Friday, 27 June 2008

The Most Gargoylish Friday Ever

In my manic final days in Oxford I raced around trying to do all the things I'd never found time for in the previous 10 months. I bought a pair of brown brogues at Ducker's on the Turl. I read a book in the Radcliffe Camera, the circular, light-filled reading room that is one of the Bodleian Library's signature elements. And I climbed to the top of the University Church of St. Mary the Virgin. This is the church:

This is the steeple:

Open the doors and see all the...gargoyles:

Finally, here's my favorite shot:

I wonder: Does that pigeon dream of being a gargoyle? Or does that gargoyle dream of being a pigeon?

And Finally...
I'm slowly lowering my body into the sitz bath that is The Washington Post. Alice Reid, my colleague (and Oxford alum; who knew?), is ably handling this summer's Send a Kid to Camp campaign. That's The Post's annual fund drive for Camp Moss Hollow, a summer camp for underprivileged children. I hope you'll consider making a donation to this worthy cause.

And if you're in the D.C. area, help me out: My columns don't write themselves, you know, so if you have any ideas for when I start columnizing later this summer, drop me a line: kellyj[at] I'm especially interested in questions for Answer Man.

Thanks, and have a great weekend. I think I'll be mowing the lawn again.

Thursday, 26 June 2008

Signs o' the Times

Clearing out some of my iPhoto catalogue I came across a few typically English shots. This sign was tacked to a door at Green College:

There are two things going on here. The first is the expression "on the latch," a veddy British expression which means to leave a door so it doesn't lock. I don't think we have that phrase in the U.S. The great U.K. pop band Squeeze includes the line in its song "If I Didn't Love You":
Taking a bite on a biscuit
The record jumps on a scratch
Tonight it's love by the fire
The door of your love's on the latch

Then there's the sign's final authoritarian note: "It is in your interest." I love that.

And I loved this sign at a butcher's in Oxford's Covered Market:

"Hand raised" pork pies. I can just see the little baby pork pies, no bigger then a biscuit, being hand-fed from a bottle of warm gravy. If only they were free-range, hand-raised pork pies, gamboling about the kitchen.

Wednesday, 25 June 2008

Assault With a Battery, or, 'It's Alive!'

I understand that there are certain native cultures in Africa where a person's wealth is determined by how many cows he owns. What's important isn't the condition of the cows, but the number. Ten scrawny, emaciated cows are preferable to five fat and healthy cows. We have the same thing in America, but we do it with cars instead of cows. Why have one flawless Toyota Camry when you can have a rusty Renault Le Car, a Ford Taurus with power-steering issues and a wheel-less Plymouth Duster up on cinder blocks in your front yard? That is true status.

For example, I own three cars. At least two-thirds of them aren't running right now. That's because I abandoned them for 10 months when we swanned off to Oxford. Now, there is a way to prepare a vehicle for an extended hibernation: flushing the fluids, raising the tires off the ground, disconnecting the battery, swaddling the entire machine in Barbicide-soaked canvas and parking it in a climate-controlled limestone cave run by Mormons. But I didn't do any of that. The Mini we left under a friend's carport. The Mazda MPV we paid to store in the parking lot of a place in Laurel that repairs recreational vehicles. It looks as if the Mini will--fingers crossed--just need a new battery. The minivan required more work to coax it back to life.

My Lovely Wife and I actually hadn't seen the place where the minivan was parked. After our hurried departure last year my friend Pat graciously agreed to bring it over there. Yesterday Ruth and I drove up in a rented car. The minivan was at the back of the weedy, gravel lot, sandwiched between a rusted trailer and a hulking pull-behind RV. It's hard to make a minivan look small, but small ours looked. And pathetic: dwarfed by the vehicles around it, grimy, leaf-strewn, the windshield wipers fused to the windshield, the doors stuck shut from months of disuse. It was the automotive equivalent of a person in an old folk's home: vibrant when it went in, brought down by its surroundings. Worst of all, the front left tire was totally flat. The rubber had, to use an English term I've always liked, "perished." You could see that where the rubber met the road, so to speak, it had split. The steel belts were poking through at the bottom like threads in a frayed pair of jeans. Out came the tire-changing tools.

Who invented the screw? Archimedes? Well thank you, Archimedes. There's little more satisfying than using the principal of the inclined plane to lift two tons of metal. Up went the MPV, off came the lug nuts. The wheel was stuck, of course, but the skillful application of a lug wrench (bang! bang!) and it came off. The space-saver spare was a little squishy but I stuck it on and it was time to jump start the slumbering beast.

