Friday, 29 August 2008

Blue Ridge Mountain Dancers

Last February I discovered during a dinner party conversation that several of my friend all recalled and were enthralled by the performance of the Blue Ridge Mountain Dancers during a recent screening of Murray Lerner's film 'Festival' that had been on the telly. Forget Bob Dylan, I had loved this moment in the film ever since I'd first seen it in the 70's.

photo Bob Lindsey

For everyone there, the standout performance of this terrific film too was this clog-dancing troupe of clean cut American teenagers.

Forty two years afterwards they had obviously penetrated the British zeitgeist and must have done so for others as the clip soon appeared on YouTube. I can see that other bloggers have picked up on this YouTube clip with much the same enthusiasm.

Thanks to Tivo, and some wine, that evening we could watch it again and again and soon all the kids and their parents were 'buck and winging' around the kitchen. Since then, when anyone tells me they need cheering up, I send them a link to this clip. It never fails to lift their spirits.

For me, (a naturalised American) it is more than clog dancing but an iconic moment that epitomises America and the optimism of its youth at the time. A marked contrast to the events coming in 1968. It seems a topic ripe for a cultural studies dissertation.

There is a rich history of this folk dance in the UK as well which found its way from the British Isles into Appalachia to be blended with Native American and African dances. I recently went to a concert by Rachel Unthank where she did some clog dancing during some numbers. By the way, the fabulous Rachel and Becky and band will be touring America in September (2008).

A while ago I sent some emails into cyberspace to various folk archives and some clog dancers on the web asking if they had any more information about the troupe and where are they now but I never heard anything back. I appreciate people are busy and when someone random from the UK writes to you, unless you have hit someone who knows exactly what you're looking for, you won't get an answer unless you're persistent. I'm afraid I sit somewhere between a serious researcher and a enthusiastic fan.

I'm so glad to learn that one of the dancers has now heard of her YouTube fame and can tell us a bit about the story and who the people are. I think it'd be a fantastic feature story to reunite them. Alas, knowing my luck, by the time I could get a greenlight for a magazine feature or TV doc, someone higher up the food chain will have already done it.

The dancer on the end is Sherry Lynn Taylor and she tells us James Kesterson, the leader, is still around. Lots of sources credit him with inventing 'precision clogging' the synchronised dances which became very popular with audiences. Apparently the purists didn't like it though. Very little info about him or the dancers seems to be on the web but the caption of the image above says they won the Lunsford Cup in 61, 62, 63, 64, 65. Whatever that is, it must be quite an achievement. The performances would have been filmed July 23-26, 1964. Enjoy!

Thursday, 28 August 2008

Mad Dogs and Englishmen

Originally uploaded by pixlink

A photo I found when cleaning out to decorate some rooms. Where I got it from I don't know. It's a publicity photo for the 1971 Joe Cocker film 'Mad Dogs and Englishmen'.

It brings back memories though. I remember this album playing endlessly at Jackie MacKay's house when I was about nine or ten. She was married to the musician, photographer and all-round creative genius Ruan O'Lochlainn and their eldest son was the same age as my younger sister. They lived near us in Chiswick. There was always something happening at their house, it was quite a scene.

To me it was a strange and magical place. I had no idea until I was much older who all the people that came and went were but there was always lots of musicians jamming in the sitting room which I thought was fantastic. It felt like a family living in the midst of a rock 'n roll tour. Then one day, they sold their house and began touring the country in a converted moving van and we'd only see them when they dropped in our place for a cup of tea and a bath.

Some years later, when settled back in London, it was Jackie who encouraged my interest in photography. When I got my first camera, she let me use her darkroom to develop the film and make prints. And later I went with her to several Billy Bragg concerts, (actually they were Riff-Raff gigs back then ) as Jackie sort of managed the band and shot videos for them, including one she made in my house, 'Every Girl an English Rose' if I recall the title. Shortly after this Billy went off to the army and then had a solo career and I don't think the video has seen the light of day?

I think a few of the photos here are mine and were taken at the Red Cow in Hammersmith. Jackie gave me a couple of rolls of film to shoot with and I gave them to her to develop but I never saw the prints. That night Billy came off stage and said to me "what do you think then?" And I said, "they're great songs, but your sound is a bit rough." Upon which he exploded and said "it's supposed to sound that way!" I had to buy him a pint by way of apology. I don't think he appreciated my honest opinion and I suppose I had missed the point. My upbringing had instilled different expectations of musicianship. From then on I kept my mouth shut and stuck to taking pictures.

Looking back at the photo, I find it quite symbolic. It's the end of the sixties, the beginning of the seventies. If you look at the fashions, the clues are all there.

Saturday, 23 August 2008

Walk this way

Unbelievable but true. Your pedestrian crossing points the way to God. Prisma Teknik AB is a family-run business making signals equipment based in the southern Swedish county of Småland, an area with a reputation as Sweden's bible belt. Designer Kenneth Österlin has issued a written statement categorically denying that his design with a finger pointing to the signal button has any religious meaning after the company CEO Jan Lund told Swedish online newspaper The Local that the company's signals point the way to God in 17 countries including Ireland, Austria, Denmark, Norway, Iceland, Finland, Belgium, Israel, and the US among others.

And I thought walking at the sign of the green man was a conspiracy by the Pagans!In the USA you walk at the sign of the white man, which is even more sinister.

Although it does seem that people have an unshakeable faith that pushing the button on crosswalks (pedestrian crossings) makes a difference.

Sunday, 17 August 2008

Refinishing wooden floors on the cheap

Sanding wooden floors is a pain. If I had it, I'd gladly pay £40 per square metre that professionals charge for sanding, filling and lacquering wooden floors.

After years of procrastinating, I've finally tackled the three upstairs bedrooms of my Victorian semi. That's about 300 square feet. After three days, it's one down and two to go.

Three years ago I did the whole ground floor. A few years before that a studio flat with parquet floors. After much sweat and tears they came out fantastic, so I think I know a bit about floor sanding and, at your own risk, I can share with you some tips I've learned the hard way.

Unless the boards are pristine condition and all you want to do is brighten up some old grey boards that have lain under lino or carpet for a few decades, floor sanding will take a lot of time. More time than you probably have and if you think you can do three bedrooms in a weekend, dream on. If the boards have been stained or had tiles glued on them, double whatever number you first thought of.

Which is why my top tip is don't bother hiring a floor sander/edge sander package for about £80 for a weekend.

The big drum sanders or orbitals are great when the floorboards are level and and true and sit flush next to each which might be the case when refinishing a basketball court or dance floor but not my house!

The big drum buffs up the high points just lovely but they can't get it into the dips caused when old boards shrink and buckle according to the direction of the grain. I found that I used the edge sander for most of the floor because of that. I used a £30 machine to to do 90% of the job while a £50 machine sat unused.

With the rental clock ticking, the temptation is to rush the job and piss off your neighbours by sanding late into the evening. Plus, although the sanding belts are on sale or return, the prices you pay for the expendables from the hire shops are double what you'll pay at trade prices.

If you want to be cheap, you can do what I've done and buy a good angle grinder for about £30 with a sanding disc attachment and buy lots of boxes of paper discs for about £11 per box of 25. You get through a lot of discs but this costs less than the machine hire and with your own tools, you can work at your own pace.

When using a disc sander on the floor, you will be working close to the sharp end of the tool and so you must wear a mask and gloves and eye protection. Some kneepads are a really good idea too.

