A village, volunteers and a virus…

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In just a few weeks, our small village in Hampshire has gone from a friendly but fairly detached group of houses to a tight-knit community of people scuttling about like meerkats (albeit without the close-quarters sniffing), peering over each other’s fences, checking each other out and shuttling food and essential items back and forth between ‘burrows’.

We live in a quintessentially English village in the heart of Hampshire not far from Stonehenge in a leafy countryside “chocolate box” setting.  Grateley has a red phone box – converted into a book exchange with the most eclectic mix of reading material – the source of some weird gnome books and Jilly Cooper novels we have at home that my 3-year-old daughter insisted on picking up during a recent walk around the village.  We have a local pub, a small train station, a beautiful 13th Century church and a couple of schools.  There are about 250 houses spread across the “village end”, the “station end” and the newer development called Palestine.  The community is an odd mix – farming families who’ve been in the village for generations, military families many of whom are posted in and out every 2-3 years, commuters who make best use of the train station and the fast line into London, and retired residents.  There are small groups and committees such as church-goers and a coffee morning group but the demise of the village shop and the closure of the pub a few years ago left little in the way of a community hub.  Thankfully Bernie and Jim came along and have resurrected the Plough Inn, bringing back some of that community life.  But we were going to need a central focus and a shared purpose across the entire village to equip us for the mammoth fight we were going to face against the coronavirus.

 

Just weeks ago, that fight seemed quite far away from our little village.  France and Belgium – and my parents and siblings based over there – were already in the thick of it.    I sifted through pictures on Whatsapp depicting utter chaos in my brother and sister’s homes as dining rooms were fashioned into offices and school classrooms.  My sister described over Facetime – interrupted by the excited interjections of her 9 year old son who thought the Easter holidays had come early – how they were housebound.  Their only permitted outings were to be done one at a time to go shopping or to walk the dog.  Their golden retriever Daisy had suddenly become mighty popular and already had multiple offers for ‘walkies’ from neighbours eager to get out.  The ‘laissez passer’ my sister held up to the camera that had to be presented to the police when they were out reminded me of war time stories I’d heard.  My parents in Brussels were still able to go for walks in the local woodland and park, “with picnics and a flask” my ever-prepared and pragmatic mum said, since the cafes were all closed.

What a contrast in the UK where we were all still roaming free, with pubs and shops still open and children in schools.  The non-stop news on coronavirus told us the UK was a week or two behind the rest of Europe so surely we had to be next.  And it would be soon and probably sudden.  Once people had battened down the hatches it would be too late to reach out to our neighbours and community.  We had a few days to physically get around the 250 or so houses in the village to spread our plan for a community network.  And we had to actually speak to people: those most likely to be on their own and vulnerable would probably not be on social media and were unlikely to trust an anonymous leaflet thrust through their letterbox.

So, like many communities around the country, we set to work: my husband rifled through the large box of disused tech stored in the attic and unearthed a working and reasonably recent mobile phone (although it still felt like an antique ‘brick’ when I started using it!).  We re-roled it as our official ‘Grateley Helpline’ batphone.  After much wine-fuelled editorial discussion about what we should call our network, we created the imaginatively named ‘Grateley help’ email address.

Richard from across the road disappeared with our sample flyer and reappeared with a huge stack of copies and a large guillotine.  A gang of villagers keen to get involved mustered outside the Plough Inn on a soggy cold morning and trekked up every road, boggy path and hidden driveway until we were sure every single house had been suitably ‘door-stepped’, as my old hack colleagues would say.

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Emails came flooding in.  People were offering help, advice, information.  We got an email from Nick, one of the villagers who’d decided we needed a website and, being an IT guru himself, had whipped one up for us overnight.  Three days later, we had more than 80 people on the network.  People were lining up to offer help with shopping, picking up prescriptions, listening on the phone and anything else that came up.  Others wrote in saying how relieved they were they had someone to call on should they need to.

We canvassed the village for skills that might come in useful to others during the time ahead and realised we had retired medical staff, teachers, councillors, delivery drivers, builders, IT experts, and financial and legal experts.  We even had a young lad, whose Duke of Edinburgh Award had been all but scuppered by the coronavirus, offering out his services for odd jobs and gardening.

