Wednesday, 27 January 2010

Tuesday, 26 January 2010

Cowboy Church

The horseshoe of seats in the auditorium was already three-quarters filled and humming with anticipation. As we slid into vacant chairs, the band struck up a spirited rendition of "Amazing Grace". To the tune of "Ghost Riders in the Sky". Yippee-ai-ay!



The last guitar chords settled into silence. The guitarist, a man with a stiff grey moustache, said, "Let us pray." There was an instant flurry of movement as dozens of cowboy hats were removed and held respectfully in laps. Once the prayer was over they were resumed, although a few were later used as collection baskets for the offering.

After a few more country 'n' worship songs, the preacher stood up to speak. For 22 years, he said, the Shepherds Valley Church had been praying that there would be a Christian service at the Fort Worth Stock Show, yet the organisers had been against it. All that time they had been making friends, cultivating connections, and finally somebody recommended that, since all the other stock shows had a church service, perhaps Fort Worth should too. 22 years of prayer and work had paid off; yet the church still wasn't insensitively triumphalistic. Instead, they bought 200 rodeo tickets to support the event. I was reminded of Jesus' parable of the shrewd servant in Luke 16, and his comment: "Make friends for yourselves by means of unrighteous mammon..."

In his late 50's, with a weatherbeaten face and well-worn cowboy boots, the preacher went on to speak about attitude. It's easy to have a good attitude when things are ticking along as usual, he said. When you suddenly face unexpected prosperity or unmerited persecution, that's when your attitude really gets tested. And attitude, over time, adds up to disposition. Have you ever had an animal who just had a bad disposition, he asked. About half of the audience raised their hands.

Finally, the pastor led the congregation in a prayer to receive Jesus as Saviour, should anyone have not done so already. The blue-jeaned band rematerialised to sing a final song about finding God in the open prairie and the face of baby calves. And we wandered out into the bright farmyard-smelling sunlight with the faint strains of "yippee-ai-ayyy..." ringing in our ears.

Wednesday, 20 January 2010

A few more cakes

The customer gave me a free rein on this one; as I recall they wanted the "Happy Birthday" and the four names in the corners, and then said, "make it look pretty". So I went for a vaguely mediaeval look. It would have been nice to been able to plan it out on paper first, but I like the general effect.

Nothing super-spectacular here, but I had to get a photo because it came out so perfect! When the icing consistency isn't just right you get airbubbles, lumps or squiggles, but for once all the lines were beautifully smooth.

This design was adapted from one in the book we had at work, but the champagne bottle was all my own work. Adds a touch of sophistication to what would otherwise be a little girl's cake.


This was a big cake - a full sheet, which is something like 13" x 21". Hannah Montana had been a popular design for a while but this lady wanted something different to our regular design. As I recall we had about five separate conversations about the cake, but she was happy with the end result.

These little things are brownie bites. The store used to just sell them ready-packaged, undecorated, but then some bright spark got the idea of decorating them in TCU colours (the local college) for their football game. It was the biggest game they'd played in a while and we sold hundreds. And then it was Christmas. I had fun at first, coming up with cute Christmas designs, but believe me, the magic wears off after the first thousand or so.

Monday, 18 January 2010

The death of downtown

One sunny Saturday afternoon we cruised along Highway 67 into Cleburne, Texas, a town and county seat about 26 miles south of Fort Worth. As we approached we were assailed on both sides by large plastic signs advertising the usual mix of chain stores, fast food restaurants and car repair places. We reached downtown, parked, got out of the car and looked around.

It was dead. Apart from a few people painting a Christmas mural on their church window, there were no people around, no cars parked, and very few shops open. This, you will recall, was a Saturday afternoon, in near-perfect autumn weather. Where was everyone?

Travelling around Texas, you soon learn that nearly every community will try and lure you in with the promise of a "historic downtown". As far as I can gather, this merely means that some of the buildings have been there for more than fifty years. A few, notably Granbury and Jefferson, are actually attractive and contain some functioning businesses. Many others consist of two dusty antique shops, an aging department store with a mannequin featuring styles from 1970, and a shut cafe. Incidentally, I have never understood why antique stores count as a tourist attraction. Do people really go on holiday with the intention of buying a claw-footed bathtub and a set of dusty dining chairs? Or is it more of an impulse buy? "Oh yes, darling, I'm sure we can tie them on the car roof somehow."