Warning: if you hit a nail with the sanding disc, the grinder will jump out of your hands.

ALWAYS run a dry sponge or cloth over the floor before you start to catch any protruding nails or tacks. If the floor was ever carpeted, there will be some tacks in it. A flying sanding disc at 1100 rpm cuts flesh like butter. Or even the flex and leaves really deep gouges.

One problem with wearing eye protection or glasses is that they fog up when you also wear a paper dust mask. Exhaled breath flows out the sides of the mask at the bridge of the nose and fogs the lenses.

At this, most people either chuck off the mask or the eye protection but either choice is hazardous to your health. My solution is to tape the mask across the bridge of my nose with surgical tape or sticking plaster. This prevents the exhaled air from condensing on the lenses.

postscript: I have realised the dust masks pictured are not up to the job. I had to wear two at a time. There are much better masks with valves and seals to prevent fogging that cost around £1.80 each. YOUR LUNGS ARE WORTH IT.

I start by stripping off any stain or glue with a 36 grit disc (on right). When the board is clean, I go over again with a 80 grit disc (on left) to finish.

For a 10' x 10' room with a painted floor, I have generally used about 30-40 rough discs for cleaning and 3-4 fine discs to finish.

Without stain or paint on the floor, one disc will last about 20 square feet. With stain or paint, I am lucky to get 2.5 ft sq cleaned up with a 36 grit.

The rough discs clog quickly on paint or stain. You have to stop every five minutes or so to change discs but hey, you're still saving money!

If you use a clogged disk for too long, it just burns the wood.

When you stop to change the discs, vacuum up the dust as you go. It's a really good idea to seal the doors to each room with plastic tarps or painter's cloths.

A Henry will be very useful. I used to swear by my Dyson but one day it caught fire after sucking up lots of brick dust but our Henry that replaced it never complains. Also, there's nothing on a Henry that can break that costs £40 to replace.

On the right are some boards with a black stain applied in the 1970's when black floors were fashionable.

Cleaning one quarter of the room took about 3 hours on my hands and knees.

It's a pain working on your knees but you are at least aware of how good a finish you are getting.

With practise, you can feel the disc working the wood and will be able to strip the paint off without scoring the wood too deep.

When the boards are cleaned, you can finish off any rough bits with a orbital sander, these cost about £15. The sandpaper on the roll is handier than the sheets.

You should also lightly sand the first coat of sealer with a fine grade as the first coat will raise the grain of the wood. A good finish is down to good preparation and not the material applied.

When you start out with very old, warped and painted boards you aren't going to get perfectly flat ones when you finish (unless you pull them all up and run them through a planer). Putting on the acrylic, you can see the cupping that a disc sander makes but when the acrylic is dry, you don't notice it and given the age and warps of the boards, it looks natural anyway.

Acrylics are hard wearing and are easy to apply and clean up. I regret my Danish oil experiment.

I've used a variety of floor sealers and Rustin's is as good as any other and Coopers, my local hardware store, actually has it cheaper in-store than I can find it online. I'd also recommend Cuprinol's Bourne Seal

Acylics can be walked upon after 20 minutes (but leave it 24 hours before putting back the furniture). Three coats can be done in about two hours with a sanding in-between.

Friday, 15 August 2008

Ditch the training wheels

I have come to the conclusion that training wheels are a really dumb way to teach children to ride a bicycle.

If there isn't a debate in cycle education between the 'pedal first' or 'balance first' approaches, there should be.

Years ago when I was in Germany and Switzerland and lately in Britain, I notice that pre-schools use bikes without pedals, like the earliest 'dandy-horse', that children sit astride and propel with their feet. There are several makers of these 'balance-bikes'. In the US the Boot Scoot bike is gaining in popularity. The UK Ilsa Bike Rothan is highly praised too. If you want to go green, the Steady Eddy is made of wood. There are many others and in Europe every bike maker seems to have a model in this style.

In my experience, training wheels on pedal bikes cause accidents as they affect the handling, especially on turns.

In fact, I observe training wheels inhibit the brain's natural balance reactions as well as being useless on anything but perfectly level and hard ground.
Any engineer will tell you that four points of support is less stable than three points (which a tricycle has) as it gives you two axes to pivot on a variable plane. Just put a four legged stool beside a three legged stool on a tiled floor to see what I mean.

It's a wrong headed approach. You should do everything to naturally develop the child's balance skills and not use ineffective props to try to keep them upright that slow them down.

On a 'balance bike', when kids show they're able to coast and balance and make turns, they can be moved onto a pedal bike. Most kids I've seen adapt to pedals in just a few minutes once the balance is mastered. The challenge for my own children was learning to balance and not managing pedals.

Ahh, then there's the argument that this requires parents to shell out for two bikes, one with and without pedals. You know, at the rate kids grow, you aren't going to get more than a year's life out of a child's bike for a three or four year old. My advice is there's no need to buy a four year old a brand new bike. Every yard sale I see has bikes for this age less than a year old. I bought a lovely second-hand Puky child's bike for £40, taught two children to ride on it and then sold it on for £40.

Instead of fitting training wheels, you could take off the cranks and the chainset on a child's pedal bike, so long as their feet can touch the ground. You could cap the bottom bracket holes easily with pipe-caps until the kid was ready for pedals. Perhaps a bike manufacturer will nick this idea and make the pedals and crank more easily removable on a child's bike. Please, go ahead.

It seems the mindset though that a child needs to start with a 'proper' bike with pedals is firmly established in special needs education. This programme for developmentally disabled children seems to go to extraordinary lengths to teach children to ride by the pedals-first approach. I'd welcome edification on why this approach is preferred over the feet down method. My experience with autistic children and those with dyspraxia, although very limited, shows me that the 'balance-bike' has some advantages there too.

Kate Stirling, president of Boot Scoot Bikes, LLC says: "I have actually had several people contact me, letting me know that they are purchasing for a child with developmental disabilities.

One physical/occupational child therapist contacted me to buy one for her own practice--she said she had been removing pedals for years in order to teach her patients, but they would still hit and scrape their legs where the pedals insert. She was delighted to find our bikes because she could personally afford them for her practice.

Other parents have let me know that they are purchasing for a child with Down's Syndrome. Several parents/grandparents of autistic children have given me rave reviews about how our bikes seemed to give their children a boost in confidence that spilled over into other activities.

I don't have statistics or studies to site so this is just me relaying what has come back to me, but it has been especially fun to hear from these parents who had thought it might just be too hard for their child to learn to ride a traditional bike."

Postscript: I found this website since this posting that pretty much says what I've said as well with a bit more authority.

Thursday, 14 August 2008

Don't spoil the surprise

The Mirror has leaked details of the handover ceremony from Beijing to London for 2012 which a colleague of mine has spent the last year creating.

I can't claim that I am in on anything although we chewed over lots of my own mad and probably bad ideas and I was asked to keep schtum for a long time before it became official.

From what I know, the Mirror has done some clever guessing but I think the official press releases give enough hints as to what is involved. You wouldn't, for example, commission a street dance group to perform a ballet numbers would you? (but mixing the two might be visually interesting).

The London organising committee are not going to employ someone untested or expect something totally untried. 'God save the Teen' and the 'Manchester Passion' should give you some confidence in what to expect. I don't think it will, or should be, as extravagant as the rest of the closing ceremony and thankfully we've been promised there will be no dancing Beefeaters.

Given that everyone's in Beijing now and so many people are involved, keeping a lid on it must be impossible but I think it would be nice if the tabloids didn't spoil it for everyone and build up false expectations.

