28 April 2005

The Incident of the Cakes

You work in an office then you'll know about the cake tradition. If it's your birthday you buy cakes for everyone. That's everyone, including the greedy, the ignorant and the wasters. Today I watched that pitiful ceremony unfold.

Birthday boy returned from the cake shop laden with goodies. He placed bags on a central desk and carefully began to unpack them. As he arranged the square white boxes, eyes swivelled in sockets and heads nodded purposefully across desks. Helpfully he lifted the box lids and stood back to admire his work.

The first gluttons were out of their seats. Birthday boy was back at his post picking up a telephone and mumbling, 'Cakes guys' to his colleagues but scouts were already cruising the area, like sharks smelling one part blood per billion parts water. The first two lunged instinctively at their quarry, reaching, cramming, chewing. Other diners joined the throng, fist over flailing, grabbing fist. The desk was slick with cream smears and a box was tossed to the floor. The feeding frenzy reached fever pitch.

The larger beasts sank back from the feast now, gorged on chocolate and sponge and icing. Smaller, more timid ones crept up to select dainty fondant fancies and pecked nervously over the remaining crumbs.

The office was noisy with the hum of conversation mumbled through stuffed cheeks. Birthday boy ended his phone call and walked over to the cake table. "Is there one left for me?" He ventured.

It's a cruel world out there. Eat or be eaten.

27 April 2005


Inspired by the writing of commenter Finnegan, I decided to record the details of my next dream. After several nights of blackness I have something to recount from last night. The dream was an extremely frightening experience which I have attempted to recreate and interpret.
Lying on my back looking at the bedroom ceiling I caught a movement at the corner of my eye. There was a square opening where none should be. A male face thrust silently through and fixed me with a stare that penetrated my soul. As if I had been injected with some paralysing agent I was utterly unable to move. The face smirked as if recognising I was defenceless. He eased himself through the small hole with great agility and lowered himself to the carpet. Immediately he was followed by another who quickly stood beside him.

Together these visitors monitored my reaction and were satisfied. At no time did they speak. I gained the clear sense that they exchanged the thought "this one poses no threat." As they moved noiselessly through the bedroom door I fought hard to achieve motion. Eventually I could sit up. The sound of drawers opening and papers ruffling came up the stairs. My wife was awake beside me but seemed oblivious to the intrusion.

With a supreme effort I managed to stand up and walk stiff-legged through the bedroom doorway to the stairs. The body of a dead woman lay in the hallway below and the two men were looking down at her then up at me. I put massive effort into screaming at them "What are you doing?" but my mouth would not open and no sound would come. I tried to shout for help through my closed mouth. The intruders stepped over the body and strode calmly out through my front door. I continued to try and shout loudly but could only mouth silent words.

I awoke sitting bolt upright and drenched in sweat. The most complete and clawing sense of dread filled my mind and I shook like a leaf. "Why were you crying, who were you shouting at?" my wife was asking me. I could not reply, I was trying to work out why I was so scared. The time was 3:00am. As I recovered by degrees I began to recall the dream and recounted it to my wife. Unable to sleep I lay in child-like fear and saw 5:00am before sleeping again.
My work situation is hardly tolerable. A relatively minor yet restrictive arm condition has rendered me ineffective in my job and unlikely to obtain an alternative in the near future. My attempts to ask for acknowledgement and help have been ignored. I have been stifled and left to wither on the vine. There was £4,000 in Sterling and Dollars in the house at the time and I knew the intruders would find it. No pay rises for seven years has left me frustrated and angry yet I am financially reasonably secure. My female boss was the dead woman on the floor. She has a burning animosity toward me after receiving an official letter from my Union's lawyer. She would fire me if she could but twenty nine years service and a genuine problem means she is frustrated. I will never have forgiveness toward her for her unkindness to me and I wish her ill-fortune.
Anger and resentment at my present predicament have dragged me to this new low. This dream seems to draw together various powerful elements of my unease. The pure physical fear which followed in its wake however was real and profoundly disturbing. [Rest assured, dear readers, that this spell of low self-esteem is transient. My mental and physical powers will rebound and I will rise with strength and confidence to meet all new challenges!]

