At the dawn of the Industrial Revolution, from the mid-1700s to the mid-1800s, it occurred to some folks in England that horse-drawn carts were not a particularly efficient way to move raw materials across country or finished goods to market. Their solution? Canals and horse-drawn barges. Thousands of miles of canals were dug by investors and industrialists linking existing waterways with industrializing cities.
But the craze, while profitable, was short-lived. The advent of railways (an even bigger craze) rendered the canals increasingly obsolete and many fell into disrepair. Then, after the Second World War, a light bulb came on at the British Waterways Authority and it flashed: Recreation! Economic revitalization! Canals throughout central England were renovated, boatyards flourished, canalside pubs were reborn, and a new generation of steel-hulled “narrowboats” were launched (narrow because the canals and their locks were never widened).
Think of today’s narrowboats, available for weeklong rentals, as sixty foot-plus stretched out floating luxury RVs, complete with fitted-out living area, fully-equipped kitchen, bedrooms, central heating, bathroom with shower, fuel, water, household items, and more (like wi-fi and TV). With a small diesel engine in the stern and a rear tiller by which to steer, they serve as transportation, accommodation, recreation, restaurant, and home as you meander through some of the most pastoral countryside in Europe.
It’s best to hire these boats with close friends (you will be close!), in part because opening, closing, and filling the locks that carry your canal over hill and dale are manual, but fun. There are charming villages to visit along the way, lots of waterside wildlife, sheep and cows, and some stunning engineering marvels as well: tunnels through mountains, aqueducts over gorges, cuts across hillsides, and more. I’ve navigated several lovely circular routes, but my favorite is the Llangollen Canal which takes you deep into the mountains of North Wales along a route studded with “van Gogh” lift bridges, long dark tunnels, and the amazing Pontcysyllte Aqueduct, soaring a few hundred feet above a narrow gorge—breathtaking in more ways than one.
But here’s the thing: you won’t go fast and you won’t go far. To protect against bank erosion, you cruise at only four miles per hour, and you can only go one-way, as places to turn (“winding holes”) are few and far between. In a week, though, you can cover a fair swath of central England. Stress, hurry, and worry are pointless. You just let the countryside slip by and the only decision you have to make is when to break out the gin and tonics in the afternoon, what imaginative repast to whip up in the kitchen for dinner, and where to tie up for the night. And at dawn, with birdsong and the morning mist rising from the water, you’re off again, adventure just around the next bend.
Crazy hours at work? Trapped at home in the pandemic nightmare? This is the ideal mental health break. Britain is opening again and there are narrowboat hire companies on dozens of canals on the Internet.
Slow down. Breathe.
England and America: two countries separated by a common language.
As you might expect, given that my mystery series is set in Cornwall, England, I have a wonderful group of fans in the UK. They are loyal, but not uncritical, thank goodness (I love critiques!).
They have a common “beef”: Americanisms. That is, words in American English which are different in the U.K. It is a fair criticism, but one that is diabolically difficult for American writers to resolve. Many years ago, I published a popular three-book series called The Best of Britain’s Countryside: A Driving and Walking Itinerary. Amazingly, the books are still available (used) via Amazon and are still getting great reviews. But I always included a glossary of American/British translations, if only to help American visitors avoid embarrassment—because, let me tell you, confusion and misunderstandings are common between two people claiming to be speaking the same language (personal experience below).
Here are just a few befuddling examples:
There is no end to them. It’s astonishing we can even converse! The meeting of the G7 nations was just held in Cornwall. The foreign leaders had translators. Did Biden and Johnson have one too?
I have spoken to other American authors of British mysteries and we seem to have all arrived at a common solution: If a British character is speaking, we use British words and spellings. In descriptive narrative (since most of our readers are Americans) we tend to use American terms. This system manages to make everyone unhappy, equally.
But there are times when the language gap can be humiliating, as I learned when I took a job in London, my first trip to England. I admired the snappy leather suspenders some of the men used to hold up their trousers and resolved to purchase a pair. I marched over to the men’s department at Selfridges, on Oxford Street, and asked a dapper salesman to see their suspenders. He blinked, just once, and directed me to women’s lingerie, which is where I learned that “suspenders” in British English are ladies’ garter belts.
You can’t be too careful.
"Murder on the Commons,” the fourth book in the Davies and West mystery series, will be released shortly. To all my readers who have written to ask where it was, please accept my apologies. It wasn’t writer's block. It was cancer.
Two and a half years ago, I was diagnosed with a particularly aggressive form of bone marrow cancer. I went through three different cycles of chemotherapy, only to have the cancer return. The last resort was stem cell replacement, completed at the end of February. Cancer, as they say, is not for sissies, and stem cell replacement even less so: a grueling month in hospital, sicker that I believed possible.
But it seems to have been successful. The latest scan shows no sign of the cancer but, of course, time will tell. Over the months, I learned a lot about patience and gratitude. Patience because cancer is mostly about waiting—for appointments, for tests and scans, for treatment, for results—and then repeat. Gratitude because I have learned to depend upon the kindness, caring, and encouragement of friends, family, and utter strangers.
It’s been quite a journey…and there is still a long way to go. To all of you who have written, thank you.
Meanwhile, enjoy “Murder on the Commons” and let me hear from you!
Many years ago, when I was ridiculously young, I managed to get a job in London. It’s a long story. I wasn’t even out of college. It was the first time I’d ever been outside of New York and everything about those months in England was magical and memorable…including my upstairs neighbor, Lillian, but that’s another story.
Now this was in the Swinging Sixties and, you know, the Brits were not known for their cuisine then. It was like they were still on a wartime footing. Choices were limited and vegetables were cooked until they were grey and very dead. If you wanted a good meal in those days, you went to an Indian restaurant.