I just hope a jetlagged David Beckham doesn't miss that free kick through the Olympic rings from the top of the double-decker bus....(just kidding) but they'd better have a prepared tape to run just in case.

Friday, 8 August 2008

In for a penny....

Last Wednesday Mrs Bocking and I flew with our two children to Germany for the day.

When the flight screenscraper at told me in June that Ryanair was having a reverse price sale; I found could fly to Niederrhein Airport (the former RAF Larrbruch) located at Weeze in Northern Germany for one penny each way. Yes, that is including all the taxes so long as I paid with an Electron card. Debit cards incurred a charge of £1.20 per flight.

Being a cheapskate dad, I thought what the heck? It could be a fun father and son outing for a boy who is obsessed with filming trains. Despite that everyone has a Ryanair horror story and the risks you take with Ryanair's terms and conditions, a flight anywhere for a penny has to be worth it just for the ride, even if we just land, do a bit of train-spotting and get the next flight home.

Ryanair advertises the route as Düsseldorf (Weeze) but Düsseldorf is over 60 km away and within Germany Ryanair is not allowed to advertise without a big disclaimer saying so but then, Ryanair has always had a bit of blarney in its advertising.

You have to be quick when these deals come up. They're often only available for 24 hours. There's no time to umm and ahh and research the possibilities if you don't know the area well. You book and then decide what you're going to do.

There was a 07.15 flight out in the morning from Stansted and a 20.35 (19.35 GMT) flight back in the evening. With a 50 minute flight time and a low volume of passengers at Weeze it could allow enough time for a family day out in any of the surrounding towns and villages along the Dutch/German border. We could treat this as a reconnaissance mission and if we liked it, we could perhaps make a second trip when another deal came up.

A few minutes on Google showed there was likely plenty to do and see around Weeze but very little of this information was in English. So I boldly booked the whole Bocking family. After all, if we didn't take the flights, I would only lose my tuppeny investment. It made me wonder though, if something went wrong, what would Ryanair do? Refund my money?

A breakthrough on my internet research conducted via Google's translation tools was finding that the Irrland amusement park was only 7 km away from the airport. This looked from the many flickr photos and Youtube videos posted of toddlers by doting papas like a not very sophisticated but potentially interesting playground with many climbing, sliding and water features dotted around a huge field of corn planted in a labyrinth or 'maize-maze'.

An e-mail to the park got a quick and friendly response that the airport shuttle bus service passed their front door. On that basis the rest of the Bocking family became committed to exploring the unknown and reporting it back to you. So, in penance for those greenhouse gases, here is what we found:

I think it would be rather boring to report all the trials and tribulations of parking at the airport, our boarding cards not working and the darting back and forth to the check-in to sort it out and all the various service failures of Stansted Airport and the hassles that the present security measures cause.

When landing at Weeze you could think, if you are familiar with East Anglia, that you had been tricked and arrived at Bentwaters Airbase instead, like those hapless participants in the TV hoax 'Space Cadets'. The single runway airport is surrounded by abandoned concrete aircraft hangers and nuclear bomb stores nestled amongst the Scots pines. There is no fancy air-bridge; the plane pulls up to the new terminal and you walk down the steps and across the apron to the arrivals hall. It is however a brand new terminal with all the usual car hire counters and a cafe with friendly staff, as we found out later.

We got outside the terminal at 26 minutes past the hour and it being Germany (as my German friends had warned) the hourly shuttle bus had left on time at 25 minutes past. I thought this was a bit odd as our aircraft had been the only one on the apron but I can see the knock-on effect of their schedule so instead of waiting we took a taxi to Irrland which was only 12 euros.

I'm not sure how you pronounce the name properly in German, various intonations of ERR-LAND and IRELAND got blank stares but when I said "park für kinder" the driver understood. He nodded enthusiastically as if to say our kids were in for a treat. The taxi passed the abandoned base facilities and a tiny museum and the dilapidated 'Astra' cinema. For me these would be worth a look if I had an hour to kill and didn't have two young children in tow.

Irrland has two parts, Nord and Süd, which are connected by an underpass to cross the road that separates them. You arrive at the Süd end opposite the Plantaria nursery and aviary which is what the bus stop is called. The entrance cost per person, regardless of age is just under 4 euros and parking is free.

We noticed that everyone ahead of us was paying an extra 3 euros on admission to hire these brilliant little wagons to carry their stuff as they were all arriving loaded with cool boxes and bags of charcoal. It was apparent that people come in large groups planning to stay all day.

In the Süd side is the main maze which has three main features we gave our attention too. The Pirate Ship is not a touch on the one in Kensington Gardens but it has a waterslide beside a giant paddling pool with a gantry in the centre holding eight giant dump tanks that slowly fill and randomly dump water on the kids gathering under them with expectant anxiety.

Here there is a 'kiosk' selling cold drinks and coffee (real cafe-presse, not instant) and chips (fritten) and dispensing sun loungers. Something I immediately sensed about the park is they are not setting out at every
turn to take your money. I didn't notice any ranks and ranks of vending machines and grotty gift shops and there are only a few kiosks with a very basic menu

but the food is good and cheap by British standards. One thing apparent about Germany is that they take chips seriously; they are always cooked to order so it requires a few minutes wait but then, a perfectly cooked and fresh real potato frite, with mayonnaise of course, is well worth it. You leave a two euro deposit for a tray and there are bins just about everywhere you turn.

You could just spend the day right there as all around the paddling pool are picnic tables and every alternate one is shaded from what was very welcome but unexpected sunshine.

We soon encountered the infamous complaint about the Germans that they 'bagsy' everything before the British can. We took our wagon (we had quickly realised that carrying our backpacks was going to be tiresome and our stuff would get in the way if left on the ground) and parked it by a picnic table to go explore. When we got back another family had taken the table because we hadn't spread our stuff all over it to claim it. I think this was because we didn't know the rules rather than rudeness on their part or perhaps they thought we were Russians. Of course it's a sweeping generalisation but on the whole, I found nearly everyone we met very civil and I noticed many things that could never happen in England because somebody would steal, abuse or vandalise it or just take advantage.

Two hours after it opened at 9.00 a constant stream of coaches was still disgorging hundreds of people. It appears there are more popular parts of the park than others. You have to get there early to find a table beside the 'Sandmatschberg' (sand hill) because it has the most shade from the trees and something for everyone is in shouting distance but be warned, by lunchtime the smog from the barbecues provided at every table for cooking sausages would put Beijing to shame. The Germans love barbecue. There must be a very sensible approach to Health and Safety legislation in Germany as I cannot envisage barbecues in public in England without six foot railings around them and waivers of liability.

After a happy hour in the Pirateschiff and on the inflatable Kletterpyramid we tried out the Riesengebirge which are three 20m diameter inflatable domes before moving on to look at the Menschen-Waschanlage (human car wash). Here there is a giant pit of mud - thankfully enclosed - where children can emerge like New Guinea mudmen to be sprayed with firehoses by the enthusiastic staff. This must be one of the more fun assignments for the teenagers working at the park although I put any comparison to Alabama civil-rights marches out of my mind.

We then went over to the Nord side where there is a race track with pedal cycles (one euro needed to unlock them like a supermarket trolley so you don't abandon them on the course when bored) and more inflatable areas for the toddlers.