26 April 2005

Counting Crows

Today I pondered a curious deep empathy with a fragile friend far away. I thought of that soul struggling with a profound sadness, yearning to be valued and wanted. I sat on my lunchtime park bench counting crows. One for sorrow, two for joy, three for a girl, etc... They can be called magpies.

Sometimes a connection stops you in your tracks. Eleven years ago I would have thought, "I need to get me a little oblivion" but these days I accept my emotions. Black and white feathers strut about me inspecting the ground for scraps. They come singly and in pairs causing me to smile and re-start the familiar rhyme. I lean back and turn up the volume on my mp3 player. The man sings, "Omaha. Somewhere in middle America."
The crows come and go, flapping and squabbling. I turn the music louder and suddenly think of crying. The park is tiny and invariably empty but I resist the feeling. Then the man sings "Yeah we stare at the beautiful women. She's perfect for you. Man, there's got to be somebody for me" and I feel a huge lump in my throat. Eyes unblinking, I sink into the music.

I stare out over my usual stretch of water which shimmers like silver today.
"And I'll walk on water every chance I get." Why the fuck am I relating to these songs so powerfully? I lock my emotions away don't I? Well I am certainly 'all or nothing' I won't sit on the fence. As a soft rain starts to fall the man sings "I am anywhere but in between."
Now I don't think I can go back to work this afternoon.

I glance at my watch and see 1.50pm, the rain gets heavier. Funny how you get used to the volume of music. I nudge it higher and am reminded that it's raining in Baltimore
"I need a phone call, I need a raincoat."
My friend is clear in my mind and I think they are listening to good music too. I get up and walk.

"I'd like to hear a little guitar,
I think it's time to put the top down."
Counting Crows - Raining in Baltimore

24 April 2005

Stop the world

I want to get off...

A gigantic blue orb slowly revolves on itself. Life is there in its frightening majesty and beneath the milky streaks of cloud a man waits. He is numb and unresponsive. In the shattering enormity of the universe an event occurs. A monstrous generator slowly winds down and all light dims. The home planet grinds to a gradual halt in blackness.

Expressionless the man steps up and his feet leave the ground. In an instant the machinery of physics propels the planet into motion again without him and light returns, faintly at first. The man is aware of Earth's awesome bulk slipping away into an unfathomable distance. The blue planet recedes and the curve of its edge is visible. In minutes the whole lighted sphere shows against a velvet backdrop.

The man looks away. When he looks back Earth is gone. He is left alone in deafening silence, the black weight of darkness crushing him from every side. Nothing has penetrated his conscious mind in years, trivial or important. He cares for nothing and humanity ignores him. So he is left behind.

In that cocoon of utter nothingness he begins to think. 'Do I exist?' He asks himself. 'I am surrounded by black empty space yet I hear my breath and pulse, therefore I am.' Establishing this critical fact triggers more activity in his cerebral cortex. He remembers pieces of his life.

He scans the void until he sees a white pinprick in the fabric of space. It grows larger by degrees into a definite circle then swells into the familiar oasis of blue and white. He hangs in space and waits for powerful forces to slow Earth's approach. Stationary for a millisecond the planet awaits his footfall. He steps onto a horizontal plane of the immense ball and is anchored. A desperate fear of loneliness almost overwhelms him. He wonders is it too late to forge something new.

He needs to concentrate on walking, it seems a forgotten skill. Signs pull him to familiar territory and faces appear and greet him. Very, very gradually he returns to the human race. If I can just learn to talk to people sometimes, he thinks, the outside looking in could be a place of comfort, where I can work out where I fit. He looks up into the sun from this new perspective and stares and stares until he is blinded by the light.