But at noon, all the chaps (and ladies) where I worked went to the local pub for a couple of pints and lunch. It was very convivial and chummy, crowding in around the bar and the cases with cooked food options. And that’s when I fell in love with Shepherd’s Pie.
Now, to be honest it was Cottage Pie, not true Shepherd’s Pie. Shepherds apparently being hard to round up in central London, not to mention their sheep, pub cooks turned to minced beef instead of lamb. I didn’t know any better. What I did know was that I had just stumbled upon the most savory and satisfying meal of my life.
It’s not very complicated (see “wartime shortages” above), but there are a couple of secrets to making the kind of winter dinner that no one can stop eating until the baking dish is scraped clean. As for wine pairings, I would suggest a velvety red or, better yet, a pint of English ale (NOT American beer!).
Here it is:
Start with a diced large onion. Sauté in a splash of olive oil and a knob or so of butter and add small diced carrots, say half a cup or more. Cook on medium heat until the onions and carrots begin to soften and take on color. Then, add a teaspoon or two of crushed diced garlic. Mix together and make sure not to brown the garlic, which ruins everything.
Now, mix in a pound and a half or so of minced lamb (or beef) and cook until barely brown. Add a good sprinkle of flour and then a half cup of chicken broth and a couple of tablespoons of tomato paste and mix in, along with several dashes of Worcestershire sauce (that’s the secret ingredient). Now it is time to add thyme and rosemary to taste and salt and pepper. Simmer for ten minutes or so.
Meanwhile, you have a pot of cubed Russet potatoes on the boil (only Russets). That’s for the topping. When they are starting to soften (but are not yet mushy!), drain and start mashing. Add milk (and/or half and half if you wish), salt and pepper, and an egg yolk. Whisk (or whip) briskly until fluffy.
Spoon the meat and vegetable mixture into an oiled baking dish or casserole and mix in some frozen green peas (they will cook). I also add some chopped parsley, but you needn’t. Now smooth the mashed potatoes atop the meat mixture to every edge of dish. I like to lightly score the top of the potatoes diagonally in both directions with the tines of a fork and brush on a whisked egg yolk (it helps with browning) before I slip the whole thing into a 400 degree oven for at least 20 minutes or until the topping begins to brown and the meat is bubbling.
Time to serve at last. But look out, your family will keep spooning it out! It’s irresistible. The ultimate comfort food, at least in my book.
And now, for fun, take a look at this “Sweeney Todd” version: https://www.foodnetwork.com/recipes/alton-brown/shepherds-pie-recipe2-1942900.
Island Life in a Time of Pandemic
The land mass of the island on which I live in Puget Sound is half again as large as Manhattan. The population of Manhattan is roughly 1.7 million. The year-round population of my island is roughly 10,000. For my money (which is way less than before the stock market tanked), Manhattan, with all those people packed together, is like a Petri dish for pestilence, a bubbling vial of virus, a leaky colander of COVID. Plus, Manhattan has bridges and tunnels that are like feeder tubes for any fast moving disease…depending on the traffic, of course.
Not so, my island. Okay, we have ferries, I’ll grant you that. But they are slow and infrequent and you have to develop a sort of Zen-like suspension of time waiting for the next one. Meditation helps. You cannot be in a hurry when you live on an island.
Ah, but you can be safe! Because what kind of virus is going to be willing to wait patiently at the mainland dock in the inevitable pouring rain while a ferry to the island deems it appropriate to stop by? Uh, uh. Viruses, like New Yorkers, are in a hurry. They are unlikely to queue calmly. They might cause a ruckus and, as is only appropriate, be briskly escorted all the way back to the end of the queue. Plus, there is this: you have to pay to be transported to the island, whereas, as is only appropriate, it costs nothing to return to the disease-infested mainland. Be our guest. Don’t let the screen door hit you on your way out.
Which is not to say that this pandemic has had no effect on our island. Of course it has. Like everywhere else in the world, there is no toilet paper. We have no idea where it went. Is it migratory, like waterfowl? Is there a federal national toilet paper reserve somewhere, maybe in Area 51? Here, though, we have broadleaf maple trees. Its spring and their big green leaves are ripe for the picking. They are our handi-wipes. We are so organic here.
Personally, I live in a lovely post-and-beam cottage tucked away into the woods not far from the shoreline. My only visitors are deer and, as near as I can tell, they are immune to COVID-19. Or so they tell me. It’s hard to trust the word of a fellow creature that can disappear into the shrubbery in seconds when you even mention the word virus. Like the ferries, they are unreliable.
Yet this pandemic has certainly had its effect…beyond toilet paper. For example, I spend an hour every morning engaged in verbal jousting with my friends at an open-air coffee stand just down the hill. If you did not grow up in New York as I did, you might not appreciate what my ex-New York pal Bad Michael and I call “insult hour.” Every day, between 8:00 and 9:00 am, rain or shine, hot or cold, we and at least a half dozen other poor souls we have converted to insult experts, gather to trade barbs and laugh like the crazy people we are.
But a new and troubling pandemic-related problem has emerged. Despite the fact that there is still no sign that the virus has braved the ferry crossing, we all now maintain a six foot separation at the coffee stand. This is awkward for two reasons. First, we are fond of and affectionate with each other, despite slinging insults. And second, we’re none of us that young anymore and a separation of six feet means we can neither appreciate nor respond to the insults because we can’t hear them! The noise level due to all the shouting is annoying the neighbors while, of course, only elevating our reputation as loud-mouthed lunatics.
Forget about toilet paper: we need to keep the peace—send hearing aids!
Write something about yourself. No need to be fancy, just an overview.