There is more to do on this side so it does get more crowded. The literally standout feature is the 30m gantry of the 'Tyrannosaurus Rex' slide. You collect a carpet mat and climb onto a steel deck built above the wings of an Antonov An-2 to take a terrifying plunge into the unknown. There are other slides from here for the less brave. One tip you should observe is do not go onto the gantry in bare feet. All the paths in the park when we arrived were impeccably groomed sand and you can go shoeless almost everywhere but on the slides, after a few minutes of waiting (and you will wait) the tiny teeth of the steel grating become incredibly painful on bare feet.

Another big feature here is the 70m water slide and when we felt we had too much sun, we went into some huge open-sided barns filled with pool tables and table football and a rope gym and tunnel system made of straw bales offered blissful shade. There is much more than that to do here which is why you should discover it for yourself.

By now it was 13.00 and we'd had enough sun and wanted to see the nearby town so we went to the entrance kiosk to ask when the next bus was and was told it was another forty minutes so I asked if there was a taxi service. I appreciate that the park workers didn't speak English and I don't speak any German but their answer to "dial 2121" was I thought not very helpful as I had no idea of what area code I was in.

We walked outside to the bus stop as I thought maybe we'd catch a taxi dropping someone off. We didn't see any and after about ten minutes in the sun, (there seems to be a lack of bus shelters, I didn't see one anywhere all day) everyone was really thirsty so I walked over to Plantaria as I had read online they had a cafe reputed to serve excellent cakes.

This was the only disappointment in the day. Although the cafe was large and did have a big chiller filled with tasty looking cakes, it was totally deserted and a 300ml bottle of water cost me 2 euros. Maybe it gets busier later in the day but as I felt I was gouged when a 500 ml bottle had cost less in Irrland and 300 ml of Volvic was 45 cents in the local shops, they deserved to be deserted although judging from their car park, plenty of people must have been going there buying plants and looking at the collection of parrots.

The airport shuttle bus came on time and its air-conditioned luxury was by then very welcome. The bus driver told us that the day before it had been pouring down with rain and today was expected to be wet but had turned out fine, so German weather reports are just as reliable as British ones. The fare for all of us to the Bahnhof was under 7 euros. I had also read online that the best currywurst in the region was near the Bahnhof and I had promised my son a chance to film some German trains.

Kevelaer train station is being modernised and the girls went to use the toilets which were clean but covered in very rude and graphic graffiti which amused my pre-teen daughter and embarrassed her mother (it just goes to show it's not a gender thing). The trains run half-hourly between Düsseldorf and Krefeld and one soon arrived and it looked very comfortable, modern and fast. With that promise fulfilled we went off to look around the town.

The currywurst stand I thought was at the Bahnhof might still be there but it wasn't visible so we skipped that idea for lunch as the kids had had their fritten. We soon found ourselves in the main drag of Hauptstrasse where the Ital Eiscafe has a huge range of ice cream flavours. By then I had developed a thirst for my first authentic German pilsner and Mrs Bocking fancied a coffee. Two drinks and two ice creams came to 6 euros although the waitress was an extremely grumpy sort who the very amenable Mrs Bocking somehow got on the wrong side of when ordering and her demeanour hadn't improved when we paid the bill.

Suitably cooled and refreshed by beer and with children busy with ice creams, we sat and watched the world go by as our 03.30 start from England was catching up on us. More than 800,000 pilgrims, mostly from Germany and the Netherlands, visit the shrine to the Virgin Mary in Kevelaer every year and it seems all of them go up and down Hauptstrasse checking out the shops and al-fresco cafes. Most of the shops are the regular 'high street' sort and there are many selling religious souvenirs but all are in good taste. There wasn't much stuff branded as 'Kevelaer' and much to my disappointment, I didn't see anything gloriously kitsch like a six foot neon illuminated Pietà which I would find in the USA. Something I did notice was, like Holland, that over fifty percent of the pedestrians of all ages, including nuns, were pushing bicycles.

We carried on and remembering all the virtual walking I had done on Google Earth, we went down an alley to the museum which had a big display of Playmobil figures outside and beyond them there was a grassy 'pocket' park with a rope climbing frame, some swings and very inviting shade trees and a nature study pond (fenced of course). The adults lay down in the shade for a nap whilst the kids climbed on the ropes but they soon joined us. It was very peaceful. There was a couple of mothers with toddlers so it seemed perfectly safe although I was mindful that one blogger had described his visit to Kevelaer as walking into the kind of place that had inspired 'Deliverance'. The park is overlooked by the back garden of a pizzeria which seemed an inviting place for a summer evening to have cheap meal where kids could go off and amuse themselves but we hadn't come to Germany for pizza.

After a short rest which lasted until the kids got fidgety again we made a plan; as the kids still weren't hungry, we could look around for a place for an evening meal as we carried on strolling around the town. A few streets later we found ourselves in what must be the cheaper part as there was a thrift store (charity shop) so we checked it out. Not exceptional bargains but very good quality stuff that looked tempting but we didn't fancy carrying anything more with us. The Luxemburger Galerie is a mall with pricey shops opposite the thrift store for a nice juxtaposition.

Given that there once was an airbase here, I wondered where the servicemen would have gone for their off-base R&R? There didn't seem to be any dive bars or discos, even closed down ones, and I thought it unusual for a tourist town that I didn't see any buskers or street entertainers.

After wandering aimlessly down some other streets we thought we had pretty much covered downtown and were getting a bit disenchanted with the possibility of an evening meal as by now it was 16.30 and a couple of cafes we went into said they closed at 17.00 Anywhere that look like it stayed open later was a bit more pricey but we weren't about to panic.

Thanks to the German Watertower Society I knew that Kevelaer had a water tower and suddenly I realised what I could see from the top of the slide at Irrland was now only a few blocks away. To a chorus of disappointment from my long suffering family who don't understand my interest in such things, we set off to visit it.

The wasserturm is not normally open to visitors but the staff of the town's water, sewerage and bus company, who turned out to have offices inside it became interested when I explained that I was a committee member of the British Water Tower Appreciation Society and after some conversation they understood I had a genuine interest. Kevelaer is twinned with Bury St. Edmunds (and Weeze is twinned with Watton in Norfolk) so perhaps our East Anglian connections swayed them to kindly allow us all in to see the offices and a conference room, all recently refurbished, inside the tower but the tank room for now is off limits.

The plaque on the door says the tower is 54m high, has a capacity of 450 cubic metres and the tank was constructed on the 'Intze' system.

That item checked off, we walked back into town and now Mrs Bocking was getting a bit antsy that we weren't going to find anywhere but she too, like me, didn't fancy dropping a big wedge on somewhere that just didn't feel right for us and the kids and by now our two were getting a bit too fractious

Heading back into town we passed a
Müller drug store and rewarded the kids' good behaviour by letting them spend their pocket money on German chocolates (for eating when back at home) with one rule; no brands you can buy in England. For a friend with a collection of over 250 jars we failed to find a peanut butter brand he didn't already have. We asked the checkout lady if she knew of good places to eat and she replied in perfect English that "they're all good" but we could try the Golden Swan or the Ital Eiscafe. We had looked at the Swan and passed as it was expensive and had already been to the Eiscafe...

We thought we were now near the Rathouse which we had seen from the shuttle bus and recalled there was a couple of food stands near there. I said let's go there and have a look and see if one was a currywurst one and if not, there were a couple more restaurants at the furthest end of Hauptstrasse we hadn't been to.