Extremely prudent people will tell you that the proper way to jump start a car is by attaching the cables between the positive posts of the two batteries and between the negative post of the booster car's battery and a grounded location on the dead car. But that never seems to work for me which is why I do it old school: positive to positive and negative to negative baby! Which worked. We took back roads home, just in case any of the other tires decided to perish, and dropped it at the corner garage for a check-up. The Mini should get a new battery today.

As for the other 33 percent of our cars, it's a 1968 Datsun roadster that I consigned to a barn in Leesburg owned by a guy who stores old sports cars. He said he'd start it every few weeks and drive it around the block to keep the juices flowing. I hope to pick it up this weekend. I'll bring my jumper cables, just in case.

Show & Tell
If you're curious about what I was doing in Oxford, there's a little mention at the end of Sarah Laurence's blog. Sarah is an American writer blogging about her time in Oxford and her academic husband, Henry, came to my final presentation.

Tuesday, 24 June 2008

Amber (Well, Greenish) Waves of Grain

In the end, it was the most painfree trip we'd taken during our year abroad. No Heathrow Terminal 5 luggage roulette, like with Rome. No cattle-call RyanAir boarding hell, like with Dublin. No last-minute snag with the dog's crate, like when we'd moved to England in the first place. To paraphrase Shakespeare, nothing became Oxford like our leaving of it.

We'd been fretting over our luggage--two checked cases each, stuffed to bursting, weighed with a borrowed scale--but each was under the limit. If you were standing near the British Air baggage check-in yesterday morning and saw a family of four high-fiving each other after each suit case was hefted onto the scale, that was us. The flight was a bit bumpy but BA provides a nice U.S. re-entry service: just watch "Semi-Pro" and "The Simpsons" on the little video screen and you're re-acclimated to the States.

Our driver was waiting for us at Dulles. I don't think I'll ever get over the thrill of seeing my name in Magic-Marker on a clipboard. "Why yes, I'm John Kelly." Then to BA cargo where, after 14 hours in his crate, Charlie the dog was set free, no worse for wear. He seemed to take special pleasure in that first long pee on American soil.

We climbed back into the van and proceeded to...wait in a traffic jam. That's when I truly knew we were back in Washington, a place where any trip can take anywhere from 20 minutes to four hours. But I wasn't in any hurry. It was costing me the same no matter how long the ride. And I felt no sympathy for the driver, who said he had to pick up another customer in Gaithersburg at 4 p.m. Let's see, our plane was scheduled to land at 1:30, we had to clear Customs and pick up a dog, then drive around the Beltway to Silver Spring? And he thought he could get to Gaithersburg by 4? The fool!

In the end, we arrived home at 3:59 and I wished the driver luck with his ion propulsion-drive system.

After 10 months on Osberton Road our Amurican house seemed huge. Huge but welcoming. Our tenants, Gordon and Leslie, had left it in just as good shape as we'd left our Oxford house. The only glitch was that the lawn service we'd contacted hadn't mowed since Gordon and Leslie moved out a month ago. The front yard was a wonderful ocean of grass, like something from the prairie.

I don't even know where to start with cutting it. I think I may need a scythe. Or some sheep.

Sunday, 22 June 2008

The Sun Shines on Oxford

Charlie's walk, the final ritual that I've done every morning for the last 10 months. The streets are bit different at 4 a.m. A man I recognize as a homeless Big Issue seller from St. Giles bicycles past on the Woodstock Road, followed 20 yards behind by his dog, trotting to keep up. Perhaps they do this every morning.

Charlie and I walk around the basketball courts near the radio station, go past the playground then turn at the grass tennis courts to make our daily loop. A top window is open in the old folks' home, as it always is. I've heard that the lady inside throws meat to the foxes. I've never seen anyone at the window and I don't this morning.

Behind the tennis courts and behind the back gardens of Osberton Road. The bell in the chapel tower of St. Edwards School chimes 4:30. Charlie and I turn east through the tennis court parking lot. And there, over the chimney pots of North Oxford, is something I haven't seen in my 10 months here: a sunrise. Partly-cloudy ones are the best, the sun painting the grayish clouds in hues of bright pink and tangerine.

I've forgotten my camera this morning, so I can't take a picture. But you can't capture a sunrise in a photograph. You can't capture a city in a blog, either. Thanks for watching me try. The next sunrise I see will be in Washington. I promise to blog there, too, and I hope you'll join me.

Friday, 20 June 2008

Friday Grab Bag: Last Days of Saigon Edition

Ever tried to put 50 pounds of, um, anything in a 20-pound bag? Then you know exactly how our packing is going for our imminent return to the States. We brought too much with us when we came here 10 months ago. We bought a bunch of stuff while we were here. British Air reduced the weight of luggage passengers may bring. And now we're trying to pack.

