completely sure what I believe in these days. Nor am I always certain what inspires me. But I know one thing. There's no way I'm sitting down at a picnic bench and eating my lunch with a whacking great boulder hanging over my head. That, my friends, is the absolute, unquestionable truth.

Dragon Dave

Monday, January 29, 2018

Severus Snape and the Power of Kroll

In a remote section of the English country of Suffolk, there's a tiny village called Snape. It sits by the river, surrounded by fields of grass and thatch largely undisturbed for centuries. On a weekday, it is possible to trek through these wetlands and not see another soul. Yet the village holds a key to worldwide fame. For Snape is the hometown of dark wizard Severus Snape, Professor of Potions and Defense against the Dark Arts, at the Hogwarts School of Magic.

The chill breeze that blows over the rivers and fields bites into your skin. The wildness of the landscape seeps into your soul. Walking between the reeds, bundled up in your hat and coat, you can understand how Severus Snape would grow up to be a hard, disapproving wizard. How he would follow Lord Voldemort, who showed him how to channel his talents into a bid that would win him to the position of Headmaster of Hogwarts School. 

Sadly, that path lay through murder. But then, the places we live form our characters, just as much as the people with whom we live.

In the future, this area is destined to be renamed Delta Magna. It has been prophesied that workers from a nearby Methane factor will belittle and enslave the locals. The locals, known as swampies, will revert to a primitive, tribal existence. They will worship a foul monster, and sacrifice their own people to it. Then visitors will arrive in a magical blue box. Sensing the great evil that has festered and grown here since Severus Snape's time, these time travelers (identified as Time Lords and a metal dog) will liberate the indigenous people from the factory workers, and from an immense, ravenous monster called Kroll.

But all that is to come. And the future is never certain. Perhaps the Methane factory, and Kroll, will never mar these swampy fields. Perhaps the village can atone for the terrible actions of their best known son, and erase this blot upon their souls. Certainly the villagers are doing their best to make Snape a place of joy and beauty. There's a center here, called Snape Maltings, where people can travel to study music and celebrate art. Sadly, Severus Snape will always be remembered for hurting Harry Potter and killing Professor Dumbledore. Still, this one fallen wizard does not form the entirety of the village's collective soul. That's easy to see, when you visit Snape.

Dragon Dave

Monday, January 22, 2018

Mark Twain's Fabulous Riverboat in England

In author Philip Jose Farmer's Riverworld series, everyone who has ever lived on Earth (up to a certain date) is reborn on a vast planet constructed by a mysterious alien race. In every portion of this manufactured world, people from different ages, cultures, races, and beliefs mix freely. So aborigine cultures would mix with the most advanced peoples, and everyone in between. This allows people of great flexibility and willpower, such as Sir Richard Burton, the world famous explorer from Torquay, England, to shine in book one of the series. 

In The Fabulous Riverboat, the second Riverworld novel, Samuel Clemens opts not to spend this second life writing as a novelist under the pseudonym Mark Twain. Instead, he uses his humor and smarts to convince others to help him build a steamboat. This allows him to return to the love of his youth, that of piloting a steamboat on the Mississippi River. This early career had been taken from him, when river travel routes were cut short by the American Civil War. 

In Horning, England, you can step aboard a ship similar to the one Samuel Clemens built in Farmer's novel, and cruise the byways of the Norfolk broads. Like Riverworld, the area exhibits natural splendor. It's a scenic wonderland protected against development by the English government. 

Sitting in comfort aboard the Southern Comfort, you'll cruise along natural and manmade rivers. The ship's modern engine are far quieter than the primitive steam engines of Samuel Clemens' day. So you don't have to worry about the engine exploding, and setting the vessel on fire, such as in the accident that claimed his brother's life. Nor will you see workers digging new river channels for peat to keep their families warm in winter. But, depending upon when you visit, you might spy them harvesting the thatch lining these natural and manmade rivers, which they use to roof their houses.

A cruise aboard the Southern Comfort allows you to see how many people love to get out in the water, explore these tree-lined byways, and watch the swans, ducks, coots, and grebes swim past. As you cruise past the wide variety of nearby houses and villages, you can chat with those seated next to you. Most will hail from other regions of England, and happily tell you about the places they live.

The Mississippi River Boat Company calls their ship the Southern Comfort, but the way they service their customers is thoroughly English. So you can sit back, and watch the world go by, while sipping tea, and crunching a biscuit (that's English for cookie, mind you) with a proper cup and saucer. If you travel with a group, the leader may even purchase your tea for you, and bring it to your seat, as he did on our river cruise.

Who would have guessed that one could tour the famous Broads of England aboard a fabulous Mississippi riverboat? 

Samuel Clemens, take a bow.