I don't know the proper name of the place but it is where Marketstrasse joins Bahnstrasse and there in a square with a water feature is where we hit upon Roland's Grill-Kuche and next to them was Hacco's Grill, a currywurst stand, and a farmer's stall selling home made strawberry jam and vegetables and all of these were outside a REWE supermarket.

Before I tried my currywurst, we looked at the racks of roasting chicken and ribs and saw the spotlessly clean truck and counters and got into a conversation with the woman who offered us a sample. It was delicious and we were hooked. Two portions of the most tender and perfectly cooked ribs were only 5 euros so we decided to ditch the currywurst plan and buy some cold beers and salad in the supermarket (plus some German sausages and peanut butter) and have a picnic in the square. The kids typically didn't like this idea and so settled on having more fritten from the currywurst stand. The woman serving there was kind enough to bring them out to us as we sat in the square beside the fountain thinking this was a marvellous dinner on a glorious summer evening.

Too soon it was time to end our bucolic repast and walk back to the Bahnhof and get the shuttle bus to the airport. On the way there was an unexpected bonus of a train going through a level crossing and so we could film that event as well. At the Bahnhof was a group of young female German students waiting and we joined them in putting our 'barking dogs' into the fountain whilst we waited for the shuttle bus.

The traffic was getting busy now and a battered Fiat Panda with four teenage boys inside, playing heavy metal at full volume on the tinny bog-standard stereo, kept cruising past, no doubt trying to impress the girls. Apart from the party of Goths on the plane, this was the only sign of an alternative culture I'd seen all day. On the dot of 18.45 the bus turned up as expected; getting us to the airport for under 12 euros at 19.00 which meant we had just over one hour to pass security and passport control before the gate 'closed' at 20.05

Although I knew the hour was more than sufficient to pass through security, it would be Sod's law that if we had taken the shuttle an hour later, some oik from Ryanair would say we had missed the flight. Security was exceptionally thorough and we remembered the bottles of warm water in our backpacks and we gladly dumped them in the bins but when the security guard went through our shopping bags, he seized upon the peanut butter and said it exceeded the 100ml limit and it must be given up.

One tip I'd give for leaving Weeze airport is don't pass through passport control after you have been through security and wait in the UK-bound lounge. The EU (aren't we all?) lounge has more tables and chairs and you can get better service from the cafe. The EU lounge was full of smart looking people waiting for a flight to Treviso whereas the UK lounge was the lumpen proletariat heading for the rain clouds of England. Although the waitress told me our plane was over half and hour late, (how come she knew and no one else did?) the departure board resolutely kept promising a scheduled departure at 20.35 and an expected departure at 20.35 even though by 21.00 there was no sight of our plane. Somebody triggered a panic rush to queue up in front of the exit doors even though there wasn't any Ryanair staff collecting boarding cards and after half an hour of standing in line for no apparent reason, I drifted back to my seat. I would remind anyone who pays extra for early boarding on Ryanair that first-on is last-off and all you get is a head start on a rather unseemly footrace to the plane.

A huge cheer went up when our incoming plane touched down at 21.10 but it was another three quarters of an hour before we could get on board. On arrival at Stansted there was no triumphant fanfare over the tannoy saying yet another Ryanair flight arriving on-time nor any explanations. On the Monday after we got back, Ryanair announced it was going to cancel millions of tickets recently purchased through the screenscrapers.


According to Martin Lewis, you needn't worry if you have found Ryanair deals through his site. All his site does is provide info, you can’t book through it, but sadly a by-product of Ryanair's attempt to block booking-fee websites is to block access to ALL flight comparisons, including the MSE FlightChecker. They are talking to Ryanair's board to sort this out.


This story was taken up by the English language online newspaper The Local and is now on their website. The best part? I get paid! Thanks guys.

Sunday, 3 August 2008

Chuck the Helicopter

Last Saturday I held a yard sale. The increased traffic that was passing my door for Gig In The Park was an opportunity to recycle a lot of toys and clothes my children had grown out of.

Unsurprisingly nobody wanted any of the five varying vintage Apple Macs, a surplus laser printer (works perfectly) that I originally salvaged from a skip myself and the six foot stack of out of date film production directories I'd collected over the years. If anyone wants the DGA list of members 1994 get in touch. 

By the end of the day we had passed on a lot of toys and clothing for 0-5 year olds to pleasant and grateful people and had made oh, at least ten pounds. Our chickens must have sensed the occasion too because for the first time they produced ten eggs that morning enabling us to offer a full dozen for sale which were snapped up by some appreciative campers who could see the chickens that gave them their breakfast. It's nice to think that something as simple as an egg stand and honesty box will add value for visitors. Perhaps SCC's tourism department should be notified.

Although yard sales can attract to your door people living in an alternate reality and the tiny minority of dishonest people who will pocket a child's toy even though the seller was only asking 10 pence, you also meet your neighbours near and far and many people will hang about just to make conversation. Such chances for fellowship are a fine thing.

One constant topic of conversation that day was the visit the previous Thursday (July 31st) to Southwold and surrounding area of HRH Prince Charles and HRH The Duchess of Cornwall. I was asked in an employment capacity if I could be there to photograph His and Her Royal Highnesses but, being a Thursday, I had a five thousand word research report to finish and had pledged to lock myself away until it was done.

As I have done the Royal Rota before, I know that in my heart, that my report will be much more important and useful than anything that could result from any photographs I could take at such a tightly controlled photo-opportunity.

Although our corner of Suffolk is thought very conservative (my MP John Gummer has one of the safest Conservative seats in the UK) I think any republicans would be encouraged if they had polled my yard sale visitors. Southwold is a property hotspot for wealthy second-homeowners, allegedly mostly meeja types from London, and if any of them were amongst those who stopped by my stall, they joined the vast majority who were rather disparaging about there being any benefit or value in being visited by - as the official advance memo called them - Their Royal Highnesses (TRH). In fact, against the carbon footprint of a brief royal visit, they would prefer they stayed at home and didn't bother anyone.

To be fair, they didn't see any value in the attention gained from the Prime Minister Gordon Brown visiting Southwold either.

There was some tabloid outrage that the TRHs visited Southwold to see how a brewer reduced their carbon footprint and taste a carbon neutral beer by flying the 85 road miles from Sandringham to Southwold in a helicopter.

I should like to point out that it's not just the helicopter that affects the Royal's carbon footprint but the fact that someone had to drive the royal Daimler or Aston Martin empty (from Sandringham presumably) to meet the helicopter at Southwold for the twenty minute journey down to Snape Maltings afterwards and then drive it empty back again and wherever TRH go, there is an advance party of about twenty vehicles checking for bombs and snipers and any dodgy characters such as protesters outraged at the leaving of Southwold's sea defences to the whim of nature.

With all the extra mileage from the vendors convened for a 'Farmer's Market' at Snape Maltings as a photo opportunity, (as one had already been held the week before) let alone all the media, VIPs and onlookers which should be discounted of course, the Royal Party must have been a huge procession spewing tons of CO2 in its wake.

A palace spokesman is reported to have said the helicopter was the "most effective" way of travelling.

"We always look at the most effective way of travelling, taking into account the different factors... On this occasion it was felt a helicopter was the best way to travel so the Prince of Wales and the Duchess of Cornwall could carry out various engagements in Suffolk." A more neutral Press Association story is here.

Hmm, most effective for whom? So TRH can be back at home in time for tea?

A point that many bloggers and internet news stories seem to have missed is that TRH were also visiting Snape Maltings to see the result so far of the £14M of public and private funding spent on creating a music campus, which will have excellent green credentials itself, created out of long derelict buildings.

