No News is Good News

No News headlineIt’s an old adage that could still be relevant in war or disaster, but in our instant-messaging, over-hyped, 24-hour, socially-networked world, news of survival would probably travel faster than death. Unless you switch off.

In the past 6 months or so, No News has taken on a different meaning for me: it’s meant not reading a newspaper, not seeing or hearing a news bulletin, not joining any conversation on the latest headline horror. It started as an accident of geography plus a need to remove distractions while a book was finished. More recently it’s become a deliberate policy to continue the experiment.

No TV newsThis is not to say that I’ve been immune to all events – my inbox has links to news stories, the social media constantly reference them, the Olympics happened, people say ‘did you see?’ or ‘isn’t it terrible about that murder / earthquake / flood / bombing / banker’s-salary-scandal?’ Neither am I fooled that all is sweetness and light in the world simply because I know nothing to the contrary. Shit still happens.

Keeping up with the news was once an important part of my everyday life, so it’s been fascinating to see my own and other people’s reactions to my ‘news fast’. Almost universally, it has been perceived as opting out, as becoming something akin to a modern-day hermit. Less charitably, it has also been attributed to advancing years.

No Radio news bulletinsSo where’s the Good News in this? For a start I don’t know any of the bad things that have happened in the world in the last 6 months. And simply not knowing is Good News. True, I don’t know any of the good things either, but as the media hardly ever report good news other than the novelty item at the end of the bulletin, it’s made no difference. By not suffering the daily deluge of grief and sorrow, anxiety and shock, life is that little bit less depressing. I am a little less weighed down by calamity, a little less guilty that I haven’t done anything towards fixing any part of this reportedly broken world. Not that I or anyone else can ever do anything anyway. I doubt there is a single thing any individual could have done to prevent or reduce the consequences or any of the headline news events in the last 6 months.

No Newspaper headlines

As if the tide of calamity and catastrophe were not depressing enough, the realisation that as news consumers we are powerless to affect any change only doubles the depression. The constant bombardment has a corrosive effect: 6 months without it has been a relief from low-level anxiety and impotent head-shaking.

Before anyone suggests this is no more than enjoying another old saying – ignorance is bliss – I would suggest the contrary. Ignorance leaves us unable to comment or understand, ignorance leaves us still consuming the news, but unaware of the insidious effect that it has on us.

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Pulling Power

A little research would have told me what was in store, but I savoured the prospect of first hand discovery and was not disappointed.

The sign outside the Queens County Fairground announced simply ‘Horse Pull’, which to the uninitiated like me, meant very little. It almost certainly had something to do with horses, either pulling something or being pulled. One flight of fancy took me to a strongman competition in which a man tries to pull an unwilling horse, perhaps to water.

The pulling arena is in a huge barn with tiered bench seating 5 or 6 rows deep along each of the long sides. As I took my place there was an expectant buzz among the hundred or so spectators. Snatches of conversation were of weights of horses, previous performances, old and new talent. These were knowledgeable folk.

The announcers occupied a little illuminated booth beside a large stack of concrete slabs with a hefty tractor and fork-lift next to them. Parked in the middle of the arena was a kind of sledge placed between two lines marking the track.

The first pair of horses were brought in, harnessed together and dragging chains and the shackle that would be attached to the sledge. They came with a driver and two helpers. Carefully they were backed into place and hooked up to the sledge, the driver manoeuvring them while the helpers hooked them up and kept the chains out from under their feet. A mark was made in the dirt where the back of the sledge stood, then the driver was free to get the horses to pull the sledge a minimum distance of 3ft in one pull. A driver is allowed 3 tries to make the distance with a starting weight of around 1500lbs to be pulled. After a success the weight is steadily increased until the horses fail to move the sledge the required distance. With an allowance according to the combined weight of the horses, the winning team was the one that pulled the heaviest weight that vital 36 inches. Simple.

At first sight to a liberal-minded Englishman, this appeared to be no more than a circus act, cruel to the horses and dangerous for all involved. I shifted uneasily on my bench. Where was the safety officer (or the safety net)? Youngsters close to moving machinery? No helmets or high-viz jackets? No vet in attendance?*

Slowly the unease wore off, as successive teams did their stuff, the fork-lift loaded and unloaded the concrete blocks, the crowd cheered and applauded their favourites as much as every other competitor. There were boys and girls, men and women involved in every role, their families supporting their every move. The horses were driven with great skill and understanding. More than once when a team failed to pull 36 inches at the first attempt, the driver withdrew, knowing well when his team had reached their limit.