"They ask where the hell I’m going
At 1000 miles a second
Hey man, slow down."

Radiohead – The Tourist

23 April 2005

Vegetarian Dilemma

Three posts in one day! What the hell's going on? Well I think I needed to do something to lift me from the dreadful low I've been suffering.

We are just about to leave the idyll that is home. Going out for a meal with my eldest son and his future inlaws.

They are nice people so I have been upstairs to hunt out my happy face. Honestly I would rather sit in front of the TV tonight and forget real life. Still one has to make an effort at civility and so I will. The rhododendron in my garden is from last year but I expect the blossom to return in the next few weeks.

Hark, I hear the throb of a customised Rover outside so that will be my son to pick us up. I hope the menu has something inspiring for a vegetarian. See you.

No lyrics today, I can't think of any.


We are having a new bathroom. I have spent the last three months planning and ordering bits. All the necessary ingredients have now been delivered and a fitter is arriving in May to get on with it.

It should be a time of excitement. Trouble is I can't help with much of the work and that pisses me off big time. Some of you know that RSI means I have to talk to my PC so DIY can only involve light duties. In the past I would have got stuck into all of this but nowadays I have to pay someone else. My sons have stripped all the old tiles, wallpaper and flooring for me.

I guess I'll be pleased with the end result and when the work is complete I'll put up a picture.


My American friends want to know if it will rain on their house. No problem there is a street-level Doppler radar in the area! 3D computer graphics produce convincing cross-sections of a state and a theoretical camera view shows us puddles on the sidewalk.

In the UK a weather forecaster points at an amateurish chart. Crude symbols of clouds are slapped on huge areas of England. That seems too general but is probably accurate. We live under permanently grey skies in the UK.

Most of our weather is very bland. We have light breezes, the USA has twisters and hurricanes. The US Weather Channel says it's a warm spring day, for the British that's probably the hottest blazing summer day we'll get. We wear T-shirts and shorts on holiday, the locals wear jeans and jumpers. You could say we stand out!

Fanfares blast when there is a single snowflake recorded south of Scotland. A North American winter can last for six months. Such a large continent is bound to have violent extremes of weather which I imagine you get used to. This tiny island is bathed in the gentlest of elements. Safer of course but dreadfully dull. I wish we had proper weather!

20 April 2005


Americans would be so disappointed at the UK shopping experience. There is shrivelled choice, crippling prices, shoddy merchandise and outrageous parking charges. Couple that with bad-mouthed shoppers, aggressive shop lifters and gum snapping sales assistants and it all makes for a day you don't want to repeat often.

The UK Mall is a shadow of its American cousin; all style and no substance. Water features and murals trying manfully to compensate for uninspiring goods. Before buying audio/video goods of any quality it is essential to have pre-arranged a second mortgage. PCs are beyond the reach of many, clothes are only for the very wealthy and lunchtime snacks are affordable only by the gentry.

I am of course referring to the shopping arenas that the big corporate players want you to patronise. Stray off the high street though, widen your search to the outskirts and you may just find a little gem of an arcade. A row of shoppes with bowed Victorian fronts and musty interiors, sole traders who know and value the returning customer. Who offer free courteous advice and after-sales service. These are a dying breed and they have no descendents.

My American friends, I know you do not all embrace the Mall or the Plaza but we British can shop like there is no tomorrow and believe me we know both bargains and quality when we see them. Do not take Factory Outlets for granted. Don't scamper straight through Dillard's. Laugh at Wal-Mart if you must but recognise that the "pile it high, sell it cheap" motto can be made to work.

Enjoy what is available to you but don't expect the same here. If you do bring dollars to the UK try town shops not out of town Shopping Centres. Calculate the number of dollars you think you may need then double it and bring more. We call this country 'Rip-Off Britain' and we know, we live here.

British travellers take extra suitcases to America. We are used to CDs at $25, Levis at $90, Nike trainers at $120, laptops starting at $1500. I rest my case...