We're in a triage situation. If it's an article of clothing that hasn't been worn in the last year why should we ship it back? In the giveaway pile it goes. Then there's the fashion eugenics: Tiny hole in a sock or a pair of underwear? Sorry. Your services are no longer needed. Such is the decision made between who will live and who will die.

We're resigned to mailing a few suitcases back but we're also calculating whether it would be cheaper to ship it or buy it new in the U.S. Oh, and we also have to clean the house for the final inspection.

So, grim, panicky hours around here. The Viet Cong are at the door. The chopper's on the roof. The clock is ticking....

BritNews RoundUp
Just some quickies (and, oddly, none from the Daily Mail): The Cerne Abbas Giant, an ancient monument carved in the chalk of a Dorset hill, is in danger of being obscured by vegetation. The problem: Not enough sheep are grazing away the weeds to reveal the white outline of the priapic fellow. Maybe they could get Viagra to sponsor a few sheep.

The BBC says it's not dumbing itself down, even though it bought the rights for a UK version of a popular Japanese game show that pits contestants against each other in madcap exploits. Writes the Telegraph: "BBC executives are said to have been particularly excited by a segment of the show known as 'human tetris.' A celebrity contestant is required to contort himself to fit through a shape cut out of a moving wall while dressed in a tight silver jumpsuit. If he fails to pass through it, he is knocked into a pool of water." (Check out the link with the Telegraph story. Looks like fun.)

A BBC spokeswoman said: "We are obliged to have something for everyone. Some people accuse us of being too highbrow."

Speaking of the BBC, a police helicopter in Cardiff gave chase to an unidentified flying object after nearly colliding with the UFO near a military base. "They are convinced it was a UFO," said a South Wales police spokesman. "It sounds far-fetched, but they know what they saw." What's this have to do with the BBC? Well Cardiff is where the sci-fi shows "Dr. Who" and "Torchwood" are filmed. Surely this can be incorporated into upcoming episodes.

Oh wait, we do have an entry from the Daily Mail: You can slice cheese with Keira Knightley's collarbones. And that's not good.

Gargoyle of the Week
St. Michael's Church in Ballinasloe, Ireland, is made of the gray limestone that runs through that part of Eire like the bones under Keira Knightley's skin:

The church features some particularly muscular gargoyles:

At least I'm not trying to pack a gargoyle, though it seems like we have to squeeze just about everything else into our suitcases. So, back to that. I'll try to pop in over the next few days, before we take a jumbo across the water, but if I can't, thanks for reading and have a great weekend.

Wednesday, 18 June 2008

Saying Goodbye

Woke early and tossed in bed. It's hard not to wake early these days, as the sun rises around 4:30 a.m. and doesn't wink out totally until going on 11. And it's hard not to toss in bed. My time in Oxford swirls around the drain and I have so many things to do before we leave: sell excess possessions (bicycles, printer, digital keyboard; make me an offer), arrange car rental, pack up, clean the house. Oh, and give my final presentation (today at noon at the Reuters Institute; feel free to come).

I used to think I was good at the mental part of moving, a legacy of moving every three years or so as a kid. And yet this upcoming move promises to be the most disjointing. As I get older I feel less in control of my thoughts, the first steps toward my eventual dementia, no doubt. And so about three weeks ago the visions of Washington started. Oddly, it was mostly images of commuting that crowded my brain: I-66 backed up near the Beltway, Georgia Avenue in the broiling sun, the great trade route of Rockville Pike, clogged arteries all around the city slipping unbidden into my consciousness. Perhaps my subconscious was preparing me for the change from carefree bicycle rider to embittered driver. Whatever it was, the message was clear: You're leaving.

Moving is a kind of death. As I walk (and bike) around Oxford these days I think, "This is the last time I'll see that pub/garden/building/person." They will vanish for me as surely as if someone had dropped an atom bomb on the Sheldonian. The fact that they'll still be here for others is scant comfort. Then there are the things I haven't seen and done. And isn't that why we despise death, because it fills us with regret at what we could have done but didn't?

I've a few more days, anyway. Blogging may be a little sporadic as I wrap myself in a chrysalis, preparing to re-emerge next week in the hot D.C. sunshine.

Fresh Eire

Quick impressions of Ireland: breathtaking around the edges, kinda boring in the middle. New houses everywhere. Not many Irish people there (at least in service jobs). That accent is a hoot. More expensive even than England, if such a thing is possible. Hurling may be the strangest sport ever played.

My "people" left there. I've no idea why or from where, but I can see that if your ambitions went beyond a tiny island you'd be curious about life over the horizon.

Friday, 13 June 2008

Shirt Happens: BritNews RoundUp

What is it with the Daily Mail and underarms? They're obsessed with whether female celebrities have shaved their armpits. Savvy celebrities who hope to avoid the Mail's censure by simply wearing a long-sleeved shirt are out of luck. As the paper reported this week: "Tara Palmer-Tomkinson flashes her sweaty armpits in transparent shirt." No, I have no idea who Tara Palmer-Tomkison is (can a reader help?) but I suggest she invest in a neoprene wet suit before braving the cameras again.