One team in particular caught my attention: between pulls, as extra weights were loaded on the sledge, the driver kept the tension on the chains so that when the horses threw their strength forward they would not hit the load after half a stride, instead they would take it on right from the start, as a tug-of-war team are required to ‘take the strain’ before the pull begins. All the control was by words and deft use of the reigns, keeping the horses still and calm ready for the pull. This was horsemanship to equal any dressage or show-jumper.

So the mystery of  ‘Horse Pull’ was yet another Nova Scotia eye-opener, another surprise in what has become a saga of surprises in that province. And it took me into the company of people who live a very different life to many I’ve come to know and call friends, and I’m the richer for meeting them.

Next time I’m going to try something different again – an Ox Pull. I wonder what that could possibly involve?

*Please note there was a vet in attendance, as I found out later. And there are strict codes of personal conduct as well as treatement of the horses. But no high-viz jackets or orange safety helmets.

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So What’s Wrong With This Country?

The goodwill and bonhomie of the 2012 festivities seem to have worn off pretty quickly in Britain.

Not long ago I returned from an extended stay away from the UK – away from all things Royal, Wimbledon and Olympic. More than once I’ve been told what a great show I missed, what a great spirit in the country, smiling volunteers, cheering crowds, street parties and bunting everywhere. All in all, apparently, the old place has been transformed.

I’m not big on street parties and bunting at the best of times, but before everyone gets carried away with slapping themselves on the back and thinking how fantastic this is, just take stock of the more usual way things are done here. Maybe the country did rise to the occasions, but if it needs a big event to make people smile or be polite, then guess what? There’s an awful lot of days without big events and a lot of ignorant, unsmiling, rude people around.

It starts at touchdown. True, an overnighter across the Atlantic does not set you up too well, but that’s my excuse. Have the immigration officials also been up all night, dozing between airline snacks and weak coffees to be woken by ‘waffles or omelette’? What’s their excuse for such miserable faces, such lack of courtesy? Not a hint of a smile, no ‘welcome home’, not a trace of ‘safe journey’; not even the dreaded and insincere ‘have a nice day’.

They really seem to begrudge letting me in. And I travel on a UK passport, goodness knows how they treat foreigners. Well actually I do know, because I briefly hosted a genuine visitor who was held for hours and threatened with being sent home, mainly because he was young and apparently wasn’t carrying enough money.

Yes, there are far worse places in the world, with far worse immigration procedures and grumpier, nastier, more bureaucratic and downright corrupt officials. But hey! don’t look good compared to the bad and the ugly, look good compared to the best.

And please, don’t tell me how wonderful it’s been while I was away. Frankly, it’s hard to believe, especially when I listen to the treatment the coach drivers give to people whose first language is not English. Shameful and embarrassing. Or I arrange to get a simple job done on my car only to find ignorance and rudeness. But that’s for another time.

Meanwhile go easy on the back-slapping, it’s a work in progress at best.

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Mountain High

North Mountain forms the backdrop to Digby Harbour

The first visit to North Mountain was another of those wonderful surprises that seem so commonplace in Nova Scotia, yet continue to astonish and delight.

Before the surprise, a little geography: North Mountain is not a mountain, it is the 125 mile (200 km) ridge running roughly north-east to south-west and separating the Annapolis Valley (and further south St Mary’s Bay) from the Bay of Fundy. The ridge tapers down from a high point of around 680 ft (207m) at the north-eastern extremity near Ross Creek to eventually disappear below sea level beyond Long Island and Brier Island in the south-west.

But back to that first experience, a few years ago now. The prospect of an art exhibition conjured various possibilities of venue and setting, but none to match the reality. A climb up the minor road from the Annapolis Valley near Canning, then out across the hump of North Mountain on a pot-holed dirt road towards Scots Bay. Few cars, few houses and fewer people to be seen. Then, a little off the road down a gravel track, incongruously in the middle of nowhere, The Ross Creek Centre For The Arts. Inside was the buzz of people enjoying art in all its forms: playing instruments, painting pictures, sculpting, listening, reading, watching. Researching this article I was delighted to find the centre still thrives.

The fundy shoreline is not spared the curse of plastic debrisAny number of roads and tracks ascend the steep face of North Mountain from the Annapolis Valley, none more twisting that the climb from Berwick on the route to picture-postcard Harbourville. Typical of the little settlements that dot this stretch of the Fundy coast, Harbourville nestles in a cove and owes its existence to fishing. The prodigious tidal range of the Bay is well known and amply illustrated by the height of the wharves. My visit might have been one of unfortunate timing but even a gem like the Bay of Fundy couldn’t escape the  modern curse of plastic debris marking the high water line along the shore – a rare note of discord in this Nova Scotian odyssey.