"I'm gonna give you the slip
I'll walk down the mall, stand over by the wall."
Blondie - One Way or Another

11 April 2005

The last gas station on earth

The Pontiac thumped over a pothole and Frank watched the fuel gauge lift then settle on 'Empty' again. "Fuck it," he breathed and hit the steering wheel hard. They had passed a Texaco 10 miles back and were now running on vapour. "Look," cried Paula, "Gas ahead!" She launched her finger toward a run-down gas station and general store in the distance.

Frank pulled onto the cracked cement beside a solitary ancient pump. Is that gas or paraffin he wondered. His gaze took in the peeling paint, ice machine and an ages old Coca Cola sign hanging by one screw. "Stay here Paula." He shut the car door slowly and stepped past a deck chair faded and stained with age. Through the window past the hand-written 'Open' sign he could make out an old boy, a wad of chewing tobacco in his cheek.

A bell clanged loudly as he pushed the door and somewhere out back a dog started barking gruffly and ominously. The skeletal figure waved a thin hand and in a barely intelligible accent rattled, "If it's gas you want, go through and talk to Billy." A fly buzzed in Frank's ear and he slapped it away as he nodded, "Thanks."

In the back sat Billy and three friends grinning with menace. A rotting Plymouth Fury sitting up on bricks was visible in the back yard and a German Shepherd sat in its shade, tongue out panting. Frank thought of Paula sitting in the Pontiac holding the battery powered fan to her pretty face.

Suddenly Billy shrieked, "It's party time!" His pals stood up, chair legs scraping on the bare wood floor. Frank turned and saw his way back blocked by the muzzle of a 12-bore shot gun in the hands of the old boy. As his eyes darted frantically for another exit he heard Paula shouting. The shout became a siren winding up to full scream. Then silence.

"You fucking bastards! What have you done?" The gun barrel pushed closer and touched his temple. Frank screwed his eyes shut and a sharp metallic click rang out. When Frank opened them Paula was sitting in the passenger seat of the Pontiac lighting a cigarette and smiling. "Wake up hon', rest over. We need to drive on and get that gas now or we ain't never gonna make it to Huntsville!"

The wanderer returns

My preoccupation with the recent USA road trip is likely to reveal itself in the next few posts so bear with me while I get it out of my system. Look out for discussions and observations on the similarities and differences between our countries. There are a lot of photos to see if you are curious.

Undertaking a journey 4,220 miles from home spread across 4 states, 6 hotels and 2 time zones on unfamiliar roads was always likely to be a severe test! You know my virgo quest for perfection by now so imagine my irritation when things didn't go quite according to plan. Truth is I only missed perfection by a whisker but that's not good enough for me. It's a tough way to live life and most virgos will know what I mean.
I have already recounted the saga of the interstate-side hotel which set my early mood. Then I was reminded that Mrs Virgo doesn't know east from west so I drove with maps on my knee and one eye on the road. A recipe for missed exits, wrong turns and general tension. After a week of issuing verbal lashings to all other road-users (from the safety of my car of course) I gradually calmed down a little. By the way, does anyone know about all those Mexican migrant workers involved in construction and highway maintenance?
We all know about glitzy Orlando so you can guess we ate and shopped well there. Most days we took day trips (see earlier re Merritt Island) and the highlight for me was Kennedy Space Centre. It is a genuinely awe-inspiring place. The geography, the exhibits, the buildings and the aura of human achievement are all on a truly epic scale.
We drove from Orlando to Tallahassee and spent one night there before tracking Northwest. 'Alabama the Beautiful' lived up to its name. Green fields, brick red soil and gentle pine-clad hills. Beautiful ranches with black stallions and white rail fences sat in close proximity to wooded trailor parks littered with junk, ugly dogs and rusty cars. 'Rick' at the state line Information Centre was a REAL talker! Montgomery felt very relaxed compared to the tourist trails of Florida and the people were warm and genuinely friendly. A lady assistant in Radio Shack shook me warmly by the hand (I really thought she was going to hug me!)
Crossing the border into Tennessee brought hillier terrain and wall to wall fireworks advertisements! The geography reminded me of the Rhone-Alpes region of southern France on the Italian border. Chattanooga was a hot 78F and dusty with yellow tree pollen. The only place that trusts you to pump gas and not make a dash for it seems to be Wal-Mart. If you are paying cash everywhere else insists on pre-payment. Interesting as the stuff is cheaper than water and they would let you pump $80 worth in the UK without suspicion.
No answer from the boys when we rang home, out partying no doubt! I got Mike on his mobile eventually. Even 40c per minute for an International mobile call is great! That would be 45c per minute in the UK just for an inland mobile call. Here we go then, rip-off Britain time: Satellite TV $75 per month, Broadband $35 per month, gas $7 per gallon etc, etc, etc...
Nashville proved to be very well worth the 250 mile round day-trip, There is a nice mix of old and new architecture and we saw a good deal of urban regeneration underway. Of course I loved the live music bars on Broadway and visited some of those recommended by Superfly. Great performers all! A tall pretty woman came and sat beside me in 'Roberts.' She introduced herself as 'Misty' on vacation from Waco Texas. Between songs we had a very interesting conversation and she never guessed the woman to my right was my wife!