Leicestershire man Neil O'Brien flew into a rage after hearing his girlfriend have sex with another man--when she accidentally phoned O'Brien during the act. "It appears that while they were in bed together - and it is relevant that they were having sex - her mobile phone was knocked on to the floor," said John Hallisey, the man prosecuting O'Brien, who drove to his girlfriend's house and beat her up. "It landed in such a way that it dialed O'Brien's number. The first she knew of what had happened was when she heard him shouting her name."

Moral of the story: Just as when entering a movie theater, church or school recital, always turn off your mobile phone before going in the bedroom.

It sounds as if working at Trefeca College, a religious retreat in Wales, is a bit like being in the 7th grade. At least if you work around Mair Jones, 40, the self-described "Queen of Innuendo." Or, as she might pronounce it: "In-your-end-oh." It seems that Jones delights in twisting every comment, no matter how innocuous, into a sexual pretzel. Said co-worker Stephen Price: "Every conversation would somehow end up being a conversation about sex. I asked for a big ruler and she responded: 'Ooh, you like them big do you?' in obvious reference to a man's penis size. This happened continuously and was part of her repertoire."

On another occasion Jones remarked upon how funny it was that a local landmark was known as Lord Hereford's Knob and a village was called Three Cocks. Price says Jones also gave him a roll of toilet paper covered in pink fairies. Price, who is gay, has accused Jones of sexual harassment. Ha! He said "her ass"!

The British press frequently writes about the UK's teenage binge-drinking problem. Who knew it also contributed to it: "Journalist cautioned for giving alcohol to 16-year-olds." According to the Guardian story, the unnamed 28-year-old journalist gave booze to the kids as part of a photo shoot on underage drinking "and told them they could keep the alcohol afterwards." There is a level of irony here that even I can't quite fathom.

Look, up in the sky, it's the Royal Air Force in the news: An RAF fighter pilot has won his battle with the United States Air Force over the size of his handlebar moustache. ("Ooooh, he likes them big, does he? -- Mair Jones.) And the Ministry of Defence is clashing with a company that sells a duvet cover featuring the RAF's distinctive roundel design, accusing it of copyright infringement.

Finally, for those of you who woke up this morning wishing you could see a photo of a piglet wearing Wellington boots, your prayers have been answered. Ditto those of you hoping to see a photo of Lindsay Lohan in flip-flops, used for some reason to illustrate a story on how that choice of footwear can raise your risk of getting cancer.

That Other Place
I'm not the only Washingtonian set loose in an English college town and blogging about it. The DC Editors in Cambridge are a pair of journalists who reside in that village that's 71 roundabouts away from Oxford. They travel even more than I do and their report from Maastricht includes a delightful photo that shows Dutch ingenuity at its best.

Gargoyle of the Week
Here's the steeple on the Exeter College chapel:

You'll notice that hanging from near the base are some very nice examples of the gargoyle carver's art:

They look like they're ready to swoop down and take a chunk out of an undergraduate.

We're swooping to Ireland this weekend, so no blog on Monday. Thanks for reading and have a great weekend.

Thursday, 12 June 2008

Running With the Dogs of Neo-Liberal Imperialism

"News as Entertainment: The Rise of Global Infotainment" is the name of the new book from Daya Kishan Thussu. And Daya Kishan Thussu is the name of the University of Westminster professor who spoke yesterday to the Reuters Fellows. Just as one shouldn't judge a book by its cover, so one probably shouldn't judge a book by an hour-long seminar followed by an informal Q&A, and yet that's what I'm about to do.

Thussu isn't alone in his belief that television news--the main way the world finds out about itself--has become more concerned with entertaining its audience than informing it. It's a common trope. Thussu says that, owned by entertainment companies, desperate to hold dwindling audiences, eager to cut costs, news divisions have been lowering their standards, largely adopting the techniques of entertainment.

The world we live in is very different from the world that's depicted on TV news. "The world has very serious problems," he said. "Wars on TV are Hollywoodized. In the process we don't get the real picture." Thussu said that the "neo-liberal imperialism" of soft infotainment masks the reality of a troubled planet.

I had several reactions to this, the first of which was:
Mask away, baby! If what we see on TV news--which last time I watched included stories (non-Hollywoodized, in my opinion) about Iraq, global warming, genital mutilation, Darfur, dead dolphins and, yes, the occasional comic exploits of vapid celebrities--then someone's not doing a very good job of filtering out the death, despair and decay. I also wondered how his argument fares if audiences are still falling even though news executives have embraced softball journalism.