No sign of any litter at the immaculately maintained L’Habitation, a faithful replica of the original 17th century French settlement at Port Royal. Visiting out of season, it was pure luck – plus that accommodating informality of Nova Scotia – that allowed me to wander briefly round the site while the helpful National Parks employee attended to his business. Few of the places mentioned in these travels have been formal ‘attractions’ and generally such places On the Annapolis Basin and St Mary's Bay rural communities hug the coasthold little appeal, but L’Habitation is one I hope to return to and explore at greater length.

West of Digby, North Mountain is also known as Digby Neck (or simply The Neck) and is little more than 1km across from the Bay of Fundy to St Mary’s Bay. On the face of it this is no more than a rural backwater, the single road of any importance leading only to the Tiverton ferry to Long Island and ultimately the outpost of Brier Island. Backwater it may be, but for the visitor at least it is a delightful stretch of country, none more so than the view of Sandy Cove approached from Digby on highway 217. Elaborate fish wharves and stairs were needed to cope with the tidal rangeWith the mid-afternoon winter sun glinting on the sea there can hardly be a more picture-perfect natural harbour in the province.

A few miles further down The Neck you’ll find Little River; less picturesque, but still attractive, maybe even more interesting than prettier places. Here the smell of fish hangs in the air even on a Sunday while the scattering of processing sheds and derricks remind the visitor that for many parts of the province the sea is still a business, not just an amenity or a hobby.

There are still hundreds of miles of coast, a thousand lakes and a million smiles to be enjoyed in Nova Scotia, and hopefully I’ll find plenty more to delight in the years to come. I’ve yet to explore any of the south around Yarmouth, Pubnico and Lockeport, or walk the fossil cliffs of Joggins. The softer climate of the Northumberland Strait has yet to embrace me and I’ve never gazed across the magnificent Bras d’Or in Cape Breton. But one things seems certain, Nova Scotia will continue to surprise and delight.
The fabulous Bay of Fundy from the beach at Harbourville

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Memory Store

Amazing! Oldtime Hollywood superstar found in musty box!

What’s in your attic or mouldering in your basement? Maybe it’s time to find out, time to open the boxes and let the memories out.

Simply amazing, the stuff you find in boxes. Not that the stuff was particularly amazing when it went into the box. Often it’s a matter of not being quite ready to throw something away, so it ends up in a box. But years later, that which barely escaped the incinerator finds new life, bringing the joy of re-discovery, or even the pain of moments long past. Be it joy or pain, the emotion is all the more intense for being so long forgotten, so suddenly recalled.

Attached to the house is a large, unheated, uninsulated store-room. It has double metal doors at the front, a flimsy broken door at the side and a window largely obscured by spiders’ webs. This room is nominally designated as a ‘garage’, big enough for two smallish cars. In the twenty years or so that have passed since a car was last in it, the ‘garage’ has slowly become choked with more and more boxes. There is even the recent discovery of a box that was never unpacked since the move from the last house. But it is not confined to boxes. There are also assorted bicycles, golf clubs, things-that-might-one-day-be-useful, handbags, cases, boarding-school trunks and of course, a unique and no doubt valuable collection of plastic bags.

Family treasure discovered in an old suitcaseAnd yet what wonderful treasures this week has thrown up. It started with an old school suitcase, my name still stencilled in black paint across the lid. Once, surely, I must have known what it contained? But on dusting it down and easing open the rusty catches it was a shock to find my late father’s paints, brushes, palette knives and assorted artist’s equipment. He was no great painter, indeed he had not long taken it up when he died nearly forty years ago. The case stayed with my mother for the next twenty years, since which time it has been in storage with me. The real discovery, the real treasure was that within the box were three paintings, no more than unfinished sketches. Until the case was opened this week, no one knew of their existence. They are the sole remaining evidence of my father’s art, all else having been stolen by burglars years ago.

Flushed with this success I dragged out an old briefcase – hard, black and with brushed aluminium trim – all the rage in the 1970s and the phrase ‘Manhattan Lunch Box’ comes to mind. Scanning a Cibachrome print does not do it justiceMore joy of opening! Fortunately not a forty-year-old ham sandwich, instead the results of many hours spent in a darkroom at the bottom of the garden during the 1980s. Cibachrome! Who’s heard of that today? It had the capacity to produce the most brilliant prints direct from colour transparencies. I never understood the chemical process – was it dye transfer? – and I never mastered the technique, but the results could be brilliant. And among the test strips, the failures and the handful of passable prints there was a favourite picture of my oldest child that I thought had been lost long ago.