We drove on County roads from Chattanooga to Atlanta under intermittent rain. On our last evening we took a drive through the leafy suburbs of Lilburn and Duluth. Houses and roads were surprisingly reminiscent of English styles. I was very hungry indeed and sweet relief came when I found a 4th branch of my favourite 'Sweet Tomatoes' vegetarian restaurant right by the Gwinnett Place Mall. The American lifestyle does not pander much to vegetarians. In fact my picky eating habits have dispensed with another 5 pounds which I can ill afford to lose.
We spent our final morning at the small but pretty Atlanta Zoo. All too soon it was time to head for the airport and hand back the car. We checked in early to find the plane was way over-booked and we were offered $400 to stay another night at the expense of British Airways. Work commitments scuppered that opportunity! Maybe next time.
In honesty I bit off more than I could comfortably chew this time. Can you believe I had already trimmed the itinerary from 5 states to 4! 2501 miles in 13 days was too much. Next time I will be wiser and maybe even stay in one place long enough to smile!

07 April 2005

Nashville Tennessee

Have to be really quick they only gave me thirty minutes in this library and I've used twenty already! Been to the Country Music Hall of Fame, bit of a rip-off really. Nice walk around downtown with the camera. Bought loads of tacky souvenirs. Off to check out some of Superfly's recommended blues bars this afternoon.

Traffic was grim this morning. Stuck behind an accident and it was raining. I missed our exit so threw away my driving notes and had to chance it. Still we made it OK and I only used mild to moderate profanities!. A quiet day back in Chattanooga tomorrow, the only plan is a walk on Lookout Mountain.

May not get another chance to post before we go home so thanks for stopping by and see you all Sunday.

06 April 2005

Chattanooga Choo Choo

Yesterday we drove on deserted county roads from Montgomery AL to Chattanooga TN. Took six hours instead of four but we got to see some amazing things. What a beautiful state. You know the classic TV portrayal of run-down gas staions with a beaten up coke dispenser, a dog and one gas pump? Well we saw them by the load! Needless to say I wouldn't stop for gas!! (I'm not stupid, I've seen films like "Wrong Turn" and "Texas Chainsaw Massacre!" Much more on those experiences later when I return.

We slept in a Days Inn in Tiftonia just outside Chattanooga last night and this morning we drove into town. We jumped on a free electric trolley and four stops later I grabbed Mrs Virgo and said "We're jumping off at the Library!!" She has gone wandering and I'm sitting in front of a PC with free internet access. I guess when I'm done here we will have to go and see that ridiculous train for which the town is famous!