But what really confused me was that term "neo-liberal imperialism." I always thought imperialism was armies on a map, colonists on ships, administrators sweating in provincial capitals. I asked Thussu to clarify: Is neo-liberal imperialism the market? Does it mean allowing people to decide what they like to watch, whether it's a TV show on footballers' wives or a nature program about molluscs? Apparently it is the market.

I accept that global media has influence and that that influence may not always be a good thing. However, Thussu seems to be suggesting there is a specific mechanism by which western (mainly U.S.) media giants are seeking to pull the wool over the world's eyes. Bread, circuses, that sort of thing.

In his view, public service broadcasters such as the BBC are a bulwark against this creeping crapification. What's needed is global public service broadcaster, funded perhaps by a penny tax on each e-mail that's sent. How workable would that be? Here's your bill to support a Unesco-funded TV channel so we can bring you a program about unemployment in Chad.

The problem as I see it is that it's a short step from saying what people can watch to saying what people can't: No one's watching our story on Chadian unemployment! They're all watching "Hand Me the Defibrillator: TV's Funniest Onscreen Heart Attacks." Let's restrict their ability to do that.

What Thussu means, of course, is that there could be more, should be more, quality news programming. That's what he would like. I suppose I would like it too. But even a liberal like myself (I sometimes buy the Big Issue) believes that though the market may not be a perfect system, it's the best system we've got. Clunky as it is, it's preferable to a group of elites deciding what news would be good for me to consume.

And, lo! The market does seem to have hurled onto the beach something that would seem to fit Thussu's requirements. The web has made it possible for me to find news that, in his argument, the Rupert Murdochs of the world would like to hide from me. I can read foreign newspapers. I can sample foreign bloggers. I can access the fevered bleatings of various bloggers.

I agree with Thussu that journalism could be better. But I don't see its shortcomings as some sort of conspiracy. The media reflects the societies it covers while trying, in its imperfect way, to shine light into darkened corners. If some TV news program hasn't nailed down precisely how many Iraqi civilians have died in the war--80,000; one million; or something in between--could it be that this is a figure society (the market) isn't clamoring for?

It may be, as Thussu said, a chicken and egg argument: Do people become more interested in "important" news the more they're exposed to it? Or do we seek out that which we're interested in? Whichever it is, I'm uncomfortable with the notion that people make "wrong" choices and should be nudged in the "right" direction. I would call that neo-liberal totalitarianism.

The Aunt in the Attic
Well what about the BBC? The issue of whither the Beeb has felled more forests this year than a hundred Brazilian land barons. Thussu said he'd shudder to think what would happen to the respected current affairs program "Newsnight" if it had to compete on the open market, adrift from the safe bosom of the public service charter. I would say: Leave the BBC as it is. It may be a weird, anti-market anachronism, but you would have a tough time recreating its quality programming from scratch. Make it share its iPlayer on-demand technology with any other U.K. broadcasters who want it. (We all payed for it, after all.) But get it out of areas it seems to have no business being in. Travel books? Selling advertising on its international web site? What's that have to do with informing, educating and entertaining?

Wednesday, 11 June 2008

Strange Things I Have Seen

At the Science Museum in London on Saturday I visited an exhibit called "Dan Dare & the Birth of Hi-Tech Britain." Dan was a 1950s English comic book hero, devoid of superpowers but possessed of that plucky can-do spirit that the British so love. The exhibit nicely integrated the futuristic comics with the strides the UK made as it pulled itself out of its post-WWII doldrums. There were examples of "modern" design and objects from the early high-tech sector. Among the artifacts on display in a section on Britain's airplane industry was this sign:

I love that wording: "Car parking inadvisable." Ya think? Huge spinning metal blades--huge experimental spinning metal blades--and, just maybe, you shouldn't park your car near here? That's taking English understatement to an extreme.

The New Christy Menstruals

There's really nothing exceptional about this paper bag, which I snapped hanging in the bathroom of the lodgings I stayed in in Cambridge last month. And yet it seemed to be begging for deconstruction.

PHS is a provider of "washroom services." "Disposal Bag," well that's sort of redundant isn't it? It's the drawing that struck me most. How best to illustrate the bag's true purpose: to dispose of certain feminine hygiene products? With a woman, obviously. But a bare-shouldered woman in an antebellum hoop skirt, the front pulled up coquettishly, exposing a single foot? Does that say tampon to you?

Just as it would have been too much to replace "Parking Inadvisable" with "No Parking," so the people at PHS can't bring themselves to replace "Disposal Bag" with "For the Disposal of Feminine Hygiene Products."