We’ve been able to direct people to advice over the phone about their money worries caused by Coronavirus.  We’ve passed on home-schooling tips to parents left climbing the walls with energetic children wielding crayons dangerously close to treasured curtains.  We’ve brought in local businesses and touted their growing delivery and take-away trade to help keep them going too.  Young Tom is slowly clocking up DofE tasks after clearing the pub car park of fallen branches and leaves.  Our telephone network offers an ear to those struggling with the isolation and our resident IT geeks have introduced neighbours to the joys of Zoom and Facetime, linking them up with their loved ones abroad.

In some ways it feels like coronavirus has brought village life to a standstill.  It’s all gone very quiet here in Grateley.  Apart from the deafening sound of Spring birdsong and the disruption caused by our resident robin redbreast as he hops across our window sills, it is utterly peaceful.  Barely a car goes by, trains are rare and the helicopters usually buzzing around the local Army aviation base have gone quiet.  Behind closed doors though, there is frantic activity.  Like meerkats in their virtual burrows, Grateley residents are scuttling around in an online and phone world of help, advice and mutual support.  Every now and again one squeaks, a couple of others poke their heads up, and scoot off to collect and deliver food.

This has been a time-consuming project as we channel everything through one email address and phone number and are intent on protecting everyone’s confidentiality.  It got particularly challenging a few days in when I got called up to work on the government’s COVID19 response.  The juggling act is made all the more interesting with an energetic 3-year-old who likes to add her own input to the messages we send out.

 

But the incredible outpouring of support that has circulated across the community, the goodwill and generosity we’ve witnessed across Grateley are a much-needed boost at a time when things can seem pretty grim.  And if it means our community of meerkats continue to poke their heads up to check on their neighbours after this horrific virus has gone, something good will have come of this horribly uncertain and frightening time.

 

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KNUCKLEHEADS – A hidden gem on the other side of the tracks in Kansas City (Part 2/3)

PART 2/3 – BLENDING IN….IN HARLEY HEAVEN

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We’ve arrived?

With a name like Knuckleheads, its location should not have come as a surprise and – in hindsight – its clientele probably should not have either.  Glowing profusely in the scorching midday sun and humid 35C degree heat – having been shivering in the taxi’s air conditioning just seconds before –  and dragging our weekend bags behind us, we made our way toward the heavy beat.  A simple gate entrance led us into a dusty bit of road, temporarily turned into the Knuckleheads parking area.

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Knuckleheads, Kansas City

Over a hundred Harley Davidson motorbikes stood glinting in the blinding sunshine, guarded by a heavily tattooed man wearing black wraparound shades below a bandana-covered head and sporting an impressive handlebar moustache.  As he was busily tucking into what looked like half a fried chicken and had both his large muscular arms and his mouth full, I thought John and I might just be able to take him on.  Thankfully we never had to find out as he gave us an apologetic greasy smile as he wiped his mouth, said “Howdy” and waved us in.

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The entire hangar wall at the entrance to Knuckleheads was a shrine to musical greats – with huge black and white graffiti type paintings of artists ranging from Prince to John Lennon, and Johnny Cash to James Brown.

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A shrine to musical greats

John and I eventually tracked Witek down – our concern that he might have been taken round the back and filled in was unfounded – and were able to dispose of our travel bags in his hire car.  Relieved that we would now be able to truly blend in, we made our way through the throng of black Harley Davidson T-Shirts, bushy sideburns and ponytails (the men), rhinestoned bandanas and unfeasibly tight and trendily torn jeans (the ladies) and lengths of skin adorned with garish tattoos depicting skulls, American flags and what looked like scenes from horror movies (both).

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Beards, beer and bandanas

Inside, Knuckleheads had a basic outdoor stage constructed from what looked like scaffolding poles and wooden slats, facing a small gravel dance area and a collection of wooden picnic tables and benches.  Further back and under the shade of a protruding roof, were long bar tables with stools down either side.  Further back still, was an indoor warren of smaller rooms with stages and seating areas. Dotted inside and out, were bars cluttered with neon lights and rows of different types of beers and Bourbon, and a brightly lit hatch where you could order the ubiquitous Kansas BBQ food. Every wall was covered from top to bottom with music memorabilia, cowboy hats and plaques shouting philosophical statements.