Dragon Dave

Monday, December 11, 2017

Doctor Who on English Bathing Huts

Beach Huts in Torquay, Agatha Christie's hometown

I first noticed these colorful beach huts while exploring the counties of Somerset, Devon, and Cornwall on our 2015 trip to England. People rent these wood or brick buildings by the week, or even by the year. It gives them a place to store their beach items, and a little home-away-from-home while relaxing by the water each day. This allows parents to watch their kids play from the comfort of a chair on the wooden deck in front of the hut, or sit inside, share a meal or a game of cards, and even take a nap out of the sun. Nearby shops sell food and drink, rent other seaside amenities, and public toilets are also usually nearby.

On our visit to Cromer this year, a seaside town in Norfolk county, we saw more of these huts lining the beach. Cromer was a picturesque rocky beach, but the sea could get rough, and the wind can be strong. Some of these huts had windows with curtains, small refrigerators and sinks. Such conveniences allow one to enjoy the view, sheltered from the wind or rain, and enjoy more of the comforts of home.

Beach Huts in Cromer

In the Doctor Who novel The English Way of Death by Gareth Roberts, British biscuit (cookie) magnate Hepworth Stackhouse notices a small, lonely building while vacationing on the coast of England circa 1930.

It was a small brick building, five feet square, without external signs or markings. On the side facing the cove's wall was a wooden door, fitted with a brass knob. It was every inch a representative of its kind, with nothing of note in its appearance. Its singular oddness lay in its location. Why, wondered Stackhouse, would anybody choose to build a bathing-hut here, three quarters of a mile from the beach, on an area strewn with large rocks and pebbles?

Unfortunately, Stackhouse decides to investigate this mystery. When he tries to open the door, a gaseous intelligence overtakes him. Possessed by this malevolent alien, he kidnaps a prominent scientist, kills homeless people for sustenance, and raises a zombie army. It's up to the fourth Doctor, his time-lord companion Romana, his robot dog K-9, and a merry group of time travelers from the future, to prevent the intelligence controlling Stackhouse from destroying the Earth.

After learning the dangers a lonely English bathing hut might pose to humanity, I figured I had better learn more. An online search for "bathing hut" yielded two options: a bathing machine, and a beach hut. During England's Victorian era, bathing machines resembled today's colorful wooden beach huts. Only they were set on wheels. 

A woman entered a Victorian bathing hut fully clothed on dry land. The machine was then pulled by horses or people over the sand and rocks beach. When the woman finished changing into her bathing suit, she walked out of the hut, and stepped down the water. 

By 1930, when the events in The English Way of Death occurred, these wheeled huts seem to have been replaced by stationary changing rooms. Perhaps some, those built out of nick or stone, even sported modern conveniences like toilets and sinks. Or perhaps what Stackhouse saw was not a changing facility, but a beach hut for rent.

So did British biscuit (cookie) magnate Hepworth Stackhouse see a changing station, or a beach hut for rent? Sadly, Gareth Roberts' record of events is unclear. But given my uncertainty, I'll be more wary of these colorful additions to English beaches on future trips. And the question remains: what should I do if I see one of these brightly painted little buildings set off by itself, and located farther away from the beach than seems practical? Should I call the police? Or should I just go to the nearest shop, and buy myself a delicious English biscuit (cookie)?

Dragon Dave

Monday, December 4, 2017

E. F. Benson on the Value of a Cambridge Education: Part 2

During our boat trip on the River Cam, our tour guide praised the architecture of King's College, and spoke glowingly about the beauty of its famed chapel. Strangely, he then asserted that the interiors, and particularly the dormitories, had not kept up with the times, and were little better than prison cells. 

If this is the case now, I can only assume they were nicer a hundred years ago, when author E. F. Benson studied there. 

In his novel The Babe, B.A., E. F. Benson introduces us to a group of fun-loving young students at Cambridge. Most are studying at King's College, and the foremost of them is the Babe. He may be the son of an aristocrat serving in the House of Lords, but he's the silliest, and yet most learned of them all. 

The Babe, as everyone calls him, is the picture of fun, and his hijinks, and lack of scholastic excellence, constantly land him in trouble with the authorities. Everyone loves him for his athletic feats on the Rugby grounds, and the parties he holds or attends. Yet in the midst of revelry, or lighthearted talk, he will suddenly astound everyone by throwing out a completely unexpected reference to a famous poet like Wordsworth, an erudite writer like Charles Kingsley, or controversial literary magazine like The Yellow Book. 

Toward the end of his second year at King's College, his extracurricular activities land him in real trouble. Instead of studying for exams, the Babe goes out with his friends on the Cam for a picnic and a swim at Byron's Pool near Grantchester. When he returns after hours to his dormitory, he tries to sneak into his room. But he is caught, and the college authorities dismiss him for the rest of the term. So he goes to live with his father in London. 