But, according to the advance reports, this trip was not about showing support for a venture that will advance Britain's status internationally and create many real and sustainable jobs in an area where the alternative employment is factory turkey farming and processing, but for a photo of the Prince sniffing at a jar of chutney to show his support for "the people behind the products that are putting Suffolk on the food map."

Given the esteem held for TRH - rather more a sort of tolerance encouraged in the great and the good by chances at the occasional gong - I wouldn't think TRH is the sort of celebrity endorsement that's wanted or even needed for Suffolk's food.

What publicity does Suffolk food need? Why Suffolk? What food in particular? What happens when TRH goes next week to somewhere else, does the magic wand of TRH's presence lead to an improvement in those vendor's bottom line also? I don't think so. I agree with his sentiments but it's quite a lot easier to be green when you own half (or more) of Cornwall.

The brand value of TRH is practically nil unless it is tied specifically to something you can identify with them like rather dry and dull oat biscuits. Unlike his pronouncement made on his last visit to Blythburgh in 2001 to "make the pub the hub" and keep shopping local which was tremendously effective, I haven't heard of any speech or subsequent sound-bite derived from this visit. So Sir, what is your point? I am in fact, very keen to know.

A message to "support Suffolk food" is too vague a notion which is why I suspect the story got hijacked by something more newsworthy. Charles is preaching to an already converted (and dwindling) constituency.

In 2001 Charles urged people to buy locally and the visit this time was pitched as a follow up. Well, my experience is that some of the public already did and they still do so but most don't because the things they need and can afford are not sold locally in Suffolk. Local produce tends to be (and there are a few exceptions) aimed and priced at the luxury 'gourmet' market because that's where the margins are, meeting the wants of the demographic of the wealthy second-homeowners in Southwold who may buy a few of my eggs but get 99% of the rest of their shopping online. In any number of Suffolk towns, these consumers can support a delicatessen stocking expensive olive oils imported from Italy but don't buy enough locally caught fish to keep the fishmongers in business.

If Nelson Mandela ever came to Suffolk the crowds would likely be ten-thousand deep, for it is a very great honour for a such a man to devote any of his precious time to grace anyone with his presence. One participant said "I felt about as honoured and excited to meet Prince Charles as I did when I met Bet Lynch" and there lies the rub. Ms Lynch is of course a fictional character and so are TRH, being persons with status and advantage only conferred on them by virtue of practically nothing but marriage or accident of birth.

I'm sure a great number of people were pleased to see TRH and I know a few children were excited to present their posies but quite a few, including mine, when offered the choice, wanted to go to somewhere else. "Why?" they asked. I could only answer with what is expected of a loyal subject: "because he might be your king one day" but that was not sufficiently convincing.

That lack of credibility is unfortunately the problem for Charles. I am quite happy for Prince Charles to devote himself to something, to find some relevance he is so sensitive about, but I feel he can't have it both ways. Kingship is synonymous with luxury; king-size, 'fit for a king' and so on and HRH certainly enjoys plenty of luxury regardless of how much composting they do at Highgrove. Why isn't there solar panel on Buckingham Palace? I don't think anyone would object to the planning application and I reckon you could hide a pretty big wind turbine in the gardens as well. If they went for a vertical axis one, it might be quieter too.

Saving the planet is simply a matter of everyone consuming less and that, unfortunately for makers of luxury goods, is best achieved in the short term by going without such unnecessary extravagance. Status = consumption is the basic promise of most consumer advertising and wealth buys you the freedom to choose what you consume. The rural poor don't have such freedom. Those who are not brainwashed by advertising can overcome the stigma of second-hand goods and will buy recycled clothes from their neighbours because it is convenient and affordable and is far greener than bundling them up for Great Ormond Street (the local clothes charity) to ship them thousands of miles (more carbon) to Africa.

It seems that Clarence House can't get it right and I don't think they ever will while they continue to impose 19th Century ideas of duty, fealty and honour onto the 21st Century's media reality and ordinary people's priorities. Once upon a time kings and queens didn't have to go gallivanting around the country unless they wanted a free lunch and certainly didn't feel obliged to open hospitals and kiss babies and nobody actually expected them to. Perhaps we have come full circle, I think TRH wouldn't lose any public esteem if they stayed at home with their feet up for the sake of the planet.

Saturday, 2 August 2008

US and UK incompatability

A list off the top of my head of the adjustments you have to make when moving between the USA and the UK or vice-versa. This is a can of worms I wish I'd never started. Read at your own risk.


US: Drive on the right, steering wheel is on the left. Thus drivers are more likely to get skin cancer on their left arm.

UK: Drive on the left, steering wheel on the right. Drivers get skin cancer on right arm. Except the UK gets it less because of the weather (but don't kid yourself, melanoma rates are rising).

In the UK you can get a special license if you can only drive an automatic car but why bother. Everyone has a stick.

If you come to the UK from the US and stay more than 30 days with intention to live here, you have to take the UK driving test. If you say you're not coming to stay more than 30 days, you can drive on a US license but only for one year. It is not that hard to get car insurance on a US license but you will pay a slightly higher premium but you won't be able to transfer your 'no claims' bonus unless you get a certified letter from your old insurer less than 30 day old.

On the other hand, you can come to the UK from Zimbabwe and hand in your license and get a UK one straight away. Do they think Zimbabwe's driving standards are better than American ones?

The know-it-all in the pub told me (and I haven't yet heard that this loophole has been closed) that you can get legally a driving license from the DR Congo which has no driving test and then exchange it without a test in Germany and then exchange that (because it is EU) for a UK license WITHOUT EVER TAKING A TEST. There are dodgy websites that claim they do this for you and relieve you of 600 euros for the privilege.

If you get a ticket in the UK when driving on a US license, you get fined etc. just the same and the minute you get a UK license, the 'points' (endorsements) show up.

Taking the UK driving test is not just going down to the DMV. Oh no, it's an example of British bureaucracy at its finest. You have to make an appointment to take the written test and maybe wait six months. Then when you've passed that you make another appointment for the driving test, and then maybe wait six months. Without driving lessons the fees etc. add up to over £150

The UK test is MUCH harder than the California DMV exam. Maybe because UK roads are smaller and speeds are higher.

Bringing an economy type car with high mileage from the US to Britain is not worth the cost of all the extra cost of insurance that you will pay for a left-hand drive (and conversion of emissions and light lenses etc.) but for luxury and sports cars, it might be worth it.

If your car is over 30 years old, you will pay NO road tax in the UK and avoid all kinds of emission regulations. Certainly importing some classic tin from the US to the UK is a lot easier than importing a modern car. A lot of classic UK cars (Jags, MG's, and Bentleys etc.) seem to go the other way too.

I've met a lot of British people in the USA buying classic Harleys for half the UK cost and importing them to the UK where any adaptation to UK specifications must be more straightforward.

Car Insurance

I never got to the bottom of this but in the US, if you have a license and fully comprehensive insurance, you can lend your friend or your child your car to drive as long as they have a license. Your policy covers occasional use by family or friends if there under reasonable circumstances.

In the UK, the driver has to have their own insurance (and license obviously) before they can drive anyone else's car. Total pain and you have to get a rider on your policy.

Road Tax (Registration)

USA: (California) your car and your trailer have different license plates.

UK: your trailer has to have the same license plate as the car pulling it. So you have to have a lot of custom plates if you have a lot of different cars.