As I stood trying to read a sign that was perched upside down over a doorway, I came face to face with a T-Shirt that read ‘Harley Fucking Davidson” stretched over a very large pair of breasts.  I stumbled out of the way feeling thoroughly inadequate, un-motto’d as I was in my patterned linen shirt.  I needn’t have worried.  John, anticipating my unease, reappeared having bought me a memento of our visit – a bright pink T-Shirt with ‘Knuckleheads’ emblazoned across it.  I resolved to wear it on Monday back at Fort Leavenworth for our first session back in class, as an adviser to the US and UK military on their joint military planning exercise.

Next Part 3/3: A Musical Privilege…

 

KNUCKLEHEADS – A hidden Gem on the other side of the tracks in Kansas City (Part 1/3)

PART 1/3 – FROM KANSAS CITY BRUNCH TO KANSAS KNUCKLEHEAD KNOCK-OUT

I had finished my spot of retail therapy in the neatly aligned four blocks of the disconcertingly modern and clean shopping district, Central Plaza, in Kansas City.  Showing great restraint, I had managed to limit myself to just two books from Barnes & Noble and an overpriced but irresistibly cute pair of leggings covered in whales for my baby daughter (she’s a huge fan and shouts ‘Bubba! Bubba!’ at every picture of a whale).  My colleague and friend John and I had indulged in a leisurely brunch under a parasol on the terrace of the Classic Cup Cafe – it was Sunday morning, gloriously sunny, there was some quality people-watching to be done and we had a rare day off.   I was tucking into another carb-heavy meal – a treat of American pancakes covered in melting butter and maple syrup with a side of bacon.  John – a well travelled and hugely experienced humanitarian worker with a penchant for good food and lethal cocktails – was feeling smug after opting for the moderately healthier option of ‘crab benedict’; basically eggs benedict with crab cakes instead of an English muffin.  His dish had spinach on it.  It meant at least one of us had succeeded, for the first time in our two week work trip, to consume one of our ‘five-a-day’.

Our colleague and venerable team leader on this trip, Witek, had raved about a bar and music venue on the outskirts of town, that played live music on Sunday afternoons.  We were not sure what to expect but thought why not?

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Kansas City’s Union Station

As our Uber made its way past the impressive Union Station, along the cosmopolitan and eclectic River Market in the North end of Kansas City and left the business centre and dormant night spots of the Power and Light district behind, we wondered where our driver was taking us.  Heading East along the river, we gradually found ourselves with train tracks running either side of the dusty single lane road, wasteland on one side and an industrial area made up of large warehouses and the odd metal water tower on the other.  I began to wonder if I was suffering a repeat of my cab drive from hell on my visit to Kansas almost exactly a year ago or if we had distracted our Palestinian driver so much with our questions about immigrants in Trump’s America, that he had driven off the page on Google Maps.

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Road to nowhere?

The Uber came to an unexpected halt near an open parking lot full of outsized pick-ups and John and I looked at each other with a hint of alarm.  With a “We’re here”, our driver was drowned out by the sudden sound of a mile-long freight train honking its way through a level crossing a few feet away from our parking spot.  I felt like the main character Ariel in the movie Footloose, when she and her small-town friends spend their evenings playing chicken with freight trains by standing on the tracks screaming at the oncoming beast, as its driver frantically pulls the horn to get them to move.  At the last minute, Kevin Bacon’s heartthrob out-of-towner character leaps to get Ariel out of the path of the speeding train as the classic 80s Bonnie Tyler soundtrack crescendos in the background.  Clearly in my case, I wasn’t standing in front of the train, I wasn’t screaming or wearing red cowboy boots (“I wear ‘em cawz my Daddy hates ‘em”). And my friend John standing looking perplexed in his shorts, t-shirt and flip flops – absolutely lovely though he is – was no leaping life-saving Kevin Bacon.  Suffice to say it brought back memories of 80s classic movies, so many of which depicted ‘authentic’ middle America, and which for so many of us Europeans, were our earliest and sometimes only exposure to places like Kansas.

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Footloose’s honking freight train without Kevin Bacon

As noise of the freight train subsided, John and I noticed a loud throbbing beat and the sound of some serious soul being belted out nearby.  Then I noticed the squiggly neon sign – scrawled in handwritten font – across the nearest hangar: ‘Knuckleheads’.  We had arrived.