During the summer break, his friends from Cambridge visit him in London. They join with his father's aristocratic friends in suggesting that the Babe isn't cut out for scholarly pursuits, and he should devote his life to something else. The realization that he's virtually wasted the tremendous opportunity of higher education galvanizes him. When the Babe returns to King's College for his final year, he allows himself the occasional game of Rugby. But for the most part, he throws himself into his studies, gives up parties and frivolity, and surprises everyone when he graduates with distinction

The British people have recently demanded that their government do more to rein in the costs of a university education. Strangely, the government in the United States seems to be moving in the opposite direction. A move to reform and "simplify" taxes would include provisions to tax certain private universities, end tax credits for university workers and their families, restrict higher education tax credits, and eliminate deductions for graduates repaying their student loans. 

No one likes being taxed on the money they earn. Still, life isn't about money: it's about doing what you find meaningful and fulfilling. If government reforms make it harder for people to afford an already-expensive college education, and prepare the young for their desired career, then perhaps the elected officials should reexamine their plans, and question whether they are in the country's best interests.

That's what British citizens want their government to do. Certainly our tour guide would agree with that sentiment. After all, he studied at a university in Brighton, and graduated with a Pre-Med degree. But instead of continuing his studies, he had to spend a few years guiding a boat along the River Cam, regaling tourists from around the world with anecdotes from Cambridge's past, while he repaid his student loans. While being a tour guide a worthy profession, I think we'd all agree that the world needs the qualified doctors and nurses more. 

But then, he was a great tour guide, and gave us a fun, relaxing boat trip on the River Cam. Perhaps that's what the Babe or his friends might have done, if they needed money too.

Dragon Dave

Monday, November 27, 2017

E. F. Benson on the Value of a Cambridge Education: Part 1

A highlight of our Cambridge experience was drifting along the River Cam past King's College. Not only do we see the Doctor and Romana punting past the college in "Shada" and "The Five Doctors," but one of my favorite English authors, E. F. Benson, attended King's College. He set Limitations, one of his early novels, at his old alma mater. 

In Limitations, two students at King's College ponder their future. Ted Markham is the son of a priest, only there because of a rich man's generosity. His friend Tom Carlingford is the son of the rich man, the lord of the manor, who has sent both his son and the son of his family priest to such a costly and prestigious school. But while Ted values the tremendous gift he's been given, and spends all his time studying, Tom whiles away his time at college, and dreams of becoming a sculptor. 

Like Tom and Ted, people today still argue over the value of a university education. Those who identify with Tom Carlingford, the idle rich man's son, argue that all that matters is that you leave with a degree, which will provide you with the qualifications for higher paying jobs. And if you're young, and not interested in your studies, then the time and money spent there seems like a waste. 

Tom saves his harshest criticism for students like his friend Ted, who plan on becoming university teachers and scholars. He warns Ted that many educators actually turn themselves into vegetables. Instead of using their greater knowledge to become dynamic, creative people, they become authorities on subjects that no one else cares about, such as gerunds, obscure Greek writers, binomial theorems, or acid radicals. 

Despite his friend's arguments, Ted, the poor man's son, stays at King's College, graduates with distinction, and goes on to become an educator there. He enjoys his life filled with books and learning, and sharing all he discovers with colleagues and students. His life, for him, is idyllic, and one he could not have achieved without the generosity of his patron, Tom's father.

Tom Carlingford, the rich man's son, leaves King's College before graduation. He uses his father's generous allowance to travel, and study the creations of great artists. In Greece, he is inspired by the Greek's classical style. He works hard to develop his talents, and hone his craft, in order to create statues as beautiful as those that fire his imagination. In this way, he educates himself, and singlehandedly forges his own future.

All is well until his father dies. Then Tom learns that his father's investments had been failing for years, and he is now penniless. So while Ted enjoys his new life as an educator in Cambridge, surrounded by people who respect him and appreciate his talents, Tom struggles to make ends meet in London, and picks up any scraps of work he can to put food on the table. Eventually he achieves success in his chosen vocation, but not before he undergoes a great deal of suffering.

While we toured this historic center of higher education, England was contemplating a change in leadership. Shortly after we left Cambridge, the country held an election. Prime Minister Theresa May had hoped to gain more Conservative Party seats in the House of Commons. Instead, people in the UK voted for the Labour Party. While I'm sure there were many reasons the Conservative Party lost, most of the young people interviewed on TV News programs said that they voted Labour because they wanted a university education, but under the current leadership they couldn't afford it. 

Hopefully, the British government will listen to this mandate, and do something to make university educations more affordable for its citizens. Whether you identify more with Ted Markham or Tom Carlingford, not all of us have rich parents or benefactors, and it's always nice to have a choice as to which path you follow in life.

Dragon Dave