Another box, more familiar than most, invited attention. I knew it contained a collection of cigarette and trade cards. Ten or more years ago I’d arranged them in their various sets and thrown out all those stuck together and useless. Given the damp conditions of storage, it was a near certainty that many more would now suffer the same fate.

Guiltily I lifted the lid, already discoloured with mould. The unmistakeable smell of damp card told the story. Of the thousand or so cards, perhaps half have formed themselves into little solid blocks.William Russell - or is it Roy Rogers Of the rest few are of great interest, but amongst those that survived unscathed are a collection of Cinema Cavalcade from 1940, and – perhaps my favourites – from Strollers cigarettes in Canada around 1925. As I leafed through the tattered albums one card in particular drew my attention. Collected by my father in 1922 it features cowboy actor William Russell on the back of a rearing horse. What caught my eye was that the image was almost identical to one from my own childhood: a poster of Roy Rogers on the faithful Trigger, torn from a comic and stuck to the bedroom wall. Out of that damp and neglected cardboard box had come a moment of direct connection with my father’s boyhood.

Simply amazing, the stuff you find in boxes.

Links: Cibachrome, Movie Cigarette Cards , Roy Rogers
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Think Again

Think Again
All too often we stick with our tastes and opinions for no better reason than we never bother to re-consider them.

Mother: ‘Why have you left your mushrooms?’
Child: ‘I hate mushrooms!’
Mother: ‘No you don’t, you love mushrooms, we had them last Friday and you ate them all, you said you loved them.’
Child: ‘Well I hate them NOW!’

When do we lose the child’s easy ability to change our mind, when do we finally settle on being a mushroom lover or a mushroom hater? When did I decide that hummus was such a disgusting texture and taste as to be inedible?Did Something Change?

We are expected to make our choices in life at a really quite early age and then stick with those choices, come what may. Only gradual change is grudgingly accepted, and only then if it’s barely detectable. A sudden shift of opinion or outlook, however long considered, is a shocking thing, something to be frowned at, quirky behaviour at least, even a possible sign of mental instability.

In part, probably a big part, it is because the world of commerce wants to label us, to know our likes and dislikes – our ‘lifestyle preferences’ in media-speak – so that they can better sell us their wares. In the extreme world of advertising even the dislikes are deployed to reinforce the message. ‘Love It Or Hate It’ runs the Marmite ad, allowing no space at all for those who hold no opinion on the matter, and there’s no attempt to persuade the Love It or Hate itundecided of Marmite’s pungent delights.

The more we are expected to stick with our likes and dislikes the more we do, whether it is food or television programs, politics or newspapers. Our views and opinions become more habitual by the day and much of our world is constructed around those habits. Imagine taking a different newspaper every day of the week, being confronted with opinions and prejudices at odds with your own. Imagine adopting a ‘take it or leave it’ attitude to Marmite. Imagine waking up one day and supporting Arsenal. Or changing career from medicine to estate agent. Oh no, if you are a Telegraph-reading, Marmite-loving, football-loathing, hospital doctor you’re expected to stay that way.

Changing our minds is almost universally portrayed as being a weakness, whereas maintaining long-stated positions (however ridiculous or outdated) is lauded as a virtue. We might just conceivably change our mind about something because we are tolerant and open to reasoned argument, but anybody else shifting by an inch is weak and vacillating. We crave certainty when, apart from the proverbial death and taxes, the world is increasingly uncertain.

Think again about long held opinionsBut re-thinking can be therapeutic, as recent, apparently trivial experience illustrates. Assistants in the big-box stores are frequently characterised as bored, unhelpful and disinterested – oh and young, they are usually very young, ‘spotty youth’ is a favourite derogatory term. Many of us subscribe to such stereo-typical views and worse, continue to hold them even when presented with evidence to the contrary. On at least three occasions in recent times I’ve been served by helpful, interested and knowledgeable assistants in such stores. Did something change in the world while I wasn’t looking? Did it have to happen three times in quick succession for me to realise a long-held opinion, a stupid generalisation, was simply wrong?

The deep problem of entrenched and habitual positions is that they reinforce the status quo, frequently making change both difficult and prolonged, reconciliation or compromise quite impossible. Yet when gradual change does occur in either ourselves or the world around us, it goes unnoticed and the old attitudes persist, long after any justification has gone.