You Spin Me Right Round
I'm getting obsessed with capturing the world around me in all its mundane glory. Or should that be glorious mundanity? Watch this video and you be the judge:

Tuesday, 10 June 2008

Beer, Glorious Beer: Touring Hook Norton

"Do not put your hands in any tubs of liquid," said Nick, our guide, as we entered the Hook Norton Brewery last week. Sensible advice anywhere, really. Putting your hands in strange tubs of liquid is a good way to lose your hand. It's also a way to get you kicked off a brewery tour. And since the whole point of a brewery tour is to get to the end of it so you can sample the beer you've just seen being made, that would be a Bad Thing.

My Lovely Wife and I toured the brewery the day after we toured the Mini factory. The effect was, quite literally, like going from the 21st century to the 19th century. If the Mini factory is all robots and laser beams, the Hook Norton Brewery is all bags of malt and tubs of liquid. Oh, there's also a steam engine: a 25-horsepower number believed to be the only one still in use for its original purpose, that original purpose being moving things--mainly water--around the brewery, since you don't really need a steam engine to make beer.

The steam engine has a seven-foot flywheel and its original 109-year-old drive belt. I don't know where you'd go if you needed a new belt. It would probably have to be custom woven from sheep intestines, kapok and gutta percha.

There were 11 of us on the tour and that was about twice as many as we actually saw working in the brewery. Occasionally as we climbed a narrow staircase or pitched up on a landing there'd be a casually-uniformed employee. A scientific-looking woman in a white lab coat was visible behind glass in one office, an array of test tubes in front of her. But otherwise, the place was almost deserted, imbued with the languid feeling you get after your third pint on a rainy day.

For a rainy day it was, absolutely pissing down. We'd taken two buses from Oxford, the first a double-decker to Chipping Norton, the second a tinier coach to Hook Norton that the driver piloted as if it were a Zodiac inflatable full of commandoes. He plowed through the narrow, twisting, flooded roads, pedal to the metal, spraying great rooster tales of foam behind us. By the time we alighted, trembling, in Hook Norton I needed a beer.

The brewery building itself looks Dickensian, and I suppose it is. They've been brewing beer in Hook Norton since 1849 and the Victorian tower brewery looked like a workhouse or asylum, steam curling up from various chimneys:
It reminded us of the building in the Japanese anime film "Spirited Away," a living, breathing thing. Inside was the best technology the Victorians had to offer: copper vats and toothed gears, sprockets and cogs and belts. It was like being inside a massive pocket watch.

Some of the cogs--as big around as dustbin lids--had wooden teeth. You never want metal against metal, Nick explained, since if the cogs seize up it's a horror to get them unstuck. If one cog has wooden teeth you can just knock them out with a hammer, pull the assembly apart and replace them. I don't know what this guy is doing, probably putting goose fat on the gudgeon ring or something:

I don't understand the chemistry of brewing beer. I have a better grasp on the consumer end of things. I believe the process involves water--called "brewer's liquor"--which at Hook Norton is pumped up from an underground well. Malt--which is roasted barley (who knew?)--is added. Hops do something important. Yeast helps things ferment. We couldn't go into the fermenting room--a stray bacterium can ruin the whole process, evidently--but Nick opened the door and swung it back and forth to waft the odors to us as we crowded outside.

"Oooh, that's lovely, that," said an older woman. "You're in the pub."

The process from start to finish at Hook Norton takes 11 days, or about as long as it takes to make 9,000 Minis.

Back in the little tasting room in the brewery's museum Nick pulled us half-pints of the various Hook Norton offerings: the malty Hooky Dark, the golden Hooky Bitter.... He opened a bottle of Cotswold Lion, a seasonal beer that tasted faintly of citrus. They were all very nice but I confess I'm partial to the beer I order whenever I'm down the pub: Old Hooky. "Beautifully balanced with a well-rounded body," is how it's described.

Like beer, like beer drinker, I say.

Can't make it to Hook Norton? Try a virtual tour instead.

Monday, 9 June 2008

Factory Fresh: Touring the Mini Plant

I suppose it makes sense that if people want to act like robots, robots might want to act like people. After all, robots are built by people, to do the things that people do, but to do them more precisely, uncomplainingly, and without ever tiring.

That's one of the conclusions I came to after touring the factory where they make the Mini. The human workforce is impressive, of course--some 4,700 "associates" work at the plant in Cowley, south Oxford--but it's the robots that prompt existential thoughts. They seem alive.

The original Mini was born in 1959 and it's been built in Cowley ever since. The iconic design--a low, wide stance that calls to mind a smiling, pop-eyed bulldog--made it the automotive symbol of Swinging '60s Britain, owned by celebrities and immortalized in such films as "The Italian Job." The Mini was never the success in the U.S. that it was in Britain, Americans seeming to prefer the similarly idiosyncratic VW Beetle. There are still plenty on the road here, though, and it's a shock to be reminded how small they are. The "new" Mini--itself a wisp compared to typical Detroit metal--dwarfs the old one.