Part 2/3 next: Blending in….in Harley heaven…

Surviving a taxi ride in Kansas

I expect a taxi driver to be able to drive. I expect cab drivers to have a vague knowledge of their local area. Maybe I’m just too demanding. Either way, yesterday I had to adjust those expectations radically. I was in Fort Leavenworth and had aspirations to get to Kansas City before nightfall. Leaving at around 3pm with about a 45 minute car journey ahead, I thought this was more than manageable. I should have known things were not going to go my way when the cab eventually turned up over an hour later, after three calls to remind the local firm that I was still waiting.

The battered saloon car coughed up to the porch and a large very sweaty looking middle-aged woman chewing gum noisily – in that way that suggests it’s a necessity rather than enjoyable – turned around from the driver’s seat as I slid across the back bench with my bag, looking at me as if I’d got into the wrong car. There was a meter and a taxi light attached to the roof of the car so I was pretty sure I hadn’t just hijacked an unfortunate local out for a drive to the local Walmart. I checked and she was indeed my designated cab driver. What an odd manner given her career choice in the service industry. As it would turn out she was just terrified of driving and in entirely the wrong profession.

We set off through Leavenworth town and all seemed well. I should have picked up when she asked for the third time where I was going that she was perhaps not as experienced as her age and the battered old 2-way radio suggested. She talked about the difficulty of following “the blue blob that is my car you know” as she unconvincingly juggled the Google Map screen on her phone with the steering wheel. She then started talking. To begin with I thought she was being friendly – like so many of the locals who invariably gave us a warm welcome when we came to Fort Leavenworth. Then I realised she was just talking, talking to herself continuously; a sort of mantra to calm herself down. Occasionally the odd comment was directed at me and it was clear a soothing response was expected. When at first I didn’t pick up on this, my driver’s control of the car faltered and she showed a propensity to swerve across lanes into truck-like vehicles – much larger and sturdier than our saloon car – to avoid imaginary threats. So I dutifully chipped in with “it’s ok, keep going straight on” and “don’t worry about the other drivers”, as the gum chewing behind the wheel grew louder and the smell of nervous sweat reached my nostrils.

As we approached the city, brake lights lined up ahead, unsurprisingly given that it was now rush hour on a Friday evening. The chewer in the front muttered quietly in a voice of shocked desperation: “oh my lord, there’s traffic”. There was a 2 second high point when the traffic cleared, but it was short-lived. As the skyscrapers of the city loomed over the freeway ahead of us, she said “oh my lord, Kansas City is so big”. Seconds later I saw my life flash before me as my sweaty friend dropped her phone into the foot well of the passenger seat, panicked that she was meant to be coming off the freeway, reached down into the foot well bringing the steering wheel violently round with her and ploughed us through the hashed area towards a large metal bollarded area in between the freeway and the ‘off ramp’. We cleared the bollards. Just. At this point, I took over. I held her shoulders from the back seat, brought up the route on my own phone, and ordered her to look straight ahead with a “do as I say” and “just drive”. I was hijacking a Leavenworth local after all.  She said “thank you, thank you” and “I don’t like to let my customers down”. I wasn’t sure how she felt about turning her customers into messy roadkill.

It took us another 45 minutes of missing turn offs because she “wasn’t quite ready’, or was “scared because of that big red truck”, or “was concentrating because I’ve been told to keep both hands on the wheel”, but we made it eventually. We pulled up outside the hotel and I breathed a sigh of relief. I felt like the driving instructor whose least favourite student had just made it to the end of the test – had failed but had at least got instructor and student to destination without killing anyone.

Suddenly, the large sweat patches on her oversized red top dried out and the frantic gum masticating subsided. My incompetent driver announced loudly: “that’ll be 58 dollars now darlin”. I almost laughed out loud: she HAD to be kidding. But I did pay up – albeit while fulfilling my British stereotype.  I handed over the notes politely but muttered under my breath at the outrage: I expected a taxi driver to be able to drive. I expected a taxi driver to a vague idea of their local area…

Maybe it was the relief to have finally made it to my destination in one piece or maybe I just couldn’t face arguing or spending another minute with her. Or maybe I could afford to be generous: I was about to sip a cocktail while taking in the view of Kansas City from the rooftop bar of my hotel. My sweaty friend was about to embark on a nightmare return trip to Leavenworth. Through rush hour traffic. Searching in vain for the blue blob “that was her car you know”, on Google Maps. Sweating profusely and masticating loudly.  And – now – on her own.