To return to my point. Which is, that many Texas towns somehow fail to have any kind of functioning downtown area. And Cleburne is a case in point. It's trying, certainly. After walking past a few shuttered antique shops and weathered buildings we were suddenly confronted by a magnificent mural depicting the cattle routes and trains that are part of Cleburne's heritage. The bright images overflow their frames to really hit you in the face. It's an awesome piece of work. Round the corner, the glint of a neon OPEN sign led us to Mill Street Coffee, one of the quirkiest and homeliest cafes I've been in. The menu's not extensive, but the "take one and leave one" bookshelf, the checkers table and the guitar leaning against the comfy sofa make it a place where you want to grab a few lattes and settle in for the afternoon. But the total number of customers while we ate a late lunch and played checkers? About three.

It's not that the area is under-populated. Cleburne boasts a population of around 29 000, and is a mere half-hour drive away from the vast DFW metroplex. While perhaps not enjoying the importance it had in previous years, when it was a junction and supply area for several railway lines, it appears to be reasonably prosperous. There's a state park just down the road with all sorts of interesting fossils, and a nearby lake in which you can fish, should the fancy take you. While not a place you might immediately think to visit, chances are good there is a reasonable throughput of out-of-towners.

Trying to think of a suitable British comparison, I hit upon Todmorden, where Graham's parents live. Much smaller than Cleburne, at about 11 000 inhabitants, it hasn't got the prosperity it used to when wool was king and mills were round every corner, but it's not doing too badly. It's a similar distance from the nearest big city, in this case Manchester, and is close to the Pennine Hills. However, wander into the centre of Todmorden on a typical Saturday afternoon and there will be plenty of people around. Although some of the pubs have closed recently, you have your choice of half a dozen cafes. There's both an indoor and outdoor market, a couple of supermarkets and a host of smaller shops. It's not a tourist destination, but if you happened to be passing by you could easily quench your thirst, eat some lunch, and buy a newspaper. Despite the loudly-lamented demise of many local shops, you could say the same for most British towns.

So why is it that so many downtowns here are either preservation-heavy tourist traps or tumbleweed-ridden ghost lands? The easy answer is to blame the car culture. Plenty of people probably live within ten minutes' walk of Cleburne Main St. Most of them would never think to walk there. They would much rather drive ten miles to the superstore. Some would say that the distances in Texas make driving a necessity. To a point this is true, but the main residential part of Cleburne is no more than 3 miles in diameter. Admittedly walking a mile when it's 110F is liable to reduce you to a sweaty puddle, but during the cooler 9 months of the year it is not a difficult distance.

For those coming from outside the city, I guess the familiar names on the busy billboards capture them before they ever reach downtown. Need a coffee? Well, we've heard of McDonalds, Starbucks, Dunkin Donut. We know the routine. Why risk going to some local place which is probably closed anyway? This way we can whizz into the drive-thru and keep right on going.

I think it's sad. Maybe downtowns have had their day. Maybe we should embrace change and let life move out to the crowded aisles of Walmart. But a Walmart is a Walmart is a Walmart, and I want to know what makes Cleburne Cleburne. What makes it different to Jacksboro, Weatherford, Fredericksburg? If the only atmosphere is one where time stopped 50 years ago, that doesn't tell me much about the town now. By all means honour the past, but let's give downtowns a present and a future. Americans unite! Support your local downtown!

Thursday, 14 January 2010

Not involving snow

With a little judicious (dis)organisation, we somehow managed to see most of the people we wanted to in our two-week UK visit. Being Christmas, we concentrated on spending time with family, but fitted in a few friends as well.

So, Mom and Dad hosted us for Christmas. The chief photographer was obviously neglecting his duties in favour of opening presents, as I don't seem to have any photos of the happy occasion. On Boxing Day, though, he really went to town. Or should that be Town? The four of us paid a visit to London, and I was constantly afraid of losing Graham amongst the thronging crowds on the South Bank, as he paused to capture yet another view on camera. It has to be said he got some nice shots, though. We went with the intention of riding the London Eye, which unfortunately was closed for repairs. So we got our birds-eye view - and some exercise - by climbing the dome at St Paul's. They charge you a fair whack to get in, but it's worth it. Really.

St Paul's and Millennium Bridge

Big Ben and London Eye

Dad, me and Mom at St Paul's
The next day we slogged up the M1 to Nottinghamshire, fabled home of Robin Hood and certain members of my family. We spent a happy afternoon visiting with my aunt and a couple of my cousins. One of whom has coincidentally married a Texan and had three gorgeous girls, who were very pleased to let these strange new relatives build marble runs and throw balloons around with them.