When you rent a trailer in the UK, they charge you extra (around £30) to make up the plate unless you have your own.

If you have a tow bar (hitch) installed on your car, you should get an extra license plate (wired and illuminated of course) to put on whatever you tow with it.

In California the annual registration sticker goes on the corner of the rear license plate and it sticks really hard. You have to buy one every year. You stick the new one over the old. After about ten years, you take them off with razor blade.

In the UK, the registration sticker isn't a sticker but a paper beer label and sticks on the inside of your windshield (windscreen) with a lame bit of phthalated plastic. It can fall off and blow away anytime. That's really annoying if you get a ticket for not displaying one or a residents' parking permit when this type falls off in the sun. As it costs an arm and a leg, you can buy one for six or twelve months.

Rear Lamps on cars.

US cars: Red brake lights and turn signal (indicators).

UK cars: Amber turn signal, red brake lights.

In the UK, you can tell if they’re turning and not that they have lost a bulb in the brake light.


US month/day/year… but why?

UK day/month/year is better but still not logical.

Why don't we just do year/month/day - hour/minute/second like astronomers do?

The international format defined by ISO 8601 tries to address all these problems by defining a numerical date system as follows: YYYY-MM-DD where

* YYYY is the year [all the digits, i.e. 2012]
* MM is the month [01 (January) to 12 (December)]
* DD is the day [01 to 31]


In Britain, Mother's Day is on the fourth Sunday of Lent and therefore its date varies, depending on the date of Easter.

In the USA and also in Australia and many other countries, Mother's Day is on the second Sunday in May.

Father's Day seems to be different either side of the Atlantic too.

People in Britain complain about the American invasion of 'Trick or Treat' corrupting Halloween which twenty years ago didn't have the mischief element in the UK nor the hordes of sweet collectors but they forget it was invented in Yorkshire and went to the New World, so it's a custom that's just come home and it never died out here in the first place.

'Bonfire Night' on 5th November means the fireworks show starts earlier than it would on 4th July. And what better on a winter night than a great big fire! In the UK you can buy fireworks in a sweetshop (candy store). They are neither safe nor sane. M-80's or cherry bombs (real or not) are called 'bangers'. The British love flammable magnesium wands called 'sparklers'.


The US and the UK change to/from Summer Time or Daylight Saving Time at different times.

The U.S. federal Uniform Time Act of 1966 mandated that daylight saving time begin nationwide on the last Sunday of April and end on the last Sunday of October. Then they changed it again so daylight saving time goes from the second Sunday of March to the first Sunday of November.

"Spring forward, Fall back" is universal but the change always happens about two weeks apart. LA is eight hours behind London then for two weeks in the Spring it is nine hours behind.

Brits say "quarter past". Americans say "quarter of".


US: Legal and letter paper sizes Duh?

UK: A4 and dead easy to scale up and down and to calculate the shipping weight of a publication by the GSM of the paper.

This makes US filing cabinets and suspension systems incompatible with UK ones and vice-versa.


The US three ring binders are totally incompatible with UK two-ring or four-ring binders.


Henry Ford turned down the Roberston Bolt because they (the Robertson's) wouldn't let him have it exclusively. Canadians on the other hand have adopted it everywhere. Why Britain uses the inferior Philips I don't know.

American bolts are Imperial and the UK is pretty much metric now. US manufacturers are slowly and very quietly changing to metric because of overseas markets (the US) as tools and dies in offshore manufacturers are generally metric.

NASA's loss of the Mars Climate Orbiter was caused by assumptions that the US way is #1.
A NASA investigation into the satellite's failure revealed that one team of engineers had used traditional American units, while another had used metric units. The result was a trajectory error of sixty miles, and a $125-million disappearing act.


US pints are 16 fluid ounces.

UK pints are 20 fluid ounces.

This makes the US gallon smaller and trips to the pub bathroom more frequent as Brits drink bigger pints.


US 110v 60 Hz

UK 230v 50 Hz

I've always liked the US voltage. Appliance plugs are smaller.

US cube taps (two-way adaptors) are quite small. British ones are huge and bulky. Same with wall sockets. If you like minimalism, have US style household electrics.

If you move to the UK from the USA, you don't have to give away or sell all your appliances and power tools. Since 1991 all professional contractors (builders) have to run 110v power tools on sites in the UK so you can buy 230v-110v transformers very cheaply capable of almost any wattage. Things like record players don't work so well as the AC hertz governs the motor speed. Small appliances like a US specification KitchenAid mixer or HP printer will work just fine with a transformer in the UK and besides they cost twice in the UK what they do in the US. Most desk computers and laptops are universal voltage so not a worry.

A UK hairdryer in the US is anemic and useless. A US hairdryer used in the UK will burn out in seconds (I tried it!) I saw in a drugstore (chemist) one with a switch on the handle that said 230v/110v and when I opened it, it was just a dummy stuck in the housing not even connected to anything.

When you go into a UK bathroom, you won't find a light switch inside it. Because of the voltage, wet hands might get a nasty shock so bathrooms have a pull switch on a long cord which hopefully insulates you. For any electrical things you want to use in a bathroom like razors, there is often a two-pin plug unit on the wall marked 'Shavers Only' which has a monstrous GFI to prevent electric shocks.

If you have your US laptop or similar with you and you have forgotten or lost a US to UK plug adaptor, you can make the US plug fit in those shaver sockets without too much butchery. Just tamp down the widest part of the prongs on the US plug which a shoe heel or something heavy.

A trick I've learned is when using something that can run on a car adaptor taking 12v from the cigarette lighter, you should buy an American one for 12v to 110v as it’s a waayyyy smaller package than a 12v to 240v.

American appliances like the WaterPik are not as common in the UK because they don't allow electricity in bathrooms. Which also helps explain British teeth.

Household Wiring.

In Europe the following colour scheme is used: the covering of the live conductor is brown, that of the neutral conductor is blue and that of the earth (ground) has green and yellow stripes. Britain previously used a different colour scheme but changed to the European standard many years ago.

For many years the USA has used the following colour scheme: the covering of the live conductor is black (or occasionally red or blue), that of the neutral conductor is white and that of the ground (earth) is green. However, according to some sources the USA is now changing to the European standard, especially for equipment which is distributed world-wide.

I suspect that the colour scheme used in Canada is the same as in the USA.

Electrical Safety.

USA: Underwriter's Laboratory UL logo

UK BSA 'Kite Mark' logo

Mobile Phones (Cell Phones).

USA: CDMA/TDMA are the predominant wireless technologies.

Everywhere else: GSM 900/1800

Phone Dialling.

UK area codes start with a '0' (zero) so think 0213-555 -1212

US phone numbers start with a 1 so it's 1-213-555-1212

BUT when you call a number in the UK from the USA, you have to lose the zero.

UK country code is 44

USA country code is 1

UK country code comes after Romania, Austria and Slovakia. Why? Long story but Britain arrived late at the conference. No seriously.

International Dialing Code in the UK is '00'

International Dialing Code in the USA is '011'

To call a number in the UK from the USA it would be 011-213-555-1212 (you lost the '0' right?)

To call a number in the USA from the UK it would be 00-1-213-555-1212

UK emergency services (any type) 999

USA emergency services (any type) 911

Phone Wiring.

Land-line phones, answering machines and fax machines imported from the USA don't work very well in the UK unless they say they are UK specification. The UK has different dialing tones and line voltage which gives US specification phones a really bad hum.