Tomorrow we plan to go to Nashville TN, it is roughly two hours drive away. I'll try and seek out some blues joints (I'm not a country fan!) for live entertainment. I believe Gibson have a guitar factory there so we might pop in there and see them being made. This car guzzles gas at nineteen miles per gallon so I'm filling up almost every day! It holds about fifteen gallons which costs thirty dollars (about sixteen pounds sterling, that would cost nearly fifty pounds sterling in the UK)

The weather has cooled from 85F in Florida to 75F in Alabama and now 70F here in Tennessee. Hope you guys in the UK have got your woolly jumpers on!

02 April 2005

Canaveral National Seashore

I drove alone to the Atlantic coast of Florida today. Mrs Virgo needed to stay close to the ladies' room all day (got the painters in) and I was very happy with my own company anyway. Cape Canaveral is a wild, remote place and you can quite see why NASA chose it to launch rockets from.

I drove from Titusville northwards and stopped at several walking trails. The place was deserted - no one here seems interested in walking! I saw flamingos, great blue herons and bald eagles. In a quiet lagoon I spotted ten or twelve manatees. They were rolling over slowly in the warm shallow water and surfacing occasionally to breath. I always knew they were around here but I've not seen them in the wild before.

Unfortunately I took a wrong turn on Merritt Island and found myself at a NASA badge-holders only checkpoint!! When the NASA security man says "Step out of the car, sir," he really means it. Oh, and he has a gun to prove the point! Actually he was cool about it and gave me directions to the Merritt Island Nature Reserve Visitors Centre (after admiring my amazing blue Oakley Straightjackets!)

The new hotel is nice and quiet, well away from the road. Comfortable and clean and as much breakfast as you can force down! I even used the complimentary gym last night! My heart-rate reached one hundred and forty per minute after a session on the treadmill and exercise bike.

I am wondering if I will need to buy a second suitcase to take home all the shopping? Four pairs of Levis a pair of Reeboks and several T-shirts take up rather a lot of space. Anyway, Mrs virgo is currently buying a pair of Sketchers and I'm supposed to be in a Barnes and Noble looking for maps so I can't hang around long! What a good job I remembered to print off my secret list of user names and passwords! If I find another cafe elsewhere I'll try to check in again.

01 April 2005

Driving an American car

I hope my American friends won't be too offended by this little observation on driving in the USA. Americans are polite, charming, genuine and generous. Occasionally they are loud and demanding. Yet they are always open and talkative. Right now I'll cut to the chase...

When some get behind the wheel of a car things change. The multi-lane highway becomes a lane-hopping video game. The object of this game seems to be to drive at full speed until your lane starts to slow down. Then switch without warning or indication into any lane still moving. Repeat until all lanes are stationary. Now take your foot off the brake and edge forward in lurches to intimidate the driver ahead. Hell I'm in Orlando right now what should I expect?!

My English driving education taught me to make courteous gestures to other road users, wave them out if they are waiting to join the road, leave a sensible distance between me and the next car and drive at or only marginally over the speed limit!

They say "When in Rome do as the Romans do" so from now on I plan to start weaving in and out and using my horn loud and long. I guess I'll fit right in!!

I have a V6 Pontiac Grand Am in bronze. It goes. However I am used to organising my driving all by myself. For now I am having to get used to the following:

Shut door
Buckle up seatbelt
Insert key
Switch on
Engage 'Drive'
Release handbrake
(Lights snap on automatically at dusk)

Any deviation from this rigid schedule results in an electronic chastisement, "ding, ding, ding..." Call me old fashioned but sometimes I like to get going and then put on my seatbelt. Sometimes I release the handbrake before slipping the key in. No chance.. "ding, ding, ding..." This car is so reproachful!!

Anyway my time's running out in the Cyber Shack Cafe and I still need to quote some lyrics without the safety net of my music library. I'm off, Bye!

"I been drivin' all night man sweat on the wheel."
Golden Earring - Radar Love