We own a Mini and thus we had to visit the birthplace of all Minis--at least the ones made since BMW took over the factory in 2001. It's to the Germans that we owe the current Mini gestalt. Mini advertising, Mini showrooms, official Mini souvenirs--all of it is impeccably art directed, right down to the factory itself, the entrance to which features the reversed sans serif lettering of the print ads:

The production area covers 45 hectares, or about 110 acres. It sounds like a lot till you realize that's half as big as it was in the days the old Mini was built there. That's progress for you: the ability to do more with less. Advances in technology means bigger cars can be churned out in a smaller space. And for that we must thank the robots.

Body panels and sub-assemblies come from a plant in Swindon, about 30 miles away. The engines are made in Hams Hall, near Birmingham. It all comes together in Oxford, starting in the "body-in-white" building. When I was there, workers were moving around pallets of panels--"LH Sill Inner Assy," was stenciled on one. Others were feeding the panels to the robots, which would grab them as easily as you or I lift a cafeteria tray. The production line inched along, orange robot arms applying spot welds in a shower of sparks. The robots moved with purpose but also with a kind of grace, never deviating from their programmed path. Some robots did more than one thing: A massive arm would finish a weld then swing over to near where I was standing and dip its "hand" down into a trough, shrugging off whatever tool was at the end of its appendage. It would raise up a few feet then plunge into another trough, where, with the whir of an air ratchet, a different tool would be attached, RoboCop-like.

It wasn't all robots. They're not quite dexterous enough to put the doors on. Two men positioned them with the help of a jig while another welded the hinges on. And then the body rose up into the ceiling to continue its journey.

Odd little enclosed bridges connect the buildings at Cowley. Inside, the aborning Minis trundle along like so many ants. After the bodies have been assembled it's time for painting. As with the difference between a construction worker and a portrait artist, so as between a welding robot and a painting robot. The paintshop has the quiet antisepticism of an operating theater. No percussive thuds or spark eruptions here. Even the robots look more refined, their arms swathed in red fabric, as if Christo had paid a visit:

Each little platform that the cars moved on had a barcode indicating what color the Mini was to get. The robots--their white paintheads looking like cows' udders--would squirt into a chamber to clean themselves then rise, birdlike, and dance over the body. It was altogether less frenetic in the paintshop than the bodyshop. When the robots finished spraying a car they would pull back, appearing to rest as the next Mini moved along. The painted Minis themselves looked like an assortment of gumballs:

The last stop was the assembly building, where the shiny Minis were gripped in yellow metal slings that looked like huge calipers:

The windscreen, the dashboard, the seats, the trim, the electrics, the engine--it's all inserted here. After getting their own paint the doors are re-attached. There was even a point, walking along, when I got a whiff of something familiar and wondered if there was a cylinder marked "New Car Smell" squirting in that unmistakable odor.

This seemed the most human-centric part of the process, or at least human-friendly. (It's all Mini-centric.) Two humans eased in the cockpit, standing on a wooden floor that moved along with the car. Another popped in a headlight. A black ripstop nylon bag was plopped on the floor of each Mini. It looked liked another fashionable Mini accessory--a large cosmetics bag? weekend valise?--but it contained the car's entire wiring harness, soon to be snaked through the body.

The motor, transmission and front axle rolled as one along on a conveyor built and were lifted by two orange robot arms to the waiting body above:

Then, the mating. Two workers on a platform did something--to be honest, I couldn't see what, just heard that blaaat of ratchets--and, engine installed, the car floated to its next stop. Total time to install engine: 55 seconds. I thought of the 12 hours I once spent replacing the clutch on my MGB GT, a process that required removing the engine. When it was over I was as physically spent as it's possible to be.

Not so the robots. They never tired of lifting, welding or screwing, moving with an economy of motion that was simple but balletic. When--tires on, fluids filled, fuel squirted in--it was time to start the car for the first time and drive it away, a buzzer sounded and the line stopped. It was time for the humans to eat.

Morris Dancing
It takes about 24 hours to build a Mini. They can build up to 800 a day. Every modern Mini you've seen was built in Oxford, its riot of options--body color, roof color, rims and seats--coming together on the high-tech assembly line. It's the latest incarnation of an automotive tradition that dates back to 1913, when a bicycle racer named William Morris built his first car in Oxford. Morris went on to become Lord Nuffield, remembered in Oxford for the hospitals he funded and the college he endowed.