BLOG – What NOT to do on an inter-continental flight….

Just when you think you’re well-travelled, just when you think you’ve got the packing, the transfers, the finding your way around an alien country in the dead of the night totally sussed and you are the special forces operatives of adventures….you get caught out.  It doesn’t matter how often I march off on a new adventure or how many bags I pack and unpack, I never get rid of that small niggling feeling of controlled panic that hits me when I’m on my own in a foreign land, it’s the middle of the night, I’m in the wrong time zone, a bit smelly after a long flight, and I’d rather lie down on my bags than actually try to get to the bottom of the fact that the driver I should have been meeting hasn’t turned up, he has the keys to the apartment I’m meant to be staying in, and I have no idea where said-apartment is.  Of course the feeling passes as quickly as it appeared, as I tell myself to ‘man-up’, find the phone number of the contact on the ground and hump my bags to the nearest obvious pick-up point (no, not that kind of pick-up point).  But it’s still there, waiting to rear its head after years of doing this kind of thing.  Keeping me on my toes.

What threw me literally off my toes recently however was what will now be classed as my most embarrassing travel episode.  I was taking my flight back from Nairobi to London for a break.  I had made it through the chaos and remote airstrips that represent the geographically short but in practice convoluted and bureaucracy-heavy journey out of Somalia.  I had spent an entire day (longer than the duration of my actual flight home) in the airport in Nairobi.  So far so good, although I could have done without the group of Scottish musicians having one last blow-out in the airport before heading off to bother other passengers at their next destination.

I boarded the Kenyan Airways flight to London and after the dinner trays had been cleared, curled into my best pretzel position to try and get a bit of kip.  If I’m honest, I was feeling a bit smug that I’d nabbed one of the ‘emergency exit’ seats so had loads of leg room AND had remembered to take my travel pillow out of my hand luggage before stuffing it into the overhead locker.

The next thing I knew, I was flat out of the aircraft floor, with half a dozen air stewardesses peering down at me (a desirable dream for some but not my own), a cold wet flannel on my forehead and some chap with a concerned ‘doctorly’ look on his face, holding my wrist.  My instinctive feeling was one of mortification.  I remember years ago coming-to just as I was being loaded into an ambulance after I’d been found unconscious on a coast road in Ireland following a biking accident sans helmet – the first thing that came to my bleary half-conscious mind was the realisation that I must be in the middle of ‘causing a scene’.  It didn’t matter that I had a trashed knee, a head like elephant man and had left a pool of blood on the tarmac; I started trying to get up off the stretcher and telling the paramedics that really I was fine and could they please stop making such a fuss.

Exactly the same thought came into mind on the deck of the Kenyan Airways flight.  How embarrassing, I’m fine, please talk amongst yourselves.  And what the hell am I doing down here??

I had apparently gone to sleep, then some time afterwards slumped across the aisle in my seat.  When someone tried to rouse me and get me to move (trolley coming through no doubt), I was out cold and didn’t respond.  The alarm was raised and I was lifted onto the floor of the cabin where a cardiologist – who fortuitously was on his way back from honeymoon with his GP wife – was called over to sort things out.  Poor chap spent the rest of his flight taking my blood pressure (“in my boots” according to him), my pulse and making me drink gallons of water then making me go to the loo with air hostesses on ‘keel-over-watch’ with door ajar.  My hero-doc was a star and very sympathetic; putting up with my repeated “but this never happens to me, I don’t get ill, oh how embarrassing” burbled statements, and the fact that by this time I was a sweaty (sorry, glowing) mess with the shivers from the aircon which had now been turned up to the max by the air hostesses, to stop me from dying on them, and causing the rest of the aircraft to request extra blankets.

The rest of my family will tell you I’m not averse to story-telling and being the centre of attention.  As my sister will also tell you however, I tend to prefer to be the one who ‘saves the day’, rather than be the damsel who collapses in a dribbling mess and needs saving.  Particularly in such an undignified heap in amongst my grimy desert boots and collection of glossy mags.  So not quite the five minutes of fame I had in mind.

But I like to look on the bright side; I was fit enough to decline the golf buggy and wheelchair on arrival at Heathrow and managed to make a pale and reasonably dignified jog out of there as quickly as I could.  Dignity almost recovered.