If you're travelling with a US modem in the UK, they work OK but if you're having problems connecting, the first thing to check is the cord. Get to down to a stationery store and get a UK one. The wiring of wall boxes and lines is different in the UK and a USA RJ11 cord doesn't work.

UK phones use BS6312 431A plugs to connect to the wall anyway. The latch is on the side.

UK phones cords are hardwired. You can disconnect the handset but usually you can't replace the line from the base unit to the wall. Only one end has the plug, the other is hardwired into the unit which is a pain if you want to make the cord much longer without a big lumpy connector in the middle of it which someone will step on and crunch underfoot.

Southwestern Bell, a US phone appliance maker, also makes UK phones but these are UK specification.

Electrical Switches.


UK: Off is UP (except for some equipment intended for the world market and imported into the UK.


Portable radios are compatible between the UK and the USA/Canada, except that there are no long wave transmissions in the USA or Canada.

Radio stations are 9 kHz apart in the EU. In the USA it 10 kHz. Digital tuners often have a switch.

What the British call Medium Wave is called AM in the US. What Britain calls Long Wave is AM too but Long Wave is something else in the US. If you want to get the main UK stations on a US radio, it just needs to have VHF.

Mail (Post).

In the UK no mail is collected from your postbox. A pain if you live in rural area.

In the US your mail is collected if you put the flag up on your mailbox.

CANADA (BC at least) has no deliveries on a Saturday.

UK delivery is six days a week Mon-Sat. Sometimes twice in one day.
Special Delivery is not on Sunday, Saturday Special Delivery has a surcharge.

US delivery is six days a week; Mon-Sat.
Special Delivery is on Sunday too.

Read this essay about what happens when you don't put enough postage on a letter in the UK and why Britain should do what the US does and put a return address on every piece of mail which isn't required in the UK.

In the UK you can't send a letter to Canada without a return address.

Gas/Petrol Stations.

Unlike in Britain, in the USA and Canada most petrol (gas) pumps do not switch on automatically as you lift the hose out of the pump. Instead, you have to pull a lever up, turn a lever, or press a button to switch the pump on. Then with self-serve you have to wait for the pump to be cleared down by the operator before you can start filling.

You can’t put unleaded in the leaded car in the US but in the UK you can’t buy leaded anyway.

In the UK you can easily make a mistake and put petrol in a diesel car. Big Mistake. It'll cost you £5K if you have a Landrover.

If you really try, you can also put diesel in a petrol car. Not so bad, makes lots of smoke though.

Sales Tax/VAT.

UK sales tax/value added tax included in the retail price unless at a wholesaler or trade store.

VAT is different from sales tax though in the way it is collected.

US & CANADA, sales tax is on top of quoted price.

In UK, if Business to Business, prices exclude sales tax/VAT.

In a petrol station in the UK they might ask you "do you want a VAT receipt". Why don't they just give everyone the same receipt with the VAT and non-VAT breakdown, which is what it is?

Fast Food.

In the US you get heaps of free condiments. Totally groovy by me.

In the UK condiments nearly always cost extra. A gouge really. I've seen unsuspecting Americans pile their tray with condiments in a self-serve cafeteria and freak out at the check-out (till).


USA has seven bank holidays.

New Year’s Day
President Day
Memorial Day
Independence Day
Labour Day
Thanksgiving Day
Christmas Day

Most people in the USA only get ten to twenty-one days holiday (vacation) from their workplace per year.

In the UK, four weeks is around the basic. The British don't only get fewer public holidays; they also have the least statutory annual leave in Europe.
The UK has up to 8 bank or public holidays depending on the calendar in comparison with the European average of 10.8
There is no statutory right to time off for bank and public holidays in England and Wales. Any right to time off or extra pay for working on a bank holiday depends on the terms of an employee's contract of employment.


Whenever you talk about the law in Britain, you have to remember that Scotland has its own legal system and so what goes in England and Wales may not apply there. A bit like Federal and State law.

If arrested in the US you have the right to remain silent and that is respected. Google Professor Duane for his lecture on YouTube.

In the UK, you have the right to remain silent but jury attitudes tend to consider that an admission of guilt (I served on a jury and that's all I base it on).


The US uses absolutely brain-dead bank notes: all denominations have the same size, feel and color. Furthermore, the largest denomination is only $100.

UK pound coins weigh a ton and wear out the pockets of your pants (trousers).

When writing cheques (checks) in the US you write the dollars and the pennies as fractions of dollars e.g. twelve dollars and 25/100

In the UK you write: twelve pounds and 25 pence.

Did you know that Nat West and Barclays and some other UK banks will take a US dollar check from US certain banks and convert it at the interbank rate? It's good to ask your bank first; you can save a bundle on fees if someone sends you money from the US. You can also walk into almost any Canadian bank a get a cheque for UK sterling with very little markup which is cheaper than an ATM.

You can't go overdrawn in the US without a pre-arranged line of credit. The bad check just gets sent back and you get an NSF fee.

In the UK, if you have had an account for a year or so and suddenly go one pound overdrawn, they tend to let it through but charge huge fees and over 30% APR.

To deposit a check in the US you have to endorse it on the back. You don't do anything in the UK except enclose a deposit slip.


Americans have a strange obsession with the points of the compass. Frequently inside a building you will find signs like "This elevator is out of order. Please use the one on the North side of the building." How am I supposed to know where North is? Why can't they just tell me where the elevator is?


A confusion arises between the two forms of floor numbering in use worldwide. In most of Europe, and thus British usage, the floor at the ground level is the ground floor, and the floor above is the first floor, which maintains the continental European use dating from the days of the construction of palaces. For example, in French, the term for the ground floor is rez de chausée. But in North American usage, the floor at the ground level is the first floor and the floor above is the second floor; this system is also used in Russia and other countries of the former Soviet Union. Perhaps the Russians thought, "some day, some day."


American 50's and 60's modernism was a bargain once upon a time. I used to buy stuff for my apartment cheaply at Deseret Industries and when I shipped it to my new home in the UK, it was the envy of several antique dealers who were buying in the US and selling in the UK. I nearly plotzed when I saw Steelcase 'tank' desks and old steel medical cabinets on sale in London for 1200 dollars which I could find for ten dollars in the US.


There a lots of US/UK clothing size charts out there. I need not go into that. Google them.


US bed sizes are totally different than the UK ones although they have the same names.

I've been in touch with the UK Sleep Council (an association of furniture and mattress makers) and they told me they don't have any official standard sizes in the UK although there are some standards; these are not any kind of legal standard.

The UK hotel industry doesn't have any standardized sizes either. If a place advertises 'King' beds, it could be anybody's king. Hope it’s not the king of Lilliput.

Now IKEA in the UK has slightly different sizes of sheets than you would buy in John Lewis or Sears for example. IKEA sells different sizes in the US than it sells in the EU as it learned that, sorry guys, Americans are a tad bit heavier than Europeans. Must be all those free condiments.

So, if buying linens for friends in another country; get very specific about measurements and don't just go by the names for things.


Way too complicated but remember;

In the United States, typeface designs are not covered by copyright, but may be covered by patents if sufficiently novel.

In the UK, typefaces can be copyrighted. So if you borrow someone's fonts and publish something with them, you could be in twubble.

Tax Filing.

For an UK employee, the end of the UK tax year is April 5th and you can file as late as January 31 following.

US tax year is Dec 31st and you file by April 15th.

Thanks go to many for info and corrections.