Todmorden means Graham's family, of course, and we were welcomed with open arms and offered a brew before we'd got both feet across the threshold! We opened a few more gifts (funny, I haven't got any photos of that, either) and made some cautious ventures out into the icy countryside.


Us with Graham's parents at nice Christmassy pub
We spent New Year in the Peak District with Graham's sister and cousin, and a bunch of other people who've been meeting up for New Year since time immemorial. They kindly let us gatecrash for a couple of days and join in board games, quizzes and the obligatory rendering of Auld Lang Syne.



Tackling the Telegraph 2009 quiz with Graham's sister and cousin

Family portrait

Sliding down south again, we made a brief stop in Kenilworth for a context-confusing visit to some friends we met in Fort Worth. In Bristol we somehow managed to round up about 15 people for a curry at a moment's notice - thanks for coming out, guys! We enjoyed seeing you! I also walked into a staff meeting at Cairns Road and was greeted as if I'd never left. Had we stayed ten minutes longer I would have had three jobs to do and never left again!

However, we surfed back to Reading on the wave of an incoming snowstorm, which subsequently broke in dramatic fashion and almost prevented us from leaving as well. We wouldn't have objected to a few days more, but on the whole it was probably best that we got the flight.

Sunday, 10 January 2010

International Home-made Hobnob Day

January 10th 2010 was International Home-made Hobnob Day, as designated by my friend Steph and warmly embraced by at least 200 other people, according to the Facebook page. Of course I had to do my bit and introduce the good people of Fort Worth to hobnobs. So I made a batch to take to church on Saturday evening. They vanished remarkably quickly and cemented my reputation as church baker (acquired after attending only four services). In fact it's a ridiculously easy recipe and I heartily encourage you all to make your own.

Here's the recipe:

Recipe (makes 30 - 45 depending on size - I usually aim for 35ish):

Ingredients:
8oz/225g self raising flour
8oz/225g sugar
8oz/225g porridge oats
8oz/225g margarine/butter
1tbsp golden syrup
1tbsp hot water
1/2 tsp bicarbonate of soda

Method:
- Mix flour, oats and sugar in a bowl
- In a pan, melt margarine, syrup and water
- When melted, stir in bic soda and then add to dry mix
- Mix well, then make smallish balls and put on greased tray and flatten slightly
- Bake at 180 deg c for 15 mins til golden, then cool on the tray
- Eat/share/post as required!

And here's the finished result:

Friday, 8 January 2010

Snow on snow

The defining feature of our trip to the UK this Christmas was snow. Lots of snow.

A few days before Christmas, snowstorms hit both the east coast of America, where some of my family live, and the south-east of England, my parents' residence. My grandparents had to cancel their 60th wedding anniversary party and my mom slipped on ice and almost got snowed in at the Royal Berkshire Hospital. Meanwhile in Texas, all this seemed far away and we flew out of D/FW airport on the 23rd in temperatures of about 22C/75F. While warm for this time of year, we didn't expect it to drop too far as we departed for icier climes.


However, a couple of days later I checked a friend's blog and saw this. It was hard to believe, but had we tried to fly a scant 24 hours later, we would have celebrated Christmas at the airport. If celebrated is the word.

Instead, we had safely reached my parents' house and were happily engaged in building our first snowman in many years. Meet Sidney the Seated Snowman.



Heading north to Graham's parents, we were enthralled by the silent hills sleeping beneath their snowy blanket. The air was so still that a snowplough scraping its way along the country lanes could be heard miles away. Down on the canal, ducks left waddling footprints on the slushy ice and dropped unconcernedly into dark chilly water. Can't they feel the cold? Our own feet were numb from the slush working its way through our boots, and we hurried home to warm them up with fluffy slippers and mulled wine.



New Year was spent in the Peak District. The sun shone and the hills were sifted with powdered sugar and royal-iced in shining peaks and curves. We slipped and slid up boot-trampled paths to the top of Mam Tor, and floundered, shrieking, through loose snow up to our thighs. It was awesome.





Returning to Reading to catch our flight home, we were disconcerted to hear that more snow was expected to fall that night. By 6pm it had started. By 8pm our car was thickly coated and we were discussing the likelihood of reaching Heathrow in the morning. We woke up to 7 inches and the white flakes still drifting down. Heathrow appeared to be the only airport in the UK still operating, so we swept the car free and ploughed carefully through the snow. Fortunately Mom and Dad aren't far from the motorway, and slow and steady made it. We drove into a whirling white blur with the radio reciting endless lists of school closures and the steady swish of salty slush beneath the tyres. Gradually the blur eased and the slush receded, and we were at the airport and on our way home.