If we, as individuals and societies, were to encourage a habit of reviewing some of our more cherished opinions it would be a start. If we began to judge by experience and observation instead of by rote and prejudice it would be a good habit to fall into.

And in case you are wondering, yes, I tried hummus again recently.

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Mersey Magic, Seafood Chowder

Keji Sunrise
Water dominates in the fourth Nova Scotia travel blog, from the vastness of Keji Lake to tidal powered Annapolis and seafaring Digby, there’s no avoiding the stuff.

Kejimkujik National Park (Keji to just about everyone) must surely be one of the gems of Nova Scotia. It’s a vast and wonderful area of outstanding natural beauty – forest trails, glittering lakes and the now meandering, now rushing Mersey. Carefully managed camping and picnic sites do nothing to detract from the place. As an ‘off season’ day visitor only, there are certainly pleasures and experiences yet to be tasted, but it draws me back time and again. Mersey Tobiatic Research InstituteA few memorable moments will provide a flavour: sunrise at Kedge Beach on a silver and blue November day; the tumbling, foaming Mersey frozen in a magical still-life at Mill Falls; the same river sliding gently on its sparkling way past Jakes Landing in Spring sunshine; the solitude and autumnal scents the forest trails round Big Dam Lake; watching turtles sunbathe on a fallen tree in a quiet bay. And there’s so much more yet to discover – of all the joys of this province, Keji must be my personal favourite.

And if you’re not pampering yourself with a stay at the Whitman Inn (see Spoilt For Choice), you might try the Mersey River Chalets, self-catering cabins about 7km from the park entrance. The well-appointed cabins are scattered through the forest along the bank of the Mersey and all have easy access to the central on-site restaurant and reception area. Summer visitors can opt to stay under canvas in a tipi and there are regular activities to be a part of – or not, as you please. Home comforts at Mersey River ChaletsMost impressively the whole area has been adapted to facilitate wheelchair access, not just token ramps but access to the forest, the river and canoeing on the lake*.

Self-caterers or campers need supplies and a couple of places nearby will cover every essential plus a few non-essentials. New Grafton Variety for all things to eat, a little local knowledge and a lottery ticket, while Ringer’s Garage in Kempt meets motoring needs. Ringer’s is a time-warp of a place, a remnant from different days in the different world that was 50 or more years ago. Yet thankfully it survives when most have long gone, still providing fuel and service to the passing motorist and a story or two told free with a smile if you care to take the time to listen.

Sunset from Fort Anne40km North-West of Keji on Hwy #8 through the forests and rolling hills, is Annapolis Royal, a charming town on the Annapolis Basin where the Annapolis Valley meets the sea. Like much of Nova Scotia it is packed with heritage buildings and is a bustling centre, even if it has declined in importance since being the capital a few hundred years ago. Alongside the cafes and restaurants there are plenty of other attractions, many of them with military connections like Fort Anne, but all with the understatement that is such an endearing feature of the province. For something a little more out of the ordinary, try North America’s only tidal power station, which sits on the dam across the Annapolis River where it enters the tidal basin.

The other side of that basin lies Digby, close to Digby Gut, the narrow strait between the basin and the Bay of Fundy. With only the briefest experience to rely on, and that on a bitterly cold December day, Digby had instant appeal and demands a return visit. As with nearly all coastal settlements, the town looks to the sea for its living. Digby Harbour from the Fundy RestaurantFamous for scallops and clams, the harbour still beats to the rhythm of the tides, fishing vessels still throng the wharves.

Plenty of places to stay and if you’re on a budget Digby Packbacker’s Inn is highly recommended by those who, unlike me, have tried it. Like everywhere else, choices for eating out are more limited in winter months, but it would be hard to beat the value, friendly service and view of the harbour found at the Fundy Restaurant.

Beyond the harbour, stretching away into the distance, is North Mountain, the ridge that runs nearly 200km separating the Valley and the basin from the wonder that is theBay of Fundy.

Getting around: Digby to Saint John, New Brunswick car and passenger ferry (3hrs across the Bay of Fundy). Halifax to Digby via Annapolis Royal bus (Acadien Lines); Wolfville to Annapolis Royal bus (Kings Transit); Caledonia, Keji, Annapolis Royal, Digby mini-bus (Tango Shuttle). Bicycle Rental in Liverpool and Keji, bicycle touring packages.

Next: Scaling North Mountain, down to the Bay of Fundy, along Digby Neck, Habitation, the Evangeline Trail
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