I find it endearing that cars are built in Oxford, this city of dreaming spires and gowned undergraduates. It's as if the Chevrolet assembly line was a stone's throw from Harvard Yard. The Mini plant is open for tours, though you must book well in advance. If you're interested send an e-mail to Or take a virtual tour. My thanks to BMW Group Plant Oxford's Rebecca Baxter for showing My Lovely Wife and me around the factory and for the photos of the assembly process.

Friday, 6 June 2008

Friday Grab Bag: BritNews RoundUp

As different as England and America may be--right-hand drive vs. left-hand drive, "colour" vs. "color," Robbie Williams vs. Robin Williams--it's nice to know that we share some basic traits. One of those is the genetic makeup of the women who ladle out school food. In the States we call them "cafeteria ladies." Here they're known as "dinner ladies." Whatever you call them, they appear to be hewn from the same rock: tough, hatchet-faced, hairnetted broads who don't take any guff. Just look at the picture accompanying this story from the Oxford Mail: "Dinner Ladies Hurt in Brawl." I'm sure I recognize them from Rockville High School. Oh, and do read the story. My favorite quote: "There was quite a lot of blood, it has ruined my coat, T-shirt and underwear."

Well, what do you expect? The Britons are a warlike people. Violence burbles under the surface everywhere here, occasionally surfacing in societally-approved ways, like soccer hooliganism and shin kicking. What's shin kicking? A sport that dates back to the 17th century and was celebrated recently in Gloucestershire at the British Shin Kicking Championship. It makes the rituals I saw yesterday in the 1973 movie "The Wicker Man" seem downright quaint.

It used to be that you knew you were at a good wedding if it had shrimp and an open bar. Rolling Stone Ron Wood is upping the ante. According to the Daily Telegraph, he wants dwarfs at his daughter Leah's nuptials: "The rock star, 61, wants actors dressed as 'mischievous, giggling little imps' to play pranks on guests such as snatching the women's hats." If Ron Wood wants a mischievous, giggling little imp why doesn't he just get Charlie Watts?

This just in, courtesy of the Daily Mail: Catherine Zeta-Jones has lost her curves. Says the Mail: "She's a poster-girl for gorgeous curves, but Catherine Zeta-Jones appears to be in danger of losing her bombshell status." It's unclear what organization bestows "bombshell status." It may be English Heritage or the National Trust. It's probably a process akin to getting a historic building "listed." Once a starlet achieves Grade II Listed bombshell status the owner must have permission before making any alterations.

It was only last month that the Daily Mail's eagle-eyed photographers noticed that quiz show hostess Anne Robinson didn't shave her armpits. Robinson's defiant act has started us on the slippery--well, not slippery, I guess--slope towards hirsute underarms. How else to explain former Spice Girl Geri Halliwell, who, to quote the Mail, "gave onlookers more than they bargained for as she flashed her hairy armpits after a night out at Cipriani."

One wonders what exactly it is that onlookers "bargain for" as they stand outside a club late at night. A bit of chive on a celebrity's teeth? Some toilet paper stuck to a heel? Nice, yes, but not as memorable--and remunerative, if you're a paparazzo--as an unshaven pit. I suppose the jackpot is a lack of underwear, a tumble getting in the limo, and a sudden loss of bladder control.

Video Gargoyle of the Week
That's right, this week we have a special treat: Gargoyles captured on tape, doing their jobs in their native habitat. On Tuesday we toured the Hook Norton Brewery (details next week) and afterwards walked into the village for lunch. St. Peter's Church is adorned with several of our lithic friends. Here they are in action:

My paper's finished so I should be back next week with a full serving of pent-up blogitude. Until then, thanks for reading and have a great weekend.

Monday, 2 June 2008

Where Am I?

Still beavering away on the paper, so not much in the way of blogging, I'm afraid. But I offer some spatial dislocation to my Washington readers. Here's a photo of Kenilworth Avenue:

See, it is Kenilworth Avenue--in Oxford:

Non-Washingtonian readers must forgive me. Washington's Kenilworth Avenue is a typically post-apocalyptic suburban highway stuffed with fast food joints, auto parts stores and mattress warehouses, the asphalt covered in rusty mufflers and the shattered tail lights of Buick LeSabres.

I snapped this a few months ago in London's Shepherd's Bush neighborhood:

To Washingtonians, Hecht Co. was a beloved department store, one of many that have since gone out of business. What struck me about this sign for a London lawyer's office is that it's the same typeface as D.C.'s Hecht's department store once used.

Sexy Beast
Friday I mentioned the hot water that TV nature show presenter Bill Oddie found himself in with his televised descriptions of insect sex (insex?). Today the Guardian's Charlie Brooker shows why he's my favo(u)rite U.K. columnist. I don't know if I could ever be friends with anyone who didn't laugh out loud while reading Brooker's disquisition on animals, sex and animal sex.

Now, back to my paper....